Book Review- Things to Leave Behind – Namita Gokhale

A review of the novel by JLF’s founder member Namita Gokhale. The novel was in the Amazon’s Picks in the year 2016.

This book had been on my reading list ever since I came to know of its premise – the mountains, the history, the people. I long for such books which come with their own flavour. Namita Gokhale has written about Kumaon and this completes her Himalayan trilogy.
Characters
There are many strong characters in the book. We have Tilottama – a girl from a Kumaoni Brahmin family who stands up against patriarchy (more or less) and the set gender roles. She teaches herself to read. There is a genuine conflict within her mind though. It is easy to identify with her.
We have her daughter Deoki who again deals with all the gender-based oppression. It is peculiar how a life born in an upper caste family suffers from the absurd and easy to fail caste rules.
Then there is Deoki’s husband Jayesh who is the most interesting character of all. He is conflicted between selling his uncle’s digestive pills Ananda Anardana or doing something more meaningful and revolutionary with his life.
We also have Rosemary who runs an evangelical leprosarium with her father. Ms goody two-shoes who is as susceptible to fall as anyone else. Her sister Gloria is a beautiful contrast against her.
The artist and seducer of womenfolk William Dempster is an interesting character too. His characters changes the otherwise unruffled storyline while in a way balancing it.
Due to the time leaps and lack of melodrama, I cannot call this book a page-turner. The author simply refuses to emotionally extort the reader. The book would not make you cry, it would not make the hair on your wrist stand up. It is a mellow book with real characters. And just like real life sometimes, they don’t even make sense eg. Tilottama looking at a yellow kite and getting the urge to go home.
Plot
The plotline is well planned. The author has tied all threads together. It has generation leaps which are combined with real news of those times. The plot is accompanied with well sketched character developments. I read in a review that a reader was unable to see the point of certain descriptions. Well, it all ties together if you’re patient enough.
It is essentially the story of the Brahminical caste system and its perils. There is also a running commentary on the position of women in the society. Much hasn’t changed even now which strikes the sensitive mind and strikes hard.
There is also the conflict between Ayurveda and Western medicine. TB was a deadly disease at that time and the blood-in-spit scare is depicted with subtle realism.
Language
Local Pahari/ Hindi words are used wherever deemed necessary. The book does have certain stylistic inconsistencies at certain points where it is hard to make out the subject of the sentences because the author has preferred pronouns. Those parts require reading with a slower pace.
There is also a rambling tone to the novel. It doesn’t just intend to tell you a story. It wants to chronicle an era. The author has run the risk of over-explaining but then I feel I quite enjoyed the small history lessons esp the bit about A H Wheelers.
Design
The cover design is symbolic and you will come to know about the birds and the pomegranate in the novel (only if you read till the end). A graphic designer friend pointed out that the fonts used for the author’s name and the book’s title do not go together.
All I can say is that the design flaw is not visible to my untrained eye. It looks beautiful and I would have totally bought the book on the basis of its cover.
Overall
The book talks about superstitions and religious beliefs of the Kumaoni hill folk. The author has taken care not to pass judgments or take a stand for or against the religious stuff. In fact, there are instances in the book where a Baba halts a train with his magical powers and a lady starts bleeding from her palms because of Christ’s blessings. It isn’t a book to preach anything. Far from it. It is a poetic homage to the traditions of the hills and an unbiased chronicle of those times. An essential read.
4 out of 5 stars.
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