Partition, Hashmat & Krishna Sobti
Prolific writer Krishna Sobti talks about life, the Partition, her writings and her alter ego, Hashmat.
Krishna Sobti was born on February 18, 1925 in Gujarat (West Punjab, now in Pakistan) and was brought up in New Delhi - a city she is quite passionate about. Sobti feels that Delhi has decided the framework for her writings. "It gave me a vital view of things, people and happenings." Though a 'real Delhi-wala', she feels that her ancestral home in West Punjab was a perfect foil for Delhi. "These two opposites created a rich fund of reality."
Little wonder then that Sobti claims that her "intellectual and creative responses are deeply rooted in an eclectic, integrated cultural system." She consistently refuses to look at her historical background through any particular received perception that feeds and projects a specific ideology.
Memories of an idyllic childhood spent in the ancestral haveli at Gujarat alternated by life in Delhi, Shimla and Lahore were lost in the horrific drama of the Partition. "We were told that Muslims had turned us out of their new homeland. We also saw that we too pushed Muslims to the other side ... Common people created a living mythology - a shade better than the so-called official history. It did assume the sanctity of the shared past, with its human connections."
Out of this mythology was born the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Zindaginama. A chronicle of the Partition, the novel is suffused with ethos and ambience of pre-partition rural Punjab. She recalls, "Khwaja Khizr, the Pir of Zindaginama, was a living symbol for all peasants. He was their special guardian. If this was a myth, it was one that all faiths cherished deeply."
As for her personal history, Krishna Sobti says she is a writer who happens to be a liberal, middle-class woman. "I need to have my freedom so that my creative apparatus functions smoothly." There never was a time when she did not want to be a writer. And her first story Lama, was the result of a long-abiding fascination with a Tibetan lama and the need to articulate this.
"I find it boring to continue in the same vein, vocabulary and vision," Sobti says, providing a perfect description of her personal literary history. The writer in her changes the persona according to the needs of characters and situations. Mere imagination has no role here; the writer has to be able to look outside herself and listen closely to all the footfalls and echoes around her. For her, the benchmark of success is that her characters should ring true to themselves and failure here is dealt with lethally as became apparent when she had the proofs of her first novel - a five-hundred-page saga - destroyed because the changes made by the proof-reader were "not true to the lives I was portraying".
Krishna Sobti is most eloquent on the subject of language. "I confront, I discover, I define and redefine with the help of language". It is this that caused the editors of the authoritative Women Writing in India to throw up their hands in despair while trying to get a representative selection of her work translated. As they said, "standard forms of English, sanitized as they have been over the last two hundred years, just did not stretch into anything that resembled the scope of Sobti's idiom." And Sobti's language resources seem limitless - from the earthy flavour of rural Punjab to the uninhibited sexual bantering of Mitro Marjani and the Purani Dilli ethos of Dil-o-Danish - all these are delineated with an effortless honesty all her own. Besides, it is a double offering for it is not just as she Sobti that she speaks, but also as Hashmat
One fine day, nearly twenty years ago, Sobti met Hashmat. Pen name, spiritual double, intellectual rival and alter ego, Hashmat Miyan usurped her place at the writing table. Not for long, fortunately. The uneasy barrier soon dropped and the two assumed a comfortable friendship. "We both have different identities," she explains. "I protect, and he reveals; I am ancient, he is new and fresh; we operate from opposite directions." Hashmat became a chronicler of a different kind, of the bohemian 1960s and 70s, and of the coffeehouse culture. Even here, Sobti remained an observer as well as a participant. Which is why, she can say authoritatively, "It is a circuit game barred to outsiders."
Where other writers drown in a mad bustle of activity, lobbying manoeuvres, rush for awards and efforts to chair committees, Sobti has carefully distanced herself in order to preserve her identity and integrity as a writer and a writer alone. "You can take liberties with yourself only if you create a large space for yourself, a vast sky." And without doubt, Sobti-Hashmat has done just that.