Years ago, the well-known Hindi fiction writer late Shivani, immortalised by her daughter Ira Pande in the book “Diddi”, was visiting the city. Interviewing her, I asked her what she thought of the Le Corbusier handiwork that we inhabited. Her reply was: “It is a very neat and clean city but not a place where I could live and write. How can one write in a city that doesn’t have a single poster on the walls? For me it has to be a place like Lucknow.”
This was the attitude of many used to cities with a long history and culture – those living in organic cities that grew over long years with the Eliot-like description of streets winding tediously like arguments. All very well but even the young city of ours is not without its little shelf of fiction. The earliest novel was in English when Chandigarh was still a teenybopper: “Storm in Chandigarh” (1969) by Nayantara Sahgal. Set in high political and bureaucratic places, the novel drew a lot of attention in the stormy relationships of the character that reflected much that was going on in real life. A decade later, we had dramatist Balwant Gargi’s autobiographical novel “The Naked Triangle” (1979), a bitter and caustic account of his own and others’ life and loves.
There’s more to the city bookcase but at the moment what is heartening is the fact that the repertoire of fiction set here is increasing with fictional attempts by local writers not just in English but in Hindi too. Most recent is a fictional memoir by Renuka Nayar in Hindi called “Newsroom”. As the title suggests, it is in the midst of the news world that Renuka tells her story and it is from the point of view of a lone woman in a very patriarchal set up of the oldest newspaper of the region. “I have recounted what a woman pioneer has to face in an all-male world and I have recorded the good, the bad and the ugly as I experienced it,” says Renuka. The book makes for a racy reading and many of the people are just scantily disguised.
Another recent addition is senior writer Madhur Kapila’s novel “Saamne ka Aasman”, published by Jnanpith, set in the now-extinct slums of Sector 25. Interestingly, while Renuka shares her experience as a newswoman, Madhur draws from long years of working as a critic of performing arts to tell the intimate story of a play within a play. Madhur says, “Although the novel is set in the Sector 25 tenements, my concern was with theatre because I was volunteering for a group doing street plays with the youth and children of those areas. I have explored the lives of theatre people, their passion and their joys and sorrows.”
Short-story writer and critic of Hindi Virender Mendiratta, who was one of the early residents of the city having moved here as a college teacher in as early as 1953, has set a number of his stories in the city of Nehru’s dream. One of the most moving was “Nabhi Kund” that described the corruption and exploitation of women labourers as the High Court is being built. “The metaphor is that even the building of high justice is not without its share of injustice,” he says. Mendiratta also tells with pride that his student Balraj Khanna, who moved to the UK, penned his novel “Nation of Fools” (1985) in the backdrop of the city. This novel is counted among the best 50 novels in English of the past century.
Now comes the challenge to young writers to own this city and paint it with red, blue, green or what-haveyou words so that the city book rack is spilling over!