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.
A howling rage took possession of the physician. ‘I’ll cure you, you glutton, for once and forever,’ he muttered to himself, and repaired to the pharmacy in the palace grounds. There, he took off his clothes and rubbed the scurf from his unwashed skin (he was not a man who favoured cleanliness) and rolled this body scurf into four miniscule pellets. These he further wrapped in silver foil, with a little cumin and asafoetida pressed in for good measure. While at it he added some anardana, the dried pomegranate seeds being his favourite ingredient and cure-all. Returning to the palace, he confronted his king. The four doses were placed on the royal tongue at quick intervals, while the fierce physician muttered curses and imprecations under his breath. These were, of course, taken as being addressed to the demon of ill health, for no one could possibly presume to be so rude to His Majesty.
By the time the third pellet was pressed into his mouth, the king was already feeling better. He beheld his loyal physician Jeewan Chandra Pant with gratitude and ordered that a bag of gold coins be given to him. The courtier who was summoned to bring the coins from the royal treasury appropriated five, but a bagful was still a bagful. The Vaidya was immediately moved to better humour and contemplated buying his beloved Pokhara mistress a gold hansuli, to frame her plump, pretty neck. Later, he was to wonder interminably about the possible conjunction of astral influences, the conspiracy of constellations, that had effected his radical cure. For the king’s digestion now flourished, the royal robes layered in purple velvet and satin rested gently on his reposeful abdomen; the queens, the prime minister, the ladies of the harem, all enjoyed the reprieve from his colic- induced cruelties.
The unexpected success of his unorthodox medicine prompted Jeewan to research further. He dreamt of formulating the perfect aphrodisiac. A Tibetan herbalist in Pokhara had told the Vaidya about the highly efficacious horny goat weed he had learnt of in China. The plant grew in profusion around the Pokhara lake, and the royal physician had concocted a rasayan using the distilled weed and small quantities of the pink bell-shaped valerian flowers of Jatamansi. The king was offered the experimental potion, and it worked wonders. A certain royal lady-in-waiting whose husband was a confirmed catamite found herself the subject of the monarch’s unexpected favour. He visited her bedchamber three nights consecutively and found his veerya, his royal libido, functioning as capably as that of a young man. The lady had a mole upon the inside of her left thigh, and this mole became the subject of his immediate and compulsive attention. The mole, he decided, in some leap of intuition or madness, held the key to his destiny as a monarch.
Things to Leave Behind follows the intertwined story of spirited Tilottama Uprety, whose uncle is hanged during the […]