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Recalling An Epic

B. Mangalam

By Namita Gokhale
Penguin, Delhi, 2005, pp. 208, Rs. 300.00


It is difficult for certain writers to outgrow the reputation associated with their first novel. They go back to their first tale in each of their subsequent tales and write newer versions of the same. Some of them do it in pursuit of a quest — spiritual or literary. Some others perhaps end up doing so as they do not wish to grow out of their earlier image. A reading of Namita Gokhale’s Shakuntala raises a strong suspicion that the writer has Sanskritized Paro and named her Shakuntala. Despite Gokhale’s deliberate turning away from her conversational, lively, everyday vocabulary and her rather contrived, self-conscious use of nostalgia-ridden, archaic English, liberally interspersed with Sanskrit words (that are quickly rephrased in English), her ‘Shakuntala’ is as predictable and clichéd as was her ‘Paro’ in many ways. Gokhale’s Play of Memory is a vain attempt at reciting Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and juxtaposing her to a modern-day  namesake who is abandoned in love, or so that narrative claims. It is another matter that Gokhale’s Shakuntala abandons her husband and later her Greek lover and is too slothful to stake her honour or claim justice.   From the start, Gokhale’s Shakuntala is a misleading, masquerading and utterly pathetic attempt at recalling the Sanskrit epic. The writer’s use of legends, history, philosophy, religion or feminist thought are either contrived or misinformed. A tale of a provincial woman’s quest for adventure, travel, sexual fulfillment and bitterness at shackles of domesticity and denial of access to education carries within it an immense potential for social comment with an interplay of history, legend and contemporary life. But Gokhale thwarts her art by meandering into surreal dreams, long rhetorical verses and pedantic style, dotted with Sanskrit words and their literal equivalents in English. Examining unequal gender relations within the institution of marriage or historicizing women’s desire for freedom from bondage are issues that hardly merit an exotic locale punctuated by erotic escapades. Especially so, when such escapades too are not allowed to break out of the novelist’s new found penchant for Sanskrit. Hence, the lover ‘empties himself into me, pours the ritual oblation upon yoni’.   The novel abounds in Lord Varuna and his thunderbolts (to describe a rain-lashed Kumaon), Indra’s Vajra battling Agnidevata, signifying a forest fire extinguished by rain! A mahout carries ‘ankush, a goad’ to discipline ‘mrighastin, the beast ...

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