The Baramaasa which preludes this novel consists of a brief, first person narration by a young woman who sits naked on the grass, her clothes in a heap beside her, as she watches her lover paint her, her “substance,…nakedness,…lack of shame.” The vivid, sensual images of body and earth suggest a love story, the narrator’s story. It is only at the end of the book that one realises that it was not about the narrator persona at all but about one of the principal characters who people the storyline.
Similar red herrings mark much of the novel’s first 40 or so pages. The “Six native women draped in black and scarlet pichauras… singing mournful songs” in 1856 as they circled the lake in Naineetal, the mysterious drowning in it of an Englishwoman shortly after, the sneaky appropriation of the lake and its environs by the British, the bloody confrontations between the British and the “natives” which the former long termed a “Mutiny”, and the execution of the rebel Badri Dutt Uprety all have a compelling appeal but do not go very far, serving as mere preambles to the story of Badri Dutt’s spunky niece Tilottama.
Orphaned early when her widowed mother drowns herself, Tilottama lives a fairly charmed existence in her uncle’s home despite her inauspicious horoscope which predicts the certain death of her husband. Her uncle refuses to succumb to suggestions that this prediction could be thwarted by marrying her to a tree, preferring instead to wait till she is 19 and the evil stars have been quashed. Her husband Nain Chand, an officer of the Trigonometrical Survey, is tolerant of her idiosyncracies and leaves her pretty much to her own devices, travelling to remote parts of north India in the service of the Crown. His impulsive assault on her one night produces an albino child who is named Deoki. Since Tilottama had wilfully allowed the women in the family to believe she had an English lover Deoki was assumed to be an offshoot of this affair though Nain Chand sensibly refuses to entertain this absurd theory. When Deoki in turn is married off to Jayesh Chandra Pant, she becomes a part of what is for all practical purposes a ménage à trois, her husband having long been infatuated with an Irish missionary named Rosemary, eventually converting to Christianity to become Jonas Jayesh Pant. It is this strange household that the painter William Dempster arrives at and swiftly gauges, finding a responsive partner in the unawakened virginal Deoki whom he paints and artfully seduces.
Writing a historical novel is never easy. Gokhale’s narrative is carefully researched and the events leading up to 1857 and shortly after deftly presented, human interest and suspense mingling with factual chronology. The spooky white-skinned, blue-eyed woman in a tattered half-sari rescued by a British officer during his pursuit of German lager (of all things) resurfaces as Mary Jane Boden, Rosemary’s mother, long dead by the time Jayesh and Deoki enter the mission. But history, perhaps inevitably, is submerged under the story of two generations (Tilottama and Deoki, mother and daughter) who, while connected to historical events lead lives that are not bound by time and place.
Gokhale’s writing incorporates a kind of burlesque very reminiscent of Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Both their heroines shrug off convention and find solace in the unexpected. While Desai’s heroine resorts to wildly exaggerated culinary experiments to preserve her son’s phony role as wise man and prophet, Tilottama uses her solitariness to read as much as she can, adopting a “male” persona since learning was presumably a male prerogative. Pulling on a pair of her husband’s trousers, outlining a charcoal moustache and sideburns, donning a feathered hat, and lighting a cheroot, she ferrets out her husband’s log book with its cryptic notations, breaking into a strange English-sounding gibberish when she senses she is being spied on. It is this spectacle that gives rise to the rumour that she had a “ferangee lover, a bearded gora who wore a feathered hat and swore profusely in English”, and who may have fathered Deoki. With time she devours whatever reading material she can lay her hands on, from newspapers to Pandita Ramabai’s memoirs, while Swami Vivekananda’s visit prods her into asking him a series of irreverent questions which are met with “gasps and shocked sighs from the rest of the audience.” She loves Deoki but has little time for her, except when she forces an education on the reluctant girl.
Gokhale avoids what could have easily become tedious by presenting family histories with irony and humour. Jayesh’s uncle, Vaidya Jeewan Pant, owes his mystique among royalty and the common people to the magical cures effected by pellets whose ingredients are best left unmentioned here, but his ups and downs make for some very entertaining passages. Gokhale navigates from empire to natives with fluency, but it is ultimately Tilottama and Deoki who engage us. Dissimilar in many ways, they share an individualism, an eccentricity, which sets them apart, and which is what first draws Dempster to Deoki. It is Deoki’s voice that speaks in the Baramaasa one realises retrospectively.
The novel could potentially have progressed into a kind of neo-Orientalist narrative. Gokhale’s choice of historical detail, the abundant paraphrases that punctuate the story with explanations of words and phrases, the dwelling on local colour – all these could have worked negatively and occasionally do but Gokhale generally avoids the trap of neo-Orientalism by drawing a definite line between details (tree bride and ghattashradha, to name just two) and overelaborations. What also liberates the novel is her way with language, her ability to sustain the burlesque and transform it into whacky, slapstick satire, and her superb control of the multiple plots and sub-plots. It hardly matters that she is “the impresaria behind the famous literary festivals in Jaipur and Thimpu” (to quote from Pico Iyer’s unfortunate endorsement on the jacket) because the novel surpasses that limited role, which is what any good writer would surely hope for.
Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.