Literary Review

Snippets from a rich life

Out of Line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal; Ritu Menon, Fourth Estate, Rs.699.  

If modern India ever had a royal family, it has been the Nehrus. Which makes their lives particularly interesting both from a historical point of view, and for sheer gossip value. The Nehrus don’t disappoint on either count. They lived in tumultuous times and were literary and wrote prolific letters to each other with their emotional concerns, as well as books, commentaries and autobiographies, all of which are a rich source for any biographer.

Ritu Menon, writer and publisher of the feminist press Kali for Women, draws on this wealth of writing in her biography of Nayantara Sahgal, niece to India’s first Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru, and cousin to Indira Gandhi.

Nayantara, or ‘Tara’ as she was known, had a colourful personal life. As a 17-year-old studying in New York, she captivated Isamu Noguchi, the famous Japanese sculptor. The 40-year-old artist introduced her to museums and galleries and the two would remain friends for life. But this attachment — and attachments to other male friends, like a young Russian aristocrat Nicky Wyrouboff — would come in the way of her relationship with Gautam Sahgal, a pharmaceuticals executive, whom she met and married when she was just 22. Post-marriage, Nayantara — who tried to settle down to a mixture of writing and domesticity with Gautam and their three children in Bombay — found it hard to cope with Gautam’s possessiveness and jealousy. The marriage began to flounder and eventually collapsed, unable to take the strain of Nayantara’s overwhelming attraction to ICS officer E.N. Mangat Rai. Sahgal and Rai wrote over 6,000 letters to each other over a three-year period (many published later in Relationship), and would go on to marry in 1979, 12 years after her divorce from Gautam Sahgal in 1967.

Through this personal turbulence, Sahgal continued writing. Her novels and political writings were well received and began, after her marriage broke, to fill a very real need for income. By then, Nayantara — like her mother Vijaylakshmi Pandit — had been estranged from active politics. Much of the responsibility for this estrangement is placed on her cousin Indira, who resented her aunt and was hostile to her cousin. Sahgal went to see her in 1967, when her marriage was falling apart. “The deadness and coldness of the woman,” Sahgal wrote in a letter to Rai, “... and her extreme removal from even the barest humanness chilled me to the marrow. She was washing her hair when I arrived (9.45 pm) and came out with a towel wrapped around her head, sat down and said, ‘yes?’, in the tone of someone conducting an extra interview that was not in the schedule.”

Such snippets — and the book has many of these — make Sahgal’s life and times come alive. The emotional feel and flow in Sahgal’s writing is obvious even in these snippets; a quality that makes her two autobiographies Christmas and Chocolate Cake and From Fear Set Free and Relationship such rewarding reading.

What Menon’s Out of Line does is frame all these Sahgal stories with a quiet and affectionate competence. Menon likes her subject, and has spent hours in interviews and discussions with her. What emerges is a sympathetic portrait, as well as an insider’s view on Pandit Nehru and his legacy, tracing the painful and steady decline in politics through his daughter.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2021 7:16:04 PM |

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