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Krishna Sobti

A defiant life

Print edition : Mar 01, 2019 T+T-
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Krishna Sobti during an interview with “The Hindu” at her residence in New Delhi in 2017.

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Amrita Pritam.

Krishna Sobti (1925-2019) wrote on a range of issues such as Partition and women’s sexuality and identity with a rare candour and opposed the establishment’s dictatorial ways to the end.

For the last six weeks or so of the life of the illustrious writer Krishna Sobti, the noted writer-poet Sukrita Paul had the best seat. As Krishna Sobti battled issues of old age, Sukrita Paul looked after her with tender care. Day and night, she was there. During the last four days of her life, Krishna Sobti hardly spoke a word. “She would just constantly say, ‘I love you’ to me,” Sukrita Paul recalled, adding: “But at that time, she said the same thing even to some people she was not particularly fond of. I remember there was a lady whom she never wanted to see at her home, she said the same to her. I guess, towards the end it was a liberation of the mind for her. It was a culmination point of sorts.”

Even just a week before her condition deteriorated, Krishna Sobti was her usual fiery self. Whenever any news of a fresh incident of violence came, she would urge those around her to speak up. Silence was not an option. “She talked of the climate of the country. She was disturbed at the goings-on,” says Sukrita Paul. Interestingly, around the same time, the creative being in Krishna Sobti would come to the fore. That is when she would talk of the creative process of writing, what led to poetry, the changing meaning of words, and so on. Of course, she missed her husband, Shivnath, too. She married him in 1995 when she was 70 and lost him a few years ago. Her eyes would well up when she thought of him.

Throughout her life, Krishna Sobti never hankered for attention, but it always came her way. She lived and wrote on her terms. She was accepted, felicitated and celebrated the same way. To her, writing was a celebration of life. Whether it was the phase in the late 1950s and 1960s when she did not shy away from expanding on a woman’s sensuality, or the time she wrote Zindaginama , in which she brought alive a small village in pre-Partition days where people from different castes and religions lived peacefully until news of riots broke, she wrote what she felt and stayed fiercely true to her written word.

Incidentally, Zindaginama , termed the “abridged Mahabharata of our times” by the Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy Krishna Sobti never completed. However, in that single volume, and the saga behind its delayed and revised publication, lies the story of Krishna Sobti the writer and Krishna Sobti the woman.

She first penned the book in the initial years after Partition, titling it Channa . The book was peppered with Punjabi words, along with some Urdu and Persian. Her editor, probably driven by stereotypes or market dictates, changed the words to Hindi equivalents, but Krishna Sobti would have none of it. She preferred to withdraw her book rather than see it go through an editor’s scissors, insisting that a book was the author’s baby. That spirit, combined with creativity, stayed with her to the end. In the last few years of her life, she opted to return the much-cherished Sahitya Akademi Award and Fellowship rather than be seen in the company of an establishment accused of high-handedness and dictatorial ways. The process of “award wapsi”, initiated by Nayantara Sahgal as a protest against the state’s dictatorial ways and the increasingly intolerant social climate, found its culmination in Krishna Sobti.

If in 2015 her returning of the Sahitya Akademi award made headlines in Hindi newspapers, a couple of years later many wondered aloud whether she would accept the Jnanpith that was conferred upon her. She surprised many by accepting it, although she could not hold herself back from saying: “Look at the timing!” The timing may have been wrong but not the recipient. Gurdial Singh, who translated Zindaginama , was honoured with the Jnanpith award in 1999, nearly two decades before Krishna Sobti. After she had withdrawn Zindaginama , Krishna Sobti moved on quickly. Soon enough, her writing was occupying prime space in the world of wordsmiths and lovers of literature. Two of her short novels, Daar Se Bichhudi and Mitro Marjani , caused more than a ripple.

Through these books, for the first time, a woman’s search for her identity entered intellectual discourse. They talked of a woman’s sexuality with rare candour. Mitro Marjani , in particular, which talked about a woman’s body and her needs, became an emblem for feminists in the years to come. But Krishna Sobti did not confine herself to issues of identity or sexuality. She went on to tackle psychology in Surajmukhi Ke Andhere Mein , about the life of a woman criminally assaulted and how the attack affected every aspect of her life. Ek Ladki , like her previous works, had conservatives raising their eyebrows.

Every work of hers was the talk of the town, including Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan . It was not difficult for Krishna Sobti to reproduce the original ethos for this book. She was born in Pakistani Gujarat in 1925 and studied at Fatehchand College in Lahore. She moved to Delhi at the time of Partition to join her parents who were already there. There was a touch of wistfulness to Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan and understated criticism.

Channa’ s original manuscript was brought out by Rajkamal Prakashan many years later. Krishna Sobti was persuaded to work on the original in the late 1970s. It saw the light of day in 1979 as Zindaginama: Zinda Rukh , and the next year she won the the Sahitya Akademi award.

Zindaginama refused to fade from public memory. Some three decades later, its English translation by Neel Kanwal Mani with Moyna Mazumdar was published. For Krishna Sobti, though, it continued to be a lived experience. In 1979, five years after the novel was published, the noted writer Amrita Pritam came out with a work titled Hardatt ka Zindaginama . Krishna Sobti took it to be too close to her own title and decided to sue Amrita Pritam. What followed was a painful, long-drawn-out legal battle, with the court deciding in favour of Amrita Pritam in 2011, six years after her death. For Krishna Sobti, Zindaginama was her baby. And like a proud parent objecting to a neighbour christening her baby after her child, she made her objection pretty clear.

She loved Zindaginama intensely, yet she did not allow it to bog her down. Not only did she give readers more than a peek into the world of women, she transcended gender too. Although happy to project a female perspective of things, she was not averse to trying out a male pen name for a while. She wrote under the name Hashmat and penned “Hum Hashmat” pieces on many of her writer friends such as Nirmal Verma, Manohar Shyam Joshi and Bhisham Sahni. Many years later, when the book was pushed at literary festivals and placed alongside Krishna Sobti’s other books, many wondered why, so well-disguised was Krishna Sobti’s pseudonym.

Amid the ripples and waves she made in the world of literature, Krishna Sobti continued to raise a storm against the establishment, forever refusing to kowtow to the powers that be. In 2010, much before the “award wapsi” spree hit the headlines, she turned down the Padma Bhushan, arguing that “as a writer, I have to keep a distance from the establishment”.

She stayed loyal to her word when in 2015 she joined the likes of Nayantara Sahgal, Uday Prakash and Chaman Lal in returning their awards to protest against the lynching of Akhlaq and the murder of rationalists such as M.M. Kalburgi.

The move created an uproar for a while. Soon, though, the media moved on to other stories. Krishna Sobti, too, preferred the peace and quiet of her world to conferences and literary festivals. Having made a point with her action, she retreated to her East Delhi residence and started writing all over again.

Yet, towards the end of her life, she realised that this was not the time to keep quiet. In an interview to The Hindu in April 2017, she asserted: “The war the present government is fighting against its own citizens now can destroy India.” She recalled the horrors of the past. Partition, in retrospect, was bearable, not so the present challenges, she said. “Those were different days, a different season in our country. We were so proud of our political leaders. India was poised to become a great democracy. Unfortunately, the opposite is now happening. All our great institutions are being taken over by radical elements.”

From her bed at home and when she was in hospital, Krishna Sobti urged the writers’ community in particular and thinking Indians in general to fight on because losing was not an option. On January 25 this year, she passed away, defiant to her last breath.

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