Namita Gokhale

Namita Gokhale The Blind Matriarch

Every person in the country, even remotely interested in literature, knows of Namita Gokhale and her literary prowess as a writer, publisher and co founder and co-director of the iconic Jaipur Literature Festival. It was then, one of my greatest honours, to have been able to interview her about the recent release of her twentieth book, The Blind Matriarch. Another masterpiece by the legendary writer, the novel explores the life of a joint-family within the backdrop of an India hit with the tragedy of the Covid pandemic. The four-walls and the lived-experiences of the people within it become all too familiar for the reader as the narrative progresses and the filial dysfunction of an extended family, headed by the blind matriarch Matangi Ma, gets laden with hovering fear, uncertainty and cynicism. Astute in its reflection of the inner workings of an Indian family during the pandemic, The Blind Matriarch is a brilliant evocation of the struggles we’ve had to face and the resilience of the human spirit that guided us through the catastrophe and has made us stronger for what’s to come.

Excerpts from my interview with Namita Gokhale regarding her literary journey, the book, and literature in general, follow:

What is your first memory of writing?
I used to write unexpected, mildly provocative essays in school, which would sometimes be read out to the class. I remember some of them still, laboriously written in my large, scrawly handwriting.

After so many years, how would you describe your relationship with literature today?
I began writing my first novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion, when I was twenty-six, almost forty years ago. I’ve written twenty books since, but not been able to read as much as I want to. There are books piled around me in my bedroom, demanding to be read. The pressure of work has led to accomplished skim reading, a dangerous habit at the best of times. I don’t usually watch television, or films, although I do view the occasional web-series.

I am surrounded by books, by readers and writers. My immediate and extended family — my daughters, son- in-law, niece, cousins — are all somewhere connected with the world of books. Some of my deepest friendships are with writers I love and respect. The writing life is the examined life. It’s the only one I know or understand.

What inspired The Blind Matriarch?
The figure of the blind matriarch, of Matangi Ma, came to me like a visitation. I began writing it in early February last year, in Kathmandu, just before the pandemic, and completed the first draft in six months. It was inspired by the idea of the joint family, which is in so many ways central to India.

What did your creative process behind creating this book entail?
I had to let go, to free-float within the contours of the story. It was an intense, often joyous process, with the figure of Matangi Ma, with her patience and infinite wisdom, guiding the course of the narrative.

In terms of theme, was there a singular driving force propelling your writing, for instance the notion of perception and blindness?
The figure of Gandhari and her self-imposed blindness has always fascinated me, and I have written a long short story around her. I have also worked on retelling the Mahabharata for young readers. My novel begins with a line from the Bible — “For we walk by faith, not by sight”. We see and perceive with all our senses, with our minds and our hearts. We are all blind in different ways.

How did you conceive and construct the character of Matangi Ma?
Matangi Ma embodies the spirit of the wise woman, the crone. She has observed life and weathered its vicissitudes. Many of my readers will recognise her from within their own memories and family histories. I did not have to conceive or construct her — she arrived like a blessing on the pages of my lined notebook, in my first handwritten draft.

How challenging was it to explore life amidst this ongoing pandemic through the written word?
It was a reprieve from the anxieties that surrounded us all to be able to observe things and write about them. We were living in a bubble, and within that bubble I had built my own cocoon, where I was inhabiting the unfolding narrative of The Blind Matriarch.

Could you give us some insight into the significance of the extraordinary book cover of The Blind Matriarch?
Gunjan Ahlawat, who heads design at Penguin Random House, read the book and was struck by the idea of an embroidery panel for the cover concept. He persuaded his friend Lavanya Asthana to create an embroidered artwork to convey one of the significant motifs of the book. Weaving and embroidery are also an intrinsic form of the narrative, and Lavanya’s inspired needlework adds a new dimension, an almost tactile sense, to the cover and the book.

What do you hope the readers take away from this book?
I hope that readers will take away some consolation, some wisdom and strength, from this story of a family during lockdown.

Coming back to the pandemic, what according to you is or can be the role of literature during this trying time?
Books anchor us, and provide us a compass. So many people went back to books, or web-narratives, for emotional sustenance through these lonely and alienating times. Literature has nurtured and sustained us through these years.

Where do you think the literature in our country is headed in terms of new voices, translations, publishing, literary festivals, awards, et cetera?
There is a lot happening in the literary space across the different Indian languages, including English. The digital festivals in their present digital avatar provide opportunities for interaction and access across India and the world. Translations are flourishing, both in the quality of translated books and the enthusiasm of publishers to showcase them, though there is still so much more to be accomplished in this field. The pandemic and lockdown provided an opportunity for writers to reflect, and to think and write in solitude. I think the literary culture, across all shades of opinion, is stronger and more resilient than ever.

How have you been coping with the pandemic personally?
The pandemic led to a productive phase in that I wrote my new novel The Blind Matriarch during the first lockdown, and also completed my play (co-authored with Dr. Malashri Lal) on Michael Madhusudan Dutt in that period. There were a lot of health challenges within our family, but we were luckier than so many others. I began work on a new anthology, which kept me busy and engrossed. My personal survival strategy has been to keep myself as busy as I possibly can, even with things and projects that may seem unimportant to others.

What advice would you like to extend to the upcoming generation of writers?
I would rather receive advice and reverse mentoring from them. The younger generation of writers are extremely accomplished and wise, and there is so much excellent writing surfacing, so much to learn from them.

Lastly, what are you working on next?
I’m trying to work on some short stories, but find myself struggling to express the realities of our disjointed times. I am also researching an anthology, something I find deeply satisfying.

This interview is an all exclusive from our October EZ. To read more such articles follow the link here.

Text Nidhi Verma
Date 15-11-2021