In her old files of letters, some are by a writer who confesses to his inability to pierce the frozen ice of his writerly block, and asks her the way out. These letters, written by an accomplished writer two decades younger than her, aptly decode the creative life of Krishna Sobti.
Three months short of 93, she has published two books in 2017 and three more are at the presses. She is barely able to recall any period in her life when she faced a block or wall when it came to writing. Even when she is in a hospital, she tries to put some words on paper every day.
A lot has already been written about Sobti, who has now become only the second woman writer in Hindi to receive the Jnanpith Award, after Mahadevi Varma. But there are several aspects of her work that not many are aware of or appreciate fully.
For instance, Sobti has never been a part of a literary group or been aligned with a political party. She did not come from a family steeped in literature, and had no mentor or even a supportive editor. All this meant she had to carve out her space absolutely on her own. But her work has remained uncompromising, while she has personally shunned the paths of influence-building and self-promotion. Sobti has worked in absolute quietude, fighting to protect the sanctity of the written word, even as readers, recognition and awards came on their own.
Early in her writerly career, when she was not known beyond the circles of Hindi literature, Sobti purchased all the copies of her first novel, Channa from the publisher and pulped them as she had become dissatisfied with the text. This was the work that went on to become her magnum opus, Zindaginama. In 2010, she rejected the Padma Bhushan, saying that governmental honours affect a writer’s conscience.
Krishna Sobti introduced strong, independent, bold and sexually assertive women characters in Hindi literature at a time when few writers dared to express female desires. Her novel Mitro Marjani is considered an essential feminist text, although she has always rejected the epithet “woman writer”. “I am not a feminist. I am a creative writer,” she would say. Her women characters never come across as victims. They accept suffering with courage and grace. They question but never cringe or cower.
Several generations of women writers in Hindi have looked up to Sobti’s life and work for inspiration. She was one of the first writers who returned the Sahitya Akademi award protesting against rising intolerance in 2015. She delivers public addresses against the present regime which, she believes, “is leading the country to a new Partition”.
The philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi once said that writer Nirmal Verma’s work reflects the “epic reality” of India – art that is not confined to the narrow boundaries of history, but yearns to capture the epic mode the nation lives in. Sobti is another epic storyteller of post-Independent India. Her novel Zindaginama, for which she received the Sahitya Akademi award, is a gargantuan saga composed in a unique Hindi, permeated with multiple dialects. Incidentally, she later fought and lost a court case against another legendary writer, Amrita Pritam, over the copyright of the word “Zindaginama”.
Sobti attributes much of her indefatigable spirit to her childhood in the hills. Born in a hilly village now in Pakistan, she rode horses along with her mother who was an excellent rider. Later, she moved to Shimla where Verma, who also received the Jnanpith, was a classmate of her younger brother’s. Incidentally, when she went to Lahore for a college education, the future writer Krishna Baldev Vaid had also enrolled himself in the same city.
The three of them – Sobti, Vaid and Verma – went on to become friends, all of them fiction writers who shared many a drink and evening together, strongly influencing the literary landscape of Hindi for several decades. In Sobti’s files are many letters from the other two writers, often from distant shores. Her home in Mayur Vihar in Delhi has reams of old manuscripts and unpublished papers that could be the notes for a biography.
Age is not even a number
For the past month I have been staying in a building on a hill that Krishna Sobti once lived in two decades ago. In the late 1990s, she was a National Fellow here at the Observatory Hill of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. Verma was a Fellow here in the early 1970s. Sobti-Vaid Samvaad, a book of dialogue between the two about their art and craft, was born in a room here.
During this month Sobti has called me three times, enquiring about my work and about the places around that she had once visited. Her voice has no wrinkles. Her spirit has a rare effervescence. Her crystal memory can extract images of her village from her childhood.
My latest phone conversation with her was late on Thursday night, hours before the Jnanpith award was announced. I told her about the clouds and the cold breeze, about the sky and the moon that was unusually bright, and that it would soon begin snowing here. She chuckled, pleased that the hills have not changed at all. “It’s so lovely. I still imagine my apartment [at IIAS]. I get so thrilled,” she said.
Love. Lovely. Thrill. Marvellous.
Krishna Sobti is almost 93, and these are among the most recurring words in her oral vocabulary. During the several years I have known her, I have never found her using words one might associate with her age, such as loss, regret and suffering.
If Sobti’s life and work mark a grand celebration of life, she is also a prominent figure of resistance, a keeper of conscience. She has always raised her voice on crucial issues, political or literary. That the Bharatiya Jnanpith, a private trust, has decided to honour a writer who has challenged the present establishment on ideological grounds is a political statement whose import should not remain understated.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
[Clarification: An earlier version of this article omitted the source of the photograph from which the digital illustration (above) has been created. The source has been added.]