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Book review: The Political Imagination

Artistic freedom, the politics of narration, Nabokov, the Indian freedom struggle, the Emergency, and militant Hinduism, all feature in this wide-ranging collection of Nayantara Sahgal’s non-fiction writing.

books Updated: Sep 13, 2014 17:41 IST
Vrinda Nabar
Vrinda Nabar
Hindustan Times
nayantara sehgal,Nabokov,The Political Imagination

The term politics has come to mean a variety of things, including an individual’s world outlook or the beliefs one subscribes to. In her Introduction, Sahgal defines it as ‘the atmosphere of the times we live in… writing comes out of that particular atmosphere… A writer’s choice of subject, the way it is presented, and from what point of view, make writing a political act.’

Sahgal’s own writing mirrors some of this conviction. Many of the pieces included in Part One of this seven-part volume are familiar to those of us who have read Sahgal’s non-fiction through the years and admired her powerful but low-keyed forthrightness. Subtitled "The Personal and Political in Literature", it consists of talks and keynote addresses delivered in India and abroad, essays, and newspaper articles.

The other six Parts of the present volume contain letters to and from Sahgal, along with her writing on a variety of themes, and a piece by Hari Kunzru titled ‘My Hero Nayantara Sahgal’. In ‘Nabokov Remembered’, Sahgal pays tribute to a former teacher, while ‘Intellectual Giant of the Century’ is a homage to Bertrand Russell, "the great result, perhaps the greatest in his own long lifetime, of what a civilization in which free speculation is possible can produce."

Artistic freedom, exile, the politics of narration, the ways in which geographies were determined by "their distance from Whitehall", the Indian freedom struggle and its far from perfect thereafter, the rise of militant Hinduism, the Indo-British encounter, all these and more weave their way through the different sections of the volume as do references to the Emergency and Sahgal’s well-known opposition to it. If Sahgal’s novel Rich Like Us had been an unambiguous critique of the Emergency, a more personal anguish finds expression in ‘Letter to Dr R. S. Kelkar’, Sahgal’s spirited protest to and resignation from the board of the Sahitya Akademi, and ‘A letter from Mrs. Gandhi’s India’, which appeared in The New Republic, 7 and 14 August 1976.

Also read:Book Review: A born rebel who died a lonely death

Sahgal’s first novel was published in 1958 when very different criteria shaped the publishing industry, and she repeatedly returns to the ways in which "commercialism" has now transformed the literary scene. She is upfront about the here and now that those who live in India contend with, and how it shapes a writer’s responses: "we who are here belong here. India assails us from morning to night with its sights and sounds and smells, with its best and its worst, with what we draw strength from and take pride in, as well as what makes us despair… and so our writing will inevitably be different in substance and subject and style from Indian writing abroad."

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who became the president of UN General Assembly in 1953, seen here with daughters Nayantara and Rita.

Sahgal (like many writers and critics positioned in India) cannot be unaware of the politics of First World/Third World discourse and its impact on Indian writing, especially in a globalised world. It is obvious enough that her statements on India and the diaspora (with their uncanny resemblances to what this reviewer has often maintained both in the classroom and outside) have a larger, extraliterary context and are linked to her reservations about the "norms and market values of globalization" and the ways in which these affect life and literature. If the Empire had "people who couldn’t pronounce our names becoming our interpreters", globalised markets have "writers… who explain us to ourselves and to the world. Many of those… live and write in the West." Insisting that "Diasporic and home-grown writing are two separate genres and each occupies its own space" Sahgal wryly observes that the assumption often made "that there is no Indian writing of worth except diasporic writing… is like knowing there is an Athens in Ohio, but having to be told there is also an Athens in Greece."

Unlike her fiction where she was able to create worlds that brought in the politics of the time and used it to bolster the private lives of her characters, Sahgal’s non-fiction frequently alludes to her background. These allusions were less intrusive when read in isolation but could become problematic here — a reservation that has less to do with Sahgal per se than with the intrinsic limitations of a volume of this kind.

It has to be remembered that many of us Sahgal admirers were either midnight’s children or born shortly thereafter, and therefore familiar with (even in awe of) the family she makes repeated references to, confidently staking her claim to its multiple legacies. A newer generation of readers may be less willing to condone these references or the implicit, even if unintended, assumption that her family lineage makes her uniquely privy to the larger concerns of the freedom struggle.

First Published: Sep 13, 2014 16:15 IST