1 October 2016

Singular and Plural: Krishna Sobti’s unique picture of a less divided India

My long overdue longform profile of the extraordinary writer Krishna Sobti was published in The Caravan in September.
Images from Sobti's personal album

"Krishna Sobti watched the television screen
 intently, from her usual place on the worn brown sofa in her compact east Delhi apartment. As each new talking head appeared, she either bid me to listen carefully, or else gently resumed our conversation until the next section she deemed important. The scratchy DVD was something the doyenne of Hindi literature knows inside out: a Doordarshan programme about her, from the mid 1990s. We watched as the male interviewer and a series of male interviewees gave way to footage of Sobti delivering a literary speech: “Bhasha ki jo oorja hai woh maatra lekhak ke antar mein sthit nahi hai”—the energy that a language has is not located only in the interiority of the writer. “Chup reh!”—shut up!” said the old lady on the sofa to her younger self on screen. “Main iska bada mazaak udaati hoon”—I make fun of this one a lot—she added, turning down the volume.
Sobti laughs a lot. Even when she is the butt of her own jokes, it’s nearly impossible to stop yourself from laughing with her. She is 91, and finds it difficult to walk unassisted, even from the bedroom to the living room. But once comfortably ensconced on her sofa, she can talk for hours, reminiscing about all sorts of things and people, only stopping when she gets anxious about having forgotten a name. Her stories may ramble, but her capacity for writerly labour seems undimmed, as does her political sharpness. On my three visits to her house, between March and June this year, I learnt that she is in the process of readying not one but two manuscripts for publication: an autobiographical novel called Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak, and an illustrated edition of poems by the pioneering modernist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, selected and annotated by Sobti. On one occasion, she handed me two recently published pamphlets: one on the writer’s relationship to power and citizenship, and the second an impassioned criticism of the recent human-resource development ministry injunction that Urdu writers must certify that texts they have submitted for awards or grants do not contain anything against the government or the country.
Over the hours we spent together, Sobti received phone calls from publishers, illustrators, magazine editors, writer friends and admirers, who often wanted to make appointments to visit her in Mayur Vihar. In May, as the long-awaited English translation of her magnum opus, Zindaginama, was finally published, interview requests from English-language journalists increased. One evening, after the phone rang two or three times in quick succession, with her housekeeper-cum-cook-cum-assistant, Vimlesh, having to juggle her various appointments for the week, Sobti turned to me, raising her eyebrows in a gesture of happy disbelief: “Main inactive hoon!” (And they say I’m inactive!).
Sobti has never been one to mince words. The author of eight novels, two novellas, one collection of short stories, two works of non-fiction and three volumes of literary sketches, she has a long-standing reputation as one of Hindi’s most outspoken writers, unafraid to court controversy both on and off the page. Yet, she has also often been sidelined and attacked for her unconventional characters, and for her language, which many have perceived as unliterary. Today, Sobti’s work is worth reading not only for the pungent originality of her Hindi, but also for how she cultivates that language in order to envision the unity of, rather than the fissures between, South Asian communities."
To read the whole piece, please go here

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