Milestone Reviews

A strong voice

A subtle sense of voice: Krishna Sobti. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

A subtle sense of voice: Krishna Sobti. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty  

Krishna Sobti, who turned 90 earlier this year, is of the first generation of prominent women novelists of modern Hindi. Her first novel, Daar Se Bichhudi (translated as Memory’s Daughter by Smita Bharti and Meenakshi Bharadwaj) was published in 1958. In the 1950s, Hindi novels were either dominated by urban realism of the sort practised by Rajendra Yadav and Kamleshwar (who were in the vanguard of the Nayi Kahani or New Story movement), or the ‘aanchalik’ (provincial lyric) novel made famous by Phanishwarnath Renu. From this fecund mix, Sobti’s novel emerged as a unique, amalgamative voice.

Set in rural Punjab of the early 19th century, Memory’s Daughter was the story of a young woman coming of age in a charged world of war. It took the theme of sexuality from the Nayi Kahani writers, but also the highly lyricised tone of the rural from Renu. But Sobti was not committed to any particular geography — hers was no provincial nationalism of linguistic geography, but rather a display of a mastery of technique. Perhaps she knew better than Renu that the privilege of celebrating your own region (linguistic and geographical) was not given to everyone. Sobti herself belonged to what became Pakistan, and Partition’s embers smoulder through her sense of home and city.

Committed only to the widest diversity of Hindustani, her later novels moved between different idioms — from the rich Rajasthani of Mitro Marjani (translated as To Hell with You Mitro by Gita Rajan and Raji Narasimhan) to the highly cultured Urdu-ised Hindi of Dil-o-danish (translated as The Heart Has Its Reasons by Reema Anand and Meenakshi Swami).

However, what sets Sobti apart — beyond her ability to represent different idioms — is her subtle sense of voice. Beyond the linguistic anthropology of different dialects, her novels themselves simply float on crisscrossing currents of voices. Characters are less flesh than the weight and movement, the rise and fall, the cry and lust of their voices. Sobti is a novelist to be read aloud, and few celebrate this extraordinary aural diversity of Hindi more than her.

Yet, to master such a voice is also to master silence, and solitude. Though Sobti is most famous for the open, and even aggressive, sexuality of novels like Mitro Marjani, it is perhaps the quieter novels that will endure longer. In Surajmukhi Andhere Ke (translated as Sunflowers of the Dark by Pamela Manasi), Sobti sketches an unforgettable portrait of depression, and arduous, tentative recovery. Equally, in her late work, such as Samay Sargam (translated as The Music of Solitude by Vasudha Dalmia), there is the doubled silence of two old friends. Sadness courses through life and memory, and even their conversation is the affectionate, understanding quiet of true friendship. Friendships between genders, irrespective of whether there was a prior sexual relationship, is highlighted as the main emotional refuge in cities (like her beloved Delhi) where everyday life is increasingly unbearable and alien.

Sobti’s work always endorsed the spirited, audacious woman. In her work the struggle is often of the single woman who has chosen not to have a child. In many novels the key relationship is between the mother and daughter; that, with every step the daughter takes to not repeat what she perceives as her mother’s mistake, she finds herself in the brink of a similar situation. Ai Ladki (translated as Listen Girl! by Shivanath) has the voices of the mother and daughter so entangled that only the mother’s death eventually brings some measure of freedom (and peace and love) to both.

Sobti has been fortunate in her many translators. Indeed, it seems that there is a lot of love in this discovery by the many translators of a proud and immensely sagacious literary foremother. May more readers join in this homage, for few oeuvres throw up more crafted, joyful, immersive prose.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 3:15:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/a-strong-voice-krishna-sobti/article7067911.ece

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