ASHEESH MAMGAIN | 3 FEBRUARY, 2019
What a woman, what a legacy!
A trendsetter, a pioneer, bold, powerful, unabashed. That is how the literary world knew Krishna Sobti.
Those who knew her more closely, called her nazuk mizaaj, quick on the trigger, fiercely independent, a bit reserved and uncompromising. Now that she is no more with us (she passed away on January 25, 2019) all we can do is deliberate on what she has left us with and where she has left us.
Pratap Sehgal, a well-known writer in Hindi, who started reading Sobti from his college days, sees Sobti as a pioneer who broke many barriers. “Her language and idiom was new and challenged the accepted norms. Many in the literary world didn’t like it.”
He points that when Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’ writes Maila Anchal, where Bhojpuri words and phrases are used in abundance he is not only accepted but celebrated as the post-Premchand high point of Hindi literature. Then why the reservations about Sobti’s use of colloquial words of Punjabi and Urdu in her writings. He adds that, similarly, Rahi Masoom Raza also used a similar mix of language and was accepted.
Though Sobti wrote essentially in Hindi her writings were peppered with expressions and expletives too, in colloquial Punjabi. This style was destined to set her apart but simultaneously also made her difficult for the purists to swallow. It is said that when once someone asked well known and celebrated writer Agyeya if he has read Zindaginama, a novel for which she got the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980, he is supposed to have commented that “he will read it once it is published in Hindi.”
Sehgal talks about another incident which brought out Sobti’s personality. Says he, “Once the Hindi Akademi Delhi announced Sobti as the winner of its most prestigious award the Shilakha Samman. But the Akademi had not informed her or taken her approval before announcing the award. She refused the award on this very ground, pointing that before any such announcement, her approval should have been sought.”
Sehgal’s favourite book by Sobti is Hum Hashmat, a compilation of profiles of writers and friends, where she is in her true elements. Bhisham Sahni, Namvar Singh, Manohar Shyam Joshi and Nirmal Verma were some of the writers she wrote about. But importantly she wrote these pieces adopting a male pseudonym Hashmat, another defining move by Sobti.
Krishna Sobti (February 18, 1925 - January 25, 2019) was essentially a writer of Hindi fiction, though she has written some famous essays and personality profiles also. Born in Gujrat, Pakistan she studied in Lahore and Delhi and moved to India after partition.
Issues of female identity and sexuality (Mitro Marjani, 1966) were to surface in her initial writings. Says Mamta Kaliya, a leading contemporary writer in Hindi, “I think initially she was too consumed in exploring the issues around sexuality of a female body. But later on her writer mind went into more complex psychological issues confronting women and we get stories such as Surajmukhi Andhere ke and Ai Ladki.”
It was way back in 1964 when Mamta Kaliya first met Krishna Sobti at the Malkaganj home of writer couple Manu Bhandari and Rajendra Yadav.
Says she, “The first time I saw her she struck me with her physical presence as a well-built and tall lady. She was wearing her trademark dark glasses and looked aloof. She was a well-known writer by then and I was introduced to her as an upcoming one. We spoke at length about literature. I remember we were discussing a book titled ‘The Group’ by Mary McCarthy, a book that we both had read.”
By the end of the evening, Sobti had invited Mamta Kaliya to her Malkaganj home for tea. “Our relationship grew from then on. She kept a slight distance from the people she knew but we got close. My husband, a writer and editor Ravindra Kaliya, was a huge fan of Krishna Sobti. And I must tell you that she was nazuk mizaaj.”
Then she narrates her favourite Krishna Sobti episode. “Once Krishnaji was in Allahabad for a literary meet. Those days we lived on the outskirts of Allahabad. She was not happy with the hotel where she was made to stay by the event organisers. The hotel was fine but it was a bit cramped, which was enough to make her feel uncomfortable, So, she called us. Ravindraji picked her from the hotel on his two-wheeler and she stayed with us for a couple of nights. The room we gave her was next to the room where my mother-in-law stayed. Krishnaji, as was her habit, stayed up all night reading and writing. My mother-in-law kept on telling her to sleep. Well, she would finally sleep at 4am, which was the time for my mother-in-law to get up. The two ladies were such a contrast.”
Sobti was famous for her all-night writing sojourns (she then slept during the day) as that is when she found her creativity the sharpest.
The purists took their time to come about and some still have their reservations, but the readers loved her writings. Sobti, later on, was engaged in a long legal battle with Amrita Pritam over copyright issues relating to the title. This long-drawn legal affair underlines another aspect of her personality.
Narendra Mohan, a well-known and senior writer, has fond memories of Sobti. “Krishnaji was the owner of a very impressive and strong personality. Though she was much senior to me as a writer and in age as well, I was close to her. She always blamed our political leaders during the time of Independence for the tragedy of partition. She said that they played into the hands of British.”
Sikka Badal Gaya is her definitive story on the partition of India. Narendra Mohan likes another of her novel titled ‘Yaron ke Yaar’, where she explores the mindsets of the people in an office environment.
Mohan adds, “In Delhi, we spent many afternoons discussing literature, politics and life in general over coffee in Connaught Place. She would hear out your point of view with intent and patience and only then would she make her point. She blended well with the young generation and the old generation too.”
When she was not well, Narendra Mohan went to meet her. Says he, “Well, she was not happy with the way things were unfolding in the country and was particularly concerned about the danger to the freedom of expression. But she told me that this is the time for one to make a protest and take a stand. She was not in favour of adopting silence and an unconcerned attitude, which many writers have done in the face of these disturbing trends in the country.”
Sobti was one of the first writers to have famously returned her Sahitya Akademi award and also relinquished its much-esteemed Fellowship too. In 2017, she received the Gyanpeeth Award for her contribution to Indian literature. Many opine that she got the award too late purely because of her outspoken attitude and because she never thought twice before criticising those in powerful positions.
In all, she has left us with eight novels, two novellas, three volumes of profiles on other literary figures and a lasting legacy. She not only gave away the prize money of rupees 11 lakh which she got as part of her 2017 Gyanpeeth Award to Raza Foundation but also gave another one crore of her personal money to the Foundation for the development of language and literature.
Finally, she left for us her last novel Channa. The publishing of this last novel gives another insight into her personality. Actually, Channa was the first novel she wrote in 1952 and gave for publishing. When a publisher brought out the book with some changes to her writing, she withdrew the whole book, bought all the copies and burned them. Then she kept the novel with herself for all these past decades, before it was finally published in 2017 as Channa.