By Dr. Pallavi Narayan
I purposely read as little as I could about this novel before picking it up, so as not to colour my perceptions. The Prologue seemed to hint towards Hindu gods in a somewhat contrived fashion, so I was surprised that when I hunkered down to read the novel on my iPad at a coffee shop, the story was so enjoyably written that, to my surprise, I had read over 80 pages in an hour. I polished off the rest within that night and the next day.
The broad arc of the novel encompasses generations of women in the Kumaon region during the British Raj, from families based in Naineetal (that’s how it is spelt in the book) and Almora, the seemingly slow time around the placid waters of the Naina Devi Lake. However, the protagonists interestingly appear to be men, the women following them to wherever they choose to go next. Here, the author seems to be pointing to the patriarchal functioning of much of society—documenting the histories of men while conveniently absenting the women, or portraying them as shadow figures. But what the novel is primarily about is the tussle of women with their dependence on men, and how this frames a woman’s identity within that of the man “taking care” of her at the moment. Whether it is Tillotama Uprety’s mother who threw herself into the lake in perhaps a last bid for agency; herself, in a hurry to get married and move away to Almora to free herself of her (fond) uncle’s influence; her daughter Deoki, whom she neglects in favour of reading novels and imagining herself as a sahib; Deoki, who is married off to Jayesh, who falls in love with the missionary’s daughter Rosemary, and then Deoki determinedly sets about to win him back, but also in the meantime discovers how seductive she can be when she falls in love with a visiting artist who paints her in the nude; Rosemary, who single-handedly sets up her own mission and displays fortitude at not falling into sin with Jayesh, the married man who shares her feelings — the novel displays women’s agency, their emergence into their own self, even as they are bound by societal mores.
Particularly enjoyable are the specific historical details of the times the novel evokes; the Brahmin homes, the rituals—for instance, the sprinkling of cow’s urine over oneself when one steps into the home post contact with a foreigner, strict dietary observations and food cooked only by the women of the house, the woman in question wearing only a single unstitched garment and the author pointing out her embarrassment, especially if she was well-endowed—the beauty of the Naineetal hills and the small-town atmosphere of both Naineetal and Almora. Gokhale’s landscapes are lavish and panoramic: the broad sweep of the hills with the Upper and Lower Mall Roads, the white missionary’s home and its surroundings; the secrets and tales of the natives and the sahibs, and the increasing commingling of the classes is narrated well. The two towns have not yet been covered much in Indian fiction; indeed, no other title comes to mind.
I recall the rush of reading through this novel and highly recommend it for its facility in moving from one imaginatively realistic spectrum to the next, while simultaneously sustaining the characteristic elements of each time. To enter a novel by way of a family, if done right, the reader is embroiled in the longings and frustrations of the individual members as well as those of the community. This novel did that for me.
The reviewer is Kitaab’s Fiction Editor.