This is a time for celebration of life and literature. Krishna Sobti, who was unable to personally receive the prestigious Jnanpith Award on February 10, 2018 owing to indisposition, celebrated her 93rd birthday eight days later at her East Delhi home in the company of relatives, friends and admirers. A living legend, Sobti is as much known for her gutsy, fighting spirit, as she is known for her literary accomplishments. She is one of those rare writers who never cease to evolve.
At a time when nobody had heard of feminism in the Hindi literary world, she wrote two short novels “Daar se Bichhudi” (1958) and “Mitro Marjani” (1966) – later translated as “Memory’s Daughter” and “To Hell with You Mitro” respectively – and presented the quest for a woman’s identity in a most creative manner.
Struggle for identity
Hers was the first attempt by a Hindi fiction writer to search, define and establish the independent identity of a woman. These short novels also drew the attention of the literary world because of another striking characteristic. Sobti displayed the rare gift of sculpting her own creative language, idiom, tone and tenor, and thus imbued Hindi with the earthy, at times even risqué flavour of her mother tongue Punjabi. It was a unique and unprecedented combination of the Punjabi slangs’ roughness and poetic lyricism with regional rhythm. Only a few of her contemporaries like Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’ and Nirmal Verma were able to perform this feat of evolving their own literary language to give expression to whatever they had in mind. Little wonder that Sobti left her deep imprint on whatever she wrote.
Moreover, these two short novels also denoted a real point of departure in Hindi fiction writing, as never before was the women’s situation looked at from a woman’s viewpoint. In these novels, she attempted a poignant portrayal of women’s lives in rural Punjab. In 1972, her next novel “Surajmukhi Andhere Ke” (Sunflowers of the Dark) came as a bombshell because it made a foray into a no-no world of an abused woman’s psychology. It’s a veritable case history of a woman who was raped in her childhood and, as a result, became frigid, cruel and intolerant. She returns to normalcy and sheds her complexes after having a relationship with a kind and humane man. The way Sobti dealt with the man-woman relationship in this novel was truly unprecedented. Therefore, it was but natural that her novels were accorded a very warm welcome by discerning readers and critics. In her novel, “Ae Ladki” (Listen Girl), we find the culmination of this trend.
Krishna Sobti happens to be the first original feminist in Hindi. After these short novels, her tour de force came in the form of “Zindaginama” (1979) that portrays the culture, customs, mutual jealousies, envy and animosity of rural Punjab in full richness along with the Sikh community’s history of valour. It is not the narrative of a single individual or a group of individuals but the singing of the chorus of an entire ethnic community’s story. The novel makes a departure from the normative structure and offers a collage of seemingly unconnected parts that miraculously acquire a structural unity, thus forming a chorus-like musical pattern.
A well-known critic in fact likened the experience of reading this novel with an audio-visual experience. It is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional novel that contains as much musicality as the indefatigable spirit of struggle.
A novel of epic dimension, “Zindaginama” did lead to an epic fight between Sobti and famous Punjabi writer and poet Amrita Pritam when she came up with her book titled “Hardatt Ka Zindaginama”. In 1984, Sobti sued Pritam for copyright violation but lost the case in 2011, six years after Amrita Pritam’s demise. This was truly a legal battle between two titans in which people like Khushwant Singh appeared as witnesses.
Published in 1993, “Dil-O-Danish” (The Heart Has Its Reasons) offers a total contrast to the earlier novels as it tells the love story in an urban setting. Although a mistress, Naseem Bano asserts her independence and identity to face her married lover Kripashankar. Its language too is an admixture of chaste Urdu and urbane Hindi devoid of any traces of Punjabi language.
What strikes us most about Krishna Sobti’s writings is the artistic freedom that she employs in full measure with her couldn’t-care-less attitude. Hers is not a directionless, impetuous rebellion but a well thought-out revolt against the prevailing social, cultural and literary norms. Her three-volume “Ham Hashmat” (I Hashmat) is a testimony to her wit and satire as she uses a male pseudonym Hashmat to write profiles of her contemporaries. “Jaini Meharban Singh”, “Tin Pahad”, “Badalon Ke Ghere” (Circles of Clouds), “Muktibodh: Ek Vyaktitva Sahi Ki Talash Mein” (Muktibodh: A Personality in Search of Right), “Yaaron Ke Yaar” (Friend of Friends), “Shabdon Ke Alok Mein” (In the Light of Words), “Samay Sargam” (Time’s Musical Notes), “Sobti Ek Sohbat” (Sobti: A Company), “Gujarat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan” (From Gujarat in Pakistan to Gujarat in India), “Lekhak Ka Jantantra” (A Writer’s Democracy) and “Marfat Dilli” (C/O Delhi) are some of her other important works. Almost all of her books in Hindi have been published by Rajkamal Prakashan.
The writer is a seasoned literary critic