Namita Gokhale's new novel, Priya, is about two Indias and about menopausal sexuality

Much has changed after Namita Gokhale's “Paro: dreams of passion” took the Indian literary world by storm in 1984. India, supposedly, shines brighter and middle-class Indian women's aspirations have apparently evolved.

Then, 27 years ago, “Paro” shocked and awed. Critics denounced it while readers couldn't get enough of it. Today, Namita's sequel “Priya: In incredible Indyaa” (Penguin, Rs. 350) intrigues but doesn't shock. Why? Because sexual frankness is everywhere, be it in books or films.

So what makes “Priya” different from other Indian popular fiction that ignores the millions who go hungry and focuses instead on the privileged few? In every novel, there's a text, and then there's a sub-text. “Priya”, to a normal reader, reads like a typical chick-lit, complete with extravagant Delhi lifestyles, well-heeled politicians and extra-marital affairs. But if you attempt to read between the lines, which is what Namita recommends, the hidden story is that of two Indias that are at odds with each other—one which is thriving and one which isn't.

In “Priya”, Gokhale has resurrected characters from “Paro…”. Priya — the temptress, Paro's rival — is the protagonist whose 30-year-odd marriage to the stout lawyer of ‘sober' habits, Suresh Kaushal, brings her incredible luck. Suresh climbs the ladder of success, step by determined step, and Priya basks in its glory. Hidden deep within Priya's façade of a snob though, lies a sensitive person who never really outgrows her one-BHK-upbringing in Mumbai's suburbs.

“The book is a satire that makes one both laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time. I find the sense of entitlement among India's elite very funny. The humour in this book is the sort that tries to take everything in its wake. If ‘Paro' is the Polaroid image of India, ‘Priya' is its digitised image,” Namita explains. Why did it take Namita 27 years to write a sequel to ‘Priya'? “A friend who is a journalist, John Elliott, told me ‘Paro' was among my best books, so I should take it forward. I took it as a challenge.”

The novel, to Namita, also celebrates menopausal sexuality. ‘“Priya' is hag-lit. It's an observation of growing older and not being ashamed of it. There's a clear divide between Indian women; some women shut down everything in their lives once their hair turns grey. Then there are the Botox teenagers, who never grow up and are perpetually frozen into a foolish time frame.”

For a person who has faced many difficulties in life, Namita appears at peace. “They say, ‘life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think'. I have a silly sense of humour and an absurdly interesting life. Yes, I've had my share of difficulties. I had cancer when I was very young and I lost my husband before I was 40. But life has given me the gift of forbearance. I'm a fundamental optimist.”

Being the founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Namita is proud the way it's progressed. “It's been the biggest surprise to watch this Festival grow before our startled eyes. It's established that India is truly a knowledge society. It has also taught Indians to value their own literature. It's a democratic space and all our energies go into maintaining it. The people who gather at the Festival speak with truth and passion.”

For now, Namita is content working on a collection of short stories as it affords her the luxury of “working in spurts of concentration.”