04 June 2011

Priya by Namita Gokhale

Been there, done that
I’d never read anything by Namita Gokhale before, but had always viewed her with respect as a founding director of the wonderful Jaipur Literature Festival. So when I received this book, I was disconcerted to see that the publishers had placed it inside a cover that screamed “Yaah! Chick-lit! So there!”
Still, this did not prepare me for the mediocre idiom that populates this book. I read intently, waiting for it to improve.
Priya is a married woman in her mid- or perhaps late-fifties. Her husband has risen in his profession as a lawyer and is presently a Minister of State for Food Processing, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Canneries. This makes him a mighty important person – and also tells us that the book is supposed to be a spoof. They lead a comfortable and privileged life in Delhi, which, Priya occasionally reminds us, sometimes leaves her out of her depth since she grew up a simple middle class girl in a “one BHK” apartment in what was then still Bombay. On the surface she copes well and there’s no doubt that Priya has her moments of wit and intelligence. However, her language is largely uninspired, and my eyebrows rose in cynical disbelief to see it described as “elegant prose” in this review.
The world Priya depicts, of people with an enormous sense of self-importance but skewed priorities, has been done before – most famously (as I thought then) by Shobhaa De. Any number of equally pointless books of dubious entertainment value have done the same.
One of the things I did like about this one were the descriptions of Priya’s interactions with her twin sons, which showed her to be sensitive, self-aware and a very “today” thinker. It’s also quite hilarious in parts. Still – why does anyone have to pretend that this is a good book, and worth reading? Priya made me feel a bit derailed – somewhat like its Mumbai local trains, which the author tries to route from Churchgate to VT.

And it made me rush to read Paro, a book Namita Gokhale wrote in 1984 and to which Priya is linked by having the same characters, 25 years later.
Here lurked another big surprise. Priya is the narrator of this book too, and, 25 years younger, has a much more substantial literary style! Not only that, Paro is a completely unselfconsciously Indian book. I was impressed to see that there was no exoticising or contextualising whatever – in fact, even less than in Priya (which explains "one BHK" but does not bother to clarify "hall".) Commonly-used Indian words were left un-italicised. Even expressions like “kitty party” remained unexplained. And this was 1984 – when Salman Rushdie was the first “Indian” writer to have won a Booker. When every Indian who wrote in Engish was writing for a western audience. And several years before Shobhaa De (then still Shobha; one of the issues this book takes a piss at is the trend of changing the spelling of your name on the advice of a high-profile “numerologist” – possibly a roguish dig at Shobhaa De herself) was somehow awarded the IPR for the subject of chalu lifestyles!
With renewed respect, I picked up Priya again to see whether I had misjudged it. Despite every effort, I still found it rather coarse, and embedded with just a few rare-jewel moments. Priya’s life experience and her perspective had changed, and - rather sadly - so had the way she expressed herself.
And I thought about Philip Roth who, as a young man, wrote about horny young Jewish men and their love problems, and as he aged wrote about cantankerous old Jewish men and their trysts with prostate enlargement. What remained constant were the texture of his prose and the grip of his story-telling prowess.


  1. I had thought that this book was pretty uninspiring when I heard Namita Gokhale read an excerpt at the Jaipur Literary Festival. But I did like her Book of Shadows and Gods, Graves and Grandmother which are worth reading once for the beautiful prose.

  2. so glad to discover this blog.
    always a pleasure to read you, Saaz