Tête-à-tête with your body

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 13 July 2019

One Foot on the Ground
A Life Told Through the Body
Author: Shanta Gokhale 
Publisher: Speaking Tiger 
Pages: 252
Price: Rs 399

A woman’s body has many claimants — the man, the society and the cosmetic industry. Rarely, does a woman claim her body, warts and all. Shanta Gokhale’s autobiography, One Foot on the Ground – A Life Told through the Body — does that with all honesty. 

Gokhale, who has been holding a mirror to society through her columns on art movements and culture, applies the same analogy to her life and the various anatomical episodes that shaped it. Beginning with her birth at Dahanu in 1939 to Indira and Gopal Gundo Gokhale, she paints a sketch of her big family and the assorted relations — one of them is Pili maushi, who was afflicted with polio and hence the cruel nickname. 

Her reference comes when the author comes of age. The author wore cellulose pads during her menses which were expensive. What did poor women wear in that case? Does granny wear pads? These were some of the questions that the author asked her mother and got the answers. 

In conservative households, when a girl gets her periods, she had to sit aside and touching her meant that the person (who touched) became impure. In her vacations at Dahanu, the author was incensed — If I could go to school during those days and do everything else I would normally do, why did Pilli Maushi become suddenly untouchable? 

The author also mentions of another incident, when she was sexually assaulted at the age of eight by their family cook, Sathe. The cook, aware that the girl was always eager to hear stories, calls her over and proceeds to tell a “stupid tale”. Meanwhile, his fingers snaked into her knickers and hurt her. Gokhale called out to another servant, and told him ‘Sathe is hurting me’. He realised what had happened and made a telephone call to her mother at her college. 

At no point did Gokhale or her younger sister Nirmal were put under extra scrutiny or blamed. And that was because they were raised by rational, progressive parents. In the preface to the book, Gokhale, who has penned award-winning novels like Rita Welinkar and Tya Varshi, recounts an incident with a man who came to meet her in a magazine’s office, where she worked. He wanted some advice on the career that his daughter could choose. As an attestation to his daughter’s qualification, the man said, She is so modest that she has never raised her eyes to look at a man. It struck Gokhale that even before this girl was born, she herself and her sister,  had been going around town with eyes boldly raised, looking at everything there was to see, including men if they came into sight.

The sisters also travelled to England to pursue their education, accompanied by their mother for the first year. There the author realised the significance of asking questions, it meant that your mind was at work. After Nirmal and their mother returned to India, Gokhale stayed on to pursue her BA, reading books, absorbing art, watching performances, taking part in a few theatrical productions and so on. 

The book also talks of her two marriages — first with a naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Vijay Kumar Mohan Shahane and second one with filmmaker Arun Khopkar. In her marriages, the fun time was outnumbered by tumultuous period and each time writing (novels, translations or film scripts) gave her strength. 

By way of her story, we also learn about the scene of performing arts in India, and her various bosses and their take on it. Working in the PR department of Glaxo, a pharmaceutical company, she organised plays for the workers to act in during their lunch break! There are references to theatre gurus like Satyadev Dubey, Satish Alekar, Vijay Tendulkar, Nissim Ezekiel — all of them encouraging Gokhale to do her “own writing.” 

She mentions running into Tendulkar in Shivaji Park, who asked her what she was writing. Gokhale told him about the script that she was writing for Khopkar’s film. He asked her pointedly, ‘What’s happening to that novel of yours?’ They met again when she was recovering from cancer. Tendulkar had come to hand her a cheque of Rs 25,000 as her share for the royalty for Sakharam Binder. Gokahle had translated it into English. Quite tellingly, Gokhale remarks, Knowing Tendulkar, I think that was also a way of contributing to my cure. 

After recovering from cancer, and over the years, losing most of her vision in one eye, acquiring tremor in her voice and hand, the author outlines the importance of freedom for women who write — to have a room of her own and time to herself if she was to be productive. 

And, even if you don’t have it, well, never stop working. 

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