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Reading outside school curriculum key to long time academic success: Namita Gokhale

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Always a writer first, fests curator and publisher Namita Gokhale tells Boski Gupta why she keeps on going back in time while still writing for the present

Namita Gokhale refuses to be bound by genres. She also doesn’t like to be tamed to social traditions. Her characters are normal people, their aspirations and struggles reflect the mundane lives we live today but they also inspire us to rise above the ordinary. Curator of Jaipur and Bhutan Book Fests and also a publisher, Gokhale likes to be called a writer first ‘because that’s what I enjoy to do the most,’ she says. At the bustling gardens of Diggi Palace, where the JLF is taking place, she patiently talks to us while attending sessions with her co-authors. Excerpts from an interview…

Penguin has come out with a special edition of Paro and Priya. Does that bring back memories?


Paro was the larger than life heroine of my first novel ‘Paro: Dreams of Passion’. The novel was published in 1984, and Paro died in the last chapter. ‘Priya’ was published in 2011, where, a quarter century later, I resurrected some of the characters, and their children. Priya and Paro were both in many ways interfacing characters, alter egos of each other. So, in my mind, they belong together and I am equally close in that sense to both of them.

Both these characters tell the story of Indian women and their aspirations. Do you think anything has changed since you wrote about them?

So much has changed and yet so little has changed. Paro was a charismatic character and the power of charisma still remains. The seductions of glamour are unchanging as ever. The pragmatic Priya will survive her times. Yet the new generation has a different sort of steel in them, they are stronger I think than the generation before.

Why did you choose Ghatotkacha in Lost in Time when Mahabharata is full of other heroes?

The thought that I would write a story around Ghatotkacha and his mother Hidimbi lodged itself in my mind when I was working on the Puffin Mahabharata a decade ago. The idea stayed with me and I enjoyed working on it at a time when I was very caught up with other things. That retreat into an imagined past gave me great joy in the midst of my everyday life. 

It also describes the forests and mountains generously…

You are absolutely right. I was travelling in my imagination through the landscape I love most in the world, around the Lake District of the Kumaon hills.

The book also marks your entry into young adult fiction…

The Puffin Mahabharata was written for young and first time readers. This was the first book in what could be described as young adult fiction. However, I was not writing in any category — I was simply writing for myself, and the child within me.

Do you think we need more books for kids?

We can never have enough books for young readers – and we have such an ancient heritage of storytelling and grandmothers’ tales to inspire us. I’m not entirely convinced about the watertight compartments of ‘age appropriate’ books as children grow and read at their own individual pace and with their own set of interests. The important thing is to challenge them and ignite their curiosity and ignite their imagination. The children’s book market will surely be among the fastest growing segments in India in the coming years.

How do we inculcate the habit of reading among children in this age of technology and social media?

Technology and social media can also contribute to the habit of reading. But it is a different sort of training for young readers to focus on text and understand the nature of narrative rather than read with the sort of fragmented and divided attention that they give to social media. Reading outside the school curriculum is key to long time academic success, as well as to being a well informed and well adjusted individual.

You’re a writer, a publisher and the curator of JLF. How do you manage so many roles? Are there any conflicts?

I am a writer first, as that is what I most enjoy. Publishing is an extension of that activity in the sense of giving shape to books and ideas. And curating festivals adds to the awareness and understanding of books, so there is no conflict. But I do want to devote more time to writing.

Coming to JLF, the fest has become one of the most popular in the country and Asia as well…

It is a privilege to be a part of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is now the largest free literary festival in the world. The festival has a unique energy and a life of its own. It was impossible when we conceived it to imagine how it would grow and the many dimensions it would assume .

What is the process of selection of authors and sessions for the Fest?

I select authors for my list after putting together long lists and short lists through the year based on my own reading and suggestions from various people with expertise in different fields, as well as from previous speakers at the festivals. It’s also a deeply intuitive process, where I draw out a grid of themes and individual speakers with inputs from many people associated with the festival. William Dalrymple and I have our own separate lists which complement each other.

Would you say that writers have now become a celebrity?

I respect celebrity authors – it needs a lot of hard work and professionalism to maintain a celebrity persona, though it does come naturally to some charismatic individuals. Celebrity authors have a different interaction with their readers and audiences, as for example did Charles Dickens. Different personalities and different sorts of books and attitudes all have a place. Reclusive writers are to be respected as much, if not more, than celebrity writers.

Do you like to mingle with your readers? Does it happen that sometimes you just want to remain the author of your book?

I have a very full and crowded life, and somehow most of the people I meet haven’t read my books, though they know I’m a writer. I like it that way, and it keeps me grounded. I enjoy interacting with readers as and when I have readings or events around my own books.

You have written beyond genres now…

I disregard genres and write whatever comes to me easily and spontaneously. I don’t tend to think in categories. I work hard at the research and the context of the book, and the process is usually accompanied by a sense of joy and discovery, though writing is always a demanding and tiring activity.