Eric Chopra
08 Jan 2024

40 years on, Paro still dazzles

Namita Gokhale’s dramatic and indomitable protagonist, Paro, is something else. She is a whirlwind of unpredictability who infuses every action and word with intensity, and charges every thought with an almost relentless current. Her moxie is such that it evokes both inspiration and envy in all those who surround her. She is intriguing, and makes one wonder if life truly is capable of being experienced the ‘Paro’-way. And yet, though she seems to be so out there, as if her life’s an open book (or a glittery magazine), she still manages to be wrapped in enigma, making us arrive at the quintessential existential query: who is Paro?

To partially answer this question, we have Priya’s ‘Prying eyes’ through which we see Paro’s world come to life in Gokhale’s 1984 bestseller, Paro: Dreams of Passion, a slim novel that caused tremors in the literary scene when it was published. As Priya herself says, Paro’s irreverence is both frightening and exhilarating. She defines audaciousness to such an extent that it not only shocks her circle of fawners, friends, and foes—individuals who sometimes appear as extras starring in Paro’s wild cinematic universe—but also those beyond this fictional world. Paro seems to spring out of the pages to scandalise, or at least that's what she did for some of the critics reviewing the book during its early years.

Gokhale was 28 years old when her debut novel Paro was published. As the author herself has said in a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the book sent waves of shock when it was received by the public. She expressed:  “I got so much unexpected flack; today’s young writers cannot imagine what it was like to be confronted by people who think you’ve committed something like a crime!” 

Some critics reduced the book to a ‘pornographic’ account of the society’s A-list but Paro is a lot more. It's a liberating expedition that challenges mores while cleverly satirising the fragility of the urban upper-middle-class society. Set in the 1980s, it is a tale of love & loss, passion & pleasure, and dreams & daring, against the backdrop of the lavish and flabbergasting life of the elite of Delhi and Mumbai. The intricate dynamics of socialising permeate the novel, and although it appears to be dripping with relationships—whether platonic, romantic, or hierarchical—at no point can one really discern what these people truly feel about one another. Their first-world-problems shine as they host extravagant parties, sometimes even multiple house-warming events. Marriages and friendships concretise and collapse, but while the opulence of it all may seem surreal, a thread of reality is maintained through Priya’s excessively human voice as the narrator and the author of the novel within the novel.

As a diarist and voyeur, Priya is both enamoured and repelled by her surroundings, leading her to chronicle the events that eventually shape the narrative of Paro. She is sometimes aware of how bizarre all of this is, but at other times, she is a part of what forms the bizarre. Priya allows us to form a parasocial (or, one might say, a Parosocial) relationship with the characters who animate her life. She enables us to intimately engage with this staggering world while retaining the subjectivity of a human who doesn't shy away from being honest about her feelings—whether it's desire, fear, envy, hatred, self-pity, love, sorrow, or glee. Since it is primarily a diary, it should be no surprise that it is biased towards Priya’s version of events and once we become actively conscious of this, what we personally think about the characters becomes puzzling. It is natural to feel for the voice of the book, but it is equally natural to question whether the events are exaggerated: Is Paro as depicted in the diary the same as Paro the woman?

In the start, I mentioned that to partially answer who Paro is, we have Priya—partially because even Priya cannot quite figure out who she is. Her relationship with Paro keeps shifting. From the first time when she meets her as the wife of her biggest crush, her boss BR, to when Paro and Suresh (Priya’s husband) begin to form an intimate relationship, Priya’s dynamic with Paro is in constant flux. Priya doesn't know what she truly feels for Paro—her wit, confidence, and sensuality inspire Priya, yet her erraticness, vanity, and self-dramatisation are aspects she cannot overlook. At one point, Priya confesses that she thinks she is in love with her, while in other instances, it is evident that she feels utter contempt.

And while there is introspection, there is also inspection: what is most interesting is that Paro emerges as a concept that is under continual observation by Priya. There is question-posing and theorising that Priya embarks on whenever Paro does something. When Paro begins to go out with the affluent politician Mishraji, an affair that perplexes Priya, she begins decoding it: “What left me totally stunned was her absolute and unconditional emotional surrender…There was more than sexuality at play here. There were the elements of fascism, of a psychodrama being enacted…”

It is this curiosity, confusion, controversialness, comicality, and candidness that permeate the book that make Paro an unmissable read. Though it may have sent shockwaves to many upon its initial release, it was also received with great critical acclaim. Keki N. Daruwalla wrote a review in which he called the work a compulsive reading. In 1984, in UK’s The Times, alongside his criticism of the book, Nicholas Shakespeare called Paro a compelling debut: a “highly flavoured tale” that appeared to be written by the “subtlety of an extremely seasoned writer.” A year later, writing a review in Florida Flambeau, Moni Basu wanted to fly back to India after she read this witty book that “parodies to perfection the lifestyle of India's elite.” 1985’s BLITZ magazine carried a very short review of Paro, comparing its cast of characters to  Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives. The reviewer also noted that they will watch Paro’s fate on the book stands with interest.”

And 40 years on, book stands still carry Paro; it continues to be read and reviewed, written about in journals, and analysed by students & critics. Very recently, in a Times of India piece on the iconic Zeenat Aman, Sagarika Ghose made mention of Paro as one of the books responsible for pushing the “envelope of freedom”. Even for me, a 22-year-old reading the book for the first time in 2023 — amidst a season of films seemingly written to have female characters exist solely to reassure the men around them of their 'masculinity’—Paro was a refreshing and vital read.

At the upcoming edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, scheduled for February 1st to 5th, 2024, at Hotel Clarks Amer, Jaipur, Festival Co-Director Namita Gokhale will discuss the enduring impact of the cult classic that Paro is, even 40 years after its release. Don’t miss out — be there!