Krishna Sobti: A fiercely honest and bold writer who has left a huge legacy of a sense of freedom
Krishna Sobti has left for us writers a huge legacy of a sense of freedom, in the smallest things as in the biggest. To be truly free, her books tell us, a writer must firmly fob off bitterness
Krishna Sobti, a doll-like figure draped in yards of voluminous Ghararas, colourful kurtis and dazzling embroidered dupatta draped over her head, her mischievously watchful eyes covered with large shades, was a rare orchid in the often uncouth and hostile (for women and outcastes) world of Hindi literature.
She stood out with the sheer brilliance of her writing. Hindi was not her mother tongue or even her first language. She was born in Gujarat (now in Pakistan ) in 1925 and migrated with her family to India after the Partition. Slowly they settled down, she went to college in Delhi and then began to write.
She wrote copiously and for long. Her last two books, Lekhak ka Jantantra and Marfat Dilli, were published last year while she was moving in and out of hospitals. Her novels like Mitro Marjani, the story of a sexually frustrated wife with a tongue sharp as a rapier, Surajmukhi Andhere Ke (about child abuse), Yaaron Ke Yaar (about the murky life of lowly clerks in Delhi’s Kafaesque government offices, Dil O Danish (about the early 20th century Delhi), all broke new grounds in Hindi literature.
When Sobti was busy writing her great award-winning novels (she won the Sahitya Akademy Award in 1980, the Akademy Fellowship in 1996, Jnanpith in 2017, to name a few), most women in Delhi in the 80s and 90s, lived in a completely different world which was limited to families, children and only female friends for company.
Sobti remained fiercely unattached though she had many friends and much later even when she married, it was never a presence in her literary life. She kept floating in her own world like Meera, Akka Mahadevi and Mahadevi Verma. She was not afraid to look for love and human relationships in all kinds of places, befriending writers and artists across generations, always ready for addabazi over a cup of coffee.
Her writing was her world.
As teenagers, we found her irreverence thrilling and funny. Her characters’ use of a flurry of expletives sent us into hysterics. But even when her works revolved around a time long gone by, we could read in them the postcode of our time. She knew the way caste and class worked, the way women craved for men just as the men craved women, the complex interconnection between the working classes and the rich and the snobbish.
Lives of her women characters, like her, remain refreshingly pushy, wild, charismatic, street smart, impudent, and often tragic. Her memorable novel Ai Ladki, is based as she told me, on her own experience of nursing an aged parent swinging between dementia and flashes of memory, between life and death. Re-reading it, you once again discover her fiercely honest account of the strange relationships that exist between mothers in an immigrant family and their children.
Much has been written about the Partition by now, but rarely has a writer been more intimately involved with its acute psychological impact on individuals. It is strange and ironic that the decades Krishna Sobti wrote culminated into the present times when racial and caste categorisations, linguistic politics in the name of the Hindu Rashtra and open clear encouragement to communal speech are becoming eerily close to the decade just before the Partition of 1946.
Sobti wrote against all this from her hospital bed, with tubes in her arms and her chest, she lambasted those who were making the same mistake twice. Writers with a sense of humour get these vibes more clearly than most. Why do you hate yourselves so much, she asked the Hindutva brigade repeatedly.
Most of her works centred around race, gender and caste, three major blades used by the Right to wound the country and invite Balkanisation. She has left for us writers in the next generation a huge legacy of a sense of freedom, in the smallest things as in the biggest, and an ability to tear through the hypocrisy and high philosophy being sold as Hindi Prem (love for Hindi).
To be truly free, her books tell us, a writer must firmly fob off bitterness and resentment. How is one to do that, when as a writer, as a Hindi writer of Punjabi origin that too a woman writer, bitterness and resentment come slithering into our lives each day? In Hum Hashmat, a collection of her popular column she wrote under the name of Hashmat, this remains an open question. But it is also her playground. All versions of human experience are true, she writes in her little piece on Bhishm Sahni;
“I looked at that man and I thought to myself, hey, this man could easily be his son’s father ! So, I called out to him, listen son, can you go get your dad. Tell him Hashmat is here !”
That was Krishna ji-- larger than life, mischievously vibrant and creative till the end. All of us, her younger but fast-greying camp followers feel inconsolably lost at her going.