Rakhi Dalal talks about Shanta Gokhale’s autobiography, taking us through her life at large, highlighting the many milestones she created in this journey.
Publisher: Speaking Tiger ( 2019)
An eminent translator, writer, editor and columnist, Shanta Gokhale’s name needs no introduction. In 2016 she received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her overall contribution to the performing arts. She has also received lifetime achievement awards from Thespo, Ooty Literary Festival and Tata Literature Live. One Foot on the Ground – A Life Told Through the Body is her autobiography, published in 2019 by Speaking Tiger Publications. It has recently won the Crossword Book Award for English Non-Fiction (Jury).
What time could be more appropriate to read “A Life Told Through the Body” than in the times of COVID-19. A time, when suddenly our collective focus has shifted to what a virus can do to a body and subsequently to a life. Our inability to avert what can happen to our body irrespective of what our mind may think has been underscored, and how.
“Our all too – human condition is the gift of the body we inherit.”
Shanta Gokhale’s words seem all too pertinent in today’s context. Through her autobiography, she looks back, chronicling events, keeping not her mind but her body as central to her life.
The chapters in the book are adequately titled as Tonsils and Adenoids, Lessons in Anatomy, Mensuration, The Nose, Teeth, Hair and Heart, Cataracts and some more. With each chapter, either she recalls her body changes or illnesses or narrate events that dictated her life and shaped her perspectives. Her singular narrative approach is remarkable in the way it engages a reader. It is as if she looks at her life from a place outside her mind, the tone being quite pragmatic and conscious of a life well lived. Perhaps that is why she can also be so candid all through. She talks about the blooming of her body, of her hair concerns as a teenager, her photic sneeze reflex (ACHOO), her maloccluded teeth and her flat nose in as blithe a manner as she talks about her menopause, fibroids, her cataract or her full blown cancer later in life.
In the very first paragraph of the first chapter, echoing Leo Tolstoy, she says:
“Altogether, there seems to be no getting away from the fact that happy people are uninteresting, possibly even stupid. Despite which I must confess that my childhood was not just happy; it was extraordinarily happy.”
Growing up in a happy and modern family in post-partition India, she could make independent decisions during the times when women were largely confined to their homes. It also offered her the opportunity to experience life without any inhibitions, rejecting every barrier to equality, whether of religion, caste or gender.
Having taken to reading at a young age, many of her childhood experiences took an imaginative contour. She once visualised her surgeon (who removed her tonsils) as a male counterpart of Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, who would come with an axe and settle her difficulties with “Off with her tonsils!” Again it was books, Arabian Nights and Giovanni’s Room to be exact, which revealed the world of mysterious body pleasures to her.
In the chapter, Lessons in Anatomy, she speaks of her encounter with abuse, which she didn’t know was so, at the age of eight. However, what seems remarkable is that in a single sentence, she juxtaposes a positive adjective for the man in question with the act that he had done. It definitely sends the reader in shock and simultaneously puts the focus on author’s ability to do so without using any dramatic elements. Her stoic tone justifies a childhood memory, which could at best only remember some distinct images.
At certain places, her reminiscences also offer a glance into the times she was growing in. She tells us how even in mid 1950s, the general Indian populace was obsessed with Bollywood, that in 1956 when she went to London as a 16 yr. old, there was a whole clan of people from Yavatamal (Vidarbha) who were into lodging and boarding business there. During her graduate years, she saw John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and wondered at the reviews of critics that dismissed it as loathsome. She recalls that the first Status of Women report, Towards Equality, had been released in 1974, three years prior to her joining Femina as assistant editor.
Her portrayal of people in her life permeates with a deep sense of reverence. It is to her father, her mother, her father’s friend, Mr.M.V.Mathew and her mentor Nissim Ezekiel that she accords the chances which helped her move forward in life. Whereas it was Nissim who advised her to write in Marathi, it was her mother who advised her to translate Marathi Literature into English. All through the book, the author offers gratitude to the people in her life and feel lucky, more than anything, to be at right place at the right time.
She ruminates over the idea of death, love, life, body and mind as she flits from one memory to next, though not always chronologically. Many a times, she reminds herself to stick to a particular episode. But then, who can control memories – which come and go as they please and linger on till they like. However there is a sense of bewitchery for the reader when depiction of such memories arrest the attention and make those scenes come alive, vivid as if they can be viewed as clearly as the words representing them. And this has been the power of Ghokhale’s narrative here.
When she tells:
“I wrote Tya Varshi seventeen years later (after Rita Welinkar), sitting in my own room unoccupied by any other body but mine. Rarely are women blessed with such blissful singlehood.”
The reader not only realises that it took her two marriages to finally know what happiness meant to her but also understands how for a woman writer, even like her, to have a room of her own has been as critical a necessity in contemporary times as it was a century before.
Towards the end, after battling cancer, when she is overjoyed to be able to sing, she hums an abhang by Tukaram and deliberates over the nature of life, particularly of a writer and concludes that like her father:
“For me too, the human body when alive, houses all the intangibles that spell what is human – emotions, desires, passions, aspirations, ideas, creativity. But once it dies, they die with it.”
She signs off with a happy find for her bunions and a resolve to keep walking as she has for seventy eight years for her life! What better way to commemorate life than to keep walking, writing and loving life till it becomes a neat, clean, elegant full stop!
Now available on Amazon
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.