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`Lesser Breeds'... the right pedigree

Coming out with her latest book justifying non-violence, "Lesser Breeds", writer Nayantara Sahgal tells SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY that it is the only answer to restore sanity in society... .

Nayantara Sahgal... hoisting the flag of non-violence. Photo: Sandeep Saxena.

AN IMAGE of pure sophistication, a member of the `first family' of Indian politics, the Nehrus, novelist-essayist Nayantara Sahgal predictably oozes that old gentleness and restraint mannerism one identifies with a person from an erudite, well-to-do family. Frail and white-haired she is today, and may be not be infused with the individualistic on-the-roll tact and dexterity welled up by her illustrious mother, Vijaylaxmi Pandit but with definitely enough steam and command to stack up an oeuvre well-heeled with award-winning novels, essays and political writings with a `Point of View.'

Dwelling in the calm and quiet of the Doon Valley for decades together with her recently-demised husband, Nayantara has been silently authoring her works, providing the power of the pen at a time when, unlike today, perhaps the least number of books published in any language would have been in English. In fact, this writer of the autobiography with an interesting name, "Prison and Chocolate Cake" was remarkable in making entry into the arena of Indian writing in English at a time when not many female names could be named.

"But books today have become another commodity. Commerce has entered so much into all aspects of our society that saving literature has become a near impossibility," says the writer in her typical restraint tone. Sticking to her guns, Nayantara has recently come out with yet another fiction, "Lesser Breeds" stretching her number of works to nine novels and seven works of non-fiction. Published by Harper Collins, the 375-page tome is an endeavour that hoists questions about non-violence, peace and oppression as pertinent today as in past decades.

"Though people say non-violence is dead in the country which gave it back its independence but I would say, a gradual opinion is growing among people for it. Also, look at the way people of various countries are opposing the United States' threat of war against Iraq. That is very encouraging," she opines, expressing regret that "today, diplomacy has no more remained a weapon of peace but that of war."

"Non-violence is not an answer but the answer to install sanity in today's society," she firmly states.

Weaving the story around a young English literature teacher Nurullah in the imaginary city of Akbarabad in 1932, her latest novel looks at non-violence during the freedom struggle till 1968, raising loaded questions like, is non-violence a lunatic's fantasy? Has it got any place in the world as it still is? Did it ever work in India? Shall we know about it?

Having no qualms about voicing utter sadness at "the ongoing ferocious attack on the idea of India," of "robbing the glory of Indian plural society through Hindu fanaticism," this favourite niece of Pandit Nehru likes to call herself a secularist. "I opposed Emergency too because I do not support dictatorship," comments this Sahitya Akademi awardee about her first cousin, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's decision of totalitarian rule. An ardent supporter of Nehruvian rule, Nayantara calls Pandit Nehru "a remarkable, civilised human being, a father figure" to whom she looked up to after the demise of her father, R.S. Pandit, a great Sanskrit scholar, when she was only 16. In between writing her book, she brought out two series of family letters, one between her father from the jail to her mother and the other between her maternal uncle and her mother.

"That took me a long time to complete this book. But, writing for me is a great anchor, a remedy for all kinds of crises, a feeling of consolation. Like an expecting mother, who carries out her normal work with increasing pregnancy, I too carry out my other works along with my writing," she adds, handing out credit to this factor in completing what her pen has so far.

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