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Love, Longing And Timelessness

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Namita Gokhale's The Habit Of Love comprises a range of short stories that deal with topics as seemingly diverse as death, the Mahabharata, relationships and Princess Diana, and are set in time periods that range from the twenty-first century, to the 1950s, to the age of mythology and pre-history. I say ‘seemingly' because despite the outward disparity, the stories are all about one thing — relationships — and carry the same undercurrent of love lost, hope betrayed, loneliness and courage.

Easily the best of the thirteen stories in this collection is the one after which this book is named: ‘The Habit of Love'. A quietly moving story about a woman who finally comes to terms with her grief at her husband's death while on holiday in Kathmandu with her two young daughters, her despair providing a sharp contrast to her daughters' youthful joie-de-vivre, it is deeply poignant, yet understated enough to linger in your mind.

There's a problem, though, with encountering a story you really like this early on in a collection – the others never quite live up to it. Some come close, though – Gokhale's retellings of episodes from the Mahabharata, ‘Chronicles of Exile' and ‘Kunti', are reflections on war, motherhood and the pain that girl children, destined to be pawns in male political games, face all their lives. Typically, these stories are from the perspective of women and tell of the two matriarchs in the Mahabharata – Qandhari (Gokhale's spelling of the more commonly accepted ‘Gandhari') and Kunti – the first through the eyes of Zara, a long-time maid of Qandhari's, and the other voiced by a young Kunti herself. Once again, these are tales of loss and longing – Qandhari's all-consuming grief at the death of her hundred sons, and Kunti's pain and guilt at losing her first-born, Karna, all over again on the battlefield, once again through her own actions.

Mythology is revisited in ‘Hamsadhwani', the Nala-Damayanti story retold through the eyes of Hamsadhika, the female swan and mate of Hamso, who had carried Nala's messages of love to the princess Damayanti. It's a good enough version, but those not particularly interested in mythological tales, with their constant motifs of love gained and then lost and then regained, with foolhardy actions, exile and misfortune thrown in, will quickly lose interest.

The Grand Hotel trilogy (for want for a better word) makes for interesting enough reading, especially ‘Grand Hotel I', which is set in 1964 on the day of Jawaharlal Nehru's death. On the verandah of the Grand Hotel in Nainital, little Vinita sits and weeps for Chacha Nehru, while her parents, inside their room, listen to the BBC and mourn, their tears quickly giving way to one of their frequent quarrels, all too familiar to their daughter. ‘Grand Hotel II' sees a grown-up Vinita all alone on the banks of Lake Como in Italy, lost in memories of the past as her grandmother lies dying in Nainital, half a world away. This story, though, with its back-and-forth between the past and the present, between the grandmother's memories and then the granddaughter's, doesn't quite come together; it meanders and rambles, and the switching between voices and eras becomes confusing after a while.

‘Grand Hotel III', set in the Grand Hotel in Krakow (Poland), is a simple account of two days in the life of a recently divorced woman, and the chance encounter she has with a stranger in a graveyard on All Souls' Day. It manages to arouse interest and empathy in spite of — or perhaps because of — its brevity.

Not all the stories please, though. The very first story in this collection, ‘Life on Mars', disappoints with its abrupt ending and the way a potentially interesting relationship between a lonely middle-aged widow and a young man, barely more than a boy, is left incomplete, unexplored. ‘The Day Princess Diana Died', which is about a young woman's disastrous love affair, doesn't work too well either, especially its juxtaposition with the public outpourings of grief at Princess Diana's death and the realisation that ‘everybody has a fairy tale in them, waiting to be betrayed'.

Gokhale's language flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read, although her characters, with their succession of broken relationships and constant angst, do get repetitive halfway through. One wishes the unrelentingly sombre tone had been leavened with a touch of humour at life's vagaries; the only stories in which this comes close to happening are ‘Omens I', about an advertising executive's epiphany while on a business trip to Rishikesh, brought on by an embarrassing, yet amusing, incident featuring a Slavic sadhu and a missing wallet. The second is ‘GIGALIBB', about a Nainital local, Kaka Kohli, and his motto — ‘God is Great and Love is Bloody Blind' — which leaves a lasting impression on those who came in contact with him.

The Habit of Love is a diverting enough read, especially on those quiet weekend afternoons.