Talk

Her own woman

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on February 08, 2019

Spirited life: The twinkle in her eyes was unfailingly accompanied by a half-smile on her lips. R V Moorthy   -  The Hindu

Krishna Sobti played with languages, genre and gender. A poet who turned to fiction, she wrote under the masculine name Hashmat, and watched her prose transform

Long ago, when I first came across a Krishna Sobti novel — Mitro Marjani, I think it was — I had no idea of the person who lived behind that amazing narrative. The novel took my breath away with its frank and confident exploration of a woman’s sexuality and desire, but more because I had not come across a voice like that in Hindi literature.

It was a complex and intriguing voice: Krishnaji wrote in Hindi, but it seemed to me, when I was reading her work, that I was in the presence of a Punjabi writer, who also occasionally turned to Urdu. And indeed, she was that, quintessentially Punjabi: It was that world she created, that idiom she deployed. Perhaps this foxed potential translators, for what language skills do you bring to works that are so playful with language?

Krishnaji often spoke of her choice of language: She loved Hindi, she said, for its dhwani sansar Punjabi for its roughness, Urdu for its grace, and Rajasthani, which she also used, for its rhythm and brevity.

If language was a mix, so was, interestingly, genre and gender. Krishnaji began her writing life as a poet and later turned to fiction. She lived much of her life as a single woman and then, at 70, she decided to marry. She sometimes adopted a masculine name, Hashmat, and under that name she felt her prose transform into a more “masculine” idiom.

In what she called her last interview, given two years ago, she said: “I was surprised that besides the texture of my writing, even my handwriting changed when I wrote as Hashmat. The contours of the words that appeared on blank paper were not the same as when they were written by Krishna Sobti. That’s the complexity of art, the joy of being a writer. You become a witness to your own self as it is revealed to you.”

A week short of her 94th birthday, Krishnaji died after a longish illness. It was difficult to think of her prone, in a hospital. She was always the one who brimmed with life and energy and humour. The twinkle in her eyes was unfailingly accompanied by a half-smile on her lips.

Many of Krishnaji’s admirers and friends have written of her contribution to literature, her unique style of writing, the exploration of women’s interiority and spirit that so strongly characterises her work. And for many, there are other memories too.

I recall a time, many years ago, when Krishnaji spent time at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. After one of her trips to Delhi, she was returning to Shimla and we happened to travel by the same train. Getting down at Kalka station, she and I opted for the trolley-type two-compartment carrier that would take us up to Shimla.

As it sputtered and cranked its way up the hills, Krishnaji regaled us with stories, her eyes alight with humour. At one point, the trolley sounded particularly tired, and it needed much cranking before it responded and started moving.

“Poor thing,” said Krishnaji, “it’s over 70 years old, no wonder it’s tired!” And then she looked at us and twinkled again. “Just like me!” she said, delighted with herself.

At every event that she attended, Krishnaji would arrive dressed in her unique style — bright colours, self-designed clothes, a touch of gold here and there. She was proud that she designed her own clothes — “I make them out of a cupboardful of saris,” she said, and graciously offered to design some for me.

At every subsequent meeting, she would say to me, “Give me your measurements, write them on a piece of paper and I will design some clothes for you.” That generous offer, along with my desire to wear something designed by her, was to remain unfulfilled, not because of her but because of my failure to give her the information she needed.

Writing, she often said, was like a conversation with yourself, a sharing of your authority as writer with the characters who emerge on the page. But a writer was, for her, also a political being. Krishnaji refused awards, returned them, took positions, attended protest demonstrations when she could, fought legal cases with other writers and, through all of this, remained very much her own woman.

It’s a cliché to say she will be missed, that she was a giant in the world of Hindi literature. She was also a woman who lived through the division of India and Pakistan, and who, in her last work, Gujarat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan, came full circle, returning to that important journey in her life.

She once said, “It’s wonderful to be alive”, but added that she knew the end of life was near and she was putting her things in order, wrapping up for when she would go.

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan; blink@thehindu.co.in

Published on February 08, 2019

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