Never At Her Wit’s End


Review 1: Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot on the Ground

Shanta Gokhale is an incredible woman. Anyone who knows her or her work will say so. And that’s why I had trepidation about reading her autobiography. In my experience women seldom do justice to themselves when they are telling their own stories. They shrink their achievements self-consciously, or smother their brilliance under a matter-of-factness that makes their light scatter, or underplay their challenges since they are taught not to whine but take it on the chin. Also, often they totally overlook what most men in their place would make a song and dance about. Having known Shanta over the past couple of decades, I did worry. But reading her book was a whole new journey for me, and I held back on the judgment as to whether she was being fair to herself. I discovered the many Shantas I had no idea about; chuckled at those who I had known and loved; and dispelled the myths of those that I had only imagined! I had both my feet firmly on the ground as I glided through the lucid, funny and often heart breaking stories of her life, recounted with equal measures of distance and acumen.

The very first aspect that struck me about the book was its ode to the body – in both structure and content. The all too human condition of the body, that is never in our control, no matter how much we would like to believe to the contrary – is an ingenious framework to tell one’s life’s stories. Life, much like the body, mostly slips though our fingers as we clutch at it. To not be afraid but aware of this makes the book special. In Shanta’s story, the chapters have names of various body parts most of which are affected with ailments. While there are detailed descriptions of visits to doctors, surgeries performed, falls from a horse, and infections suffered; there are also meditations on the shifting body during puberty, growing bunions on the feet with age, putting on weight when one is not vigilant, and the overall response to the ever changing body. And all this comes replete with deep understanding of the inevitability of loss and healing in life. Shantas’ realisations about cancer being a home grown disease, or death being experienced by a child as a dear friend not returning to school, or that in life you can’t have it all  – both breasts and hips – settle in gently into our own sense of having lived through these experiences. Women are taught to at best respect bodies and at worst be ashamed of them. They are not encouraged to talk about, explore, analyse, enjoy or pleasure the body. So the fact that so much body-talk in such minute detail is coming from a woman – an elderly, educated, celebrated and critically acclaimed cultural practitioner – is both remarkable and a tad bit wicked.

The book moves across various borders quite effortlessly. First there is time. The narrative flows back and forth in time, and in the spirit of the greatest oral traditions of storytelling, it starts off with one tale goes off into another to come back to the former enriched by the experience of the latter. Shanta also sails across many spaces describing each meticulously. We travel with her through homes she has lived in and those of her friends, sports fields and dance floors, kitchens, offices, and hospitals, and even cross geographies to be in Pune, Bombay and then London and Bristol. Shanta is never out of place anywhere and finds ways to negotiate her location. Then there is the story crossing the boundaries of Shanta’s various working lives – teaching, public relations, writing scripts, translating, editing and often the hardest – being a wife and mother. Simultaneously Shanta is also discovering the many worlds of literature, theatre, visual art and film and we meet various important figures of these many worlds through her story. The book moves between experiences of the self and the ways is which self-hood is created and ascertained at a time when more and more women were coming out of homes to earn a living.

Shanta’s 70th birthday with Renuka and grandsons.

And that is what makes Shanta’s story most compelling. This autobiography is not just her single story but the stories of many women during her time as well as those belonging to generations before and after her. The book has rich accounts of her mother Indira Gokhale, sister Nirmal, aunt Sindhu Mausi, landlady in the UK Mrs Dean, student Zehra and many, many other girls and women who enrich her life. Various aspects of their lives, desires, aspirations and failings have been chronicled by Shanta with great care and clarity. The stories of her many jobs too come speckled with characters and incidents that give us entry into the lives of this relatively new category of women working outside homes at a particular time in the history of women’s empowerment.

I found it charming how forthright Shanta is about her skills, and how candid about her limitations. Whether it is badminton or hairdressing, dancing or translating – Shanta does not mince words about her prowess and just states it. Equally, she makes known her general lack of any sense of direction, inability to love Otto as much as she feels he loved her, and her failure to see through the men take her for granted. Quite frankly and without hesitation she proclaims, ‘many fine intelligent women are prize idiots’. I laughed very loudly at that one – as I am sure many will – since it is so close to home!

‘Touch’, Shanta says in her narrative, ‘remains the last vital connection between bodies’. And the writer’s touch is what connects a book to its reader, remaining as the intrinsic bond between the written words and what is read. I experience four different kinds of ‘touch’ in Shanta’s writing that she employs in her narrative to share the many incidents and insights from her experiences. Never sentimental or soppy, she distills them, often into succinct phrases which are then thrown quietly into the narrative. It is the particularity of the style of the touch that makes them hit home. We have the firm and gentle Shanta who takes us through her refusal of several suitors and later her love lives and their incapacities. This Shanta says, ‘women with too many principles are bad marriage partners’. There is the sharp Shanta who explains her mother’s philosophy for life as ‘one stroke, two clear pieces, no messy edges’. You know this Shanta and her mother do not suffer fools. Then there is the stoic Shanta, who when commenting on India’s obsession with skin tone makes a simple statement ‘fair was best, wheat was acceptance and dark was sad’. This Shanta can make you chuckle and cringe with the same alacrity at these unembellished statements. And finally there is the Shanta who laughs at herself, and at the random accident that is life. Her jokes lighten the otherwise heavy burden of life. This touch is most eloquently, and for me most heart wrenchingly used in the Breast Bulletins that Shanta used to send to her friends while fighting cancer. I wish she had a chapter in the book called ‘the funny bone’.

In the end, told with grace and humour, courage and perseverance Shanta’s One Foot on the Ground evokes three things for me: firstly, that extraordinary lives come out of responding to the most ordinary happenings in authentic and unique ways; secondly, that suffering need not make us hard and brittle so much so that we break easily – in fact it can make us supple and resilient; and finally, that women, every one of them, even those not as prolific or as celebrated as Shanta, must write their own life stories.

Arundhati Ghosh is a cultural practitioner and lives in Bangalore. She is a poet in Bangla and can be sometimes convinced to write in English.