Book Review by Kajoli Banerjee Krishnan

usha

 

Title: Boys from Good Families

Author: Usha K.R.

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019

 

It was twenty-five years ago that Usha K.R. stepped into the literary world with ‘Sepia Tones’ that won the 1995 Katha Short Story Award. Her first novel Sojourn was published in 1998. Her subsequent novels The Chosen (2003), A Girl and a River (2007) and Monkey-man (2010) have been critically acclaimed.  A Girl and a River was awarded the Vodafone Crossword Prize in 2007. Amongst her other short stories are ‘Elixir’, that appeared in Boo, An Anthology of Ghost Stories and ‘The Boy to Chase the Crows Away’ that was shortlisted in the Best Asian Short Stories 2017 by Kitaab.

Usha’s fifth novel Boys from Good Families traces the story of Ashwath. Living with his parents and sister Savitri in ‘Neel Kamal’, their family home, he grows up within a conservative household in the city of Bangalore during the 1970’s and 80’s. Ashwath finds his parents rigid in their beliefs, expectations from them and his extended family dreary and claustrophobic. A romantic at heart and somewhat undecided about his future, he enjoys exploring the city and its surroundings, watching films and starts to fall in love with a remarkably capable and charming Thippy.

This phase abruptly comes to an end when his parents come to know of his affection for Thippy who lives with her family in the outhouse of ‘Neel Kamal’ and is considered a social unequal. They throw out Thippy and family.

Every January, India hosts the largest literary festival in the world — the Jaipur Literary festival. Founded in 2006, it gathers the glitterati of the literati in the Diggi Palace Hotel in the heart of the historical city. The festival directors are writers Namita Gokhale and Willian Dalrymple.

This year, it stretched from 23rd to 27 th January and hosted around 300 writers. Speakers this year include well-known names like Nobel laureate (2019) Abhijit Banerjee, Javed Akhtar, Madhur Jaffrey, Aruna Chakravarti, KR Meera, the controversial Shashi Tharoor, Magsaysay award-winning journalist Ravish Kumar and many more. Authors from other countries included Man International Booker Prize Winner (2019) Jokha Alharthi, Elizabeth Gilbert, Paul Muldoon, Stephen Greenblatt and Christina Lamb. More than 200 sessions stretched across five days with writers from 20 countries and literature in more than 25 languages.

Earlier, it had hosted names like Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and more big names. Subjects like climate change, the water crisis, history, economics, politics, feminism, fiction and non-fiction all came under discussion in these sessions. Even the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that created such a stir in India was under discussion.

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Namita Gokhale

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.

By Dr. Pallavi Narayan

leave-behindI 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.