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The British Raj, Caste System And The Beauty Of Kumaon Come Alive In This Ambitious Novel

19/12/2016 1:08 PM IST | Updated 19/12/2016 3:32 PM IST
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Village on the Kumaon hills, northern India

Anyone who lives in Kumaon for a while falls in love with the region — its undulating hills, stretches of pine, cedar and rhododendron, slate-roofed houses, temples and temple bells and, lastly, its decent people (you can still leave your house unlocked in Kumaon). And anyone in love with Kumaon would fall in love with Namita Gokhale's new novel, Things to Leave Behind.

The book is half-saga, half-novel, taking in its sweep a half century of life as it was lived in Almora and Naineetal (as she spells it) in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The focus, initially, is on Brahmin families, their purificatory rituals, the obsession with cow urine and the deadening weight of tradition.

The novel begins in the year 1856. An Englishwoman, Miss Kendal, drowns in the Nainee lake and that sets Pahari tongues a wagging — the lake goddess is angry, doesn't want goras anywhere near. Omens, like buzzards, always hovered around the Indian Mutiny. If it was the chapattis doing the rounds from village to village in the plains of Hindostan, it was three women straight out of Macbeth, dressed in red and black — the colour of local death cults — cleaning the Nainee lake at night and vanishing.

M. Gebicki
Almora, Uttarakhand, India.

Once the events of the Mutiny — like the Satichaura massacre in Kanpur (or Cawnpore, as the English called it) are out of the way, the eccentric Tilottama, and later her daughter, Deoki, take centre stage. An orphaned kid, Tilottama is taken good care of by her relatives, and not told that her favourite uncle, Badri Dutt Upreti, has been hanged by the British for no fault of his except loathing the whites.

The astrologer finds her stars not up to the mark and advises that she be married off late, and not as a child bride like most others. She ties the knot to Nain Chand Joshi, hailing from a line of pandits who had acted as spies to track the path "to the roof of the world, and helped map and locate Lhasa". He, too, is employed by The Great Trigonometrical Survey at Dehra Doon.

Anyone in love with Kumaon would fall in love with Namita Gokhale's new novel, Things to Leave Behind.

Tilottama is in the habit of talking to herself. When her relative Manorama comes to tell her of the death of her grandmother, this odd girl has already slipped into her husband's coat and trousers and lit a cheroot. The moment she sees Manorama she lets out "a volley of strange sounding babble, which Manorama naturally construed as English".

The girl goes back and tells everyone that Tilottama has an English lover. The family believes her and when a daughter, Deoki, is born to her, they are convinced it is the Englishman's doing. Nain Chand is too frightened of his eccentric wife, except once when he puts his foot down because Tilottama doesn't agree to any proposal for her daughter. Nain Chand tells her he has tolerated her stupidities long enough and Deoki is married off to Jayesh. Nain, in the mean time, manages to secretly get hold of a second wife, a Nepalese with great zest for sex, in Doon.

Penguin Random House India

A hilarious section intervenes midway through the book, involving Jewan Chandra Pant, the personal physician to King Rajendra of Nepal, and the royal antics of this monarch, a hypochondriac prone to stomach upset and flatulence.

Jewan is recalled from Pokhra (where the physician is shacking up with a woman) to attend to the king and finds the King "lolling about in flatulent stupor" with a tray of rich meats half-eaten. In a rage the Ayurvaid rubs off the scurf from his unwashed body, adds pomegranate seed, and administers the pellets to the king, hey presto, starts feeling better! Jewan also administers to the King's virility with various decoctions that seem to succeed for the time. The king attributes this rising virility to a mole on his mistress' thigh. I couldn't stop laughing.

A hilarious section intervenes midway through the book, involving Jewan Chandra Pant, the personal physician to King Rajendra of Nepal, and the royal antics of this monarch, a hypochondriac prone to stomach upset and flatulence.

There's also the story of Mary Jane, the wife of a corporal in the horse artillery, who loses her husband and three children in the Mutiny, then escapes from Agra after darkening her skin with tobacco-soaked water. She falls in with the Kanphata sadhus, who take her to the hills, where she meets the American missionary, Henry Boden, marries him and moves to Almora. The missionaries provide a third of the narrative of the novel.

Deoki's is another saga, her marriage to a reluctant Jayesh, the nephew of the physician, Jewan. Jayesh is in love with Rosemary, the daughter of Mary Jane. Jayesh goes to Bombay, eats beef, comes back and turns Christian.

Even more than the plot line, it is the life lived in Kumaon that is vividly placed before us in this memorable novel: the Upper Mall reserved for the British, while Indians and dogs traversed the Lower Mall road; Tilottama, the bride, as she enters the husband's house, her head demurely downcast, placing her bare feet on the vermillion salver and tipping the "lota of unhusked rice with her ringed right toe over the threshold on the floor of her husband's house".

Even more than the plot line, it is the life lived in Kumaon that is vividly placed before us in this memorable novel.

The narration of the strict Brahminical rules of the hearth (the woman wearing just an unstitched garment), the travel rules (you travel north on Wednesdays and Tuesdays, west on Sundays and Fridays, and so on), and the ritual of excommunications are graphic and powerful. "The complicated rites of death and purification were to be performed on a hacked-off branch from a deodar tree, representing the sinful body of the lapsed Brahmin. After this expiation, the log of wood that was now Jayesh would be taken to the cremation grounds to be burnt up; an earthen vessel representing the excommunicated soul would be shattered against a rock."

And lastly, there's the satire, a classic example of which is the moment when the Brahmins scoff at the missionary Boden for treating lepers: "He doesn't understand that the lepers are only paying for their past karma!"

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