Festival director and award-winning writer of 20 books, including 11 works of fiction, Namita Gokhale was recently awarded the seventh Yamin Hazarika Woman of Substance Award 2021.
The late Yamin Hazarika was the first woman from north-east India to be selected, in 1977, for the federal police service that administers Delhi and the union territories. Though she succumbed to cancer in 1999, the great trail of Hazarika’s legacy lives on even today, inspiring millions, especially women in the law-enforcement sector.
This annual event is organised since 2015 by a unique sisterhood of women professionals from different fields – medicine, engineering, academics, law, media and management.
In this interview, Gokhale talks to us about growing up in the Kumaon hills, the future of literature festivals and the inspiration behind her upcoming book The Blind Matriarch (Penguin Viking, 2021).
You have written many books set in Kumaon and the Himalayas. Growing up in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand, what were some of your biggest childhood influences?
Growing up in the Kumaon hills and the picturesque Lake District of Kumaon gave me the opportunity to interact joyously with my natural surroundings. Perhaps the most important childhood experience of these formative years was the time spent with my Ija, my maternal grandmother, Shakuntala Pande. She was beautiful, sharply intelligent, and loved books, music, and life.
As a child, you were raised by your aunts and grandmother. How did this shape your sensibilities as a writer?
My grandmother read a lot, and listened to music on a gramophone. She also loved to play cards – I think she was a risk taker at heart and that was how she outed those instincts. My beloved grandfather, who was a freedom fighter and later a member of parliament for many terms, gave his unconditional love and opened new worlds for me.
I grew up with my young aunts, so full of joy and laughter, on a diet of books and chocolates. My continuing obsession about my hometown Nainital is rooted in these memories.
In the past, you have extensively researched and written about mythological figures such as Radha and Sita as well as contemporary urban women. What have been your learnings about the greatest challenges and strengths of Indian women?
I have learnt that Indian women are individually strong but socially vulnerable. The goddess figures in Indian myth and religion are both ‘shanta’ and ‘ugra’ – calm and fierce – in their manifestations, and this is the emblem and source of their all-encompassing strength.
With Jaipur LitFest and many other literature festivals going online, what were your personal experiences and what do you feel about the future of literature festivals?
I have received so much joy from the various festivals I mentor and help curate. The Jaipur Literature Festival has been transformative for me both personally and as a writer. My novel Jaipur Journals (Penguin Viking, 2020) is set against the backdrop of the litfest. I truly enjoy those I attend as a speaker. With voice, image, text and extended reality coming together in digital space, I feel the sense of community and shared energies in live literary events is more important than ever before.
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What is the inspiration behind your upcoming book The Blind Matriarch, which is set during the pandemic? How do you think the Indian family structure is likely to change post-Covid?
I have always been fascinated by the Indian joint family. The inspiration for The Blind Matriarch was visceral – the figure of Matangi Ma was real to me and I felt her presence. The narrative is located during the pandemic but it is about the figure of the matriarch.
How has the pandemic affected your writing?
I have been productive during this period. I completed Betrayed by Hope last year – a play on the tragic life of the poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt that I co-authored with Dr Malashri Lal, and also wrote The Blind Matriarch. I worked on two short stories, but they emerged as disjointed as the times.
Do you think Covid has changed the way humans connect with one another? Would you say it has added depth and meaning to the way we love, grieve and perceive relationships?
I think different people responded differently to Covid and its implications depending on their personalities, perspectives and circumstances. It gave some fortunate and resilient ones the chance to strengthen and enrich themselves. Others were left exhausted, broken and depleted.