Spiralling inwards

Nayantara Sahgal, Ashis Nandy and Ritu Menon at the launch   | Photo Credit: 07dmclaunch

How does one write the biography of a person who has not only, by virtue of her upbringing, always been in the public eye, but has also, in several volumes of fiction and non-fiction, written about everything of significance to her? This was the conundrum Ritu Menon, feminist writer and publisher of Women Unlimited, was faced with when she decided to write a biography of the prolific author and columnist Nayantara Sahgal, the daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru.

At a recent event, marking the publication of “Out Of Line”, Ritu’s biography of Nayantara, as well as Nayantara’s collection of letters, essays and lectures, “The Political Imagination”, Ritu said, “I didn’t want to write the lives of great men kind of biography…That sort of tedious detail…was not something I was interested in at all. What I was interested in was to see if I could create an atmosphere of personal significance.”

Eschewing the conventional linear narrative, Ritu has chosen a spiral approach, where the personal, political and literary strands of her subject’s life entwine. It’s a life worth documenting, she added, because it symbolises a historic divide in the life of the country.

The launch saw the authors in conversation, with Ashis Nandy as their interlocutor. Responding to Nandy’s suggestion that there is ambivalence towards politics in her writings, Nayantara said she was, on the other hand, quite clearheaded in her support for the brand of “ethical politics” her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru represented. “…When I was strongly opposing the Emergency, to the extent that I was putting myself on the line, people came to me and said ‘why are you going against your family, Indira Gandhi is your family’. I said I am not going against my family, I am defending what my family stood for,” she clarified.

While Nandy wondered if Nehruvian ethics could ever be restored, Nayantara expressed a more hopeful view. “It will come back in future. It may not come in our times but I don’t believe that we will not in due course get back to a more civilised way of thinking and behaving…the one thing we can rely on is change,” she said. She chastised the dynastic ways of the Congress, “a historic democratic party”, but expressed admiration for Sonia Gandhi for teaching herself the ways of politics in an environment hostile to her.

As political matters threatened to overwhelm the discussion, a question from Congress MP Shashi Tharoor about the qualities of Nayantara’s writings steered the discussion towards the literary side of things. In response, Ritu called Nayantara, whose fiction has consistently mined the political zeitgeist of India, “one of the forerunners of the modern Indian novel”. Right from her first novel (“A Time To Be Happy”), she said, Nayantara’s fiction has been marked by a refusal to exoticise the country and its people, a tendency that is as rampant today as it was then. The biographer also suggested that the aforementioned novel is a quintessential post-modern one, something remarkable for the time it was written in.

Responding to a question from the author Kishwar Desai about the ease or difficulty of allowing a biographer to enter her life, to which she has a very specific relationship in her autobiographical writings, Nayantara said she treated “Out Of Line” as a biographer’s book throughout, and was happy to provide whatever material was needed.

“It is my book, but it is your life,” Ritu responded, illustrating the delicate contract inherent in a biographical project. “…It’s a challenge to try and write a biography of somebody you have a great regard for… and who it’s very difficult to push back into time.”

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 10:58:31 AM |

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