Guest Author: Namita Gokhale
“The Habit of Love” is a collection of stories about the inner lives of women, their vulnerabilities, their vanities, their assertions. I put these stories together over a long period of time. Some of them were written during periods of creative silence, while lying fallow between books. Others were pursued on impulse and inspiration even while I was working on a quite different book. They are quite different in length, and the period when they are set, but they are all in the voices of women, or about the worlds that women inhabit.
Some of the women I write about inhabit the ancient past, some the present, but they share the resigned laughter with which they tell their stories. Whether it is Kunti grieving her lost son, or a requiem for Qandhari by her handmaiden, or the story of a middle class woman in an AIIMS ward, the territory of these tales is feminine experience.
The authors note at the close of “The Habit of Love” says: “These stories were written, on and off, over several years. They have been imagined in airports, scribbled during flights, corrected in traffic jams, deciphered from the backs of envelops. Be it ancient myth or modern malaise, the narrative voices seem to carry an imprint of anxiety and resignation. 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 has taken me some time to accept that I am woman writer. ‘Paro’ was written in the first person feminine, as were most of my subsequent novels. ‘Gods Graves and Grandmother’, ‘A Himalayan Love story‘, ‘Shakuntala’ and ‘Priya: In Incredible Indyaa’ carried the voices of very different women protagonists, with varyied backgrounds and situations. ‘A Himalayan Love Story‘ had a male narrator, Mukul Nainwal, telling the tale. The story somehow carried no conviction until I brought in the counterpoint feminine voice of Govindi to balance it. Then, in ‘The Book of Shadows‘ I tried to break out of gender boundaries; this time I told the story through the perceptions of a ghost, trapped in time and place in an old bungalow in the Himalayas. The disembodied ghost was neither man nor woman, but the spirit within this lurking presence was more male than female. Once again, a women’s voice, the wounded first person narrative of Rachita Tiwari, had to be stitched in to complete the book.
Do women write differently from men? Do they perceive differently, in nuance, subtlety, the angle of their perceptions? I pondered this when I wrote ‘Mountain Echoes – Reminiscences of Kumaoni Women’ which compiled oral biographies of my grandmother and three grand aunts, all four highly individualistic, vibrant and feisty women.
As a writer, my interests moved to mythology and its living manifestations in India. Four books, ‘The Book of Shiva‘, ‘The Mahabharata for Young Readers’, ‘Shakuntala: The Play of Memory’ and ‘In Search of Sita: Rediscovering Mythology‘, emerged from this quest. I learnt a lot from the Mahabharata. Unlike the Ramayana, the women of this vast epic negotiated their lives outside as well as inside domestic spaces. Be it Kunti, Draupadi, or Hidimba, Amba, Ambika or Ambilika, queen, demoness, or transgender, these women demanded agency and lived life resolutely on their own terms.
Based on flashes of past-life memories, my novel ‘Shakuntala: The Play of Memory‘ was set in the late seventh century. It took up the fictional story of a stubborn rebellious woman who tried to strike out on her own, and yet, despite the historical timeline, it could be happening today.
The figure of Sita stands as an archetype for most Indian women. Dr. Malashri Lal and I set out to co-edit an anthology of essays and creative interpretations of the enigmatic figure of Sita, and to study the collective wounding that Indian women have vicariously suffered through the centuries on her behalf. Sita, the first single mother, emerged as a symbol of our times, strong and resilient behind the superficial veneer of misinterpreted victimhood.
Researching and writing ‘The Book of Shiva‘ rewarded me with a deeper understanding of the androgynous nature of Lord Shiva and forever altered my perspectives on the nature of male and female energies.
What I learn afresh, every year, is that there is a man in every woman, and a woman in every man. It is our life situations that demand different roles and perspectives of us.
Namita Gokhale is the author of seven works of fiction and several non-fiction books. Paro: Dreams of Passion, Gods Graves and Grandmother, A Himalayan Love Story, The Book of Shadows, Shakuntala: the Play of Memory, and Priya In Incredible Indyaa and the landmark anthology In Search of Sita. Her recent, much acclaimed collection of short stories, The Habit of Love, was published in January 2012.
Namita Gokhale is also co-director of the famous Jaipur Literature Festival and of Mountain Echoes: the Bhutan Literary Festival. To know more about Namita, visit her website http://www.namitagokhale.com/