I am a writer and have to share my convictions: Nayantara Sahgal | punjab$chandigarh | Hindustan Times
Today in New Delhi, India
Oct 18, 2017-Wednesday
-°C
New Delhi
  • Humidity
    -
  • Wind
    -

I am a writer and have to share my convictions: Nayantara Sahgal

It is a homecoming of sorts for Nayantara Sahgal (b.1927) who is in the city to speak at the two literature festivals being held here.

punjab Updated: Nov 05, 2015 23:58 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Between the lines of fiction was her own journey in this city which both took much away from her and gave her a lot more.
Between the lines of fiction was her own journey in this city which both took much away from her and gave her a lot more. (Gurminder Singh/HT Photo )

It is a homecoming of sorts for Nayantara Sahgal (b.1927) who is in the city to speak at the two literature festivals being held here. “This city is special to me because I lived here for several years. Our house is still here on the road facing the Sukhna lake and we built it at a time when the city was still coming,” she says looking back at the early Sixties when she was still struggling to come to terms with freedom, a feminine identity and a marriage based on mutual trust. “Although I came from a political family, I never wanted to be in politics. I always wanted to be a writer and my own person. I think I did achieve what I wanted although it was not easy. In a way the time in this city helped me move from a conventional situation to a more radical one,” she recounts.

One of the pioneering Indian woman writer in English and second of the three daughters of Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, her third novel ‘Storm in Chandigarh’ came out in 1969 and was written after she had moved away from the city. However, between the lines of fiction was her own journey in this city which both took much away from her and gave her a lot more. Storm in Chandigarh also stood for her moving away from her industrialist husband Gautam Sahgal although she was a mother of two daughters and her second marriage to E. N. Mangatrai, an Indian Civil Service officer. The latter divorced his wife Champa Mangatrai, a lecturer of English, to marry Nayantara. These partings and meetings were to long be talked about in the city’s elite.

Of relationships

Nayantara and Mangat Rai shared a close tie and her book ‘Relationship’(1994) is a collection of letters exchanged between the two and it was received warmly although it sent shock waves by its scathing honesty about their relationship. “It is never easy for a woman to move on but I did it,” she says and then repeats her quotable quote: “Once you have known true freedom, you will not settle for something less.” When asked how she is able to say what she feels so honestly and boldly, she replies, “Well, I am a writer and a writer has to share her/his convictions.” Being true to her convictions also meant losing some fond relationships. “I was very close to my cousin Indira Gandhi. I have fond memories of putting together my mathematics homework. However, my mother and I were very strong opponents of the Emergency imposed in 1975 and Indira who liked no opposition broke all ties with me. Later, Rajiv Gandhi made things all right and I am in touch with Sonia and the children.”

Mahatma Gandhi remains her ideal and she recalls, “When the word came that he had been shot dead, Indira and I reached the Birla House. I stood in a corner and fighting tears I told myself that I would never let him die. In my writings and my protests I have always tried to do so. It was the Gandhi philosophy that came to me through my uncle Jawaharlal who was like a third parent to me.”

Jail birds

Talking of her childhood in the pre-Independence days in Allahabad, Nayantara recalls with a laugh, “Seeing our parents go so often to the prison as political prisoners, we thought that jail-going was a profession. We were taught not to shed tears in front of the policemen. I remember us teary when my father, a Marathi scholar, Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, was arrested for the first time we were very sad and our mother ordered a chocolate cake to cheer us.” Thus the title of her first book became ‘Prison and Chocolate Cake’ (1954).

Her second memoir ‘From Fear Set Free’(1962) recalled an amusing anecdote in which she was at a formal dinner with Lord and Lady Mountbatten at which Indira Gandhi was her father’s official host. Nayantara was wearing stilettos which she kicked off under the table. But at the end when the National Anthem was to be played she took time to locate a sandal and earned glares from her cousin. Laughing she recounts, “Edwina Mountbatten, however put me at ease by saying that she too liked kick off her shoes under the table while dining.”

Freedom of expression

Since Nayantara is a strong votary of freedom whether it was opposing the Emergency or the present protests in what she calls times of ‘growing intolerance’, it is not out of her place to ask her to compare the leaders of the two times. Nayantara is quick to show her freedom of expression, “There is a world of difference between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. She was a democrat gone wrong and Modi is out and out fascist.”

How does she view Rahul Gandhi as a politician? Her answer is, “We all know that he was not interested in coming into politics but in his last speech in Bihar I found that he is getting drawn in and showing some passion.” What would be her choice between Rahul and Priyanka as Nayantara feels that there is hope of the Congress reinventing itself? “Why choose between the two. I feel that some of the young spokespersons of the Congress are very good,” she replies.

Happy times

Now that this petite and graceful writer, living for many decades in Dehradun, is just two years short of touching 90, one asks her what were the happiest times in her life? “I was very happy to be growing up in times of struggle for freedom. Those were very idealistic times. When a nation is struggling for freedom, it is at its best and noblest. Decay and corruption follow when freedom is attained,” says Nayantara who was one of the first woman political columnists of the country.

How does she see the intolerant times changing for the better, “The change is happening with writers, historians, scientists, filmmakers and others making it clear that they will not let intolerance come in the way of their Idea of secular India,” she says. Full of hope she adds that a nation is a work in progress and that is now the country must move forward.

Talking of her childhood in the pre-Independence days in Allahabad, Nayantara recalls with a laugh, “Seeing our parents go so often to the prison as political prisoners, we thought that jail-going was a profession. We were taught not to shed tears in front of the policemen. I remember us teary when my father, a Marathi scholar, Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, was arrested for the first time we were very sad and our mother ordered a chocolate cake to cheer us.” Thus the title of her first book became ‘Prison and Chocolate Cake’ (1954).

Her second memoir ‘From Fear Set Free’(1962) recalled an amusing anecdote in which she was at a formal dinner with Lord and Lady Mountbatten at which Indira Gandhi was her father’s official host. Nayantara was wearing stilettos which she kicked off under the table. But at the end when the National Anthem was to be played she took time to locate a sandal and earned glares from her cousin. Laughing she recounts, “Edwina Mountbatten, however put me at ease by saying that she too liked kick off her shoes under the table while dining.”