Steel in her spine
One of the most significant novelists to emerge in the post-independence era, Nayantara Sahgal was her cousin Indira Gandhi’s sharpest critic. Here, Ritu Menon, whose excellent book looks at Sahgal’s family ties, her troubled first marriage, her politics and her writing, says it’s imperative for a biographer to step back from her subjectUpdated: Aug 02, 2014 00:57 IST
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One of the most significant novelists to emerge in the post-independence era, Nayantara Sahgal was her cousin Indira Gandhi’s sharpest critic. Here, Ritu Menon, whose excellent book looks at Sahgal’s family ties, her troubled first marriage, her politics and her writing, says it’s imperative for a biographer to step back from her subject.
Let’s start with the structure of the biography
I took a bit of a chance by not beginning with Nayantara’s childhood. Normally, you begin with where the person was born and go through the whole childhood and get to adulthood and so on. I didn’t want to do that for two reasons: one, she had already written her autobiographies which covered her childhood. Her Prison and Chocolate Cake is a landmark autobiography so I didn’t want to repeat that; I also didn’t want to go into what Lytton Stratchey called ‘a vulgar succession of detail’. In a woman writer’s life, marriage is a very critical event; it’s a critical event in every woman’s life but in Nayantara’s case, her marriage (to Gautam Sahgal) and her writing more or less coincided. So I thought, ‘OK, let me see if I can begin with that definite moment in her life as a woman as well as a writer and see what I can do with that’. That entailed a circularity in the narrative which I would have to follow through. I would have to begin in the present and then go back into Nayantara’s earlier life. I don’t believe that lives are lived in a linear fashion, there is always a sort of returning, a returning to and a proceeding from which is more or less simultaneous. That’s what I mean when I said it’s not a conventional biography. I didn’t have any role models so it was more of a risk.
There’s a lot of research. You got all the social connections: who married whom, who had an affair with whom, whose sister was married to whom... It’s like recreating a whole world!
What I wanted to do was have a rich context because nobody emerges sui generis. You are a product of your context and, in Nayantara’s case, her books are suffused with her context so then it became necessary to use that as a very important background. What I wanted to do was also to bring alive these cities, these post-independence cities of which we know very little — Bombay, Chandigarh, Delhi, Lahore, later on Kashmir, Dehradun. This was her world; this was her physical space. I have to say I was helped enormously by a very rich personal archive to which she gave me unconditional access. Without that I don’t know if I would have been able to populate it in the same way.
Did you have to pump her for the portrait of this terrible marriage (to Gautam Sahgal) that emerges?
One thing I want to say is, you know, marriages are mostly dysfunctional; everyone’s marriage. In this family, apart from her own parents, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Ranjit Pandit, every marriage was dysfunctional: Nehru’s, Indira Gandhi’s, Nayantara’s two sisters’, Krishna Hutheesing’s… There was nothing unusual about a dysfunctional marriage. There’s nothing unusual about it even today, because marriage as an institution is not for women, it’s for men. It’s a fact. In her case, what was remarkable was her very concerted attempts to keep it going, to not allow it to fall apart. As she said writing became her refuge: ‘I went to my table to write in the way some women go to the kitchen to cook.’ It became her release and her refuge and then of course her books began to reflect what was happening in her life. I also feel that if the real relationship with EN Mangat Rai (whom Nayantara Sahgal subsequently married) had not presented itself as a very solid alternative, it might have been different. Her marriage (to Sahgal), the divorce, and meeting Mangat Rai were critical events and those then became defining moments in her life as a writer as well. You see that break after 1967 in her writing. She withdraws from her text; it’s not autobiographical in the same way. That was interesting for me and that’s why it’s a literary, personal and a political life. The three strands are interwoven so I could not separate one and comment on the other.
Sahgal was brave to write against Mrs Gandhi’s authoritarianism. Family loyalty would have held others back.
That’s what Mrs Gandhi expected, she expected family loyalty but as Nayantara says in her book, ‘I wrote against her because she was my cousin’. It’s a totally different take on what constitutes loyalty.
I suppose she saw it as loyalty to her uncle.
Yes, but also loyalty to an ideal. And because she thought she (Mrs Gandhi) was departing from that ideal, she felt it was necessary to bring it to her notice.
Coming to Chandigarh in the 1950s, that bit about people having affairs with each others’ spouses but rarely ever divorcing… it reminds you of relationships in Anna Karenina.
But imagine in the 1950s how bohemian they were and we think we are liberated! And it was all well known. One of the possibilities that biography offers is for you to illuminate other lives as well, not in a scurrilous way, not in a sensational way but simply to get a temper of the times. How do you get a temper of the times? Not through a single person’s life. Every life is singular but it’s lived among other lives so there has to be a possibility of doing that. It was very interesting to me to go back and see how these lives were lived.
Sometimes, the biographer is enamoured of the subject or else starts disliking the subject and that shows. You have managed to step back.
But how else are you able to comment if you don’t step back? I don’t really hold with those who say you have to sit in judgment on your subject. Just as it’s not my job to write a hagiographic account, it’s also not my job to do a slaughter. My job is to present a life in as much of its totality as is possible. I don’t agree with everything Nayantara wrote or everything she says but it’s not my job to challenge that; my job is to present the full picture and allow the reader to come to their conclusion. You have to keep stepping back in order to get a little clarity. The other thing is not to give in to gossip. I could have used a lot but it’s not relevant to Nayantara’s story. I think that’s one reason people are so hesitant about authorising biographies, because the tendency is to succumb to that. I met someone who knew the family, and she said, ‘So have you got all the gossip in your book?’ I said no, I don’t have any gossip. Whatever is verifiable is there; but what is hearsay, no. I’m not going to do that. What purpose does it serve? There’s enough there without doing that.