Lady Lazarus

“I felt I had reached a dead end when I wrote it," says Namita Gokhale, referring to her first novel, Paro: Dreams of Passion, which turns 30 this year. “I was 26, married, with two young daughters, and had been just thrown out of college," adds the co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, who is now one of the most prominent names in India’s contemporary literary landscape.

Gokhale, who enrolled for the English literature course at Delhi University’s Jesus and Mary College, says she was a model student. “I was the kind who would turn up at the library before the librarian showed up," she explains. “But when I got married, the nuns were appalled. They believed I had succumbed to lust and said special prayers for me."

Matters became worse when she opted for a course on Indian literature instead of slogging on the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer. Her preferred option wasn’t offered at all that year, and since she hadn’t turned up for the Chaucer classes either, her attendance record was abysmal—this became the root of the trouble.

To add to her woes, Super, the highly successful film magazine Gokhale was editing at the time, also shut down. Under the circumstances, Gokhale decided to write a story loosely based on a few people she knew, little expecting it to become a best-seller that would stay in print for three decades.

Namita Gokhale. Photo: Ronjoy Gogoi/Hindustan Times
Namita Gokhale. Photo: Ronjoy Gogoi/Hindustan Times

The unabashedly sexual imagery succinctly captures the overwhelming mood of the plot. When her father chanced upon the manuscript, writes Gokhale in the Author’s Note to the new edition, he told her, “I hope you have been discreet, child." She had been anything but.

A chronicle of the debauched existence of the rich and famous in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Delhi, Paro invoked horror and outrage when it first appeared in India. Few seemed to have got its uproarious humour. Keki N. Daruwalla, who reviewed it in The Indian Express, was one of the kinder critics. “I think it is typical of us as a people that the first thing I heard of Namita Gokhale’s novel was that it was ‘pornographic’," he wrote. “Instead it made for compulsive reading mainly due to its fast moving narrative, quick changes of scene, with new characters coming in till the last, and a style that was subtle, controlled and honed to a purpose."

Sassy, stunning and sharp-tongued Paro belongs to a Federico Fellini movie. Her hedonism, hysteria and saturnalian lifestyle is reminiscent of Suzy, the sexy neighbour in Juliet of the Spirits—though, to Priya, she is more the “Madonna of the garbage heaps". In the course of the story, Paro quickly gets married and unmarried several times, almost always for money, and haunts Priya’s life like a blighted spirit. There are eruptions of violence, delusions of grandeur, and lots of sex, which, in 1984, did not go down well with middle-class readers (it would be another few years before Shobhaa De’s novels made their appearance).

“I wanted to write a cross between a Gothic novel and a Mills and Boon romance," says Gokhale. “When I showed it to (the late journalist and author) Khushwant Singh, he was thrilled: ‘You have hit the jackpot, Namita,’ he said."

If Indian parents forbade their children to touch the book, the reaction in the West was quite the opposite, where it was received as a work of literary, rather than pulp, fiction.

“My husband handed me a ticket to London and told me not to come back until I had found a publisher," says Gokhale. She was surprisingly lucky. In two days, the Curtis Brown agency had picked it up, and in another couple of days the manuscript was sold to Chatto & Windus.

In 2011, Gokhale wrote a sequel, Priya: In Incredible Indyaa, which was not as well received, though she felt it was “internally consistent". Priya resurrects some of the characters from Paro a few decades later, revisiting the political and fashionable set of New Delhi and Mumbai with as much biting satire as its predecessor.

“I would have been hugely successful had I continued writing such novels," says Gokhale, “But I wanted to break out of the mould the publishing industry was keen to slot me into, and try my hand at other forms."

One could have scarcely expected anything less of a writer as sophisticated as her.

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