‘Every word has a body and a soul’
At 92, Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Krishna Sobti is still razor-sharp, and remembers a life lived in two radically different eras
The moment you write the first line of your book, you (will have) imparted half your strength to it,,” says acclaimed Hindi writer Krishna Sobti. “Once this first sentence has been penned, the writer in me knows that this sentence has to be nurtured… You know you have to take care of this sentence. And the other sentences that will follow.” Indeed, Sobti is an instinctive writer—she does not plot out her stories in advance but allows them to evolve on the strength of this first sentence.
Dressed in her trademark gharara, her head covered with a blue dupatta, Sobti, now 92, sits comfortably on her favourite chair in the living room of her fifth floor apartment in east Delhi. “I always make three drafts for all my books. The third time over, I like to read the story out aloud. If anything has to be changed, I will change it then. Once the manuscript is off my table, I never look at it again,” says the writer who won the Sahitya Akademi award for Zindaginama, her book set in rural Punjab that looks at critical social issues of the time. . Even today, Sobti sits down at her worktable every evening, after a small drink, and works well into the early hours of the morning. She has to only sit at the table and a rush of memories come to her unbidden.
Life in two eras
“Such a big passage of history has been covered in the two centuries (that I have lived through). You can see the enormous differences between the generation I grew up in and the present one, the difference in climate, in people, in the country itself.”
- The grande dame of Hindi literature, she is most known for her 1966 novel Mitro Marjani
- Born in Gujarat, now in Pakistan, she moved to India during Partition
- Married Dogri writer Shiv Nath at the age of 70
- Wrote a column under the male pseudonym ‘Hashmat’
At 92, Sobti has lived through two very different eras. “I see myself walking in the fields of Shimla as a child. I remember the Mall Road and the Lower Bazaar with the British walking on it. I remember I saw Gandhi on the Ridge. We used to spend six months of the year in Shimla. I remember seeing the ice skating rink from the windows of Gulshan Lodge where we stayed. Couples used to skate and dance on it; it looked so romantic. But Indians were not allowed to skate there. That bothered me.”
Partition brings a rush of unwanted memories. “For us, gaining independence was a momentous event and we believed that Partition was the price we had to pay. After centuries, the country finally got its own Constitution but now, at every step, our Constitution is being subverted. Let me tell you, writers during the era of Partition, whether Sikhs, Muslims or Hindus, spoke out about our core human values, about humanity and spoke against communal violence,” she recalls.
Her 1958 novel, Dar Se Bicchudi (Separated from the Flock), published in 1958, was about a child born of a marriage that broke both religious and social taboos.
Sobti talks of how after Partition, writers, artists, and dramatists used to gather at Mandi House and Sri Ram Centre. “There was a strange kind of oneness among us. 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…” She adds with a touch of anger, “Aap ko kuch nahi aata hai (They don’t know a thing).” Always fiercely independent, Sobti turned down the Padma Bhushan in 2010, saying she wanted to stay away from the government.
When Sobti published Mitro Marjani in 1966, a novel set in rural Punjab about a young married woman’s exploration and assertion of her sexuality, it set the Hindi literary world aflame, seen as a major feminist work.
Forthright as ever, Sobti says now, “I don’t like being called a ‘woman writer’. I would rather be called a writer who is also a woman. For me, men and women are very close to each other. Apart from the obvious qualities they share, both sexes do not have a different soul. Earlier, women were confined to their homes but today women receive the same education and step out of their homes to earn a living. Love, sex and death remain the most intense experiences experienced by both sexes,” she explains. In many ways, Sobti was ahead of her times.
In Surajmukhi Andhere Ke (Sunflowers of the Dark), published in 1972, she wrote about a woman’s struggle to come to terms with childhood abuse.
In her recent autobiographical book, Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Taq, she focuses on her childhood spent in rural Gujarat, whose people “were both hardy and strong-willed. The way we were brought up, they made a person out of you. You never asked should I go there, you just went. There was no time for self-pity.”
Sobti is proud of the way her latest novel Dil-o-Danish (The Heart and Mind) explores the use of language spoken on the streets of Old Delhi. It creates a narrative “using the jadu (magic) of this language,” she says. “When you create, you have to make sure the details are not very close to you, nor should they be very far; they have to be kept at a distance to do justice to the different characters.”
The writer is famous for her distinctive use of language, choosing the rough patois of the street rather than a literary tongue, proud of her richly idiomatic Punjabi and Urdu.
“Urdu is such a special language; see the vibration in the way the words are spoken. Hindi carries a soch (thought) behind it. Hindi used to be a vegetarian language but that has changed. It has assimilated and absorbed from the Persian, Arabic, Urdu languages and has emerged as a rich language,” she says. Sobti believes that every word has a body, a soul and a costume. “Words derive power from usage and reference,” she says, “for writers, words are the most important tool they command.”
Despite having authored eight novels, two novellas, two works of non-fiction and a collection of short stories, Sobti is not part of either the Hindi or the Punjabi literary clique. “When I filed a copyright infringement case against Amrita Pritam, mujhe pata tha ke isko mein sambhal nahi paoongi (I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull it off). When the judge came to the court, he said, ‘Amrita Pritam is a great writer, but I have not heard of Krishna Sobti.’ My reply to that was, ‘In Delhi, who recognises Hindi writers?’”
The writer is a poet and novelist with a soft spot for political and social reporting.