Shanta Gokhale has a room of her own, and it is in her mind. She learned early the skill of training her mind to silence the surrounding noise and staying engaged—to observe and imagine—as characters from her unwritten novel began speaking to her in the unlikeliest places, even in a crowded bus in Mumbai, taking her from her home in Shivaji Park to Worli, where she worked as a corporate communications executive for nearly a decade at the headquarters of Glaxo, the pharmaceutical company.
As the lunch hour approached, she would go to the company’s lawns with her chapati roll with vegetables, and sit with her back to the gate, writing in longhand, and letting her characters speak. That’s how Rita Welinkar was written. It was easier to think in buses those days, “as there were no videos and you could ignore the universe around you," she says. Her neighbour might be reading the newspaper or knitting socks; Gokhale was immersed in the novel being written in her mind.
“I have been a multi-tasker from the beginning," Gokhale, 79, said recently at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (6-8 December), where we met. “I would often write at home when my children were young, and they would be playing near me. When I wanted to work, my children would say, ‘OK, shhh, now she is Shanta Gokhale,’ and they would go to another room quietly."
When Gokhale returned with a degree in literature from Bristol University, her mother asked her what she would do with it. Surely not only teach, she said, as she rolled out chapatis. What else might I do? Gokhale asked her. Her mother replied, “There is so much excellent literature in Marathi—why not pass it on to those who can’t read it?" Her 18 books include eight English translations of Marathi works and two translations of English novels into Marathi. On 27 January, the Maharashtra Foundation, an organization of Marathis in the US, will be honouring Gokhale with its lifetime achievement award.
Being that bridge became a moral obligation for Gokhale. She was at ease with both languages, with ideas coming to her and characters speaking to her in different languages at different times. “I go with the language in which the idea first expresses itself to me. By and large, I suspect the idea comes in Marathi when Marathiness is important to the theme, allowing me to give my characters a specific flavour through the kind of language they use. An idea comes to me in English when my theme is more universal," she says. Poet Nissim Ezekiel urged her to write in Marathi. It was in that language that Gokhale found the right voice for the character of Rita Welinkar. The novel won the VS Khandekar Award from the Maharashtra government. An English translation was published in 1995 (she translated it herself), and it became her daughter, actor Renuka Shahane’s first directorial venture in 2009.
Gokhale has been a quiet, illuminating force in Mumbai, enabling creative processes to thrive. She has been the engaged observer (the title of her selected writings that her friend and writer Jerry Pinto has edited): she is engaged, not detached; and she is an observer, not taking over processes. She watches from the sidelines without being aloof; the bystander nudging and nodding, spurring and nurturing creation. Plays would have got written without her critical interventions, but her being at rehearsals in some cases, and offering suggestions when asked, sharpened them.
In The Scenes We Made (2015), she recorded Mumbai’s thriving theatre scene, linking narratives from the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, Walchand Terrace and the Chhabildas School, homes to the city’s experimental theatre, recalling the days of Satyadev Dubey, Ibrahim Alkazi, Sulabha Deshpande, and Vijaya Mehta, among others. In The Engaged Observer, she takes the narrative forward, with vivid portraits of Dubey, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, Veenapani Chawla, and many others who have ensured that beneath India’s thriving commercial capital there is a throbbing cultural heart.
She describes the friendships and creative collaborations vividly. In Goa, she spoke of how Dubey was annoyed when he heard she had written a play and not told him about it. It so happened one day that Gokhale was talking to film-maker Govind Nihalani (in whose 1983 film, Ardh Satya, about police corruption and brutality in Mumbai, she had a walk-in part) and accidentally told him that she was preoccupied with writing a play.
Nihalani told Dubey, who stormed into her home and asked her why she hadn’t told him. The staging of Avinash—a play as much about mental illness as about middle-class morality—followed, as did screenplays, such as Katha Don Ganpatraoanchi (1996).
From 1979-88, Gokhale worked at Glaxo, an experience that gave her an insight into drug manufacture and labour relations, but also into corporate hierarchies and, as she describes it, “ladder climbing". She was dismayed by how companies figured out ways to maximize profits in spite of the drug price control order, and she didn’t want to play a part in disseminating what she saw as a “self-righteous narrative" to the media. Instead, she brought out in-house journals, leaving press relations to those who accepted the narrative, she says.
After leaving Glaxo, she edited the arts pages of The Times Of India for five years, bringing a fresh sense of urgency to art criticism. Her roster of critics included poets Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhati Subramaniam, architect Himanshu Burte, the late Parag Trivedi who wrote on Western classical music, theatre director Jiten Merchant, and writers Roshan Shahani (for art), and Mukta Rajadhyaksha (for Marathi theatre). Then, one day, the management cut the pages, ostensibly to cover the Gulf War. By then, Gokhale was an established writer and critic, and she moved on to full-time writing.
Meanwhile, Mumbai was changing. The city centre had shifted from South Mumbai—older landmarks of the city, tinged with the sepia-toned nostalgia that Salman Rushdie’s writing evokes, had begun to fade. Samovar café at the Jehangir Art Gallery and Rhythm House, the iconic music shop, are now part of memory.
But Gokhale isn’t perturbed. “Because cultural events were concentrated there along with high-end shopping and all that goes with it, South Bombay residents saw themselves as being at the centre," she says. “But then Bombay grew in the only direction it could—northwards, and so did culture. As a result, visitors to South Bombay felt Bombay had become culturally sterile."
Gokhale has not only witnessed the city’s cultural transformations, but, as Pinto says, she facilitated creative processes by helping others realize their ambitious goals. As Gertrude Stein was to a generation of writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s, Gokhale has been a pillar of Mumbai’s creative community—observing, supporting, critiquing. Unlike Stein, she doesn’t need to hold salons; through her cautious advice, warnings and encouragement, she helps the city keep its arts alive. “As a critic," she says, “I cannot be less critical of another artist’s work than I am of mine. That would be patronizing. Critics should be seen as an artist’s best friend. Someone once told me of a proverb—I think it was in Tamil—which said you don’t need a mirror if you have a good friend."
She is unsparing and exacting about her writing. She is also firm in telling others what she thinks of their world view by making them rethink—and they need not be artists. One day, when thousands of Dalits had gathered at Shivaji Park for a ceremony, a taxi driver complained about how congested the area became. They have no work, he grumbled. “No work? Really? Of course, they do work. They’ve taken the day off, just as you take the day off to celebrate Ganpati," she told him.
She says, “Privately, I spend hours fuming over the arrogance, bluster and hubris we have been seeing in public life and the hatred and aggression they have given rise to." In public, as at her lecture at the Ooty Literature Festival in September, she is eloquent in speaking against the climate of fear enveloping India.
Her next project is a monograph on Shivaji Park. “In writing the book I have discovered the place I have lived in for all but the first year of my life. I grew up taking its history, culture, architecture, people, roads and trees for granted.... Suddenly I realize, this beautiful neighbourhood, where I have had the privilege of growing up, is changing inexorably into another country altogether. To catch it on this cusp has been a bitter-sweet experience." An experience she will savour, observe, and write about—always engaged, always connected.