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Krishna Sobti: Portrait of a writer as a feisty genius

  • Stubborn, hard-working and immensely generous, Krishna Sobti forged a style of her own
  • Krishna Sobti was as eccentric and progressive in her fashion choices as in the rest of her life

Krishna Sobti at her Delhi residence in 2016; and Sobti demonstrating the right heel height for getting about in a ‘gharara’. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Krishna Sobti at her Delhi residence in 2016; and Sobti demonstrating the right heel height for getting about in a ‘gharara’. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

When Krishna Sobti was writing her novel Zindaginama (1979), she approached a bank officer for a loan. “I’m writing a very important book," she told him, “and I need a loan so I won’t have to work." The bank officer was pleasant, she reported, but said he must apologize, because he simply wasn’t supposed to give out loans for the writing of very important books. The purchase of livestock, or seeds, perhaps, but not literary production. Undeterred, Sobti went on to finish the book and win the Sahitya Akademi award for it in 1980.

Krishna Sobti, who died on 25 January at the age of 93, was possessed of strong self-confidence and believed in the value of her work. So convinced was she of the importance and originality of Zindaginama that she fought two of her most epic battles for the work: first, in 1952, when she submitted it to Leader Press in Allahabad under the title Channa, only to find as she reviewed the proofs that an enterprising copy editor had gone through replacing all the Punjabi-isms with shuddh—Sanskritized—Hindi words. Sobti was incensed and demanded a change, but on learning that the typesetting had already occurred, struck an agreement by which she would pay back the advance in two instalments and take her precious manuscript back.

Sobti loved describing the incident. It was a moment of triumph for her, a self-defining act as an independent force who was not to be pushed around. The novel was put away in a drawer, until she was persuaded many years later to return to it. The extensively reworked manuscript was published as Zindaginama: Zinda Rukh in 1979 (the original has just been published by Rajkamal Prakashan under the original title Channa). In 1984, after the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam published a novel under the title Hardatt Ka Zindaginama, Sobti sued her for copyright infringement. The court case dragged on for 26 years and was settled in 2011, in Amrita Pritam’s favour, six years after her death. The case cost Sobti a great deal of money, time and effort, but she waged the battle on the principle that it was she who had coined the term “zindaginama" and that she would defend it against the more powerful interests arrayed behind Pritam.

Photo: Daisy Rockwell
Photo: Daisy Rockwell

It was with this same self-confidence and stubbornness that she embarked on her adventures in the princely state of Sirohi, just after Partition, in her early 20s. Displaced from Fatehchand College in Lahore during Partition (her parents already lived in Delhi), she had trained as a Montessori teacher at the refugee camps. Turning to the help-wanted ads in the newspaper, she found a vacancy for the director of a new Montessori pre-school in Sirohi. In her last novel, Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan (2017), she wrote of her memories of that experience, and that of being the governess of the child maharaja of Sirohi, Tej Singh Bahadur.

Sobti was stubborn, hard-working and feisty, but she was also an immensely generous spirit with a huge circle of friends. Known as a tremendous hostess, she was still receiving guests and serving tea, cocktails and snacks in her final year. Guests of all types would appear in the early evening, luminaries of the Hindi literary world, neighbours, friends, poets, writers, artists, film-makers, journalists, translators, all feasting on an array of sweets, namkeen, dhokla, samosa, pakoras, cakes, biscuits, sent into the room by Sobti’s remarkable assistant and caregiver, Vimlesh. Tea was followed by cocktails; brandy, lemon juice and water for the hostess.

On the wall above her dining table hung a photograph of her late partner Shivanath, the Dogri writer-translator and retired civil servant whom she married in 1995, at the age of 70, and who died in 2014. Sobti and Shivanath lived in neighbouring flats in Mayur Vihar, Delhi, and met in 1990, after she moved into the same complex. Remarkably, the two shared the same birthday and year (18 February 1925), and could have met any number of times earlier in life but never did: attending college in Lahore, living near one another in New Delhi after Partition, attending the same literary gatherings. According to Shivanath, their first meeting occurred when she came to donate some Hindi books to the small library he had started at their housing development.

Sobti published her first short story in 1948, at the age of 23. The story, Sikka Badal Gaya Hai (The Currency Has Changed), was about a widow leaving her family home after Partition, and was published in the prestigious Hindi literary journal Pratap. The editor, acclaimed Hindi poet, novelist and critic Agyeya, was notoriously particular. When he accepted her story without a single edit, Sobti felt enormously proud and emboldened to become a writer.

She went on to write 11 novels, exploring a wide array of topics, and numerous short stories and essays, including an entire series written under her male nom de plume “Hashmat". Hashmat’s essays are published in three volumes, consist primarily of biographical sketches of her (mostly) male colleagues. As a trail-blazing feminist, Sobti often wrote about women’s lives and women’s issues, but she also did not wish to be considered a “lady writer". Her male alter ego helped cement her identity as a “writer", putting her a full generation or two before current trends in gender studies and gender identity.

Sobti was as eccentric and progressive in her fashion choices as in the rest of her life. In her final novel, she describes what she calls “the Partition of fashion" in 1948—an aunt in Ahmedabad scolds her for continuing to wear a gharara and kurta, what is suddenly considered “Muslim fashion" in post-Partition India. Young Sobti retorts that if her aunt doesn’t like her to visit in a gharara, she won’t visit at all. Ninety-three-year-old Sobti explained that she wore mostly ghararas until her 60s (this needed to be paired with court shoes with 2-inch heels, to avoid tripping). When she moved into Mayur Vihar, she decided she needed a new, more practical look. Thus evolved the self-designed attire of her later years: a shiny, brightly coloured flowing kameez, matching billowing shalwar, and golden brocade-bordered over-vest, with tassel-tie across the bust-line, and a matching diaphanous dupatta.

Idiosyncratic, rebellious, and ahead of her time in more ways than one, Sobti was also at the vanguard of the “award wapsi" movement, refusing the Padma Bhushan in 2010 because, “As a writer, I have to keep a distance from the establishment." In 2015, she joined many fellow writers protesting government inaction over the Dadri lynching to return her 1980 Sahitya Akademi award for Zindaginama and forgoing her 1996 designation as a Sahitya Akademi fellow. In 2017, she did accept the Jnanpith Award, but with great reservations, suspecting it was being granted only due to her advanced years. “Just look at the timing!" she joked on the phone with an old friend, as she lay in her hospital bed.

Daisy Rockwell is an artist, writer and translator. Her latest work, a translation of Krishna Sobti’s novel, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House India.

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