Nayantara Sahgal talks about her life, work and the ever-changing idea of India on the eve of a new book and biography
Rajni George | 06 Aug, 2014
Nayantara Sahgal talks about her life, work and the ever-changing idea of India on the eve of a new book and biography
“In fiction, there is no such thing as closure,” says Nayantara Sahgal. “You keep drawing on your own life and those of many people’s lives around you. People you encountered maybe ten years ago you might write a story about.” At 87, she is not close to done, it would seem; a collection of stories are gathering from the many moments history has given her intimate admission to. “I will be commenting on the current situation and its many aspects through fiction,” she says. “You don’t write about a political situation or event; you write about its effect on the lives of ordinary people.”
Like most women of her generation who stood up and spoke out early, Sahgal speaks precisely, even sternly, in her crisp, well-modulated idiom, despite her soft voice and the small, elegant figure she makes. Nehru’s niece corrects me carefully as we walk through the lawns of the India International Centre in Delhi. The daughter of celebrated barrister Ranjit Sitaram Pandit and diplomat and politician Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit—the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post—Sahgal found her own way to blaze forward as she chronicled the evolution of modern India. Later today, her latest book, The Political Imagination: A Personal Response to Life, Literature and Politics (HarperCollins India, 236 pages)—her twentieth—is to be launched in a conversation with political critic Ashis Nandy: a collection of letters, essays, addresses and lectures typically charged with her staunch political concerns. Simultaneously, a biography around her life and work will be released, describing how the author has, in the past, been charged with stepping ‘Out of Line’ (HarperCollins India, 400 pages), as the book is titled. Sahgal is one of the most respected pioneering Indian writers in English. The recipient of the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, the Sahitya Akademi Award (for Rich Like Us in 1985) and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and helped found the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, serving as its vice- president during the 1980s. The author of nine novels and 11 works of non-fiction which chronicle young India’s life and times, she has been likened to Nadine Gordimer and began a long career full of steady milestones in 1954. Prison and Chocolate Cake, a well-received memoir detailing the Nehru- Gandhi family’s involvement with Independence and beyond, was published by no less than Alfred A Knopf in the US (and by left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz in England).
“I had the urge to recapture the freedom struggle during which I had grown up, and how it had affected my family. I felt in a few years time it would be history, and another generation might not know about it,” says Sahgal. Indeed, if it wasn’t for her family, much of what we take for granted today might have been very different. Sahgal, who had been living abroad, returned home two months after Independence. “It was a very difficult time. Not something to rejoice over, except after a long hard struggle India was independent. For us as a family, it was a great fulfillment of all we had worked for; lived and died for, in the case of my father. He died when I was 16 because of his jail sentence. My mother and the rest of my family were [in and out of prison] too.”
At a time when seminal authors Kamala Markandaya and Anita Desai were among the few women beginning to write and establish literary careers, the 27-year-old author came to the world’s attention, selling around 7,000 copies in hardback in the US alone (considerable then, and now, even if not a bestseller). Soon, she began to be read beyond those interested in the Nehru-Gandhi family, though she may have achieved a smaller kind of fame than some of her literary peers. Her novels, together, make up a picture of Indian society in its formative years, building on the legacy bequeathed her and her peers by previous literary forbears like Mulk Raj Anand and Nirad C Chaudhuri.
“I was one of the first Indian writers to be published abroad,” recalls Sahgal, of a sparse publishing scene back home. “I felt I was doing what I wanted to do, I was happy it was being recognised, because I was talking about an India which was very different from the India which had been represented up till then through Western eyes, with subjects like maharajas and tiger shoots.”
Her first novel A Time to be Happy (1958), an idealistic tale around the last days of the Raj and the decline of zamindari- style feudalism, showed us characters from New India, idealistic and passionate about autonomy or attempting to protect the old order, alternately. This was followed by several smaller novels before the prize-winning Rich Like Us (1985), set against the backdrop of the Emergency, and Mistaken Identity (1988), about a minor maharaja mistakenly apprehended for subversive political activities. “One is a young Indianised IAS officer who opposed the Emergency, another an English Cockney woman in India,” says Sahgal, of the protagonists of Rich Like Us. “Both are highly courageous and upstanding women who stood up for something. I think my women have come out more and more in that respect.”
Indeed, writers Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser count Mistaken Identity’s Razia among their favourites, she tells me.
“I remember reading once that William Faulkner, a great writer whom I admire, once said ‘I have a great time running after my characters keeping up with them’. I know exactly what he meant, because it’s not you, it’s the characters who are relieving themselves; therefore the words are putting themselves on the page,” says Sahgal, who admires Graham Greene and Mahasweta Devi. Perhaps it was the urgency of the time. “I was writing about an India that had just come to life; the making of modern India.”
‘Nayantara was heir to both the liberal, westernized education of the Nehrus, as well as to its reasonably conservative social and family conventions,’ Kali for Women publisher Ritu Menon, author of Out of Line, writes. Hers is a comprehensive account of Sahgal’s glamorous life.
Sahgal has spent 15 years in Bombay, 14 in Delhi, several years in Chandigarh, was brought up in Allahabad, Lucknow, Mussoorie and Almora, and now lives in Dehradun, where her mother left her a house. Five years at Woodstock School in Mussoorie was her longest continuous period at school, and an instructive one in terms of being a co-educational school with an American syllabus; the sisters often had to change schools because of the political situation and her parents having to be in and out of jail. Next came Wellesley College in the US. “At the time my older sister had been arrested in 1942 and spent several months in prison. The Government declared that no one from our family or any rebel family could enter university unless they gave an undertaking not to take part in political activities. Of course the student generation was highly political at the time, and certainly no one in my family could give such a guarantee.” The Chiang Kaisheks were visiting to try to persuade the British Government to set up a national government in India (so that Indians could take part in the war effort and support it), and Mrs Kaishek offered to help get the girls into Wellesley; she was one of their most distinguished alumni. “Both my parents were in jail at that time, and though I was not yet of age, [my mother] sent me and my older sister. It happened in a most unusual fashion.”
In addition to the writer’s political development, we read of her early love affairs, her struggles with the conventions of marriage and the many legendary figures who made up the early education of a complicated and beautiful young woman. Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Max Ernst were among the bohemians she met at Greenwich Village, often at the MacDougal Alley studio of Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was romantically involved with Anaïs Nin and Frida Kahlo before falling in love with Sahgal. Welcomed by everyone from Pearl S Buck—who wrote presciently how ‘Tara’ would never be satisfied with simplicity, would crave more than just marriage—to Ho Chi Minh, she made a grand entrance onto the international stage.
From this world of freedom, of which she speaks candidly in the book, young Sahgal returned, to duty, to home, to India. “There was never any question in my mind that India is my home. I was very certain that my contribution such that it is, is through being an Indian living in India. Mind you, there are many Indians living abroad writing. I have always felt that what they write, which is important, is a different genre. There is something unique about the connection between story and soil.”
Understandable, of course, in a family which has made such sacrifices for the idea, and the reality, of India. The family wore khadi all through their lives, growing up. “I wore a khadi sari and flowers for my wedding,” Sahgal remembers, of her first marriage, to radically different businessman Gautam Sahgal; her second marriage was to EN Mangat Rai, an Indian Civil Service officer, with whom she exchanged a series of letters published as Relationship in 1994.
Sahgal’s political writing started many years later after she moved to Delhi, following her divorce. “I never took part in political activity. I never wanted to. My uncle said ‘Why should you?’ He said, ‘If you want to write, write.’ I simply wrote because I feel there were issues I needed to comment on. Although I have never wanted to enter politics, politics has been a great part of my life from my childhood on, therefore it has formed a background to all my fiction. It led me to take a deep interest in what was happening in my country.”
And so it began. “Fiction is one way of knowing a writer. Non-fiction is a more direct way,” says Sahgal. “Events were such that I also needed badly to earn a living. So I took to writing political commentary for The Indian Express and other papers.” Her generation used sheer grit as a means of survival, it would appear. “I’ve never been frightened of anything. I was brought up not to be afraid. When Gandhiji took up the leadership of the Indian National Congress, his message was: don’t be afraid. We as children were brought up not to be afraid. We were told we must not cry in front of the police when they came to arrest our parents. That’s the way I grew up, I can’t help it.”
This lesson bore the test of time. “There was a very turbulent period when I opposed Mrs Gandhi’s emergency. During that period I really put myself on the line. I was on the Sahitya Akademi’s advisory board for English, along with Pritish Nandy and Anita Desai, and I wrote to the Sahitya Akademi saying that I would wish them to issue a statement condemning censorship, condemning the imprisonment of writers and others without trial, and condemning the wholesale destruction of our fundamental rights. They refused to do that, so I resigned my membership. And I did the same with the Authors Guild of India.” At the request of Vijayprakash Narayanan, Sahgal then went to Bihar, to write about the beginning of what was known as the Bihar Movement.
“I was under surveillance, I was under threat; that my husband and I would be turned out of our accommodation at 24 hours notice if we didn’t step into line, if I didn’t stop writing. Although I was prevented from writing politically, I was definitely writing for undercover circulation. The whole time was not only dangerous for me because I might have gone to jail any day, but financially disastrous, because, for several reasons, the novel I had written was dropped by the publisher, because he said it was too dangerous. A filmmaker dropped a project for the same reason. For the second year of the Emergency, to avoid arrest, I got out of the country; I spent the second year of the Emergency abroad.”
The opposition to her cousin Indira was much remarked upon. “That was my only venture into political activism. I did feel I had to step out because it was a dictatorship in India at the time and I couldn’t keep silent about it. I felt it went against my whole past and my upbringing. Some people said to me at the time, ‘How can you go against your family?’ I said ‘I am not going against my family, I am defending it.’ Because I was defending Nehru.”
Her eyes grow moist as she speaks of the man she calls her third parent, as they do when we speak of her father’s time in prison.
“We adored him. He was a most amazing and heroic human being, as well as a very loveable one. We all, my sisters and I, adored him. When my father died, which happened in 1944, Mamu became in his place like a father. It was to him that I turned with all my problems.”
Our talk turns to today. “My worry—not that I know so much about education today—is that perhaps subjects like history, philosophy, art, literature, are being put on the backburner in favour of commerce, technology and that kind of thing. If that is so, it means the younger generation does not know so much about our recent past. I hope I am wrong, but I get the feeling young people don’t know as much as they ought to know. I’m horrified at what I read in the newspaper about the textbooks being released in Gujarat, where they are teaching mythology as science and as history. If that’s the trend we’re going to take, we’re in for a very ignorant generation.”
Does this return us to politics? “I am worried about the fact that now we have the RSS in power, because I think it’s a very dangerous situation in India. I don’t believe in the RSS slogan of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’. All of this seems to be influencing the Government more and more,” says Sahgal, steely despite her age. (It is only after an hour or so that she suddenly reveals her son died in January: “For me anyway, part of me died when he died.”)
Perhaps subsequent generations have not been as certain about being in India, wanting to make their way all over the world, I suggest. “Which is right, why shouldn’t we be all over the world?” responds Sahgal. “I think it’s a natural development of the opportunities people have today. Going abroad doesn’t make you less Indian. Indians are making a mark in every field.”
And what of feminism? “I have a great admiration for the whole feminist movement because it was so necessary. I think I would [identify myself as a feminist] now, because basically what it means is being autonomous, and being an individual, and I have certainly done this. In my family, it was the men who were feminists; they encouraged women to come forward and act.”
Do they make Indian men like that today, I wonder, as we discuss the charm of a progressive man like Nehru and the possibility of real progress.
Sahgal is attentive, curious to hear what this generation thinks. She hears me out, pauses. “In time everything changes,” she smiles.