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Hindi literature loses one of its leading lights, Krishna Sobti

The author of eight novels, two novellas, a collection of short stories and three volumes of profiles of other writers (the last under the pen name Hashmat), Krishna Sobti was born in Gujarat, Pakistan, studied in Delhi and Lahore, and finally moved to India after Partition.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2019 22:58 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times
The death of Krishna Sobti, who passed away in Delhi on Friday after a long illness, has robbed Hindi literature of one of its most glorious and remarkable writers.(VipinKumar/HT Photo)

Just two weeks ago, at the World Book Fair in Delhi, 93-year-old Krishna Sobti released her latest novel, ‘Channa’. It happened to be the first one she had ever written. In 1952, she had sent it to an Allahabad publisher who decided to excise the sprinkling of Punjabi words in it and replace them with Hindi words. Furious, Sobti, then only in her early 20s, paid for all the printed copies and burnt them. But the manuscript, which lay with her all these years, was resurrected this January by her long-time publisher Rajkamal. The managing director of Rajkamal, Ashok Maheshwari, recalls how Sobti, despite being in hospital, made the effort to select an old photograph of hers to go with the novel that had been written so many decades ago.

The death of Krishna Sobti, who passed away in Delhi on Friday after a long illness, has robbed Hindi literature of one of its most glorious and remarkable writers.

The author of eight novels, two novellas, a collection of short stories and three volumes of profiles of other writers (the last under the pen name Hashmat), Sobti was born in Gujarat, Pakistan, studied in Delhi and Lahore, and finally moved to India after Partition.

She is survived by her younger brother Jagdish Sobti.

Much of her work draws on her life and that of her family. A recent novel, ‘Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak’, is set in the post-Partition years and references the time she spent in Rajasthan as governess to the maharaja of Sirohi’s son.

Its English translation ‘A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There’, by Daisy Rockwell and published by Penguin Random House India, is due on February 18— the day Sobti would have turned 94. One of her earliest and most celebrated short stories, ‘Sikka Badal Gaya’, is also a Partition story — about the tearful sendoff to Shahni, the much-loved elderly widow of a zamindar in a Pakistan village — and is based on her own grandmother’s experiences when she left for India.

Indeed, one of the most important, if not the most important, feature of Sobti’s work is her emphasis on what Maheshwari calls “stree ki mazbooti” (the strength of women). This is exemplified in many of her works, whether it is her 1966 novel ‘Mitro Marjani’ that explored the sexuality of a married woman or the 1991 novella, ‘Ae Ladki’, that looked closely at a mother-daughter relationship or several of her short stories that revolve around the lives of village matriarchs.

Her most monumental work is the 1979 novel, ‘Zindaginama’, set in pre-Partition Punjab, which won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1980. (The book is also famous for being the subject of a copyright infringement case that Sobti filed against Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam, because the latter had titled one of her books, ‘Hardutt ka Zindaginama’. Sobti lost the case that went on for more than 20 years.)

Sobti was offered the Padma Bhushan in 2010 but refused the award, maintaining that she wanted to keep her distance from the State. Seven years later, she won the Jnanpith for her pioneering contribution to Indian literature — and gave away the prize money of ?11 lakh to the Raza Foundation, an art and culture organisation established by the late modernist, Sayed Haider Raza. Managing and life trustee of the Raza Foundation, Hindi poet and critic, Ashok Vajpeyi, recalls that the extraordinarily generous Sobti also gave away one crore of her personal money to the Foundation, an amount which it set aside for the development of language and literature. Though Vajpeyi asked Sobti to reconsider her decision, she had no second thoughts.

She displayed the same kind of firm commitment to the cause of writers’ freedom and independence. In 2015, when authors across the country were returning their Sahitya Akademi awards to protest against the increasing intolerance in the country, she came to a public meeting of writers in Delhi in a wheelchair to show her solidarity.

The literary world will miss Sobti, often called the grande dame of Hindi literature, invariably attired in her striking self-designed flowing outfits, dupatta around her head, trademark dark glasses in place. In a world dominated by men, she left her uncompromising, indelible stamp, bequeathing a rich legacy of books for future generations.

The Raza Foundation will hold a memorial service for Sobti on January 28 at 4 pm at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi.

First Published: Jan 25, 2019 22:11 IST