An Evening With Namita Gokhale

The world’s largest free literary festival JLF was still five years away when I met writer Namita Golchale for the first time. In a letter dated 15 January 2001, in response to my note which I had courier ed a week earlier, she wrote: “I would be happy to meet you during your visit to Delhi. Please give me a call upon your arrival and we will fix up a mutually convenient time.”

It was not Paro: Dreams of Passion (1984), her debut novel, or The Book of Shadows (1999) which I carried with me, that initially attracted me to her writing. Reading some of her articles in a few major dailies I fell in love with her language – feisty, never-say-die, inspiring, and full of vigour. The charm of her words rubbed off on me. But there’s another quality of hers that came to light when I met her in person.

The following week, I disembarked from the train at New Delhi railway station, shivering (it was January), and went to look for a hotel in the Paharganj area. I found a single bed room on the ground floor of a not-so-posh howl for a couple of days stay. From a booth nearby I phoned her: “Madam, I’ve just arrived in your city.”

“How long will you stay here?” She asked.

I told her the date of my return journey: “Day after tomorrow”.

She then asked me to please be on the line while she checked her other appointments. “Would it be alright for you to come tomorrow evening”, she enquired. I assented.

I knew it would take me close to an hour by bus to reach her residence near New Delhi IIT. I decided to go right then and find out the exact location. I found her retreat in a tree-shaded somewhat sleepy lane opposite the Indian Insti­tute of Technology. I had a good look around and went back the next day.

During the course of the interview, I found Namita had an enviable fluency. She never hummed or hawed, or suffered from any speaker’s block. She caught my questions in the air before they could settle, and responded with manifest self-possession.

I had a 90-minute cassette for recording our conversation. When side A ran out, I failed to notice that the recorder had automatically stopped, so absorbed was I listening to her per¬≠fectly accented voice. She was responding to a vital question as to whether a writer should ever pander to any commercial aspect of writing at the cost of one’s instincts.

I then flipped the cassette over and switched the machine on. Since part of her fascinating answer went unrecorded, I requested her to speak afresh, a second take as it were. She redid it right away, but this time round, she improvised with a completely different set of phrases while keeping the essence intact.

Only on one occasion, however, she took a pause. It’s when I requested her to autograph her book, The Book of Shadows. She politely ignored my proffered pen, thus stole a few seconds to compose an endorsement on the spot.

As she rose to her feet, I saw her speaking self was gone, now the writer was in charge, for the gaze was indrawn and she was in deep thought thinking up an inscription that would leap off the page.

She came back within a minute and wrote on the flyleaf: “For Swapan: whose interview was so intuitive that he brought the book a little out of its shadows”

Namita Gokhale has just been awarded the 7th Yamin Hazarika Woman of Substance Award 2021.

First Published in The Statesman

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