With the classics!

Elegance personified Nayantara Sahgal in New Delhi

Elegance personified Nayantara Sahgal in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Photo: V.V. Krishnan

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY speaks to Nayantara Sahgal, two of whose works have been re-launched to mark Harper Collins’ Perennial imprint here

This past May, Nayantara Sahgal turned 80. The weight of age now shows on her face, her greying hair, and in her calculated steps. Her dewy, sad eyes, though, have withstood the test of time. Like many senior citizens in urban India, Nayantara, after the death of her husband E.N. Mangat Rai four years ago, lives alone in her Dehra Dun house, once owned by her mother Vijaylaxmi Pandit. With a hint of worry, she says, “There was an attempted burglary in my house recently.” But she quickly withdraws from the topic. For she is not used to drawing attention to this vulnerable side of hers. Having grown up in a family where women were highly emancipated, she can’t unlearn her childhood lessons on retaining a grip on the ways of life with poise.

And then, this ‘favourite niece of Nehru’ has far more enriching things to talk about. The most recent being the re-launch of two of her famous books, “Mistaken Identity” and “Prison and Chocolate Cake” — widely considered modern Indian classics — to mark the launch of Harper Collins’ Perennial imprint in India.

Seated on a cane chair at New Delhi’s India International Centre with the winter morning sun providing the right warmth for a lazy conversation, Nayantara, in her soft tone, says, “I am very honoured by this move.”

“Prison and Chocolate Cake”, her memoir penned in 1954, is, she states, “a piece of contemporary history”. Apart from her growing up years in Anand Bhavan when the fight for freedom was in full throttle, it documents her years in Landour’s Woodstock School, her father’s death in prison, her mother and uncle Nehru’s continuous back-and-forth trips to jail, Gandhiji’s call for Satyagraha, his assassination, the country in an era of uncertainty, and also the good times of family life knitted together. “The book has entered courses in many a college curriculum, not only in India but in the West too,” she points out. Even decades after writing it, she still lectures on it in universities in the West.

Her other re-launch, “Mistaken Identity”, published in 1988, is a richly nuanced historical novel circling around a minor Raja in British India. The narrative throws up not only a tragic life in a decaying monarchy during the British rule, but also has comic nuances.

“This book is very close to my heart. When the publishing house asked me to choose one of my novels for the launch of its new imprint in India, I didn’t have to think much. For it reflects a part of our history, and I had great fun writing it,” says the author with a grin.

Her women characters

Growing up in a political family, Nayantara says the political subjects of her books have been obvious outcomes rather than deliberate shots. “Politics is my natural material, I have seen it very closely,” she says. But in the process of seeing her writings interwoven with the politics of the day, what one often overlooks is her women characters. Be it her Maya, Ranee, Rashmi, Shonali, Saroj or the others, Nayantara’s women have grown from being subservient to learning how to assert themselves, with a hint of guilt first and then finally discarding it for freedom.

“This is what I see in the society now,” says Nayantara, whose first marriage gave her a huge shock. “With a dominant husband, I was expected to lead a subordinate role. I was not prepared for it. Seeing liberalised women in my family, I thought all women were like that,” she says.

Setting the past aside, Nayantara talks about what lies in the future. “I am thinking of editing my mother’s papers. They are in the Nehru Library and are great lessons on diplomacy,” she says. And then she has “a novel in mind too.”

Recommended for you