Monday, August 4, 2014

Out of line: Looking into life, politics & literature of Nayantara Sahgal


Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Politics and literary consciousness have been a response to a whole set of conditions which have influenced the growing up years of noted writer, thinker. columnist and petrel Nayantara Sahgal,  grounded in the history, collective imagination and cultural sensitivities of an evolving India - placed in the wider context of the times.

In a new biographical volume of short essays, "The Political Imagination: A Personal Response to Life, Literature and Politics", Sahgal muses on a wide range of subjects that touches on the political, cultural, environmental and personal engagements with eminent personalities to identify a nebulous contour of a contemporary India that is changing each passing minute, in a desperate attempt to find its place on the complex geopolitical map of the world.
Sahgal contexts her arguments of a new India in the perspective of the Nehruvian model of growth, which is inclusive, plural and at the same time post-modern - ensuing in the decades after Independence, when the country built its first edifices of development and culture to script a new indigenous language, moving away from the yolk of European templates.

Sahgal expounds on the new ethos arising out of the confluence of the east and west which makes political notions and creative imagination border-less. "I don't believe that in due course that we will not come back to a more civilised way of thinking. Why should we not see that nothing is static forever. Individuals change, nature changes, matters change ...," Sahgal said, defending a changing India. And its changing perception across the globe from the days when the "bulk of the Americans did not know where India was" and when "the sari was branded a native Indian costume" to a globalised country with a definite national signature in the 21st century.       

"When I was a child, the Indian postage stamps carried the pictures of the English king and the queen. I remember asking my father very forlornly, Bapu, will the English king's picture be always on the stamp. (I must have been six or seven then). The empire was then immovable, unshakable. Everyone believed that England will rule the world. Father said there will come a time when the English will not be there on the stamps. If you believe in change; change comes about," Sahgal said at the launch of her biographical essays in the national capital on Aug 1. Her personal interface with the freedom struggle was her father Ranjit Sitaram Pandit's commitment to the fight and his eventual death caused by the numerous prison terms. Her political convictions were crafted and contoured by uncle Jawaharal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of an independent India and mother Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, a foreign service officer, who was India’s first envoy to Moscow.

Nayantara however careened to a different trajectory, pitch-forked by a rash marriage to Gautam Sahgal, a Punjabi businessman of means  She became a critic,  a watch dog of a India that became aggressive after her affectionate “mamu” (Jawaharlal Nehru) made way for daughter Indira. And thereon. 
Sonia is a balm of sobriety to Indira’s strident dynasty promotion of the 1970s-1980s, she said at the launch of her book.”She (sic Sonia) did not put Rahul at the helm”, unlike Indira, “who propelled for sons”.   “I admire her greatly for the way she took up the challenge. She did not even know the language of India. but she travelled the langrh and breadth of India (more than Manmohan Singh),,,”Sahgal was expansive in her praise.               

Personally, Sahgal looked at India with the eye of a student educated in America (Wellesley College) - refreshing, uncluttered and candid about the flaws in the system.      

The writer, who has authored nine novels and 10 works of non-fiction, is often described as the fore-runner of the modern Indian novel in which she addresses the concerns of the middle class, the decadent aristocracy, women struggling to emerge from the confines of male dominated outposts and the political brass. In a chapter, "Narrating the Political", the Sahgal explains the importance of the "political" in the written work- which encapsulates the "political imagination in her narratives".

"The world is what we see from where we stand. Writing comes out of that context- but in a hundred different ways. You and I may be a part of the same era and environment, yet we may react to it very differently and write from radically different point of views. Our choice of subject, the way we describe it and from what point of view makes writing a political act... Writers have through the cloistered act of writing stepped into controversies, taken sides, made it clear that this is right or wrong not as polemics and propaganda but by fashioning the truth as they see it into the stuff of people's lives...," Sahgal says about political engagement in literature.

A section devoted to "Fighting the Emergency" brings out Sahgal's involvement with politics as a writer and a journalist. It was a period of stumbling blocks for the fiery Sahgal, who found her vitriolic columns against then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi's imposition of emergency gagged by a "wary" government and her publishing commissions cancelled. The section is made of a series of missives and articles that Sahgal wrote to castigate the "suppression" of the citizens' democratic freedom in 1975.

In a letter to R.S. Kelkar, the then secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, the apex body of literary activity in the country, in 1976, Sahgal said "... the question of free expression and free circulation of ideas is crucial to a free society. I should have thought that nothing could be as important as this to the Sahitya Akademi which is concerned with writers and their work. Your failure to bring this issue to the notice of the President convinces me that the Sahitya Akademi does not concern itself with free expression. Indeed it seems willing to be a servile body, an obedient servant of dictatorship....I regret I cannot serve on any committee that is so lost to self-respect as to remain silent on the censorship that is strangulating India today".

Biographer Ritu Menon sees two distinct phases in Nayantara Sahgal's writing - one before 1967 and the other after her "divorce". "The break in her personal life made a change in the way she wrote," says Menon, the author of Sahgal's biography, "Out of line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal.

The anecdotal biography that opens with 21-year-old Tara Pandit's marriage to Punjabi businessman Gautam Sahgal, says Sahgal's early novels like "A Time to Be Happy", 'From Fear Set Free" and "Prisons and Chocolate Cakes" were the creative expressions of memories, realities and an urge to become something beyond "housewife and mother".

It was as her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru described, "One cannot ignore the domestic sphere, but a wider activity gives more meaning to life". The post-1967 novels were elegiac laced with bitterness, regret, cynicism - and a sharp political understanding of the key issues confronting the times. They were Sahgal's encounters with maturity and insights into the socio-political maneuverings of the Nehru-Gandhi era.      

{Both the books have been published by Harper Collins-India)