The novel, attuned to its setting and the lives of its characters, is about time passing and slipping away. And how this process can be measured and dealt with.

During a recent vacation to Pantnagar, I stayed at a Kumaoni house, built over 114 years ago in the remote hills of Almora, more than forty kilometres away from the nearest city centre, Ranikhet, in Uttarakhand. The house, abandoned for a few years, was restored around the pandemic. In the sunlight, its white walls and blue details were breathtaking. And at night, the white and blue deftly dissolved into the darkness of the mountains.

The most alluring element of its identity was, however, the incredible silence that enveloped it. Time stopped in its tracks and stood unattended, unheeded, uncared for under its ancient history. Located at almost the centre of a vast but sparsely populated hill, the house is one of the oldest on its folds. I was enchanted by the stories of the natives who have patiently, painfully and yet with deep pleasure restored it collectively. They continue to collaborate and run the homestay, looking after its old soul, cooking in its timeless kitchen, and cleaning its rich facades every day, with delicate care.

I will hopefully never forget our housekeeper Premchand ji’s voice and demeanour. Like the brush of wind on a forest floor carpeted with oak leaves. It was, as I realized within my first few minutes at the house, as close to a time machine and magic as I can get in this lifetime. To complement this setting and experience, I was conscious about choosing Namita Gokhale’s Never Never Land as my reading companion. And I was immensely rewarded.

The Call of the Mountains

Firstly, the book has one of the most arresting covers of the season. Bound in purple hardback with blue endpapers, the jacket is a detail from Nicholas Roerich’s Oriot Messenger of the White Burkhant and is packaged with grace to supplement the lives it nestled between its pages.

Gokhale is a gifted observer. In the recent past, she has edited anthologies of essays about the Himalayas and the spirits that haunt them. Her love for her Kumaoni heritage is made apparent on almost every page of the novel. It is truly an unparalleled joy to witness the world of a writer’s childhood and nostalgia, written as deftly as it is in this small but vast novel. It’s a novel that pays keen attention to its setting and the lives of its characters, their past, their memories, their alternatively fading and renewing senses of self. And enables us to access them in all their tender, humanizing errors and rectifications.

The story is about the lonely, middle-aged Iti Arya, who seems to be stuck in a dead-end, professionally and personally. She lives in Gurgaon — which she describes (rightly, one might add) as “a dusty, sludgy, vertical slum.” She is cut off from her world, living the life of a recluse in the middle of urban cacophony. She barely has friends; the only community she knows is a WhatsApp group of batch mates from school. She follows their messages and updates closely, but has none of her own to share. She lost her job as an editor at a publishing house, and works on freelance, unfulfilling projects, mostly living with a frigid, lonely heart. Being a member of the group is her last straw at obtaining any semblance of an identity — her only connection to the past that is fastly receding.

But then one night, she hears the call of the mountains, and packs her life in Gurgaon overnight to reach The Dacha, her lost home in the hills of Kumaon.

Iti: The Beginning and the End

Iti Arya comes to The Dacha, to spend a few days with her 90-year-old grandmother Lily and her 102-year-old employer, Rosinka. Lily has worked for over seventy years for Rosinka. They share an amusing relationship, both of a master and servant, but also the closest of friends. To Iti, this relationship as well as the hills bring not only a revival of her own sterilised feelings, but also a new lease of life. Her access to a future comes from her acceptance of the past. When she revisits the landscape of her lost, unfulfilled loves, Iti explains the meaning of her name to an inquisitive lover: “It means the end of something. Like a full stop. It can also mean a new beginning, I responded lamely.” Gokhale turns Dickensian with this clever nominative determinism of her protagonist. Iti has to fulfil the meaning of her name, and the stage is set in Kumaon.

Aaranyam, a 114-year-old homestay in Diholi, Almora (Uttarakhand)

The melody of multitudes

The story evolves with multiple character narratives being nimbly woven together. Iti’s story is in the first person. There are omniscient narrator’s inputs in a different typeface. And there are diaries and letters and monologues by other characters that enrich the literary merit of the novel. Gokhale is a perfectionist, which is why these character narratives smoothly transition and blend into each other, without becoming convoluted. But the bigger achievement of the novel is Gokhale’s experienced understanding and assessment of the human condition. For instance, Iti has a complicated relationship with her mother. In a stunning passage about Iti’s relationship with her mother, Gokhale writes:

“Iti could no longer clearly recall what her mother looked like. All she could remember was the hesitancy in her voice, the self-effacing step back wherever she might be, as if she did not want to be visible or present. What wound in her childhood could have done that to her, Iti wondered, a rare compassion rising in her heart as she thought of her mother.”

It could be argued that the novel’s heart is this tender process of understanding and forgiving. Each character finds acceptance and growth in their own ways, which is witnessed by the reader in these varied but remarkably contiguous character narratives.

Stories of a Herland

It is interesting to see how there are very few men in the novel. The father figures have either died while they were young, or they are long lost in the memories and mutinies of time. The novel, then, is deliberately about these steely, immortal pahadi women. These endearing characters create what Charlotte Perkins Gilman called a “Herland”, a community of women, perched on the seemingly fragile world without men. But as it turns out, their lives are simpler for this lack. In one of the novel’s most hilarious and biting segments, as Iti recounts her disappointing relationships, she realizes that she does not need roses, or men in her life. “I was ok with myself and I didn’t need a man to make me complete. It’s a giant step for every woman when she takes it.”

Gokhale gives each of the women their own narrative space and voice. Their years have histories told in sharp prose with a distinct staccato rhythm. The sentences at the beginning of the novel are short and almost restless. But after the first quarter, as the mountains become characters in the novel too, sentences are denser perhaps with the weight of time. Despite the occasional bitter ennui and moodiness of its protagonist, Gokhale manages to write her into our hearts.

Aaranyam: The Wilderness

For me, the novel has now become a totem. In its pages are memories of my own time in the Kumaoni hills and air. The novel is about time passing and slipping away. But also how this process can be measured and dealt with. The mountain air was rife with damp wood-smoke as the few natives around my homestay heated water on their mud chulhas in the morning… A ritual that goes on timelessly, to herald a day of newness. The sky was free, unlike the “grey rags”— as Gokhale calls them — that awaited me soon in Delhi. The real world, with its menacing tangibility, waits in the wings even in the idyllic solitude of remote hills. To pounce like a leopard in the wilderness. Iti is often afraid of her return, as I was too.

In its darker moods, the novel meditates on the inevitability of death. All things come to an end, but we fear the end as a rule. We do all we can, sometimes, to run away from that reality. But perhaps to abstain from feeling deeply is the realest form of death. Never Never Land is also a reminder of these immortal lines from Rilke: “Let everything happen to you/Beauty and terror/Just keep going/No feeling is final.”

If I could, I would return to this remote homestay nestled on the mountain village of Diholi, and meet all the people, dogs and goats I briefly glimpsed. This time for longer, and with a fool’s hope that I could belong with them on their hill. I was welcomed into this hamlet with graceful questions from the natives about my own history and home, who in turn generously exchanged stories of their own times and lives. But until my next visit to the mountains, I have this beloved book to revisit. Read it, and you may find yourself smelling the woody smoke of the hills and rotting pinecones. Which, as Gokhale quotes Kipling in the last passage of the novel, is the “true smell of the Himalayas.”

Next Story