IIn an age of instant gratification and the reduction of literature to consumer level, a writer is worth as much as the sales of his latest work. Every publisher strives to be on the bestseller list. Bookstores list books based on their perceived popularity. But there are writers who wrote books that survived them, defying these passing trends.
Krishna Sobti, the irrepressible voice against patriarchy and social divisions, was one such writer. During his lifetime, many feared his pen. After his death, his writings continue to speak, giving hope to a nation once again grappling with social fractures and to a society rapidly splitting into “us” and “them”.
Rightly, Routledge’s Writer in Context series opens with a book on Krishna Sobti, his works, his time. Renowned writer-poet Sukrita Paul, never short of sensitivity and an ability to heal with her pen, co-edited the volume Krishna Sobti: a counter-archive with Rekha Sethi. The effort is to bring out the writer with all his asperities and the undulating contours of the era that shaped his writings. Sukrita Paul and Rekha Sethi are quick to give ample space to Krishna Sobti’s long legal battle with writer Amrita Pritam over the use of the name of Sobti’s most famous novel, Zindaginama, in a work of his own. But that’s not the only reason to choose this meticulously researched book with intellectual depth. It shows Krishna Sobti for what she stood for.
Krishna Sobti, as Sukrita Paul says, “develops in his fiction a sense of history which ironically pushes him to go beyond it. Looking straight into the eyes of the divisive politics of the past, she wanted to suggest a path towards an integrated social vision. Challenging the conventional portrayal of female characters, she created a space for women who could express their “desire” and thrive. In an age of bulldozer politics and constant social wrangling, Krishna Sobti remains as relevant in 2022 as she was when her novels were first published.
Incidentally, the possibility of this book was first explored in 2003, the aim being to provide the serious reader in English with “some of Sobti’s seminal prose pieces together with some selected critical essays on his works, translated into English “.
Shortly before leaving for the United States, Sukrita Paul answered a few questions from First line on the Writer in Context series and gave insight into the world of Krishna Sobti.
Excerpts from the interview:
As someone who has been involved in teaching, researching and translating Indian literature for the past decades, I have been acutely aware of the paucity of critical material in this field. With the multiplicity of literary traditions circulating in linguistically pluralistic fields in India, writers here need to be contextualized appropriately for a comprehensive understanding of their works. The “Writer in Context” series was conceptualized to facilitate the process. Indian writers in English translation are generally read and taught in India and abroad, with little knowledge of the socio-cultural and literary context from which they emerge, and sometimes rebel against it.
With Chandana Dutta as co-editor of my series, we have now planned volumes on 11 post-independence writers from different Indian languages to be edited by scholars and critics from different parts of the country. Two volumes, one on Krishna Sobti and the other on Urdu writer Joginder Paul, have already been published while two are in production. The series is published by Routledge UK [United Kingdom] and South Asia.
Read also: A life of challenge
Our aim is to present in each volume the writer’s distinctive traits within his linguistic tradition by introducing the reader to the writer’s work, followed by essays demonstrating critical reception in the writer’s own language. , as well as in the wider literary sphere of the world. Literature. Needless to say, the series will bring out the diversity present in Indian literatures.
My cherished conversations with Krishna Sobti spanned almost two decades, sometimes focusing on the creative process, sometimes expressing his deep engagement with the contemporary socio-political situation or sharing his life experiences from his past. But there were times when she was in the mood for light-hearted anecdotes with a twinkle in her eye. Her keen observation, mastery of detail, and storytelling skills were almost bewitching, especially when she used subtle irony. Regardless of the government, it was openly anti-establishment and reacted particularly to bigotry or bigoted politics.
His writing cannot be considered totally different. When Rekha Sethi, my co-editor, and I discussed our book on Krishna Sobti, we thought it was important to place excerpts from his book Pratirodh (Resistance) alongside his creative writing if only to establish the connections between the writer and his reactionary self. The score remained a constant reference for the narration of his history of India. As she had been deeply touched personally, her sensitivity as a writer compelled her to write stories about the experience of sheet music, both on a personal and collective level. In addition to exorcising herself from the horrific violence she witnessed, she sincerely wanted the subcontinent to learn from history so it wouldn’t repeat itself.
It is pertinent to underline here Krishnaji’s ardent concern for the autonomy and dignity of the writer as well as his resentment at being presented as a mere ‘woman writer’, which came through vehemently in his conversations.
As mentioned earlier, whether it was the long shadow of partition or his anti-establishment stance, Krishna Sobti was constantly a troubled soul. vis à vis the rather traumatic miscellaneous facts that she carefully collected. She had even ended up writing journalistic articles for newspapers and magazines to record her words as a conscientious and responsible citizen of the country. The hindi newspaper Jansatta often featured his articles on the front page. While she was critical of “superiors”, or those in positions of authority, she was certainly not judgmental of ordinary people whom she saw as victims of the vicious game often played by politicians. In most of his creative writing, Krishna Sobti is non-judgmental in his depiction of provocative women or men who challenge rigid conventions and bigotry.
A counter-archive inevitably destabilizes accepted norms and practices in a society. It dehistoricizes certain truths of the past if only to establish their value for a future. Krishna Sobti develops in his fiction a sense of history which ironically pushes him to go beyond it. Looking straight into the eyes of the divisive politics of the past, she wanted to suggest a path towards an integrated social vision. Challenging the conventional portrayal of female characters, she created a space for women who could express their “desire” and thrive. Undoubtedly, Krishna Sobti should be understood as a counter-archive, a writer who wishes to disturb the status quo to create possibilities for a better future in his creative writings.
Zindaginama was a novel very dear to Krishna Sobti. In this novel, she wished to capture “The story that is not/And the story that is…/The one that flows/Along the sacred Bhagirathi/People’s consciousness…” This is the story of a vibrant life of unity, of the culture of the undivided region to which Krishna Sobti wanted to cling. The likes of Amir Khusro, Baba Farid and the myth of Pir Khwaja Khizr throbbed on the chest of this land and sang of harmony and love. In the wake of the civilizational rupture caused by the communal policy of dividing the subcontinent, Krishna Sobti wrote his vision of composite culture in the novel Zindaginama illustrating the history of what existed before. Krishna Sobti was deeply pained by the way politics led to divisions and ruptures rather than nurturing unity. Indeed, this novel requires sensitive attention with a strong resonance of immediacy.
It is unknown why the trilogy was not completed. I think Zindaginama was in such a complete way on its own that there was perhaps not enough urge for the writer to return to adding another volume. Moreover, she was so disturbed and absorbed by the dispute over the title that she had no desire or time to do a second one in the series. That’s not to say she wasn’t writing other novels at that time…. And, of course, Partition as a theme stayed with her until the end. Gujarat Pakistan se Gujrat Hindustan Takwas an autobiographical novel related to his experience of migrating across the border.
Read also: Write without dots
There is no doubt that she was very attached to this novel which was her magnum opus, epic in its canvas. She was very aware of her copyright to the title of the novel. When Amrita Pritam used it as part of her novel Hardutt ka Zindaginama, she was disturbed. We have included in our book, her “Notes on Zindaginama” where she gives her reasons and justification for fighting the court case with Amrita Pritam over the title. For her, she said, the lawsuit represented her serious intention to protect an author’s rights to the title of her novel. She used almost all her savings in this battle which lasted almost 25 years.
“The provocative articulation of female desire”
Yes, this is another much discussed novel by Krishna Sobti in which new grounds are broken for female desire. Patriarchy within a household works to suppress a woman’s need for sexual gratification. She is indeed treated as an object/victim of male desire. Krishna Sobti’s novel is a bold depiction of the female protagonist Mitro, to whom the writer bestows language to assert her bodily needs, all within the domestic setting. It was not easy for middle-class readership to accept such a provocative articulation of female desire initially, but later the novel was celebrated for stripping all hypocrisy from Mitro’s truth.
The Krishna Sobtis are always rare, but when they emerge, the strength of their conviction and the strength of their writing affirm their presence and the editors end up bowing to them. Krishna Sobti never fit into the conventional context…that’s why we call it a counter-archive.
Following the recent publication of the second book in the series, which focuses on Joginder Paul, the three books currently in production focus on iconic writers Indira Goswami, Amrita Pritam and Mahasweta Devi. The rest will follow gradually.