An interview with Nayantara Sahgal
Q. There is so much to talk about. Where do I begin?
(Laughs) Let’s begin at the begining.
Q. All right. Let me take you a little back in time and ask you about your early years at Anand Bhavan. What did you make out of the political discourses and deliberations of the time much of which were to decide the nation’s destiny?
The sole objective of the leaders involved in the national movement was freedom. They were trying to reach out to the countryside and involve people from the grassroot in the struggle which had both social and economic aspects. I remember how leaders from Purushottam Das Tandon to Maulana Azad used to drop in at our house.
They were, however, just visitors to me. At that time, I wasn’t aware of the ways in which their discussions could determine the nation’s course. I knew, however, that their worlds revolved around the objective of freedom.
Q. And going to the prison was a part of life…
Yes. It resulted into a great deal of separation as my father too was jailed. Though it was hard to deal with it, we eventually got used to that way of living. One was taught to be stoic and never let the police see us cry. It was imbibed in us that going to the prison was a matter of honour and pride and we all looked forward to be put behind bars when we grew up.
Q. How much did these incidents and happenings shape your own political consciousness?
The fight for freedom created a whole ambience in the household. It was out of a purely unselfish motive that these leaders fought for the nation. And there was a great comradeship among them.
Q. Your characters, particularly women, seem to grapple with the rival waves of tradition and modernity, trying to assert their identity. Did it echoe the changing times?
In the sixties, modernity had a singular Western connotation. Everything was seen through the Western lens. I didn’t make a conscious decision to be a writer. My choice of the subject matter was a reflection of the huge interest in the end of the empire. The sun of the colonial system was setting and my first novel tocuhed a chord. It did well and from then on I wrote what I felt I had to. I had no apprehensions weighing me down that it won’t be accepted. I wrote out of an involvement with the country that was emerging, about issues that I felt were crucial in the making of the modern India.
Q. All your novels are characterised by their quintessential political backdrop.
That again was something that eventually happened. Initially, they didn’t come that way. The political landscape was my material. And I wrote with such a backdrop because all authors write about things that surround and trigger them.
Q. How did your uncle Jawahar Lal Nehru’s ideals and writings influence you?
He was not just there as an elder. He was like another parent t o me. He was an educator by an instinct and wrote wonderful letters from jail. He used to guide me with what books to read and I can’t ever pay the debt.
Q. How connected have you felt with India?
I had a powerful belonging to India and never taken a second thoughts that I belong to any other country. There was a cross-cultural framework in our westernised family. We discussed world history at our drawing tables and felt like we were part of the wider world. I am deeply rooted in the Indian soil and have never wanted to live anywhere else. I have written all my books from that passion for the country, from a certain idea of India.
Q. What are the contemporary realities that disturb you as an author?
I am disturbed by the unequal progress of the country as a result of globalisation. The rising disparity and the attitude towards women worry me a lot. Rape looks like a national sport and the idea of equality has suffered a huge blow in many ways. The rampant cases of female foeticide is an horrifying indication of how we value women in our society.