Gokhale is at her best when reprising stories from the Mahabharata
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.
THE HABIT OF LOVE
by Namita Gokhale Penguin Price: RS 250 Pages: 184