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At JLF 2022, Nayantara Sahgal on Kiran Nagarkar, MeToo

In a session on the opening day of the virtual leg of the JLF 2022, author Nayantara Sahgal was in conversation with her daughter and journalist Gita

A screen grab from the JLF session with Nayantara and Gita Sahgal
A screen grab from the JLF session with Nayantara and Gita Sahgal

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Despite a healthy moment of disagreement between mother and daughter, on the ways in which the MeToo movement in India played out, the warmth between the two was evident. On the first day of the virtual half of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, journalist and writer Gita Sahgal was in conversation with her mother, the 94-year-old author Nayantara Sahgal.

The session was named after the senior Sahgal’s latest book, Encounter with Kiran: Fragments of a Relationship, in which she published excerpts of almost daily email conversations between herself and the late author Kiran Nagarkar. The emails, on each other’s work, lives, and society and politics, were exchanged between 2014 until he latter’s death in 2019. Nagarkar, famous for his 1997 book Cuckold, was during his time, “the very best Indian writer writing in English,” said Nayantara.

It was a deep and intimate friendship, one that seems to have stood the test of time and socio-political issues, too.

“Inspite of (his various illnesses, that had battled since childhood)," Nayantara said Nagarkar “was a person most fully involved with life. He lived life to the hilt, he made light of his pain.” She added that she was “impressed with the human being he was, apart from the writer…that’s why we lasted together as very close friends.”

“It was love,” agreed both Gita and Nayantara.

It was a strong statement, especially in light of the fact that the conversation also went on to discuss Nayantara’s position on the MeToo Movement, which had in 2018, seen three women accuse Nagarkar of sexual harassment.

When he died in 2019, some alleged that news reports and obituaries glossed over these allegations, which had been made not even a year earlier, triggering various women who’d started to speak up against their powerful and well-known harassers. “Does death absolve you of all your sins,” wondered one piece, published in Feminism India.

At the time in which the allegations came to light, Nayantara Sahgal who is usually sharp in speaking up against what she perceives as strong injustices, spoke up — but this time, it was against what she perceived to be a dubious trajectory that the MeToo movement was taking.

For some, this would have been a bit of a surprise — the writer was not earlier known to compromise principle for partisanship. The cousin of Indira Gandhi, she even took a strong stance against the late Prime Minister’s politics and authoritarianism. In her early 1980s book, Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power, Nayantara did not hold back in dissecting Gandhi’s personality and politics. More recently, as noted in the day’s conversation too, she had also returned her Sahitya Akademi Award in protest against the literary body for not raising their voice against instances of what she called as social injustice in the country.

“The MeToo movement accused Nagarkar of much wrongdoing,” Nayantara said. “I reacted strongly and publicly with what I truly believed. And I truly believed that the MeToo movement had taken a very wrong direction,” she said in the conversation with Gita.

Nayantara went on to add that the MeToo movement had ignored the rural Indian women who were taken advantage of in different ways and were voiceless. To this point, Gita noted her disagreement. She highlighted that it was due to the voice and fight in Bhanwari Devi, a woman from the village of Bhateri in Rajasthan that the Vishakha Guidelines, India’s landmark ruling against sexual harassment at the workplace, had come into being.

What they did agree upon, despite coming to the conclusion from different places before moving the conversation to other topics, is that the “call for cancellation on the basis of allegation” may be counterproductive.

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