Writers@Work: Nayantara Sahgal

(Published in the Business Standard, 2010)

The residential quarters at the IIC in Delhi are reminiscent of reserved airport lounges: they both signify the temporary privilege conferred on VIPs in transit. It is an odd space in which to meet Nayantara Sahgal, a writer whose life and works are both umbilically linked to the capital city.

But Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s daughter is here on a mission: to promote the book that she hopes will both round off Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to his family, and remind a forgetful India of Pandit. It is an index of how far the editing of history has proceeded that Before Freedom includes just five letters from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Many more were written, as is apparent from Nehru’s responses, but they cannot be found. “What came down to me was what was in my mother’s possession. I did try to obtain the other half of the correspondence-they may be in some archives, perhaps, or some closed sector of a library,” says Sahgal.

It stings. In the introduction, Sahgal recounts the story of the trip she and her sister made to Allahabad in 1990 after the death of their mother. They visited Anand Bhawan, the house that Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had shared with her brother Jawaharlal for many years, and Swaraj Bhawan, where she had grown up. The guide made no mention of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit at all.

“There’s a definite attempt to blot her out. It’s ironic because she herself had no ambition to be anywhere in history.” Sahgal points out that her mother had retreated to Dehradun, where the writer now makes her home, after resigning from Parliament in 1968. “What threat could a woman who had literally bodily removed herself from public life, what possible threat could she have constituted?” she asks rhetorically. And answers her own question. “Indira Gandhi was a very different person from her father. He had a very strong, stable confidence. She was, I feel, a person deeply emotionally insecure.”

Sahgal was herself “blotted out” during the Emergency. “It was very hard on those who wrote for a living in those days and were not toeing the line of the dictatorship. The publisher who had contracted for A Situation in New Delhi, explained that my family name made it difficult to publish me. I can’t be expected to change my name to Suzy Brown, I said, and the book wasn’t published until much later.”

Looking back, she sees her books, especially the first six novels, as a chronology of the emerging India. “There is always politics in the background, balanced by the hopes and fears of that time. If A Time to Be Happy, my second novel, showed an India at the peak of idealism, Rich Like Us, my sixth novel, was about the decline and decay of that idealism.”

In recent years, the blotting out has been a voluntary process. Sahgal has remained an influential figure in the world of Indian letters, heading the Eurasia jury for the Commonwealth awards in 1990, and being the chief guest at this year’s awards, but she hasn’t published a novel since 1988. The pen hasn’t dried up: she’s written two novels since then but held back from publication. “I didn’t feel comfortable in this climate–the packaging, the advertising, the hype.”

Like many of the writers who wrote in the era B.R. (Before Rushdie, as you may have guessed), Sahgal views the present situation with a jaundiced eye. “I was writing at a time when perhaps writing was not the kind of horse race that it’s become now. Before this phase set in it was a highly individual occupation. Now you have to take the ‘readership’ into account, the market into account.” The eyes, masked till now with the professional opacity of a feted author who also hails from one of India’s first families, flash into imperious life. “I would never have submitted to that in my day.” Our time’s up; the next in a long list of assembly line interviews is waiting.

One response to “Writers@Work: Nayantara Sahgal”

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