• Krishna Sobti: The Dancing Dervish

    Geetanjali Shree

    February 26, 2019

    Image Courtesy: Daisy Rockwell

    Once there was a Krishna Sobti. Resplendent in her embroidered and sequined sharara/garara/salwar with a matching or adventurously contrasting chunni draped over her head and shoulders, thick-framed spectacles behind shining, sometimes sober, sometimes mischievous eyes, and an ever vibrant intelligent visage and an irresistible fearless spirit in her somewhat bounding, a lot flying along mast mast gait. For someone clothed from head to toe it was a mystery how the aura that burst from her persona was of a bold irrepressible freedom and a youthful love for life and the world.

    Nothing turgid about her, nothing lazy, nothing making-do or disinterested in her living. Positive, upright, assertive, in the face of any and many negativities.

    Those of us who have seen her and known her realize more and more each passing day how privileged we have been. Those who have not had the good fortune can scarce imagine that such a being was our contemporary and icon. A monumental presence as much in her person as in her writing.

    Which is not a usual occurrence. There are few whose person matches the stature of their work. Meeting the writer whose writing we love can often be a disappointment. The commonplace failings of ego or self-centredness or pushiness and such reduce their aura often. At best she or he may be a simple person, guileless and uncommunicative, which is pleasing. But the aura, the impact, the fierce dynamism and iconic magnetism of a Krishna Sobti, no way!

    Krishna Sobti became an icon in her own lifetime in a rare fusion of monumental writing and monumental personality.

    We loved her. Just being near her and in front of her was a moment of inspiration. She looked a larger-than-life character, a bit unreal, one who has walked out of some history book, from another era and another space.

    Indeed she had. Walked in from elsewhere and elsetime. But entirely into here and now. Not a spirit from the past, unbelonging and lost in the present she has mistakenly floated into.

    On the contrary she carried in her the richness and layers of those other times and places and brought them fulsomely into our times and interacted passionately with the Now, weaving in the process a complex tapestry of wisdoms and meanings. Deeply immersed in her society and its history, she reflected most perceptively on the issues surrounding us, putting them in their widest perspective with the past and the present leaning on each other. Expressing herself often with her characteristic acerbic humour, but in utter seriousness, trivializing nothing.

    Making her writing and her person utterly delightful if also difficult and quite quite unique.

    Unique. Almost without precedent, not permitting any easy identifying of traditions it was emerging from. As if starting from her and setting in motion a new unique tradition.

    No wonder then that many – both readers and critics – felt somewhat flabbergasted in the presence of this hitherto unknown “commodity”. Unable to comprehend this heady mix of bold free-spirited creativity and intelligence, in the writing and the person. Comfortable as too many of us are with rather well defined, more or less familiar narratives and roles. Where a continuation from past ways is visible. Or if there is a break, that too is within a recognized and approved progressivism.

    This was at the behest of a woman. Like it or not, males and male critics take that much more time to acknowledge path-breakers of this breed!

    It seems to me this incomprehension is emblematic of what many feel in the face of a strong new assertion coming from a hitherto unknown quarter. Someone charting out a fresh new course, at variance with the existing ones, is a challenge and even produces insecurity. The entrepreneurship of Dalits, Adivasis, Queers, all provoke. And a woman entrepreneur and adventurer no less!

    Yes, I dare say woman, though I am aware of Krishnaji’s debunking of a separate category called women writers. But by bringing in her ways – new and adventurous – in language, forms, themes, values, all, she was toppling an order. The confusion or total incomprehension, sometimes hostility, is with regard to a woman who is straying. Determined, confident, fearless, ready to be bypassed, but not ready to cow down or bow out, passionate and sensitive to life and the world around, who is this “lascivious”, bindaas woman!

    A book, or a woman, that does not fit in the frame we have created, makes jaws drop aghast. And if we cannot figure out, cannot engage and learn, we prefer to look away. Or down. At her or it!

    Not surprising that Krishna Sobti evoked this whole gamut of responses – perplexity, awe, intimidation, admiration, rejection – from those who did not try to fathom these new depths. Or did not have the wherewithal.

    Unstoppable and needing no one to back her, she charted her own amazing path. Born in 1925, she moved from pre-Independence to post-Independence India, from the dejection of servitude to euphoria of freedom, and experienced also the despair of Partition and the increasing disillusionment at the vested interests playing out around her. But never did she dither on her convictions and stood ever steadfast by her beliefs.

    This rich blend of histories and cultures reflects in every aspect of hers – from her personal lifestyle to the mix of language and form and structure and characters in her literary oeuvre. Her dress sense, her colourful speech, her generosity and hospitality, all marked her apart. An aristocrat without the exclusionist attitude of an aristocrat, that was her. Reaching out warmly to all and sundry, big or small, young or old. Even her famed unpredictable taking-umbrage, sometimes at imaginary offences, had about them an innocence, difficult as they may have been for the receiver to handle. Full of the pluralism, secularism, egalitarianism, dignity of humanity that we swear by. Living it simply, naturally, without fuss and sloganeering.

    Her writings form a class apart. With Daar se Bichudi and Mitro Marjani, her first novels, she set forth on a path all her own. And one after another – carefully and in no tearing haste – she shared with the world extraordinary works that will outlive her. Just a few days before her final farewell her novel Channa came out. Soon after she left us came out the fourth volume of her Ham Hashmat, a magnificent and ironically humourous series of interviews, reminiscences and personal reflections that she wrote under the male pseudonym of Hashmat.

    In and out of hospital in the last months, which no doubt must have been overly sapping, she continued – energetically if weakly – to talk, debate, give interviews, supervise her work for publishing, and lived still the life of the writer. Literature her breath, the times her lungs.

    Carrying in her the best of many epochs, the best of decency and humanity, the best from both sides of the atrocious border erected in 1947.

    Borders. They were anathema to Krishna Sobti. She once recounted a visit to Ladakh, I think. (like all stupid humans I am left longing for the chance after it is lost – of taking further our conversations left incomplete and half forgotten) where she saw a plane high in the sky. On the other side she thought. And then she realized, she said, but that is my side, hamari taraf se aa raha hai. Her heart glowed – “I felt so proud you know.”

    The same unusual her-own way in her work. Long before we, rather self-consciously took to breaking given forms and structures, there she was following her own method of creating a world. Zindaginama, her magnum opus, dropped a focused central plot and instead brought alive a pre-partition undivided Punjab village and the sounds, smells, sights therein, without following accepted norms of sequencing or telling a tale. Stories got told and left behind, characters came and did not return. There was no usually recognized beginning middle and end. Its language sprouted from the earth and was replete with robust similes and metaphors and words that Hindi doyens – and dons! – had difficulty accepting as being Hindi at all. But it went on to win the Sahitya Akademy. ( Later she was honoured with the highest literary award, the Gyanpeeth.) There will still be many who could not read the novel but its author lost no sleep nor confidence over that.

    A confidence she had from her earliest days, emerging not from arrogance but from the genuineness of her convictions. She confronted the publisher over her earliest novel, Channa, for meddling with her rich “new” language mixing rural Punjabi colloquial with high Hindi (whatever that be!). Words such as maseet were changed to masjid and paudiyan to seedhiyan, in the much familiar desire to purify the language of a young first timer.

    But this first timer knew what she was about. She took her vocation seriously from the start. As also took enjoying life most seriously. She woke up late each day, went on to play tennis and then tambola at the club, and then, fresh and energized, handed herself over through the night to being solely and fully with Channa.

    Young Krishna telegraphed the publisher to stop the printing and journeyed to Allahabad to meet him. Her language represented the glory of undivided Punjab and she was opposed to this partitioning of the vocabulary. A partition as reprehensible as the partition of the nation. She believed in their unity. She had retained the lingua of the khetihar samaj and used regional words. She would not abandon them.

    The fledgling writer paid the money the press had hitherto spent on printing and paper and took back her novel. Her first, which became chronologically her last.

    The same confidence made her refuse to go along with a plan to film Mitro Marjani. Matters came to a head when the film guys wanted a bikini scene with Mitro swimming in the village canal. No girl will, said Krishna Sobti, whether Mitro or any other, in a village or small town. She worried for the sanctity and credibility of Mitro and thought and thought, she writes. Returning from Bombay to Delhi she found the solution and wrote to the film folk that it had to be a new character and hence a new film story. It would be a Punjabi Canadian girl living in Canada who returns to her father’s village. She could do the scene.

    The new screenplay, published some years ago by Rajkamal as Jenny Meherban Singh, lay ignored by Bombay.

    No fears, she carried on undeterred. Inventing anew the form, the language, the style for each subsequent work of hers, in keeping with its theme and ambience. Making almost every book a first and one of its own kind, resembling nothing before it or after. A new writer each time!

    While Zindaginama and Channa recreated undivided feudal Punjab and its rural tonalities, Mitro Marjani dealt with the wild waves of desire renting apart its main protagonist. Surajmukhi Andhere Ke expressed itself in sober decent classy Hindi and Yaron ke Yar Tin Pahad shocked with the expletives it employed to reflect the ways of its protagonists. Dilo Danish excelled itself in an Old Delhi ambience of a bygone time whose vakil kayasth characters and their world abounded in the most shaaistaa Hindustani which toppled gleefully any border between Hindi and Urdu. There came also the delightful Samay Sargam, which celebrated life and love for it, in its getting-on-in-years protagonist couple. All in her very unique way where energy and tonality made the work pulsate. It is this pulsating cadence, the palpitating spirit, which holds up and bolds up each work so that it throbs and comes alive.

    And long before we, on a later rung of the feminist movement, began, sometimes self-consciously to sketch free, strong women and play out our politics, Krishna Sobti was already doing it in the most natural, non-sloganeering way. Her works teem with women of all hues living in a man’s world and cracking it through. Witness the pungency of a sensual Mitro in Mitro Marjani, the “decent” and “dignified” assertion of Sheela, Shyama and Channa in Channa and of Kutumb Pyari and Mahak Bano in Dilo Danish, and the sharp tongued mother with her “modern” bachelor daughter in Ai Ladki, or free-spirited Aranya in Samay Sargam.

    The same fearlessness and conviction inform Krishna Sobti’s political views. As a writer she believed in staying far from the Establishment. She refused the Padmabhushan precisely for this reason and spoke up openly against what she considered wrong. Seeing well into the horrors and dangers of Hindutva and the wave of intolerance that led to the killing of the likes of Kalburghi, Dabholkar and Pansare, she none the less retained a fine sense of balance. She condemned the murderers and the forces behind them in the strongest terms. But she had the sense to separate them from the ancient the Vedic sanskriti. She even denied them the right to speak for the sanskriti they claimed to protect. Those erecting walls of hostility and hatred, she asserted, know not that had Bhagirathi and Alaknanda not gotten together, the Ganga would have no astitva. All rivers join the ocean, she was unequivocal.

    And even in her later years when she had stopped going out, she came in a wheelchair to a protest meeting against intolerance.

    Never any narrowness of vision in her. Never a prey to the lure of political correctness. She said what she believed. One of her most moving piece is on the killing of Gandhi. Just two page of a shok-lekh she called “Pitr-Hatya” to hit home the point. Gandhi is not just the father of the nation shot by his children. She records poignantly:

    “This is radio Lahore.

    “Announcement from a choked voice:

    “Our Mahatma …

    “Dadi Ma who had come from Amnabad wiped the tears from her eyes and said in a sad voice – say what you will, there has been so much killing, but, in our grief, the Pakistanis have been our hamsayas. They are remembering Bapu like he is someone of theirs too.””

    Wisdom, knowledge, sensitivity personified. That was Krishna Sobti.

    And youth and humour! Youth, for to the end, she loved life and literature and the people around her. Brewing with desire to connect, to learn, to enjoy.

    We flocked to the hospital where she lay, body failing, mind young and animated. Hospitable and generous as ever, she would ask her wonderful devoted companion and help, Vimlesh, to serve us tea coffee biscuits coconut water, sweets. Much as in her home where she gave those grand parties and served drinks and snacks in style. She talked literature, politics, past, present, alert and incisive even if sometimes physically very tired. Always she remembered our personal details – how is Mummy she never failed to ask me. And how is Ret Samadhi (my new novel) doing, she always asked. She even called the hospital her Ashlok Institute where she might be on a residency! And laughed at herself that she is meant to go –buddham sharanam gacchami– but is still here. She would ask to see us again as she is still going to be around – abhi khilenge to dekhenge, she joked, taking off on Vinod Kumar Shukla’s title.

    So many of us loved her and her writing, both so true to each other. On 25th January, just short of her 94th birthday, she breathed her last. A giant monument fell. A giant monument which will go on.

    Her writing is there for us. But we miss that ever young, warm, witty, larger than life person, who befriended us and enriched us with her presence and love.

    Even as I bereave, I smile through my tears, remembering my first meeting with beloved Krishnaji.

    It was in the early eighties. I was very young and silent, writing rather secretly! We were sitting in Triveni with Krishnaji and a bunch of other writers. They were discussing many things animatedly. And tea and coffee were doing their rounds.

    Then it was time to wind up. Many said their goodbyes and left. Krishnaji asked us to come home with her. We agreed. But, she said, we must stop on the way to pick up a bottle or two. At which my partner and another male writer gallantly offered to do the needful telling Krishnaji and me to go ahead.

    We did. Reached her home. For the next several minutes she flitted around busily arranging the room and the table for the evening – tray, napkins, bowls and glasses, snacks and ice. I pottered about her trying to help. And all was done and she was her wonderful shining self, wrapped in her layers of clothing which in later days I would feel are epochs she has wrapped in beauty around her.

    She then lit a lamp which stood to one side. It was red with a humpty dumpty head and a long spring neck which began matak matak when turned on.

    She then picked up a cassette and placed it in the player and turned on the music which was some rocking disco number.

    She then turned to me and extended a hand and said – let’s dance.

    And she danced…


    Geetanjali Shree is a well-known Hindi novelist and short story writer. She has written a critical work on Premchand and her novels and stories have been translated into many languages including English, German and French. She is also associated with theatre and writes scripts for the Delhi-based theatre group Vivadi.

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