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Updated: April 2, 2012 17:03 IST

Peace with imperfection

K. Srilata
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The Habit of Love, Namita Gokhale, Penguin Books, p.182, Rs. 250.
The Habit of Love, Namita Gokhale, Penguin Books, p.182, Rs. 250.

Gokhale's deftness of touch scores in some stories but fails in a few others.

A short story is supposed to snap shut at the end with a sort of satisfactory click, but it would be difficult to distort this tale to fit an artistic requirement. My quarrel with the short story is precisely that it imposes a false order and symmetry on events, forcing impressionable young minds to anticipate a similar state from the inchoate mess that is life.

These lines from Namita Gokhale's short story “Omens I” perhaps best explains the fuzziness of her work, a fuzziness that is at once unsettling and charmingly eccentric. Wryly told and steeped in irony, the stories in this collection speak of betrayal and loss from what is largely a woman's perspective and they are all about “the habit of love”. They do not “snap shut at the end” or, if they do, they do so uneasily. Gradually, one learns to make peace with Gokhale's deliberate lack of direction.

Wide range of voices

There are essentially two sorts of stories in The Habit of Love: contemporary, urban narratives and a re-telling of stories from the epics employing a female, subaltern point of view. The stories employ a wide range of voices —from that of women journalists and copy-editors to that of Queen Gandhari's maid on the other. All the stories are narrated in the first person. One wonders: Who or what is the fictional “I” of the stories masking? Is there something — a voice, a manner of speaking, an idea — that knits the narrators together? A something that goes beyond the fact that they are female?

Gokhale's prose is straight, laconic, crisp: I have three sons, they are scattered in colleges and universities around the world. They rarely write to me. They manage to send “Wish you were here” kind of postcards without forwarding addresses and in incomprehensible handwriting. There are also birthday cards, always posted a few months too early or too late. I have a suspicion that none of them really knows when my birthday is, but as in all likelihood they don't care, I take the cards in my stride, as I have taken my life since my husband died over a decade ago.

With these lines, in “Life on Mars”, Gokhale sketches for us the character of a no-nonsense woman who likes to get on with it. And yet, a few paragraphs into the story, as we follow the unfolding of a relationship between this woman and a young man named Udit, our perception of the woman is altered and we begin to see that she is hurt: “…how could I explain to Udit what it was like to bring up three children, three boys, and watch them grow up and turn their backs on me? For that's what it was, my sons had forgotten about me and abandoned me.” The hurt grows, festers, and turns literally into cancer. The woman wonders if her sons would turn up after her death, or “if they would merely send consolatory postcards to each other across great distances.” Gone is her nonchalance. What persist are the wryness and the irony.

Title story

Just as poignantly told is the title story. This oddly touching story revolves around the human need to name things, to give everything, even grief, a concreteness.

Gokhale's deftness of touch fails somewhat when it comes to the stories she bases on the epics: The story of Kunti, the story of Queen Gandhari told from her maid's perspective, a messenger swan that tells the story of Nala and Damayanti. They are not as convincing as the contemporary, urban stories. Perhaps because Gokhale finds it hard to work with stories that possess a prior shape?

The stories in The Habit of Love let in a delicate chink of light despite their seemingly straight-forward narration. As we approach the end of each story, something shifts inside us.

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