Nayantara Sahgal, among India's tallest writers, has lived a life of exemplary courage. She tells Deepa Ganesh that right action for her, was more important than power
Her uncle was the country's first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Her mother Vijaylakshmi Pandit, India's first ambassador to the UN, father Ranjit Sitaram Pandit was a barrister and Congressman, he translated “Raja Tarangini” from Sanskrit to English. India's longest serving Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was her cousin. “I could have got anything I wanted, but that's not the way I was brought up,” says renowned writer Nayantara Sahgal, who stood her ground firmly even in the face of difficulty.
“We were a close knit family. I was extremely fond of my father. My uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru was dear to me and I shared a very special relationship with Maamu,” recounts Sahgal, an epitome of grace and sophistication.
Her mother was a pioneer. She entered public life through the municipality elections in Allahabad and got elected in the 1936-37 UP Assembly elections. “My mother was timid and hardly matched up to the image she has left behind, as a bold and fearless person. My father and my uncle were feminists. They pushed her to step out and take up responsibility,” narrates Sahgal. “It was nice being with her. I have had a very rewarding time. My father was a great horticulturist and so encouraging. Even if you look far today, it is hard to find families that were so committed,” she says. However, with Vijayalakshmi entering public life, there was a huge change in their lifestyle. They were long periods of loneliness and big sacrifices.
The thirties and forties were years when Freedom Struggle was at its peak. Sahgal's parents went to jail frequently. In 1944, her father died. When Vijayalakshmi was released from jail, there was a big shock awaiting her. “My father's family froze all the accounts and kept everything out of my mother's access. My mother was a widow and penniless. Three daughters and insurmountable isolation… she didn't know what the future had.” When Gandhiji was released from jail he asked Vijayalakshmi to meet him. By then she had decided to file a suit against her husband's family, but Gandhiji said, “give up everything including what your grandchildren would bring.” It was a big decision, and at that instant all roads seemed closed. “But as a family we listened to Gandhiji. I don't know if my uncle would have advised the same. He abhorred injustice. We were stripped to a bare minimum. It was a difficult time emotionally and financially…,” she says softly. If anything took them across it was Vijayalakshmi's power of conviction and her enormous belief in Bapu's words.
Most of Sahgal's works are about the world in which she grew up: her works recorded the political-social changes and its implications on human relationships. “My divorce left me impoverished. I started doing what I knew best, writing about politics. I got into political writing when it didn't pay. It was a struggle. I have always thought of myself as someone who writes and not as a writer.” However, with most Sahgal's protagonists being women one would see her as a feminist. “I don't think I have earned the right to be called a feminist. For many years, I didn't even know of the hierarchies and that the world is different for men and women. It took me a long time to realise…” It was never on Sahgal's agenda to overturn patriarchy. For her it was always human rights and was even closely associated with PUCL.
The sense of right and wrong in Sahgal was so strong that even in moments of turmoil, she never buckled. Both Nayantara and her mother were strongly opposed to the Emergency and were highly critical of Indira Gandhi. Vijayalakshmi Pandit left the Congress protesting Indira's autocratic ways and joined the Janata party. Sahgal wrote several articles against Indira's policies. “Indira and I were close till I started writing political commentary against her policies. When I was in school, she helped me with Algebra in which I was hopeless. But she later grew extremely angry with my political writings…,” and went on to cancel Nayantara's scheduled appointment as India's ambassador to Italy. “I have never wanted power or position, so it didn't bother me.” In fact, Nayantara resigned her post in the Sahitya Akademi as English Advisor during the Emergency and later even wrote a book, “Indira Gandhi: Her road to power”, published in 1982.
Author of several fictional and non-fictional works, 84-year-old Nayantara Sahgal's most recent work is “Civilising a Savage World”. Among the best fiction writers of the country, politics is integral to her being. “Dynasty is a huge growing proliferation in India. Indira Gandhi started dynastic politics and not Nehru. Anyway, now chief minister of every state pushes his family forward, so Indira is hardly the singular example,” she avers.