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Transfiguration and Transformation in Namita Gokhale’s The Book of Shadows


Oxford dictionary defines ‘transfiguration’ as ‘a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state’, likewise, Cambridge dictionary defines ‘transfiguration’ as ‘to change the appearance of a person or thing very much actually in a very positive and often spiritual way’. Nature has this very ability of transformation. It changes or rather humans assume it to change its appearance the way we want it to be, comforting in times of grief, offering solace in times of loss. People often, usually inadvertently, turn to Nature for fun, rejuvenation or healing. Though, it may appear a modern-day concept, the truth is it an age old practice that was blended in the very structure of life. In ancient China many people would take a break and spend some precious solitary time amidst nature and on the mountains, away from the pressure of family, work, gossip and scandal. This fortifies the belief that nature is a positive force and provides not just rest but soul healing. It seems that ancient people knew what we are only beginning to understand – that the healing power of nature can offer rejuvenation and inspiration that so many people, often unconsciously, crave. If that was true two thousand years ago, how true it must be in this day and age. The role nature plays is more reassuring and pivotal representing the forces of the natural world. This article is an ernest attempt to analyze the character of Rachita Tewari, a victim of her life’s assaults, the narrator of Namita Gokhale’s The Book of Shadows – who comes to a lonely bungalow at the foothills of the Himalayas in search of peace. The present paper studies how the process of transfiguration of self and nature facilitates the recovery of Rachita Tewari.

KEYWORDS: Nature, Transfiguration, and Transformation,

In the novel The Book of Shadows, Namita Gokhale introduces us to the narrator Rachita Tewari, who is an acid attack victim. She undergoes immense pain from the attack both physically and emotionally. She does not want to face the gaze at her uneven, disfigured appearance and therefore wants to escape from the society. She finds a place in the lonely house amidst the hills of Kumaon. The house was an ancestral property built during the British era and was handed down to her uncle while they left India after independence. Throughout the novel she keeps reiterating her purpose of visiting the hills – to obliterate her past, to seek refuge.

This novel has lots of thrill and suspense in it. In this novel, the images of the ghosts of the past come before Rachita even, she heard the sound of them. Being alienated and estranged from her social life, Rachita was psychologically disturbed and was experiencing hallucinations - unusual and unreal sights in the house and becomes astonished. She says, “I am being stalked. I know I am being stalked. All the evidence is there-all the telltale signs of a . . . person? entity? stalker? . . . intent on pursuit.”

Rachita’s days were spent in reading books, listening to Lohaniju’s tales and going on walk in the nearby forests. In the house, she feels strange presences lurking in the shadows and she attempts to fight the fears that confront her both consciously and unconsciously. Her thoughts are often diffused with lines from the poems of Emily Dickinson, Mahashweta Devi and other literary figures, which begin to get on her nerves: “Where did that come from? Bits and pieces of all that I had learnt and studied dart about my head like shrapnel. I dodge these high words, this alien language, and seek refuge in Lohaniju’s soft and consonated Pahari. The Kumaoni language, Pahari, is dismissed as a mere dialect, yet its sounds reassure me, silence my puzzlement and pain.” (12) After this incident, Rachita also wanted to live alone to heal her wounds. The heroines of Namita Gokhale’s other novels like Shakuntala, Paro, Priya Sharma and Parvati feel loneliness but the the central character of the The Book of Shadows, Rachita is different from the predecessors as she wants to distance herself not only from the society but also from her family. She finds herself in miserable condition and rejects the social life with a sense of loneliness and dejection.

Nature restores, rejuvenates and revitalizes, and to benefit fully from its healing powers you have to tune-in, connect and allow yourself to be healed. Likewise, nature reflects the various facets like that of human life. For example, the autumn season is associated with the sad state of life, because it is the season when the leaves wither and fall, whereas the spring season, when everything in nature blooms, is associated with the joyous atmosphere in human life. In reality, the seasons have nothing to do with human life as it is the human mind that associates the natural occurrence with the state of mind. Nevertheless, the surroundings – serene or chaotic – influence human beings state of ‘mind and mood' to a great extent.

Restoration starts right from the moment she enters Kumaon. She finds the breeze, the house, the Bhotiya dog Lady etc welcome her. Her house keeper Lohaniju, a pahari keeps her engaged with all his stories and finally the cannabis find its way to escape her from reality and free her off from guilty consciousness. It takes her to a delusional world and let her transfer her pain and guilt to the shadow characters. It resuscitates her and let her be the way she was before the attack.

Flora, the plants and trees that cover a particular area, and its scents are widely known for its calming effect. Kumaon is a village on the hills of the Himalayas. According to the description given by the narrator, it is situated near Nanda Devi, one of the peaks of the Himalayas. Hills in general are noted for its tall trees. The region around the house is dense with oaks, pines, deodars and to Rachita, they sigh, screech and their shadows speak in the dark. The thick forests with its undergrowth and overhanging vines may be a menace to some but to Rachita the pine-scented air makes her feel its purity. She found Nanda Devi, which was gleaming in the afternoon sun greeting her.

The house was filled with climbing white roses, bramble and nettle, dandelion, forget-me-not, lupin, larkspur, hydrangea bushes with blue and purple spotted flowers. The powerful smell of narcissus was a déjà vu. The meadows filled with marigolds near the stream were her private refuge. The wind on lightless nights through the chimney wails and she hates it. But the breeze that rustled the curtain that brushed her face, was consoling and comforting. A spot near the waterfall that formed a little pool was one of her favourite spots. It was filled with “a copse of Banj” and she fascinated it to be filled with sprites and fairies. The fern forest around that place with its “heart-rending” green made her forget the “confusing dilemmas”. One other plant common to the hills is the Cannabis or “the sacred hemp plant”. Rachita details its plantation and its uses in the household other than for intoxication. It made her delirious in her childhood with the combined “joy of discovery”. It is to them “a friend and confidante, a consolation and support rather than a hallucinogen”.

Pine trees are found in abundance in the region. They appear crooked. Mr. Cockerell, the man who built the house, explains the theory behind its appearance. He calls it the ‘theory of signatures’. He felt the trees contorted and compressed just like its appearance. It gives him a melancholy look. It so exists among the villagers that these trees are unlucky and sprites and goblins inhabit them.

The dryad of the deodar and deodar itself shares an important place in the story from the delusion. No sooner than Kailkaran the resident of deodar dies the tree was set ablaze with the same fire that caught Wolcott. It was unintentional though. The soul felt it to be as Wolcott’s revenge because it was the soul who set him on fire. Rachita’s condition was brought upon herself as a result of her deeds. She realizes that when she says, “The fires I had instigated had infiltrated this most sacred and holy sport and made it profane with my follies. Grief was no remedy: there was no reprieve for my actions. At that moment I understood the nature of Karma, but, as is usual in such cases, it was already too late.” The house amidst the hills offers the greatest comfort to Rachita. She preferred the isolated house at Kumaon hills for her escape to relentless Delhi where everyone stared at her. She could watch Nanda Devi from her window framed by chumps of bamboo. “I have come to the hills to heal, to hide, to forget. To forgive, to be forgiven”.

Nature is nonjudgmental, and the house proved it. She personifies it when she says that the house took her in and she took the house in. The metaphorical embracing calmed her psyche unlike the taps in the toilet block of her college, which were dry and did not come to her rescue when she was assaulted. Psychologically speaking she was in need of someone who could accept her without preconceived ideas, someone who could not comment over her tragedy. Her previous connections with the house as a child brought back her happy days. She had always known its nook and corner. It was a part of her memory, the memory of carefree days. She finds the house, soothing, hushing, hostile, angry, old and gentle, repository, and a custodian.

Towards the end of the novel, we hear Lohaniju talking about the location of the house, indicating Airee. “It’s his secrets we protect, his strength that we live by. The spine of the mountain is a sacred spot, a forbidden spot. There are places in our mountains which are like that – they have guardian spirits which don’t like people. These spots are conjunctions between the worlds. It’s not that they are good spots or bad spots – they are simply passages, points of entry and exit….. the arrows of Lord Airee lie buried here, deep in the soil, below the rock even. These arrows never rust ….” The justification through Lohaniju’s words can probably be the only reason for the death and sufferings of the inmates of the house.

Once Lohaniju instilled in her the power to come back, she could listen to the sounds of sunlight and breeze, rustling of pine needles and most of all the shadow of a tree outside. The pine scent relaxed and loosened her, massaged her. It made her “want to smile”. Fauna is the animals, birds, reptiles, insects and other living thing of its kind. They live along with humans and sometimes treated equal to them. There are many empirical proofs of animals and birds helping people to recover from psychological traumas. From the time Rachita enters the Himalayas, she observes every other living beings in positive action. The animals and birds of hills were usual in their set motion. But a lampoocha’s flight and a hoopoe’s tune made her feel welcomed. She finds these enjoyable when she was in the right frame of mind, otherwise she finds it hurting. The swarms of yellow butterflies in her garden made her feel celestial. The image of yellow butterflies is carried into her delirium as well. She along with her sister had chased them as a child. They were there when Marcus and Munro were killed. They were feasting on the pollens of roses. They were on their usual flit as if nothing had happened.

The butterfly image continues, Father Benedictus, one of the inmates of the house, loves to collect butterflies and label them. At nights, he used to go through his collection like a child. Butterflies scream when they are attacked by predators. Unfortunately, he could not hear their scream. “These screams, these keening wails, are accompanied by a tangible terror, despair and desolation.” Butterflies are the symbol of free spirit and yellow is the color of frustration and anger. Rachita uses yellow butterflies to symbolize her free spirit trying to pacify its frustration and anger. Similarly, dogs are considered faithful. They are used in therapies. Lohaniju, the housekeeper is accustomed to having dogs. This special mountain breeds called Bhotiya dogs, were preferred for they are brave, fearless and loving. He is too lazy to find new names for each dog, and so he calls all the dogs by the name ‘Lady’. Though there had been so many Bhotiya dogs before, Rachita loved this more. It follows her everywhere and sleeps under her bed. Its gentle eyes and the persistent breathing, keeps her sane and saves her from drowning on those sleepless nights.

Lohaniju mentions of the snake and its mani and asks her to look for one when she went for a walk. Rachita finds a green snake coiled near her feet staring at her. She finds that gladdening. Crows are intelligent birds. Kailkaran is a wise and learned crow that appears in delusion of Rachita. It was from him that the soul learns about Dona Rosa’s past. Kailkaran lived in the deodar tree that stood before the house. He was in good terms with the dryad of the deodar. He had been the dryad’s confidante and amused her “with his sarcasm and his subtle sense of humour”. The soul states that the crows have superior capacity of understanding things than human. Their collective wailing, people believe, brings bad omen. While Kailkaran was nearing his death the crows kept wailing. The deodar shed tears which settled upon the trunk like a gum. Kailkaran’s uncle, who is much older than Kailkaran initiated the mourning ceremony. Kailkaran being the confidante of the deodar is something the cannabis is for the hill people and Lohaniju for Rachita.

One other rodent that startled Rachita is the marmot. Marmots, the Himalayan ‘chitrail’, are considered unlucky by the hill people. They could sense the arrival of danger, the soft paws of the tiger, smell the “raw and bloody breadth of the predator”. It’s the marmot which sensed the arrival of Airee and went to safety, even before Kurtz did. Rachita shifts herself from the city to hills, which are covered with dark jungles and Snow Mountains, the combination of light and shadow. It’s the mind that creates delusions and paradoxes. When the warm orange light of the sunset along with the reflections from the fire place in the evenings seeped inside the house, it gleamed, kept her sane. She found it happy, whereas the hospital room, in which she woke up after the attack, was devoid of any shadows. It was unearthly to her. “The sterile light of the white hospital room looked unreal – without depth, plane or dimension.”

The white room with flat lights drove her insane. So she savored each and every play of light on the hills and the house. She felt the room without shadows to be safe. She contrasts herself when the resident soul (which lurks in shadows), the narrator of her delusional stories says, “… as we walked out into the afternoon sun the light hit us like a hammer, and the blinding white of the Himalayan snows assailed us, making me cringe and long for the shy comforting shadows of the dark dining room.” To him, “Words are difficult quantities for us to comprehend. They are shadows themselves, elusive approximations….” When he says, ‘shadows redefine the planes of the beautiful face of Dona Rosa’, it was Rachita herself who got reminded of the cratering contours of her face.

Shadows confine her and choke her. It announces death. Often she feels scared by the shadows. They were pursuing her to lend her voice. It is at one such occasion she finds refuge in Mahadevi Varma, one of the shadow poets. She spent most of her days in watching the changing colors of the sacred snow peaks of the Himalayas – Chaukhamba, Nandakot, Trishul, and Nanda Devi. It gleams, shimmers, changes colors from unearthly grey to flushed radiant pink. It even turns the window panes to mirror.

Not only nature but also supernatural elements play their role in Rachita’s recovery. It all started with the journal that Lohaniju, the housekeeper gave her. Though unnerving, she found it intriguing in many ways. It was about the house and its previous residents. Lohaniju also tells of the British residents and the way they were punished for their crimes by Airee, their folk god. Rachita clearly knows of her condition. “Synesthesia is a physical condition of the cerebral cortex that leads to a fusion of the mental and emotional world….. a crossing over of the senses, a demolition of the internal boundaries and constraints that demarcate the territories of experience. …. perhaps I am now ‘suffering’ it.”

There is no escape from reality. It always extends itself to dreams. Though Rachita was under intoxication, with her antibiotics and anxiolytics and the effect of bhang, she could still create her shadow characters from the stories of Lohaniju and from the memories of childhood that crowd her mind. “All human beings harbor their particular and individual manifestations of the others. In the widest sense, every neurosis is the outcome of some form of alienation.”

Lohaniju talks of two English Sahibs who were bad and “insulted the spirits of the mountains”. They were “tore apart” by the gods who disguised themselves as panthers. This story has its parallel in her delusion. She created Marcus and Munro and the series of events that led the villagers to send the panthers to kill them. Escaping the panthers, Munro shot Marcus by accident and feeling guilty, he shot himself. The cadavers fed by maggots made them unidentifiable. Lohaniju talks about Airee, the folk god often. According to him nobody survived Airee’s wrath. “ Airee, the folk god of our hills, whose armour and bows and arrows lie scattered in temples across Kumaon, whose palanquin is carried by monstrous ghouls and is followed by a procession of dogs. …. His wrestler’s biceps … the dogs that follow him, they were all sighing in the strangest way – sau, sau, sau – an unearthly sound.”

Rachita while talking about Cannabis, says that “only the Mais, the Shaktins and sanysins – the power women, part mendicant, and part mystic – who roam these mountains dressed in black rags, a holy madness dripping from their eyes – it is only these women who take the drug”. Lohaniju adds to that saying, “ This Mai is a scourge of male spirits, … a healer and nourisher of the female spirit” When one such Mai came to the house, Rachita “recognized something” of herself in her, “some imbalance of strength, some distortion of gender”. The reference of these myths is that they facilitate her to outgrow her delusion.

Rachita counts the rafters on the roof when she could not sleep in the nights and when her mind is crowded with people and memories from her childhood. This count is carried in the story by the resident soul which is suspended in limbo (because when Rachita made fun of Parvati, Lohaniju called her half-educated and suspended between two worlds, like Trishanku). When it tries to perceive its body it comes to a conclusion that the house with forty-two rafters is its body. The soul is actually a re-creation of a character from Enid Blyton’s The Mystery of the invisible thief.

She dodges poetry and feels it to be shrapnel. But she could not avoid its interference. At the same time, she enjoys Lohaniju’s Pahari, because it’s her mother tongue and she feels it to be reassuring and silencing. Emily Dickinson follows her in Ranikhet to assure her of the formal feeling that comes after a great pain. When she tries to recondition herself by listening to Kishore Kumar or Asha, “Villain Shakespeare” creeps in. Though she despises poetry, she finds herself reciting lines from literature, and it also finds a way into the shadow stories through Mrs. Cockerell/ Fanny. When she was looking for something to read to distract her, Mahadevi Verma finds her place. Her previous meeting with the poet, as a child, drew her to read her. Or Probably because she was one among the ‘Chhayavadis’ – poets of the shadows. Though she hates poetry and calls Plato to defend her, she is drawn towards Mahadevi’s metaphorical and metaphysical language. Though she is in a dilemma to accept or to reject her, she finds the poet keeping her sane protecting from the hungry shadows. She takes her voice, a lonely woman’s voice, who had been also in that house, for her defense.

Rachita is engaged to Anand who is younger to her but she had affair with her friend's husband. Enraged by this affair, Anand’s sister poured acid on her face. Rachita had committed the crime of adultery. She could not control her lust. This part of her finds its escape through the characters she creates in her delusional story. Almost all the characters who were the resident of the house were filled with carnal desires. Mr.Cromwell is pursued by Lali, a Sherpa, on refusing which she falls down from hill and commits suicide. The resident soul enters Wolcott's body to mate with Dona Rosa. Later we find Walcott sleeping with Veera and Donna Rosa with Nicholas Mann. We find the duo Marcus and Munro experimenting with their carnal desires with Hill women. And even the loner Osborne rapes a Pahariwomen before he shoots himself. The resident soul was so obsessed with Dona Rosa that he moves from another dimension into the body of Walcott just to enjoy the Carnal pleasures. Sigmund Freud states that the suppressed feelings of the reality find an outlet only in dreams. “…. Perspective is an illusion too, it’s simply that some illusions are necessary markers for sanity, while others destroy that delicate balance.”

So Rachita who was under the influence of Cannabis and the trance induced by the medicines she had taken create an outlet through her characters. She was so obsessed with Dona Rosa, that she takes her till the end of the story, who also helps her come back to sanity. She also brings in Zenobia the most hated student of hers and Pashu her boyfriend. It is by bringing in Pashu, whom she had not seen earlier, we could understand that she has not overcome her desire yet. But it is a relief to know that she had outrun her sense of guilt and crime.

Rachita finally manages to escape the delirium. She resorts to so many factors. Airee is one among them. When Lohaniju explains the reason for the existence of Airee and the ways to please it, it was a reassurance of Rachita’s determination to be back. “… He seeks strength and courage and a fearless disposition, and the only worship you can do him is to send the arrow of your actions straight from the strung bow of your resolution.”

Three things bring Rachita back to reality after Lohanju’s long speech about Airee, the folk god. The first is a call from her sister in Bangalore who tells her of a plastic surgeon who could bring her back to normal. It is her sister who keeps sending things to her and also thereby keeps her connected to the world. When she spoke to her over phone of the plastic surgeon who could reframe her face, Rachita was filled with confidence that she looked into the mirror for the first time . She could not find any difference on her contour. She was more than happy as she could accept herself as such. She tried this comeback boldness of hers almost immediately. The second thing that brought her back to normal is when Lohaniju went sick to be admitted into a hospital. She initiated to call the ambulance and send Lohaniju to the military hospital accompanied by his daughter. She was bold enough to face the nurse's stare. From the beginning she used to cover her face with the shawl just to escape the staring of people. But when she was busy in getting Lohaniju into the ambulance she did not mind her face being exposed. The third thing that brought her back to sanity is the Lady and its pups. Throughout the story she did not realise that Lady is carrying. It was only just before the delivery the lady started moaning in pain. Then it delivered the first pup. Then it moved on to the bed and delivered the other two pups. The sound of the squealing pups and its clinging to the teats brought her back to life.

Throughout the story, she accepts Lohaniju, who is a part of the house and who calls himself as The Guardian Angel of the house. Lohaniju is a Pahari who reminds her of her identity. Lohaniju is a part of her childhood memory, happy days and who still fondly call her ‘bitiya’. Sometimes even the grownups do long for the fondly affection received in their childhood. Rachita was no exception. Transfiguration is a significant device of Namita Gokhale in her novel The Book of Shadows by which the heroine is enabled to overcome her over-obsession with her sense of guilt. She succeeds in the transference of her personal guilt and her angst by the process of personifying nature and super-nature.

Namita Gokhale in her books celebrates womanhood by erasing melancholy and reconditioning the strength and resilience that only a woman, who is an embodiment of Shakti, can display. Through the women characters, Namita Gokhale had been able to get rid of the ghosts of her insecurities for their world had been “undermined, taken apart, reduced to anarchy and chaos; but then mysteriously, inexplicably, beatifically, it had regenerated into something more than the sum of its parts.”

Pain for Gokhale’s women characters was a habit, an orientation, which could be repudiated and left behind. Rachita realizes that she had “acquired, achieved, possessed” herself again. Gokhale admits that writing a novel was a therapeutic experience and may be this novel helped her ease the grief and anger she felt after Rajiv’s death. She compares Rachita’s situation to that of her own in an article where she says: “Initially, I had thought that at the end of the novel, Rachita would go back to the city, perhaps have a plastic surgery…and live on. But somewhere along the way, I realized that this wouldn’t happen. She would live on in that house in the hills. This is symbolic of my living on in the world of — well, I won’t say psychic because I mock the obviously psychic — let’s say, in the world of the spirit. In a sense, it is also about rebirth.”

Rachita was suffering from identity crises after the acid attack, but the woman being an embodiment of Shakti, bounces back slowly but surely. This is the strength of a woman, who deconstructs the concept of womanhood, traditionally considered to be a weakling. Rachita has the courage to come out of the catastrophe on her own and her will to survive is immeasurable because in many cases of disfigurement due to acid attacks, unable to face shame and ostracism from society, women commit suicide. But towards the end of the novel Rachita Tiwari regain her strength and anticipates her future, “the garden will bloom again, the roses by the veranda, the weeds and forget-me-nots by the gravel path. I think I know that I will remain.”

Works Cited

  1. Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th Edition. 2007.
  2. Gokhale, Namita. The Book of Shadows. Penguin Random House, 2016.

Dr. Sandhya Tiwari, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Palamuru University, Mahabubnagar, Telangana. E-mail: