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JLF Founder Namita Gokhale On Books, Sexually-Liberated Women, And JLF Memories

  • IWB Post
  •  January 11, 2018

I’ve lived in Jaipur for eight years and only in my last year of school did I make it to the Jaipur Literature Festival. That one experience holds a special place in my heart because it was the first time that whole my family had come to watch Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam speak. I remember the enthusiasm of the crowd and how there was barely any place to stand.

I was told the other day that I was going to talk to Ms. Namita Gokhale, the founder and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival. And of course, I was super excited. But also, super nervous. Being the founder of JLF isn’t the only jewel in her crown. She is the founder of the Crime Writers Festival in New Delhi, Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan and founding director of Siyahi-A Literary Consultancy. She is also the director of Yatra Books, the curator of Kitaabnama, India’s only multilingual book show for the national channel Doordarshan. And before everything, she is a renowned author.

An evil force called bad network had partnered up with my nervousness to cut our conversation short. That did not stop Ms. Namita from being the amazing and cordial woman that she is. She gave up her weekend to answer my questions via email. Her tone was very warm and encouraging. I wonder if she could sense the presence of a chirpy young girl loaded with fascination desperately waiting behind a screen.

Ms. Namita spoke to us about her work and recent experience at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan which was also attended by Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje. Excerpts: 

What was your biggest discovery at the Mountain Echoes Festival in Bhutan?

Well, it has been over eight years since we came up with the idea for the festival. But it is the resilience, the pragmatic understanding, and spirituality of Bhutan that has intrigued me. I come from the mountains myself. I grew up in Nainital, in the foothills of the Himalayas. And Bhutan being in the mountains as well has taught me so much.

I can feel only goosebumps imagining the scenic beauty of Bhutan.

One book that is on your reading list after the festival?

Definitely, rereading Pico Iyer’s ‘The Art of Stillness’. His talk was very moving and reminded the audience of the fundamentals.  I read Amitav Ghosh’s new book “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” before the festival. It is full of difficult truths which must be recognized.

Can you tell us few things about Mountain Echoes festival that you want Indian readers to know?

Literature Festivals at their best create a community energy. Like if you take the example of the Jaipur Literature Festival, you’ll see a huge mass of people coming and attending the festival, sharing, responding, reacting, creating a collective buzz. Bhutan, on the other hand, is different. It is more intimate. The beautiful natural surroundings and the pristine environment are very inspiring. I cannot really share the spirit of Mountain Echoes in words; I personally find it creative and restorative.  We have so many delegates and students visiting every year, and all of them go back with such beautiful memories.

What is your most treasured conversation from the festival?

That’s difficult to choose, but, interacting with Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck is always amazing. She always leaves me surprised. She is very deep and insightful. Also, another insightful person is Dasho Karma Ura who has deep knowledge of many philosophical subjects and is also an artist. And of course, I always look forward to all the bright questions put forward by the amazing audience, young and old.

You are both a Festival Director and a Publisher. How have these two career paths helped you evolve as an author?

I consider myself to be an author, first and last. The publisher and festival director roles follow. To be honest, being a Festival Director has come in the way of my productivity as a writer. Of course, it is a privilege and an extremely enriching experience, considering all the great and aspiring writers one gets to meet, and to read and to hear. But to be a writer, one needs privacy and solitude to access one’s inner resources, which I cannot always find. I hope to reduce my commitments as a Festival director in the next few years and try to go back to writing more.

Do you find the publishing industry gender-biased?

Not at all. I think the publishing industry is one of those few industries that is dominated by women. You’ll find more women having a stronger role in this field, at least. Women authors, however, tended to be stereotyped in the marketing process, though this is happening less now.

Is there a book that you’re so proud of as a publisher?     

As a publisher. I have to be quite neutral. But as a part of Yatra Books, I am very proud that we have published a book called “Translating Bharat, Reading India.”


Can you share with us any memorable story from the starting days of JLF?

My memories of JLF are a sea of stories. I remember the early days when the Durbar Hall was the main venue, and we would gather on the benches outside, to prepare for the next session and the next….

Being the founder of Crime Writers Festival, how do you think writing about gender crimes can contribute to the solution of the problem?                       

Kishwar Desai, who is an excellent Crime writer, and I work on this together. Writing never solves any problems, but crime writing as a genre provides a look at the many layers of social identity, and how it can turn dysfunctional. So crime writing can help in sensitization.

How would you introduce to someone a woman from your books? 

The women in my books are always full of curiosity, and often reckless. I search questions and seek answers through their narratives.


Namita Gokhale

Your women characters are sexually liberated. How do you see the sexual revolution of the modern Indian society?

In a culture where it is often assumed that a woman’s body, mind, and soul belongs to her father, brothers, husband, and sons, it is important for women to own and assume autonomy of their bodies before they can own and take charge of their minds.

What makes literature feminist?   

Literature is humanist, and that assumes harmony and equity between all genders, masculine, feminine, and the many shades in between.

What one fresh interpretation of Indian goddesses can positively contribute to gender equality in Indian society?         

In India, myth is not static; it is constantly interpreted and reinterpreted through thousands of years. The edited anthology ‘In Search of Sita’ found enormous resonance with a new generation of Indian women, who learned to look at Sita as an inspirational model of strength, not as a victim.          

“Things to Leave Behind” is called your most ambitious novel. What personal ambition have you fulfilled with this book?

Unlike my other novels, it is written in the third person, and attempts to recall and record the not so distant history of life in Kumaon. It’s a book that took a long time to write and is I suppose ambitious in the scope of the stories it tries to tell.

When you pick up a book, do you read the summary at the back first or do you open the book and read the prologue or the first chapter? 

I read the beginning, end, and middle…

How would you describe the smell of a book?

The essence of memory.

I think that accurately describes my memory on how my copy ‘Town Mouse and Country Mouse’ smelled which I read as a 5-year-old. First books always hold a special place in our hearts, don’t they?

Speaking of memories, I think the conversation with Ms. Namita is going to be the highlight of mine. I know in the future, I will look back at this time and smile.

 Photo Source: Namita Gokhale

This article was first published on September 5, 2016.

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