Trav­el­ling Light

Gokhale is at her best when repris­ing sto­ries from the Ma­hab­harata

India Today - - LEISURE - By Aditi Sax­ton

In a help­ful au­thor’s note at the end of her col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Namita Gokhale says, “They are meant nei­ther to amuse, nor to in­struct, but if the reader flips through them and nods in oc­ca­sional sym­pa­thy, their tale is told.” It is an ad­junct most au­thors would forego, given how slight the de­mand is, to flip and oc­ca­sion­ally nod. In cir­cum­scrib­ing the reader’s re­sponse, Gokhale also con­fines her au­tho­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity to that scope.

Not ev­ery tale told need come with a be­hest of gi­ant lit­er­ary un­der­tak­ing, but each re­quires care­ful se­lec­tion of de­tail. The ti­tle story, fit­tingly, is about the need to name things and could have been quite lovely. A be­reaved wife stares un­see­ingly at the Hi­malayan ranges from an air­plane win­dow. They later re­con­fig­ure in her dream as a soli­tary peak shrouded in fog. It is, if overused, still a pow­er­ful par­al­lel be­tween per­sonal re­pres­sion and phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion.

The sta­bil­ity of the par­al­lel floun­ders un­der Gokhale’s un­crit­i­cal in­clu­sion of ev­ery­thing that sug­gests it­self. “We gave up try­ing to match the peaks with the names and pic­tures in the brochure” is the set- up for a pretty caesura; “al­ways, af­ter a while, ev­ery­thing be­gins to look the same”. But barely a cou­ple of 100 words later, the nar­ra­tor and her daugh­ters play a game of match the moun­tain to its name. The in­con­sis­tency is harder to scale than the craggy writ­ing that falls of­ten into cliché.

When repris­ing tales from the Ma­hab­harata, which Gokhale does thrice in this 13- story com­pendium, she is on surer ground. In ‘ Kunti’ when she says at the be­gin­ning about Ar­juna, “I loved him the most”, and the same about Karna at the end, the in­con­sis­tency in­stead of com­pro­mis­ing, am­pli­fies the un­der­stand­ing of a mother’s love. ‘ Chron­i­cles of Ex­ile’ is about queen Qand­hari, who binds her eyes for her blind hus­band Dhri­tarash­tra. The choice of de­tail here— 11 un­used vials of golden lac pow­der brought over a long jour­ney, pre­serve a strik­ing im­age of beauty up­ended by the eyes of the be­holder. Gokhale is right to rec­om­mend a flip and dip through the col­lec­tion. Her in­sis­tence on a first- per­son voice can get dis­con­cert­ing in a sus­tained read­ing. It’s not be­cause the many ‘ I’ voices shift too much, but rather that they all meld into a mid­dle- aged, some­what dis­en­chanted pitch. Ul­ti­mately, The Habit of Love is a light, slight vol­ume with a light, slight im­pact.


by Namita Gokhale Pen­guin Price: RS 250 Pages: 184

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