Writers@Work: Krishna Sobti

(Published in the Business Standard, 1999)

A writer who’s just had the first Katha Lifetime Achievement award handed over to her by the Dalai Lama shouldn’t be obsessing about the Pope, but nobody told Krishna Sobti this. “My blood boils at the anti-Pope demonstrations,” she says with a fiery intensity. “Hum log kya kar rahe hai? When I was a child in Delhi, your next-door neighbours came from all parts of India, all religions. Then, the differences were celebrated rather than excoriated.”

Four decades as an author, academic and activist haven’t drained the passion out of Sobti’s veins–if anything, the passage of years has merely served as a forge where her beliefs have been hammered into sharp-edged instruments. She offers a tray of snacks that she says pointedly are easy to prepare since she’s opposed to wasting valuable time in the kitchen; looks with barely concealed triumph at a portrait of her underlined by a quotation from one of her books. “First, the printers picked a quote that dealt with the home, the kitchen,” she says, shrugging at the absurdity of someone trying to package her, of all people, as a Good Woman Author. “I said, this will not do. You must change it.” Like many authors who are too secure to give in to the fashionable lure of writing in English, Sobti is polite about the spate of Indo-Anglian writing. “Much of it is good, and it will improve with time,” she says kindly. “But there is an absence of passion, a passion that is very much present in ‘regional’ literature.”

Though she’s spent a large part of her time this year honing an already acute activism, the fiftyish Sobti is concentrating on her writing side by side. A new novel about the experiences of the elderly, is due out in another few months. It should be a worthy companion to her previous work–eight novels, including Mitro Majani, Zindaginama and Surajmukhi Andhere ke, short stories and a collection of sketches under the pen name of Hashmat. “Hashmat is not merely a pen name but my spiritual double,” she writes in a series of musings about her work. “As you know (says Hashmat, a few lines later), I have been living constantly with a person by the name of Krishna Sobti. She is a big bore!”

A big bore? Not a chance. Whether she’s signing anti-nuclear petitions or protesting against the distortion of history in school textbooks or informing women that there’s life beyond the kitchen, Krishna Sobti can hold an audience of one to one hundred in the palm of her hand. She knows with an instinct born of long practice just when to use a sledgehammer dismissal, a rapier thrust or her trademark humour. The patented Sobti laugh–rich, rolling, a whole-body effort–is guaranteed to boom out like a punctual punctuation mark every so often. But don’t let it deceive you.

As she gears up for the three-day seminar on her work that will accompany the award ceremony, she deftly juggles the many demands on her time–friends, causes, publishers, the media. And Sobti has the last word, by right. “I take myself seriously as a writer. My work and my life is a serious matter for me–it’s not just the art of writing that’s important. It’s the way you live your life that counts.”

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