THE WORTH of a novel lies in a simple question: would we go back to it again? It’s not a novel if it exhausts itself in the first reading. Namita Gokhale’s new book, Things to Leave Behind, is set in the Himalayan hills like two of her previous works. Its premise—interlinked stories of some Indian families, negotiating their way through the British rule—is pregnant with creative potential. The opening paragraphs are poetic and the earliest chapters delve into history, evoking the possibility of a post-colonial reading. There are some appealing characters, especially the Ayurveda doctor and his engagements with the Nepalese king and British officers. Its blurb proclaims it to be Gokhale’s “most ambitious work yet”. This ambition is visible in the broad sketch the writer draws, but it fails to materialise. The plot and the characters demand and deserve far greater intensity than the writer is able to offer.
The novel is not a story stretched into some 200 or more pages. It is an excavation and exploration of the human self. The novel is an ocean that offers an adventurous dive to a prose writer to record her encounter with the world. We go to the novels of Umberto Eco, Nirmal Verma and Georges Perec to witness the jewels the writer had gathered from the deepest depths of the ocean.
Things to Leave Behind falters because the writer merely wets her feet in the water and doesn’t take the plunge. The writer, for instance, only outlines the triangle of Jayesh, Rosemary and Deoki, but does not let their desires chart the smouldering path. Almost every character and sequence yearn for more authorial attention than what they receive. The plot is interjected with many historical episodes of the British era. It details how the local resistance was quelled, but they are recorded as mere incidents, as conflicts of the colonial empire do not come through.
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Things Fall Apart or Gora are essential post-colonial novels, as they depict an intense churning in native societies following the colonial rule. That Gokhale’s work is yet another addition to the vast pool of ‘novels’ being published in India in the past two decades also throws a question to the practitioners of the form in the country: which of these works would still adorn the shelves in the year 2116? How many publishers and their writers would assert having a shelf life beyond some sponsored sessions at lit fests? A hundred years, mark it, is a fairly modest duration in the life of a novel.
The novel dies, Milan Kundera so accurately told us, when it “keeps duplicating its form emptied of its spirit”. This spirit lives in the artistic wisdom of the novelist, her ability to unveil the aspects of human existence that fell beyond the gaze of science and history.
The only way the practitioners of this marvellous form can avoid this death is through a critical and cruel scrutiny towards their work. It entails confronting the most fundamental question: how does their work carry forward and enrich the great tradition of the novel? Sadly, Gokhale’s work does not betray this introspection.