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Interview: Sukrita Paul

Sukrita Paul: ‘Krishna Sobti carved out space for women’

Print edition : May 20, 2022 T+T-
Sukrita Paul.

Sukrita Paul.

Krishna Sobti,  an irrepressible voice against patriarchy and social divides.

Krishna Sobti, an irrepressible voice against patriarchy and social divides.

Interview with writer-poet Sukrita Paul.

N an age of instant gratification and reduction of literature to the level of consumerism, a writer is as good as the sales of his/her last work. Every publisher tries hard to be on the bestseller list. Bookstores display books according to their perceived sense of popularity. But there are writers who penned books that have outlived them, defying these transient trends. I

Krishna Sobti, the irrepressible voice against patriarchy and social divides, was one such writer. In her lifetime, many feared her pen. After her death, her writings continue to speak, giving hope to a nation once again struggling with social fractures and a society fast receding into “we” and “they” divides.

Fittingly, Routledge’s Writer in Co ntext series opens with a book on Krishna Sobti, her works, her times. The noted writer-poet Sukrita Paul, never short of sensitivity and an ability to heal with her pen, has co-edited the volume with Rekha Sethi. The endeavour is to bring out the writer with all her rough edges and the undulating contours of the times that shaped her writings. Sukrita Paul and Rekha Sethi do not shy away from giving ample space to Krishna Sobti’s protracted legal battle with the writer Amrita Pritam over the usage of the name of Sobti’s most celebrated novel, , in a work of her own. But that is not the only reason to pick up this meticulously researched work blessed with intellectual profundity. It shows Krishna Sobti for what she stood for.Krishna Sobti: A Counter ArchiveZindaginama

Krishna Sobti, as Sukrita Paul says, “develops in her fiction a sense of history that ironically pushes one to go beyond it. By looking at the divisive politics of the past squarely in the eye, she wished to suggest a path towards an integrated social vision. Defying the conventional portrayal of women characters, she carved out space for women who could express ‘desire’ and come into their own.” In the age of bulldozer politics and constant social wrangling, Krishna Sobti remains as relevant in 2022 as she was when her novels were first published.

Incidentally, the possibility of this book was first explored in 2003, the objective being to provide the serious reader in English with “some of Sobti’s seminal prose pieces along with some selected critical essays on her works, translated into English”.

Shortly before her departure to the U.S., Sukrita Paul took a few questions from about the Writer in Context series and gave a glimpse into the world of Krishna Sobti. Frontline

Excerpts from the interview:

As someone who has been involved in teaching, researching and translating Indian literature for the past many decades, I have been acutely conscious about the paucity of critical material in this area. With the multiplicity of literary traditions flowing in the pluralistic linguistic domains in India, writers here need to be contextualised appropriately for a comprehensive understanding of their works. The ‘Writer in Context’ series has been conceptualised to facilitate the process. Indian writers in English translations are generally read and taught in India and abroad, without much knowledge of the socio-cultural and literary context from which they emerge, and at times rebel against.

With Chandana Dutta as my series co-editor, as of now we have planned volumes on 11 post-Independence writers from different Indian languages, to be edited by scholars and critics from different parts of the country. Two volumes, one on Krishna Sobti and the other on the Urdu writer Joginder Paul, have been already published while two are under production. The series is being published by Routledge U.K. [United Kingdom] and South Asia.

Also read: A defiant life

Our objective is to present in each volume the writer’s distinctive features from within his/her linguistic tradition by introducing the reader to the writer’s oeuvre, followed by essays demonstrating the critical reception in the writer’s own language, as also in the wider literary sphere of world literature. Needless to say, the series will bring out the diversity present in Indian literatures.

My much-cherished conversations with Krishna Sobti had been going on for nearly two decades, sometimes focussing on the creative process, at times expressing her deep engagement with the sociopolitical contemporary situation or sharing her life experiences from her past. But there were times when she would be in a mood to narrate anecdotes light-heartedly with a twinkle in her eyes. Her keen observation, mastery over details and the skills of storytelling almost bewitched one, especially when she used subtle irony. Whichever the government, she was avowedly anti-establishment and particularly reacted to bigotry or sectarian politics.

Her writing self cannot be seen as totally different. When Rekha Sethi, my co-editor, and I discussed our book on Krishna Sobti, we thought it was important to place extracts from her booklet (Resistance) alongside her creative writing if only to establish the connections between the writer and her reactionary self. Partition remained a constant reference point for the narration of her story of India. Since she had been personally deeply affected, her sensibility as a writer compelled her to write stories of the Partition experience at both the personal and the collective level. Apart from exorcising herself of the gruesome violence witnessed by her, she earnestly wanted the subcontinent to learn lessons from history for it not to be repeated. Pratirodh

It is pertinent to point out here Krishnaji’s ardent concern for the autonomy and dignity of the writer as well as her resentment at being framed as merely a “woman writer”, which came across vehemently in her conversations.

As mentioned earlier, whether it was the long shadow of Partition or her anti-establishment stance, Krishna Sobti was constantly a troubled soul the rather traumatic news items she gathered attentively. She had even ended up writing journalistic pieces for newspapers and journals to record her comments as a conscientious and responsible citizen of the country. The Hindi newspaper often carried her pieces on the front page. While she was critical of the “higher-ups”, or the people in authority, she was certainly not judgmental when it came to ordinary people whom she regarded to be victims of the vicious game played often by politicians. In most of her creative writing, Krishna Sobti is non-judgmental in her depiction of the defiant women or men who question rigid conventions and bigotry. vis-a-visJansatta

A counter archive inevitably destabilises the accepted norms and practices in a society. It de-historicises some truths of the past if only to establish their worth for a future. Krishna Sobti develops in her fiction a sense of history that ironically pushes one to go beyond it. By looking at the divisive politics of the past squarely in the eye, she wished to suggest a path towards an integrated social vision. Defying the conventional portrayal of woman characters, she carved out space for women who could express “desire” and come into their own. Undoubtedly, Krishna Sobti needs to be understood as a counter archive, a writer who wishes to disturb the in order to create possibilities for a better future in her creative writings. status quo

was a novel very dear to Krishna Sobti. In this novel, she wished to capture “History that is not/And history that is…/one that flows/along the sacred Bhagirathi/of people’s consciousness…” It is the story of a vibrant life of togetherness, of the culture of the undivided region which Krishna Sobti wanted to hold on to. The likes of Amir Khusro, Baba Farid and the myth of Pir Khwaja Khizr throbbed on the chest of this land and sang of harmony and love. In the wake of the civilisational rupture caused by the communal politics of the division of the subcontinent, Krishna Sobti penned her vision of composite culture in the novel depicting the story of what existed earlier. Krishna Sobti was acutely pained at the way politics has led to divisions and ruptures rather than nurturing togetherness. Indeed, this novel demands a sensitive attention with a loud ring of immediacy. ZindaginamaZindaginama

It is not clear why the trilogy was not completed. I believe was in a way so complete by itself that there was perhaps no adequate urge for the writer to go back to adding another volume to it. Also, she got so disturbed and engrossed in the dispute regarding the title that she had no inclination or time to do a second one in the series. This is not to say that she was not writing other novels those days…. And, of course, Partition as a theme stayed with her until the end. , was an autobiographical novel that related to her experience of migrating from across the border. ZindaginamaGujarat Pakistan se Gujrat Hindustan Tak

Also read: Writing without a full stop

There is no doubt that she was very attached to this novel which was her magnum opus, epical in its canvas. She was very conscious about her rights as an author over the title of the novel. When Amrita Pritam used it as part of her novel , she was perturbed. We have included in our book, her “Notes on Zindaginama” where she gives her reasons and justification for fighting the legal case with Amrita Pritam about the title. For her, she said, the court case stood for her serious intention of protecting the rights of an author over the title of her/his novel. She used almost all her savings in this battle that persisted for nearly 25 years. Hardutt ka Zindaginama

Yes, this is another much-discussed novel by Krishna Sobti in which new grounds get broken for female desire. Patriarchy within a household strives to suppress a woman’s need for sexual gratification. She, in fact, is treated as an object/victim of male desire. Krishna Sobti’s novel is a bold portrayal of the female protagonist Mitro, who is accorded a language by the writer to assert her bodily needs, all within the domestic set up. It was not easy for the middle-class readership to accept such a defiant articulation of female desire initially, but later, the novel came to be celebrated for having stripped all hypocrisy from Mitro’s truth.

Krishna Sobtis are always rare, but when they do emerge, the power of their conviction and the strength of their pen assert their presence and publishers end up bowing to them. Krishna Sobti never fitted into the conventional context… that is why we call her a counter archive.

After the recent publication of the second book in the series, which is on Joginder Paul, the three books currently in production are on the iconic writers Indira Goswami, Amrita Pritam and Mahasweta Devi. The rest will follow gradually.

Could you please throw some light on the Writer in Context series?

A series of conversations with Krishna Sobti resulted in this book. What did the conversations reveal about her sensibilities as a writer?

Krishna Sobti’s writing drew amply from the sociopolitical trauma around her. Yet she was not judgmental. How do you explain the irony?

You write in the book, “she emerges as an embodiment of a counter archive”. Can you please elaborate?

Krishna Sobti’s “Zindaginama” was at once about shared living and fractures in a pluralist society. Does this work not have a ring of immediacy to it in the current sociopolitical climate?

“Zindaginama” was supposed to be the first of the trilogy. Why did the other books not materialise?

Krishna Sobti was possessive of “Zindaginama”. Did it in some measure contribute to her long-drawn-out legal battle with Amrita Pritam when the latter penned a work using the word ‘Zindaginama’ in its title?

In “Mitro Marjani”, she tackles female sensuality. Again does not this work retain its appeal considering the patriarchal forces remain opposed to the idea of women’s personal needs?

In these times when publishers are often politically correct in choosing a manuscript for publication, and many writers prefer to keep quiet in the face of challenges to humanity, how would a Krishna Sobti have fitted in?

What is next in this series of archiving timeless authors?

‘Defiant articulation of female desire’