Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Krishna Sobti

A total commitment to writing

Nirupama Dutt

WHENEVER an unbiased literary history of the Twentieth Century is written, it will be remembered as the century of the woman writer. Even though the literary woman dates back to the ancient times, it is this century that saw the woman writer come into her own and wield the pen with a confidence that was long denied to her. And this is a phenomenon that cuts across countries and cultures. And this is not to be judged by just numbers but the quality and the literary merit of their writings. These were writers who could break through the given sexist politics of literature and make a place for themselves as writers who happened to be women.In India, this century sees the rise of the woman fiction writer. We have Asha Purna Devi (Bengali), Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder (Urdu) and Krishna Sobti (Hindi) as the pioneering writers in their respective languages who paved the way for many other writers to follow. The importance of Krishna, lies merely not in the fact that she chose a language, which spreads over a large region of the country. Or that she came from the then Hindi-speaking state of Punjab, but the fact that she could tell a story like none other conscious of the history of the century that she was born to. It is the very pulse of the times that she has captured through the everyday people and their lives. And this, while experimenting with language and coming out a winner always.Of course, to Krishna's credit go many firsts. Her novel Zindaginama, a work of epical scale set in the pre-Independence Punjab which was to be partitioned by the Radcliffe Line to be drawn across it in 1947. The writer who began with a short story first published in 1944 and written a number of novels till she penned Zindaginama was finally given the recognition of being a formidable talent. For creating Zindaginama, Krishna dipped into her childhood and adolescence spent in the ancestral haveli in Gujarat , a part of Pakistan, to relive the rich experience of the lives of the peasants and the landlords. This celebrated writer of a large body of fiction was born in 1925 in Gujarat in West Punjab. She had her early education in Delhi, Shimla and Lahore with fond holidays in the villlage where she built a storehouse of fragrance and memory. However, partition with its bloodshed and migration intervened and her aristocratic family lost many of its holdings. Krishna had to take the post of governess to Tej Singh, the then Maharaja of Sirohi, Mount Abu. Two years later she took up the post of Editor, Adult Literacy, Delhi Administration. It is said that any language has only a writer or two whose writings appear as a 'happening' but Krishna has had the unique distinction of having each of her books welcomed or criticised as a major event. This, not because Krishna was a sensationalist. Krishna remains one of the most serious of writers always but with the courage to write what others may choose to sidetrack. This was more so the case with the powerful women characters she etched. " The writer has to take the second place after etching out the character. Then a spiritual space has to be given to the character to chart out the course of her/his life," says Krishna.Krishna had made a name for herself in short fiction when her first novel came out in 1958. This was Daar se Bichuri and it told the story of a Pasho who is forced out of her flock and bought and sold like cattle in the strife-torn climate of the Afghan wars. It cuts across religion and culture and written in the decade that followed the Partition of the country in which hundreds of women of women were abducted raped, abused and killed because they belonged to the other religion. Thus Pasho's story is the story of every woman and she yet survives to nurture the child she has given birth to. The story was told with great linguistic economy, an art Krishna was to master, as she moved from novel to novel. This made it more powerful and just the stark description of the events that take place in Pasho's life were enough to send shock waves through people. Pasho was to be the forerunner of the amazing Mitro of the second and much-celebrated novel Mitro Marjani which came out in 1966 and is today hailed as a modern classic. Mitro created an instant stir for it spoke of female desire in no uncertain terms and that too of a married woman in the joint-family framework of a lower middle-class Hindu family. It created aninstant stir. It was translated into Russian, English and Punjabi. Many decades later, Mitro still continues to be a subject for debate. The intensity of emotions she evokes in those who love her and those who hate her is that which would be directed toward a real woman in flesh and blood who dares to tread the forbidden path. This again is a victory of the writer whose characters are so true to life.Interestingly, years later feminists were to criticise Krishna for making Mitro choose the family. What is pertinent here is that Krishna has never worked in the feminist frame-work as we understand it. Krishna is too major a writer to be taken in by any such trap. The novel comes in the Sixties when feminism as a movement was yet to take shape. Then it was the case of a movement needing writers to support it and thus feminists groups turning to the writings of say an Ismat or a Krishna who have an existence that goes much beyond the ism. The writer herself says, " Mitro Marjani was not a writer's story. It was Mitro's story. I was amazed at the surprises she gave me at every turn. Brought up by her mother outside the walls of patriarchy, Mitro is her mother's daughter who can voice her desires and get away with it. She has no inhibitions about talking of things tabooed by tradition without being offensive. She really impressed me." Krishna's other novels like Yaron ke Yaar,which speaks the language of the clerks in a government office in Delhi and unravels corruption in public life; Teen Pahar, a charged romantic narrative set in the tea gardens in the Darjeeling hills of a woman abandoned for another; Surajmukhi Andhere Ke, which sensitively explores the problem of child rape in which the victim survives to come to terms with her own desire; and Ai Ladki, a remarkable dialogue between a dying mother and her single daughter; Dil-O-Danish,which dwells on the dichotomy of two women and a man set in the cultural climate of Delhi of the early Twentieth Century; and the most recent Samae Sargam, a story of old age; are all milestones which mark a remarkable journey which seems to converge to the centre point of Zindaginama, a saga of love, life and strife told with a truly great flourish. In each of these works she sharpens her style with care to authenticate the situation portrayed. Zindaginama established her instantly as one among the greats. Suffused with the ethos and ambience of pre-Partition rural Punjab, this novel is a visual and dramatic recall of early memories in episodic form. Nand Kishore Naval has referred to it as the most comprehensive, sympathetic and sensitive treatment of the peasant since Munshi Premchand. The narrative flow in the novel is symbolised by the 'the river of life' and the narrative voice is depersonalised. Of this novel which is a gift to the very earth that she was born of, Krishna says, "One fateful morning I woke up with echoes of the Azaan in my ears, and before my eyes stood one minaret of a mosque. I knew then that I was committed to carrying the eternal echo of this voice through the century—Allah-O-Akbar." In this saga of life the experiments with language reached their climax with Krishna incorporating Punjabi dialects into the narrative in Hindi and suffusing the language with a new life. Poet Ashok Vajpayee says of this novel, " The test of a great writer is that she/he take the language where it has never been before. And Krishna passes this test with distinction." Krishna also writes under the pen name of Hashmat and has published Ham Hashmat , a compilation of pen portraits of writers, friends and unforgettable characters. Hashmat for her is not merely a pen name but aspiritual double. "We both have different identities," she elaborates, "I protect and he reveals. I am ancient, he is new and fresh. We operate from different directions. Among the folks Hashmat writes about are taxi driver Jagga Singh, a nameless waiter of La Boheme restaurant, and leading literary contemporaries like Bhisham Sahni, Nirmal Verma, late Srikant Verma, Namwar Singh and many others.Krishna is a zealous guardian of her freedom as a writer and as an individual. In her own words, " I have always been my own person. It is easier to exaggerate or simplify the difference between people. My biological history says I am a woman. History and individuals cannot ignore each other. I believe that your individuality embraces our innermost uniqueness. And this individuality could be qualitatively different from person to person. And this individuality could be qualitatively different from person to person, not necessarily from male to female. I am a writer who happens to be a liberal, middle class woman. I need to have my freedom for the smooth flow of my creativity. I see in myself a creative writer who has total commitment to her creativity and art." Krishna's life and writings stand testimony to the beliefs she upholds. A very gifted writer reporting on the unreported history of love, loss, of battles won and battles lost. Writing in a climate rife with the hierarchies of literature, Krishna has yet been an influence and inspiration for hundreds of readers: both men and women. And what is it that makes her tick? Krishna says: "Writing for me, is the main activity of my life, not an alternative. In spite of this, I have not written anything in reaction. If I am sad, angry or happy, I do not go near my writing." Here is a writer deeply rooted in the integrated human experience who believes in combining both male and female elements creatively in the content.A writer who confronts, discovers, defines and redefines with the help of memory. A wordsmith if there ever be one with memory, imagination, experience and study going into making her a great writer of the times.
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