Krishna Sobti vs Amrita Pritam in a long tug-of-war over ‘Zindaginama’

  • Nirupama Dutt, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: May 03, 2016 17:37 IST
Krishna Sobti (left) and Amrita Pritam (right) (HT Photos)

Hailed as an unparalleled classic of Indian literature, Krishna Sobti’s much-acclaimed novel ‘Zindaginama’ is now released by a leading publisher in English translation. The translation comes nearly 40 years after it was first published in Hindi in 1979. The novel set in pre-Partition Punjab, celebrating the composite culture that came to a sad end, is evoking much excitement. Yet it also brings back memories of the long copyright fight stretching over a quarter of a century between the author and Punjabi poet and prose writer Amrita Pritam.

The copyright fight over the title evoked much interest because it involved two literary legends. Interestingly both of them came from the same region of Gujarat in Pakistan Punjab and were witness to the tragedy of the Partition. When the case was filed in 1984 for damages of Rs 1.5 lakh by Sobti, it was reported as the title fight of the year.

Ironically, the case lingered for over a quarter of a century and was decided in favour of Pritam in 2011, six years after the poet’s death. It was a tug-of-war between two women of substance with Sahitya Akademi Award winner Sobti (born in 1925) on one side and the no-less-daunting Jnanpith Award winner, Punjabi poet Pritam (1919 to 2005) on the other.


Looking back at the legal battle, Krishna who turned 91 this year, says: “It lasted so long that it became a joke. This was a freak case that was moved from the high court to the district court. I learned a lot about judiciary and its functioning. It took away a lot of my energy but the process also gave me a novel like ‘Dil-O-Danish’ which has justice at the heart of the plot. I had always liked Amrita and looked up to her as a poet. But this was a fight on principles as ‘Zindaginama’ was my extensive intellectual property.”

Zindaginama won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980. Four years later, when Pritam came out with her a biography of a minor revolutionary called ‘Hardatt ka Zindaginama’, the word ‘Zindaginama’ created problems and Sobti demanded that the word be deleted from Pritam’s book as it amounted to plagiarism. Pritam insisted that it was no plagiarism.

The case divided the literary clan into two groups and Khushwant Singh, who loved playing ‘Naradmuni’ came to the aid of Pritam, recounted it in his obituary to the poet published in a magazine: “Hindi writer Krishna Sobti took Amrita Pritam to court for breach of copyright. I appeared in court in her defence, saying that there could be no copyright on a title like Zindaginama. I collected over a dozen books with the same title from the Iranian embassy because Zindaginama is a Persian phrase. I also submitted my two volumes of Sikh history to the court to prove that Guru Gobind Singh’s life story by one of his disciples was also called Zindaginama. This earned me the ire of Krishna Sobti. She exploded in rage in the high court after the hearing, shouting: ‘Your Honour, don’t believe a word of what he said. He belongs to the same mafia of rich writers.’”


Writers witness to the high drama recall that it was probably a clash of personalities as Sobti had called up Pritam to bring to her notice that an advertisement in an Urdu magazine had dropped ‘Hardatt ka’ and used the word Zindaginama. This was also done on the title of the Urdu translation. The same time Krishna’s ‘Zindaginama’ had come out in Urdu. Pritam was reported to have banged the phone.

S Balwant, Punjabi writer and proprietor of Ajanta Publishers, who made an effort to play a conciliatory role, says: “It was the banging of the phone that led to the legal battle for there was not too much of a case of plagiarism in it.” What did the case do to the two writers? Balwant says: “It took a toll on Krishnaji’s energy and money. On the other hand it disturbed Pritam who developed insomnia and consulted innumerable astrologers and soothsayers on what its outcome would be”.

Curiously, when the case was moved from the Delhi high court to the Tis Hazari court, the box containing the files and manuscripts of the two books disappeared. However, the case was closed in favour of Pritam in 2011. Poet Ashok Vajpayee, a fan of Sobti, says: “The judgment disappointed me because Sobti had a strong title copyright case that came to naught. The novel remains immortal as an abridged Mahabharata of our times.”

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