The silver lining to the grey cloud of writers returning their cherished prizes has been a reconnection with the reigning queen of Hindi fiction, Krishna Sobti (born in 1925), who was among the early birds not only to return the Sahitya Akademi award for her epic novel ‘Zindaginama’ in 1980 but also the highest honour of the akademi, the lifelong fellowship awarded to her in 1996.
The haphazard impulsive returning of awards with the events too quick for the reportage, I learned only on Thursday that she had been among the early birds. When I called her on Friday she told me how bad she was feeling for Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, president of the Sahitya Akademi, who was a poet and quoted a line by him: ‘Aap chahein ya na chahein duniya to badlegi (Like it or not, the world will change)’. Relating the poem to the present, she said: “The day after I returned my honours, I wrote to him asking him to join the writers’ protest because he was one of us.”
I was taken back to the time I saw her standing in a queue at the Kashmiri Gate bus stand in Delhi in a quasi-Mughal dress of a gharara, a kurti, a veil draping her head and shoulders and dark glasses shielding her eyes. My mother kept glancing at her with great interest and then turning to me she said, “I think she is the great writer Sobti.” I looked at the lady who seemed to be a Begum from Lucknow, but I offered to confirm it for her because those days the passenger’s name used to be written on a deluxe bus reservation slip.
The year I think was 1979 and I was two years into the business of earning while I learned: journalism, of course. So I decided to do some snooping around, stood by the counter, and when the lady in the elaborate costume took out the reservation slip and I saw K Sobti scribbled on it, I confirmed to my mother that she was the great writer indeed, but why was she in this dress? “She always dresses like this,” my mother whispered in awe. We boarded the bus and so did this lady and no words were exchanged. But when the bus stopped at Karnal for tea and refreshments, my mother summed up the courage to meet her. After my mother had played fan to the hilt, I asked her if I could interview her. He reply was: “No interview. But come to the UT Guest House where I am staying and meet me for coffee at 11am.”
I had not read her but heard discussions of her famous books ‘Mitro Marjani’, ‘Daar se Bhichhudi’ and ‘Yaaron ke Yaar’. My mother and older cousins, all avid readers, were her great fans. So I dressed well and went for a coffee with Sobti. That hour and a half with her was a good peep into the wordy world. She shared many things with me including her definition of a writer: “A fiction writer is an ordinary person,” she told me, “with an extraordinary ear.” The play of language and the Punjabi overtones of her Hindi were something that made her unique. Years later, I heard poet Ashok Vajpayee say: “A writer is a person who takes language where it has never been before and Krishnaji does so in each sentence.”
The meeting led me to read her book one by one and her ‘Zindaginama’ I read first in its Punjabi translation by Gurdial Singh. It was a novel of an epical scale, recapturing the composite culture of Punjab, born as she was in Gujrat in Pakistan. While in Delhi, we struck a bond and I would often be at her flat in Purvasha Apartments for the grand tea she served in china bowls along with grapes, mithai and dry fruit along with fresh bread and butter. Once a year, I would also get a gift of a fine kurta and by then I was under the spell of her later books like ‘Ai Ladki’, ‘Dil-O’-Daanish’ and ‘Samay Sargam’, her ode to old age and its predicaments.
After leaving Delhi, I did not see her and we lost touch but I was happy to be back on the phone listening to her third letter written of Friday in which she has asked Tiwari to resign from his post as protests pour in from far-flung corners of the country. She added, “I felt bad when Arnab Goswami, who is fine most of the times, questioning Tiwari’s ‘consciousness’ in his television show. I hate to see a poet being humiliated, so it is high time he stepped down.” A year older to the Queen of England, she is more regal in the sharpness of her wit. Compassionate even in her critique, such is the importance of being Krishna Sobti.