Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Her pen works when the world retires

A day with Krishna Sobti

By Debarshi Dasgupta

We will have to make a cardinal exception for Krishna Sobti. This column has to be renamed “A Night In My Life” for that is the only way to get to know the person behind the numerous novels and stories penned by one of Hindi’s most prolific and reinvigorating writers. “During the day,” she says, “I am not at my best.” It is in the dark and in silence that she blooms and that her pen flows. “There is a kind of exclusive quietness in the night that you can almost hear yourself,” Sobti adds, dressed in her trademark kaftan that is turquoise this time.

But that does not mean she is a recluse. A writer, according to her, cannot afford to be one. “It does not work that I am me and that others are others. I am also a part of me and also others,” Sobti says. “It is not just the skills that make a writer, you know, she has to mingle,” she adds, speaking in English that the writer describes as “babu-like”. No hitches because her Hindi would be too Shakespearean for a common man!

As she speaks, seated at the University of Rajasthan guest house, her hands gesticulate agitatedly. And often, they gently move to her head as she gathers her hair under her dupatta. Despite this “conservative” gesture, the writer has been and is an antithesis of convention – whether it is in her writing or daily living.

(Image from the Library of Congress)

She has trekked across the Kumaon Hills on foot at the age of 60 and went drinking with naval officers while on a trip to Port Blair. And while the world around her sleeps, Sobti begins work on her table at home in New Delhi by 10 pm, creating “a common passage between we, me and they”. “Subjects like love, death, sex are all intense moments of human life and they need intrinsic imagination, not something superficial. And if I am disorganised on paper, I leave it,” she says. “Thank god, that has not happened till now,” she adds.

For someone who believes that a writer only exists if he or she is read, Sobti says she has tremendous responsibility on her shoulders. “I have a highly discriminating readership so I take care that whatever I write, I write not flippantly or non-seriously,” she adds. And she writes as an “individual” – not as a woman or a man, not as a feminist or a chauvinist. “I believe I am as good a writer as a man. Why not? I am even yet to write a bad book,” she jokes.

Writing, the writer maintains, is a “bisexual” act. Few know that Sobti has also written under a masculine pseudonym, Hashmat, that was born in her study on an evening after a party when she felt the presence of “another person, another pen”. “Not that I was confused but I was tense. I started writing the account of that evening and it was not similar to what I did earlier,” she recounts.

Accompanying her on her nightly sojourn is her “small” peg of alcohol. Not a big one and not a second one, she clarifies. “I have to be in control. Also because I am a proletariat, I drink what is available,” she says. This process goes on till about 4 am in the morning, with breaks for tea and coffee, and ends with a “sumptuous breakfast” that is as frugal as toast or biscuits. And as the world around her begins to wake, Sobti goes to bed.

Interestingly, this nocturnal nature has not been a late acquisition but a childhood habit that she picked up when her parents would share bedtime stories with her. “In those days there was no noise in the household, not even the radio, and that helped me pick up the density of the language,” she says.

There is another childhood lesson she has remained faithful to. “My father, whenever we would go to doctor, would ask me not to exaggerate. He would say, if you mislead the doctor, he would give you the wrong medicines,” Sobti recollects. “That did me some good and I see it in my own text,” she adds. Her short novel Eh, Larki!, featuring a dialogue between a mother on the deathbed and her daughter, is known for its linguistic economy.

Even her mother, with her steely resolve, has inspired Sobti. While in the ICU some years ago, shortly before she died, her mother told her repeatedly that “chiraag jalta rahega”. “Even in that condition, she avoided referring to deepak (the lamp) for its signifies death in the Hindu tradition. She had that kind of willpower,” the writer says.

Sobti, who wakes up at around 10:30 am, is a devoted reader of newspapers and reads “all the headlines and editorials” in as many as five dailies in addition to other journals. “I start my day very slowly. Half the day is gone as if I am taking an off,” she says. Then it is time for lunch and a little rest before she gets on with her remaining reading and socialising. “I am a very sociable person,” the writer adds, taking time to go out and meeting people in the evenings and attending programmes of the Sahitya Akademi, of which she is a fellow.

But that has been restricted now as three of her books, including Shabdon Ke Alok Mein, are ready to go to the press. “There are more books in the making but I am aware - not that I am cautious of my growing years – that as a senior citizen, I am racing against time,” she says. Born in 1925 in Gujarat (in present day Pakistan), she still stands up promptly to show what kind of dresses she would wear earlier. “I wore everything, from ghararas to stretch pants,” she says, walking as if she were on ramp with her arms moving up and down like a king’s. Now she wears kaftans that she designs.

But is she worried about the inevitable? “If anytime this (the thought of death) flashes in my mind, I dismiss it for it is not my headache. It is going to be someone’s else’s headache,” Sobti replies. “I am a tough one by nature,” she assures.

Talk about toughness, she homes in on her principal point of concern, one that she is particularly tough about. It is the threat to a “citizen’s culture” in India. “Instead of creating that, politicians are telling you that you are a Bihari, that you are a Tamil, that your are a Rajasthani. Look, we are all citizen’s of a democratic country and the Constitution binds us together,” Sobti says. “As a writer, I will never let my freedom be threatened. A dissenting note is the key note of a democracy,” she adds. While a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) in Shimla in 1999, she successfully opposed a move to invite Murli Manohar Joshi for a lecture. “Till then only scholars came and lectured. Not politicians. You do not play with institutions like IIAS,” she says sternly.

Incidents like the riots in Gujarat and allowing Narendra Modi to continue as the Chief Minister after that, according to her, would have long-term repercussions on the nation. “You are going to see the country like this,” she says forcefully, making a slicing gesture with her hands. “We want to see the country as one democracy because of what we have been through, the Partition that was purely political and not religious or cultural,” she adds, also passionate about cricket and angry about Sourav Ganguly’s suspension.

A good story, she says, is also like a cricket match – full of uncertainty and excitement. “I do not interfere with my characters, each of my books has a different texture. And if I know the story ahead, I will not write because the excitement is over,” Sobti adds. She has been living with Shiv Nath, a noted Dogri writer, for the last 10 years. Ask her if she is married, she replies, “Well, you can say yes and no.” “I guess we are at that age where we have stayed for so long that we are good enough to be called anything. I am happy because I have lived life on my condition, not those of anybody else. I am happy because I have seen the history of this country,” adds the legend.


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