The ‘Writer in Context’ series by Routledge has been conceptualized to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of Indian writers from different languages. In each volume of the Series, an author from the post-Independence multilingual Indian literature is presented from within her/his socio-literary tradition. Each book showcases the writer’s oeuvre along with its cultural context, literary tradition, critical reception and contemporary resonance.
The series will serve as a significant creative and critical resource to address a glaring gap in knowledge regarding the context of Indian writing in different languages. Twelve books in the series have been planned, as of now.
The writers chosen belong to the poet-Independence period. Some of them are Krishna Sobti, Joginder Paul, Indira Goswami, Amrita Pritam, Venkatesh Madgulkar, Mahasweta Devi, Phanishwarnath Renu and others.
The inaugural volume in the ‘Writer in Context’ Series is 'Krishna Sobti: A Counter Archive', edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar & Rekha Sethi.
Following is an extract from the introduction of the book written by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Rekha Sethi:
‘The romance of life is not in a straight line. Things would go stale if that were to happen.’ So said Krishna Sobti, who, over the long span of nearly a century of her life, would never allow life to be a straight line, especially if the track were to be laid out by others. That is how she never let life become stale.
This we believe was the primary context of the vision or the perspective to life that she built upon, both in the living of her life as well as in the fiction that she created. In order to keep her romance of life intact, she was extraordinarily alert to diverse sounds and sights thrown up by people in different locales she found herself in, whether in Gujarat (Pakistan), Calcutta, Delhi or Shimla. Soaked in the historical echoes of the past and sharply reacting to the political and sociological ambience of the present, she committed herself ardently to carving the path for democratic and polyphonic social environs for the future. Disturbing images from the bloody Anglo-Sikh Battle of Chillianwala of 1849 played heavy on her child’s mind, as she narrates in her untitled, unpublished article, shared by her with us:
As we kids stood on a kutcha mound we imagined the horses, soldiers with glittering swords and the Topkhana which destroyed our forces. I remember clearly, my throat was choked with emotion – I understood the meaning of being a defeated people. Suddenly the faces of my father and grandfather floated before my eyes; they are the ones who work and walk in the corridors of the secretary’s symbol of sovereignty of the British. We are not free. We are slaves. *
With this history floating in her mind, even as a child she completely understood why Indians were not allowed to skate in Shimla Blessington Rink, meant to be used only by the British. It is this alert consciousness of the history of colonial India that pressed the need for independence from the British and also defined the idea of individual freedom for her, freedom from any dictates of establishment or centres of power from above. Conserving this individual memory within the context of a larger historical consciousness, Sobti lived with a repository of a counter archive within herself. In 2010, when she refused to accept the commendation of Padma Bhushan, a prestigious award being offered to her by the Government of India, it was primarily, as she declared in an interview with the newspaper The Indian Express, ‘to keep distance from the establishment’. Her efforts to safeguard her autonomy were demonstrated amply through such decisions and choices. In fact, as an extension to this feature, was her concern to also establish her distinct identity with her heightened consciousness about her lineage. She would often tell me with a glint in her eyes, ‘You know, my ancestry can be traced to Greece.’ She would continue, ‘Can you please do a bit of research for me on Google; can you find the image of the old Greek coin which I know has the name ‘Sobti’ on it?’ I did try but couldn’t find any. She also wrote thus in the same article mentioned previously:
My ancestors came from Greece to Ghazni and somewhere over a period of time migrated to Central Punjab, the city of Gujarat, on the bank of the river Chenab and in the foothills of Jammu and Kashmir. This was a part of Saptasindhu, when Alexander came to India, Greek governor Sohytus ruled this province. When the Sobtis got Indianised or they were Indian citizens in Greece, we have no historical evidence, but the family kept alive some semblance of it by way of customs, rituals and traditions. My maternal family was a follower of Baba Farid. Before the child was sent to the pathshala, he was required to beg bhiksha from seven households. *
So self-conscious was she about her name and lineage that when she received the copy of the magazine Prateek edited by Agyeya with her story “Sikka Badal Gaya”, she kept reading her name over and over again and said, ‘this name Krishna is such a common name, but never mind, Sobti saves it.’ That gave her the pride of ancestry.
Krishna Sobti’s fiction offers an abundant array of characters who assert the power of their personalities with an absolute nonchalance for societal reaction or even sanction. In her essay on creative writing, Sobti refers to the author as the most convincing first reader of her own work. Led by her characters, she proceeds onto an unfettered exploration into the depths of their psychology and brings back to herself an increased sense of confidence and wisdom for her own living. The relationship between her characters and herself seems dialogic. That is why she has often critiqued them or recorded comments on them just as she would write on her different contemporary writers and people in the four volumes entitled Hum Hashmat.Writing on the character Mitro of Mitro Marjani, Sobti declares, ‘Mitro is not simply a test of the writer’s boldness, she is a discovery and a challenge too’ (from ‘Mitro be Damned’ in this volume). Mitro, Sobti is clear, happens to be self-begotten, and she emerges out of her own self. Similarly, her other characters too carve out their own identities and confront their social realities in their own manner. How Krishna Sobti the person is born again and again to grow up all over again with each novel is described succinctly by her in her essay on the creative process included in her book Sobti Ek Sohbat. It is crucial for a serious Sobti reader to read the many reflective essays written by her on this subject if only to understand the writer’s own probe into why and how she wrote, how she approached her characters and what she chose to write on. She knew that ‘as you give yourself the license to make your individual choices, you also keep determining your limits’ (Sobti 2014: 400). However, it is indeed true that simple though it may seem, it is not easy to be a writer who from her own volition and no external pressure conjoins her inner solitude with the outer din. Krishna Sobti used her full autonomy to choose to do so in her own way and on her own terms.
Yet, what needs to be reckoned alongside the previous perspective is her acute sense of history that provided the context for several of her writerly commitments. In her essay entitled “A Few Notes on Zindaginama ”, Sobti indicates how for her, history is not one but there are two histories (and sometimes even more), one that is documented and the other that lives on into the present through people’s songs, legends and stories. She knew that as a fiction writer, she needed to have an interface with history from below. No wonder then that her magnum opus novel Zindaginama is a conglomeration of legends, songs, myths and characters who are Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs living together in a composite cultural mode in the pre-Partition rural landscape of undivided India. Note these lines from her preface-like poem, opening the novel:
History that is not
And history that is
Not the one recorded in chronicles
With proofs and evidences
But the one
Along the sacred Bhagirathi
Of people’s consciousness
And stays alive In the vital resilience Of ordinary people .
This actually sums up her unique stance to the kind of history that this novel encapsulates.
(Sukrita Paul Kumar, formerly Aruna Asaf Ali Chair at Delhi University, is an academic, critic and well-known poet with many books to her credit. Rekha Sethi is an Associate professor in Hindi at Indraprastha College, DU. She is a critic, translator and editor with many publications.)