February 19, 2020
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Rescuing The Past

Four Kumaoni women speak

Rescuing The Past
Mountain Echoes
By Namita Gokhale
Roli Books Rs 175, Pages: 136
LIKE a story trying to seek a denouement, I too seem to be moving in ways familiar yet unknown. Reflecting the tapestry of the myriad chance encounters that make up the sum of one's lived experiences is my own encounter with Mountain Echoes. Introduced, edited, smoothened, tightened and made readable by novelist Namita Gokhale, the stories that lie between the covers of Mountain Echoes are ones that I have met—in different dimensions—earlier.

But what are these stories, who are the mountains echoing, and why? And is it proper to categorise them as 'story' when they linguistically seek to replicate the life and times of women who may have begun to face physical dissolution, but nonetheless whose incandescent memories remain tenaciously luminous. Women such as the lionised figure of Hindi literature, the self-invented Shivani, the lesser-known Tara Pande and Jeeya and the self-acknowledged slight breaker of taboos, the irrepressible and indulged niece of Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, Shakuntala Pande.

It is an 'occasional' work, as Gokhale makes amply clear in her prefatory remarks, to mark the passage of 50 years of Indian independence. Except that the 'independence' inscribed is that of the hitherto unspoken and unwritten lives of four Kumaoni women called Shivani, Shakuntala, Tara and Jeeya. Making the distinction between codified history and her own, Gokhale avers: "The history of men is recorded in wars won and lost, in the reigns of kings, in edicts and inscriptions, in ruined fortresses and other such grand and exterior things. The history of women is left to us in folklore and tradition, in faintly remembered lullabies and the half-forgotten touch of a grandmother's hand: in recipes, ancestral jewellery, and cautionary tales about the limits of women's empowerment. The life of a woman is an interior life, it is spent in daily tasks, it follows the rhythm of the seasons, and usually, it ends and passes without record."

Mountain Echoes is a testament to Gokh-ale's efforts to freeze-frame a fast vanishing era, to rescue the past by enshrining it in a fluid present, by making clear that these women's claims for self-assertion and individual hegemony is where true independence lies. And by choosing to do so in their own voices, she manages to bring a degree of authenticity and narrative variation to what may have quite well ended up as a deliberate exercise in a politically correct consciousness raising. Indeed, it is this strategy that sets Gokhale's work apart from that of another formidable Kumaoni writer, Shivani's daughter, Mrinal Pande. Because, at least for me, the entry into this enclosed Kumaoni world had been already granted in the guise of two earlier works: Mrinal Pande's The Subject is Woman and the more recent Devi: Tales of the Goddess in Our Time.

Yet, even without this sense of continuity that is mine, Mountain Echoes resonates with images, experiences, smells and memories that still remain with some of us. The book is in many ways as familiar as turning the moth-eaten pages of one's family album or breathing deep the musty earthiness of one's grandmother's disintegrating wedding joda. And the lessons it tells again and again are of history felt in muscle and bone, its relentless march captured in changing food patterns, loss of ritual or the growth of grandchildren whose 'Indianness' is wrapped in the shroud of western consumerism.

But through all the losses lurks a sense of victory, one that lies in the ability of these hardy women to still inhabit a world in which the memory of the love of a supportive, lost spouse, the bond of children and grandchildren, the sense of having survived the wheel of fortune and won a victory against time's excesses gives them the courage to go on—with a smile. The strength of Mountain Echoes ultimately lies in this: to give the reader women whose voices echo and mirror those countless women whose voices have never been heard before.

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