Writing Matters: In conversation with Namita Gokhale
By Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Pic credit: Srishti Jha
Namita Gokhale is an Indian writer, publisher and festival director. She is the author of sixteen books including nine works of fiction. Her debut novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion was first published in 1984, and has remained a cult classic. The Himalayan trilogy includes the recent Things to Leave Behind, considered her most ambitious novel yet. She has worked extensively on Indian myth and also written two books for young readers.
Gokhale is a co-founder and co-director of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, considered the largest free literary festival in the world, as well as of Mountain Echoes, the annual Bhutan Literature Festival. She is also a director of Yatra Books, a publishing house specialised in translation.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane: Welcome to Kitaab, Namita. Congratulations on winning the Asam Sahitya Sabha’s first Centenary National Award for Literature.
This is an important recognition for your literary efforts, both as a writer and for helping create a ‘literary environment in the country’. For many people, your name is synonymous first with the Jaipur Litfest. Have you ever felt that your identity as a writer gets subsumed, in any way, by your identity as the driving force behind Jaipur Litfest?
Namita Gokhale: I was delighted to receive the Asam Sahitya Sabha’s first Centenary National Award for Literature. I’m a backstage, back seat sort of person and it’s an honour to be recognised and awarded by the oldest, and one of the most respected literary organisations in India. It’s true that people tend to see me as one of the founder-directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival, rather than in my independent identity as a writer. This is sometimes frustrating, but at the same time it’s been a privilege and immensely rewarding in creative terms to be working with such a transformational literary platform as the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. And I haven’t really invested in building a persona or pushing my books as I feel my writing will find its way in the world on its own terms.
Sucharita: What is the meeting ground today, as compared to maybe ten years ago, between Indian language publishing and writing in English in India? Is it still fragile or finding shape at last?
Namita: English too is one of the twenty two Indian languages – and I feel the legacy of our multi-vocal Indian literatures is finding synergy through translations and becoming more accessible through the many festivals and platforms that have become so popular across the country.
Sucharita: How much have literary festivals and writers’ meets helped in creating this meeting ground?
Namita: One of the most wonderful things about all the book festivals and writers meets is that a literary community has been established across India and South Asia – and that Indian and South Asian writers interact with each other and also with writers from across the world at such events. The Jaipur litfest has had an important part to play in this, as have all the other wonderful festivals.
Sucharita: Paro: Dreams of Passion is a book that you seem to have enjoyed writing. Was writing Priya equally enjoyable or did Paro’s ghost sit too heavily on your mind?
Namita: Paro: Dreams of Passion was my debut novel, and yes I had great fun writing it! I also enjoyed working on its sequel Priya, but the craft of a credible sequel is more demanding, and Paro’s larger than life character was just a ghost and a memory, so I missed her in moving the narrative along. I just love the new Double Bill Paro/Priya edition where one can read the two novels in sequence – with evocative flip covers.
Sucharita: What brought you back to Paro and its sequel after two decades?
Namita: It was a ‘what if’ sort of question – I was looking at the India of the seventies and eighties and attempting to transpose some of the characters and situations to a quarter century later.
Sucharita: Tell us about your new book, The Himalayan Arc. It’s a different genre and one that often involves a deep internal journey. What was the experience like of putting together this book?
Namita: So many of my books have been set in the Himalayan mountains and foothills. In fiction, there is the Himalayan Trilogy, comprising A Himalayan Love Story, The Book of Shadows, Things to Leave Behind. Shakuntala – The Play of Memory is also set in the Shivalik foothills. The two travel anthologies Himalaya (co-edited with Ruskin Bond) and the new book The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-East return to the region.
The Himalayan Arc is a unique collection of essays, stories, poetry evoking the pan-Himalayan identity, with a special focus on the Eastern Himalayas. While putting it together, I learnt a lot, and became in some sense a true Himalayan Citizen, travelling in my imagination to places I have not had the good fortune to have visited.
Sucharita: In Paro and Priya, in The Book of Shadows, in Ghatotkacha… consistently across your books, one reads a sense of pull and push, the tug of war ever present in human lives, the spirit and body in conflict. This is more evident in the latter works but has its seeds in your first book. While writing Paro did you think of such undertones and implications, of layering and conflict, or did you simply write what you wanted to or saw around you, a 26 year old narrating a story she knew? What was it that made you want to write Paro?
Namita: When I wrote Paro at the age of 26, my literary consciousness was deeply alive; I was reading and writing with intense concentration. Paro: Dreams of Passion was a serious effort to write a novel within the Gothic convention in contemporary India. In those days it puzzled and infuriated some readers, who couldn’t digest the frank comic style – and then later publishers couldn’t understand why I was moving from a successful formula to other genres and styles.
For me, each novel, every book, is a quest, an exploration into literary form and style as well as a question addressed to myself. Life is a puzzle and I try to find patterns and synchronicities in the stories I tell.
Sucharita: Your books have a sense of writing with ‘abandon’, the pleasure of telling a story evident. There is, however, also reflection and a sense of quiet brooding over issues, whether the state of the country, a love affair or the past. When you write, do you write as the conscious writer, mindful of craft as well as story or instinctively, moving with the story, being led by it?
Namita: I write for myself, not the market. At some stage the story takes over, the characters gain control of their narratives, and I become a channel for telling a story that has always existed. The craft, the real work, comes in during the process of editing this into a book that can communicate effectively and articulately with the reader.
Sucharita: Your book Ghatotkacha: Lost in Time deals with a much neglected, almost forgotten hero-victim of the Mahabharata. What triggered this choice of character for a YA novel in which time shifts fluidly between the present and a mythical past? It is tempting to think of it as a decision to be more inclusive vis-à-vis the target readership as well as to connect it to your own association with the hills where the belief in demons and spirits has its own place of importance.
Namita: When I was working on the Puffin Mahabharata a decade ago, something in the tale of Ghatotkacha and his mother Hidimbi reached out to me. I could recognise Ghatotkacha’s strength, his generosity, and his vulnerability. The landscape of the Lake District of Kumaon is deeply associated with the Pandava’s sojourns and wanderings. There is a temple to ‘Van Durga’ Hidimbi there, and I could identify with the story. And yes, demons and ghouls are not as alien in our hills as they are in some other parts of India.
Sucharita: You work simultaneously on multiple fronts even as you continue to write. Do you follow a strict writing schedule / discipline or do you scrounge for time? How difficult is it to return to writing after the JLF or working on a literary production like Kitaabnama?
Namita: I am always juggling far too many balls in the air, but much of what I do is interconnected and there are often synergies between the writing and the curating. I try to be focused and while I love spending time with family my social life is quite low key. I keep assessing immediate and long term priorities. However if I really want to do something, I drop everything else and do it, however whimsical it may be. Einstein said that creativity is the residue of time wasted.
Sucharita: Twelve years and running strong. What’s next for the JLF journey?
Namita: JLF has a life of its own – it’s a vibrant ecosphere of books, ideas and dialogue which has four editions across continents and cultures. Our fifth edition in London will be in the British Library in June. Then there is our US curtain raiser at MOMA in September, followed by the incredibly beautiful JLF at Boulder Colorado. Then Australia, and soon after that, the mother edition – the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival – in January. Twelve years down, the real challenge lies in keeping the spirit of the festival alive, and I think we are doing that.