Singular and Plural: Krishna Sobti’s unique picture of a less divided India
KRISHNA SOBTI WATCHED THE TELEVISION SCREEN intently, from her usual place on the worn brown sofa in her compact east Delhi apartment. As each new talking head appeared, she either bid me to listen carefully, or else gently resumed our conversation until the next section she deemed important. The scratchy DVD was something the doyenne of Hindi literature knows inside out: a Doordarshan programme about her, from the mid 1990s. We watched as the male interviewer and a series of male interviewees gave way to footage of Sobti delivering a literary speech: "Bhasha ki jo oorja hai woh maatra lekhak ke antar mein sthit nahi hai"—the energy that a language has is not located only in the interiority of the writer. “Chup reh!”—shut up!" said the old lady on the sofa to her younger self on screen. "Main iska bada mazaak udaati hoon"—I make fun of this one a lot—she added, turning down the volume.
Sobti laughs a lot. Even when she is the butt of her own jokes, it’s nearly impossible to stop yourself from laughing with her. She is 91, and finds it difficult to walk unassisted, even from the bedroom to the living room. But once comfortably ensconced on her sofa, she can talk for hours, reminiscing about all sorts of things and people, only stopping when she gets anxious about having forgotten a name. Her stories may ramble, but her capacity for writerly labour seems undimmed, as does her political sharpness. On my three visits to her house, between March and June this year, I learnt that she is in the process of readying not one but two manuscripts for publication: an autobiographical novel called Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak, and an illustrated edition of poems by the pioneering modernist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, selected and annotated by Sobti. On one occasion, she handed me two recently published pamphlets: one on the writer’s relationship to power and citizenship, and the second an impassioned criticism of the recent human-resource development ministry injunction that Urdu writers must certify that texts they have submitted for awards or grants do not contain anything against the government or the country.
Over the hours we spent together, Sobti received phone calls from publishers, illustrators, magazine editors, writer friends and admirers, who often wanted to make appointments to visit her in Mayur Vihar. In May, as the long-awaited English translation of her magnum opus, Zindaginama, was finally published, interview requests from English-language journalists increased. One evening, after the phone rang two or three times in quick succession, with her housekeeper-cum-cook-cum-assistant, Vimlesh, having to juggle her various appointments for the week, Sobti turned to me, raising her eyebrows in a gesture of happy disbelief: "Main inactive hoon!" (And they say I’m inactive!).
Sobti has never been one to mince words. The author of eight novels, two novellas, one collection of short stories, two works of non-fiction and three volumes of literary sketches, she has a long-standing reputation as one of Hindi’s most outspoken writers, unafraid to court controversy both on and off the page. Yet, she has also often been sidelined and attacked for her unconventional characters, and for her language, which many have perceived as unliterary. Today, Sobti’s work is worth reading not only for the pungent originality of her Hindi, but also for how she cultivates that language in order to envision the unity of, rather than the fissures between, South Asian communities.
Even as a young writer, Sobti never lacked for confidence. Her first published short story, ‘Lama,’ about Tibetan Buddhist priests, came out in 1944, as did another story called ‘Nafisa,’ the same year, both in the weekly Vichar. Then came the story that first brought her literary acclaim, and still remains in circulation 65-odd years later: Sikka Badal Gaya. “It was a Partition story. I wrote it in 1950, and sent it to a high-profile Hindi magazine called Prateek,” Sobti recounted. Prateek was edited by the leading modernist writer Sachchidanand Vatsyayan, better known as Agyeya. The daughter of a central government employee, Sobti was then living with her parents in the Atul Grove Road area in Lutyens’ Delhi. Vatsyayan, who happened to live nearby, sent her an invitation to tea, where he gave her a copy of the issue. Sobti was happy but guarded. “I was afraid that he would have changed the language-there were some expressions used typically by Punjabi Muslims… But he had not. The next evening, I looked at it again, and thought, hmm, the whole text is good. Only my name is old-fashioned!” She celebrated in a non-old-fashioned way: by treating herself to coffee at Wenger’s—the famous Connaught Place pastry shop, then an elegant sit-down place with a live band—and flirting mildly with the bandmaster, “He always had very polished shoes… So I asked them to play ‘My shoes keep on walking back to you.'”
Sobti’s stories of her youth and childhood are full of similarly infectious enthusiasm. She and her three siblings went to school in Delhi and Shimla, the whole family moving bag and baggage between the two cities that were, respectively, the British government’s winter and summer capitals. But while her father, and her grandfather before that, were employed in the colonial administration, the family’s proximity to the British social scene seemed only to sharpen their sense of segregation from it. Sobti’s eyes lit up as she remembered an open-air skating rink in Shimla, a magical sight that the children could see from their house but from which they, as Indians, were barred. “You can imagine how we felt. We absorbed a lot from the British, but we were very much Indian. There was a nationalist atmosphere at home. But we were told not to say too much outside!” She recalled a nationalist slogan from the streets of her childhood: “Up up hai Gandhi sachcha/ Down down hai toady bachcha” (Up, up with the truthful Gandhi/ Down, down with toadies). A note of pride crept into her voice as she told me that she saw Mohandas Gandhi twice as a child, “Once in Girja Maidan in Shimla, when he was speaking. And another time when he was staying in the home of Mohanlal Sood, a lawyer in Chhota Shimla. All the government families went to see him.”
Some of Sobti’s fondest reminiscences are reserved for Lahore, where she spent her college years at Fatehchand College (“I was never a good student”) amid girlish good cheer. She recounted her last birthday in Lahore, when she used her birthday money of ₹50 to organise a picnic on the Ravi river for her classmates, with catering from Standard Restaurant, then the epitome of style. It was February 1947, and Sobti remembered that youthful idyll as tinged with melancholy, a fear of what the future held. Sure enough, Partition disrupted her studies, and she found herself having to take up a job as governess to the child Tej Singh, then the maharaja of Sirohi. It is these two years in Rajasthan that are the basis for her forthcoming novel, Gujrat Pakistan Se.
But Sobti’s earliest writing drew more on her experience of rural Gujrat (now in Pakistan), where she had spent many childhood vacations. Her mother, Durga, came from zamindari lineage, and the home of her maternal grandparents had been the hub of village life. But two months after Partition, her grandmother found herself gently but firmly escorted out of the village by a Muslim police inspector. That moment was the one Sobti enshrined in the story ‘Sikka Badal Gaya,’ where we meet a similar grandmother, Shahni, in her old age. It would be nearly three decades before her readers met Shahni in her younger avatar: in Sobti’s landmark 1979 novel, Zindaginama.
Sobti had first put that story into writing as a 500-page manuscript called Channa, which she submitted to Allahabad’s famous Leader Press in 1952. “They accepted it, but sent me the proofs very late. Opening them, I found they had Sanskritised the language-turned ‘trikaal bela’ into ‘sandhya,’ ‘Shahni’ into ‘Shahpatni,’ and so on. I sent them a telegram saying, ‘Coming tomorrow. Stop printing.'” When Sobti arrived, the publishers claimed to have printed half of the planned 5,000 copies. “They didn’t take me seriously. I was in my early twenties, very young to be writing such a big fat novel. Upar se I was Punjabi.” The text as it stood was unacceptable to her. In one of the first of many instances of her famous stubborn streak, Sobti insisted the publishers destroy the printed copies. “I actually paid them to do it. Can you imagine?” Then she came home to Delhi and put her manuscript away in a box.
It was Sheela Sandhu, her publisher at Rajkamal Prakashan and a close friend, who persuaded her to look at it again in the mid 1970s. “I took it out one night, and concluded that it has all the possibilities of a good novel, but it was written when I did not know how to write.” Being Sobti, this harsh self-evaluation led her to write the book again, from scratch. Zindaginama came out in 1979, and won the 1980 Sahitya Akademi award for Hindi. Sobti was the first woman to have won it, and is still one of only three. A vast, often unwieldy tapestry, the book is impossible to summarise. Ostensibly centred on the life of a landed family in the village of Shahpur, it actually tracks a whole villageful of characters and conversations to recreate the universe of rural, undivided Punjab. The celebration of Baisakhi and Lohri, women spinning thread and dyeing cloth, caste feuds and religious harmony, the hold of the land, the yearning for sons, the powerful grip of colonial modernity on Punjab in the shape of the army and the law, all these and more are captured in vivid, vocal detail. This time, Sobti wasn’t unhappy with the results: “Because there was a distance, all the images were ekdam fresh.”
The poet Ashok Vajpeyi, one of Sobti’s staunchest admirers, is unequivocal: “Zindaginama is not merely a great novel, it is one of the few great novels this country has,” he told me on the phone. The novel, he said, ensures that “an area that has disappeared from Indian geography will always live in the Indian imagination.” When I met the literary scholar Alok Bhalla at Delhi’s India International Centre in May, he told me, “Writers like Krishna Baldev Vaid or Bhisham Sahani or Kamleshwar wanted to think about Partition in terms of the stories of those who were uprooted and moved across borders, and who may or may not have then succeeded in creating new lives. Krishna Sobti was not interested in that.” Instead, Bhalla pointed out, “she was interested in the life of a place, the border towns of west Punjab, where these different languages and peoples and local legends intersected and formed a living civilisation, that had a past and could have had a future before it was broken.”
Today, 35 years after it was published, Zindaginama is a universally acclaimed part of the Hindi literary canon. At the time, however, there were many who questioned the highly unconventional and distinctive register in which it was written. Studded with proverbs, poetry and songs that captured the vibrant, unexpurgated oral culture of Punjab in the 1910s, from sitthanis, teasing ditties about family members, to grandiose laam-ghodis, wedding songs composed for troops, Zindaginama was a stunning linguistic achievement. But acknowledging that fact about the novel’s language did not prevent the question from being asked, or at least strongly implied, was it Hindi?
Sobti has always had a complicated relationship with Hindi, and writing in it was not an automatic choice for her. She said, “Hindi was not my first language. It was English. In the sixth or seventh class, I read Mary Elliot and novels like The Rains Came,” a 1937 bestseller by the American writer Louis Bromfield, set in the fictional colonial town of Ranchipur. “The Shimla crowd, they were government families: khoob English aur Bangla padhne wale” (big readers of English and Bengali). So what made a young woman from a Punjabi family, with Urdu-literate parents, who was brought up in Delhi, Shimla and Lahore and educated in English at the Harcourt Butler High School, choose Hindi?
In this, Sobti was a product of her time and place. The scholar and translator Daisy Rockwell has persuasively argued in her 2004 biography of the writer Upendranath Ashk that the story of Hindi’s rise in the twentieth century “is as much social history as it is artistic and literary.” Most educated Hindus in nineteenth-century north India were literate only in Urdu. The Arya Samaj, with its mandate of creating a reformed Vedic Hinduism, was crucial in changing things, particularly in Punjab. The Samaj discouraged the use of Punjabi and helped popularise a version of khadi-boli Hindi in which a Perso-Arabic vocabulary gave way to a Sanskritised one. Rockwell suggests that the combined push for Hindi as a national language, from Gandhi as well as the Progressive Writers Association, plus the lure of a potentially huge readership, propelled many writers “through the thirties to fifties in the regions of what is now the Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar” into careers in Hindi.
It was an unpredictable time. The 1880-born Premchand, who had begun his career writing in Urdu, famously switched to the Devanagari script and Hindi around 1915 and influenced the 1910-born Ashk to make the same move in the 1930s. Krishna Baldev Vaid, born in 1927, and Bhisham Sahani, born in 1915, were among others from Punjabi family backgrounds who chose to write in Hindi. Rajinder Singh Bedi, born in 1915 in Sialkot—now in Pakistan—continued to write in Urdu, although after Partition he joined what is usually called the Hindi film industry.
So while Sobti’s father, Prithviraj Sobti, had grown up reading Urdu, and shared his love of it with his daughter, her own schooling did not include the Urdu script. “He had many Urdu books,” she said. “At night, when my brother and I were in our room, he would often read aloud from his own room.” Her mother also knew Urdu, but had been shaped by the Arya Samaj. “She brought ten or 15 books in her dowry,” Sobti told me. Among them were Satyarth Prakash, the Samaj’s founder’s treatise on Vedic Hinduism, the Ramayana, Suhaag Raat and Stree Subhodini. The latter two, Sobti said, smiling, contained “what you are supposed to know when you get married.” The family often attended Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj festivals, and Sobti remembers them buying Bengali books translated into Hindi and Urdu by authors such as the celebrated poet and playwright Dwijendralal Roy, and Usha Devi Mitra, an early woman writer in Bengali who later switched to Hindi. Because of her father’s government job, Sobti could access the Central Secretariat Library, borrowing books as well as the leading progressive publications of the day: Hindi magazines such as Vasudha and Vishal Bharat, and the Modern Review, an English-language journal published from Calcutta. This constellation of influences, at this historical moment, could only have propelled Sobti in the direction of Hindi.
Yet she did not write in a language that everyone recognised as Hindi. Having successfully pushed it as the national lingua franca, some of the language’s advocates were now intent on guarding its borders. Those controlling the Hindi canon crafted for it a medieval heritage drawn from languages in the Uttar Pradesh region (Awadhi, Brajbhasha), while insisting on its difference from Urdu. As Rockwell points out, this heritage, constructed “in cities like Allahabad and Banaras” would have been “a closed book” to those who grew up outside them. Authors who were natives of Punjab or Delhi would not have grown up hearing the poetry of Tulsidas, Mirabai or Kabir, for instance. A writer such as Ashk expanded the scope of Hindi by writing about his Punjabi small-town milieu, a milieu viewed as peripheral by the so-called “centre” of literary Hindi.
Sobti went further. In her first novel, the 1958 Daar Se Bicchudi, and later in the novels Mitro Marjani and Zindaginama, she wrote about Punjab in the language of the Punjabi village, but in Devanagari. But Sobti also wrote in as wide a variety of different linguistic idioms as might be contained under the rubric of Hindi.
She mixed the lilting rhythm of Rajasthani with pithy Punjabi in the 1966 Mitro Marjani, captured the English-tinged slings and arrows of office banter—alternately coarse and unctuous—in the 1968 Yaaron ke Yaar, and recreated a 1920s Delhi Kayastha family’s civilised battles in a chaste, Urdu-inflected tongue in the 1993 Dilo-Danish. As the literary scholar Nikhil Govind wrote in an article in The Hindu last year, “hers was no provincial nationalism of linguistic geography, but rather a display of a mastery of technique.”
Although she has always refused the safety of “standard Hindi,” Sobti has never been classifiable as an aanchalik (regional) author who wrote about a specific local milieu. If there were readers amazed at her chameleon-like ability to inhabit registers and idioms, there were also gatekeepers reluctant to let her enter the hallowed halls of literary Hindi. Sobti’s skills in transmitting the spoken word were acknowledged, in backhanded fashion, by labelling her style “colloquial” or “earthy.” That attitude carried over to English-language scholarship, as with Susie Tharu and K Lalitha’s influential early-1990s anthology Women Writing in India, where they explained their exclusion of Sobti on the grounds that “she writes in a dialect translators felt would be difficult to render into standard English and uses an earthy, lewd diction.” More recently, however, the anthropologist Rashmi Sadana, in her 2012 study of Hindi- and English-language publishing in Delhi, described Sobti’s ear for colloquial speech as having “pushed the idea of ‘writing on the margin’ to the point where her oeuvre is considered central to the literary significance of post-independence Hindi.”
That path, from being on the periphery to redefining the centre, has not been smooth. “It is not easy for a writer from a non-Hindi state to achieve what she has, and to be a woman on top of that,” Nirupama Dutt, a journalist, Punjabi poet and translator, told me over the phone in May. “The tendency was to dismiss women writers, or allow only those who wrote as women were supposed to. But Krishna-ji, with her historical research and her feel for language, really wasn’t that. No one likes a strong woman.”
Sobti’s early experience with Leader Press inaugurated a relationship with the UP-centric Hindi establishment that has remained guarded at best, and rocky at worst. A first instalment of Mitro Marjani, published in the literary magazine Sarika, was attacked as obscene by “some literary biggies in Allahabad,” Sobti refused to name names. Under pressure, Sarika announced they were discontinuing Mitro Marjani because the author had decided to publish elsewhere. Sobti promptly sent them a legal notice. “The Times of India group issued an apology,” she said, smiling with satisfaction. Soon after, Sobti told me, the author and screenplay writer Kamleshwar became editor of Sarika, and he published Mitro Marjani.
Yaaron ke Yaar, which portrayed a 1960s Delhi government office in all its hierarchical, corrupt, caste-riven glory, also ruffled feathers. It was first published in Nayi Kahaniyan, a reputed journal then edited by the writer Bhisham Sahni. “The inspiration was my own office,” Sobti said, referring to her long-time day job in the Delhi administration’s adult literacy department. Sahni’s 2004 memoir describes the stir it created:
One reader went so far as to write, “Until now your journal has been a family-oriented journal but this story is extremely provocative. This story is an outrage to traditional family values.” A few others said vulgar things.
When the debate refused to die down, Sahni called a meeting of some twenty prominent Hindi writers and critics, including Jainendra, Namvar Singh, Nemichand Jain, Nirmala Jain and the German scholar Lothar Lutze, and published a detailed piece about their discussion in the journal. “No one thought the story was obscene,” he writes in his memoir.
But her unabashed replication of a masculine milieu continued to raise hackles among a section of Hindi readers. “Male gatherings in the Hindi belt were appalled, sometimes challenging,” Dutt said. “Once, someone demanded she ‘repeat that gaali she gave so many times in Yaaron ke Yaar.'”
“I never identified with the Hindi-wallahs; unki thinking bahut traditional thinking thhi,” Sobti admitted to me. Yet, she did associate with the Hindi literary world. Her circle included contemporaries such as Bhisham Sahni, Nirmal Verma (“Hamara vaise bahut competition thha, he was also a Shimla boy”) and Krishna Baldev Vaid, as well as younger writers such as Vajpeyi. “Many of my good friends are writers. That’s because we meet very little!” Sobti joked.
After the noted poet Mahadevi Verma, who reminisced about her contemporaries in Path Ke Saathi, Sobti might be the only Hindi writer to have put her thoughts on her literary peers to paper. Her columns under the male pen name Hashmat are a remarkable set of profiles, generous as well as mischievous, her observations sharp as a knife, but with a light touch. “Nobody has written so endearingly of writers. Not intended to demolish or to criticise, but to show how a particular person operates,” said Vajpeyi, who is among her subjects. The writer Sukrita Paul Kumar described Ham Hashmat, a three-volume compilation of these columns, as “evidence of her desire to transcend gender: to speak of male writers not as a woman is expected to of men, but say whatever she wants, without inhibition.”
Sobti’s closest friend in the world of Hindi letters was Sheela Sandhu, another feisty Punjabi woman who felt at odds with it. Sandhu was a former academic who found herself in charge of the Hindi publishing house Rajkamal Prakashan after her husband bought it. In an essay in a 2002 anthology called Women Who Dare, Sandhu described the Hindi literati’s initial reaction to her as “contempt laced with bewilderment.” She gradually befriended many of Rajkamal’s writers, but reserved her greatest warmth for Sobti. “Like a signpost at a crossroad, I found the greatest affinity with Krishna Sobti who writes in Hindi with the sensibility of Urdu and the impertinence that comes from being a Punjabi.”
While too outspokenly Punjabi for the Hindi-wallahs, Sobti remained an outsider to Punjabi circles, particularly after she filed a copyright-infringement case against the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam for titling a book Hardutt ka Zindaginama. “I said, if Amrita-ji uses ‘Harduttnama,’ I won’t lose anything, and she won’t lose anything,” Sobti told me. But Pritam dug her heels in, and reached out to what Sobti calls the “Punjabi lobby.” The case dragged on for over 25 years, and was eventually decided against Sobti. Among Pritam’s prize witnesses was Khushwant Singh, who cited evidence that the words ‘zindagi’ and ‘nama’ had previously been combined in Sikh texts. But those who had painted the case as a literary catfight were surprised when Khushwant Singh’s dismissive, gossipy obituary of Pritam in 2005 earned Sobti’s principled ire. “These are the kind of objectionable ways in which men patronise women writers,” she told Outlook magazine.
If Sobti has forged her own path, so have her characters. Linguistic freedom apart, her books are known for female protagonists with complex, human love lives, and yes, sexual selves. From the rustic, rough-tongued declarations of Mitro to the unspoken sensuality of Mehek Bano in Dil-o-Danish, from the aching loneliness of the fiercely independent Ratti in Surajmukhi Andhere Ke to the older, wiser Aranya, who steps gingerly towards companionship in Samay Sargam, Sobti’s women think freely even when they do not have the liberty to act. And their freedom does not necessarily toe an uncomplicated line about achieving independence from men. Mitro, for all her unprecedented openness about physical desire, clings fiercely to her husband. These are real, flesh-and-blood women, for whom yearning for autonomy does not preclude a desire for companionship.
Other themes recur across Sobti’s wide range of milieus. One is the joint family. “Our chachas and our dadasahab only dropped in two or three times a year. There was no interference from extended family in our lives. Not being a product of the joint family, I was fascinated by how people live together,” Sobti said. Her observations from a distance inspired several books, including Zindaginama and Dil-o-Danish. More recently, in her 2000 novel Samay Sargam, the joint family appears as a rotten, dysfunctional thing: the ageing protagonists Ishan and Aranya, both without families, find their contemporaries being threatened, spied on and even killed off by money-grabbing offspring.
But if Sobti’s sharp eyes take in the hierarchies that define the patrilineal joint family, the emotional core of her books is often the mother-daughter relationship. In both Daar Se Bicchudi and Mitro Marjani, the wilful young woman protagonist is shaped by the potent figure of a free-spirited mother: Pasho’s mother leaves her in-laws’ home to marry a Sheikh, and Mitro’s mother has never married. An older woman defying social norms to follow her heart also appears in Zindaginama, with the character of Chachi Mehri. In Dil-o-Danish, Mehek Bano finds herself excised from her daughter’s life as the condition for young Masooma making a societally respectable match. Perhaps the most powerful of Sobti’s mother-daughter pairs are the unnamed, apartment-bound protagonists of her 1991 novel Ai Ladki: the babbling, bedridden old woman who oscillates between hectoring her single, middle-aged daughter for knowing nothing of womanhood, and grudgingly acknowledging that she envies her freedom. Sobti refuses to say so, but the details suggest that the novel has an autobiographical core.
Beyond familial and filial faultlines, Sobti has an abiding interest in relationships between communities. Her women can be bridges between them, but can also be caught in the crossfire. In Daar Se Bicchudi, Pasho must choose between her Punjabi Hindu Khatri family and the Muslim Khoja household her mother has joined, while Mehek Bano’s children in Dil-o-Danish must suffer the ignominy of being insulted as “Musalmani ke” by their own Hindu half-brother. Zindaginama is her deeply felt paean to a shared world, in which Dussehra and Eid celebrations reach out to each other, and Maulvis urge Hindu landlords to help pay for a new masjid. Dil-o-Danish, too, Bhalla believes, likely originated in Sobti’s desire to “show a Delhi in which a sympathetic relationship could exist between Hindus and Muslims.”
Sobti’s evocation of community is all the more powerful because she has no pious pretence that South Asians are unmarked by difference. Her books display a fine-grained recognition of the way caste and community identities are constantly deployed in everyday life on the subcontinent. Zindaginama’s Punjabi village is replete with instances of this: Bhattis and Virks sorting out caste differences in the army, “the Baloach mind” being seen as vengeful. If the Aroras are mocked for money-mindedness in one scene (“They hold coins in their teeth”), elsewhere an Arora woman taunts Khatri women for hesitating to send sons to war: “We are mere shopkeepers, behna, but why are Khatrani mothers so scared?” Yaaron ke Yaar, set in 1960s Delhi, shows how caste networks, and so caste stereotypes, have made their way into Indian modernity: the novel’s Kayasths are political creatures, controlling the office bureaucracy. “In our office it was the belief that Punjabis couldn’t possibly compete with the seasoned Kayasths!” Sobti told me, laughing.
Talking about caste and religion today elicited a much sadder, more anxious mode, with Sobti raging against the current era of nationalism-at-gunpoint. “Aise toh aap mujhi ko bolenge, toh main nahi bolungi ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai'” (If you insist on it like this, even I wouldn’t say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai.’) “There is a crack she sees now, between communities,” Paul Kumar said. “People who have suffered Partition are nervous today. They think, ‘Is it going to happen again?'”
As a woman who lived alone for most of her life, until she married the late Dogri writer and translator Shivanath at 70, Sobti has long dealt with prurient north Indian curiosity. Mostly she responded with dignified silence, but sometimes her impishness got the better of her. She gave me a gleeful example of this: “One gentleman at a function said to me, ‘You never tell us anything about yourself. We have even heard that you once had a love affair?’ I said, ‘Listen, and listen carefully: I have never led so ordinary a life as to have merely one affair at a time.’ Saale Hindiwaale, I thought, enjoy yourself!”
Sobti’s public persona is that of a grande dame, and perhaps nothing signals it more than her specially designed look—flowing ghararas instead of ordinary salwars or churidars, heels, a dupatta draped over her head, and prescription sunglasses. But speak to her of her style and she turns almost schoolgirlish: “I designed all my own outfits. Yaar, I wish I was a dressmaker!” “The ‘imperious’ image was a necessary defence for that generation, part of a refusal to accept male diktats about what a woman writer ought to be like,” Bhalla said. But once Sobti lets her guard down, she is an enthusiastic and generous host. She is no longer in a position to entertain at coffee shops, but she gets Vimlesh to ply her guests with fresh-cut fruit, fried snacks, Darjeeling tea and biscuits, and even the odd glass of rum-and-pani, if the evening has run into night.
Paul Kumar, a frequent visitor to Sobti’s house, described her as “fiercely autonomous.” Sobti’s account of resigning from her government job just before retirement could offer her a pension (“I did not want to be pensioned off!”) displays her almost irrational interpretation of freedom. “She has the dignity of a begum, always more of a giver than a taker,” Paul Kumar said. “Yet she has a deep respect for the other person, whether they are younger doesn’t matter.” Tales abound of her urging gifts upon people she takes a liking to, refusing favours when she thinks them manipulative, and yet being quick to take umbrage when she perceives her status slighted. “She has never been a court writer,” Dutt said.
Sobti’s political radar remains as keen as ever. In 2010, she refused the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, saying that she needed to keep a distance from the establishment. In 2015, she was among those who returned her Sahitya Akademi award in protest of the Dadri lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq for supposedly consuming beef, and the Akademi’s refusal to honour the Kannada writer MM Kalburgi, an Akademi member who had recently been shot dead. Sobti also returned the Akademi’s fellowship, its highest honour.
When I asked Sobti about returning awards, she turned playful: “The Birlas gave me an award when I was 80. I said, I am too old! Give it to someone in their forties or fifties, who is doing good work. It can give them a push. Instead you have created this, ki writer marey, toh uska hospital bill pay kar do”—awards that will only pay a dead writer’s hospital bills. But her words from 1977, in the first volume of Ham Hashmat, still ring out with bell-like clarity: “If a writer struggles, battles her circumstances, she is not doing a favour to anyone else, only to her pen. A good pen must write for values, not for those who lay claim to values. Else writers and artistes will end up as mere decorations in shamiyanas and vigyan-bhavans.”
Sobti has always been intrepid, in her acts as in her words. Practically housebound now, she still spoke of her love of the mountains, showing me a picture of herself with a rucksack in Shimla. These reminiscences invariably come to rest on a memory of standing on the Khardung La in Ladakh, among the highest motorable mountain passes in the world. “One side, Ganga. Ek Brahmaputra, ek Sindhu, ek Satluj… Over there, you feel so proud of being an Indian. You almost feel you know, ki this is my land, and the highest peak in the world is ours. But instead of taking joy all this, aap dusron ko tang karna chahte ho?” (you want to bother other people?). At a time when only the loudest, most divisive forms of patriotism take shape around territorial borders, I found myself enchanted by Sobti’s old-style variety: a geographical nationalism that somehow does not preclude cross-national solidarities.
Despite her enormous stature, only six of Sobti’s books have been translated into English. We have come some distance from the 1990s, when her total inaccessibility outside Hindi allowed the well-informed editors of Women Writing in India to think that she wrote in a single dialect. Still, much of her work remains to be translated, and some of the existing efforts leave much to be desired. Despite her complex relationship with Hindi, therefore, Sobti’s books remain among the best reasons to learn to read it.
First published in The Caravan Magazine. Reproduced here with permission.
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