Krishna Sobti, a Modern Indian Classic

She infused her epic vision of life, human condition and relationships with images and emotions, the lyricism of the utterly ordinary.

Nearly a week ago, on my birthday, Krishna Sobti sent me as a gift a Kashmiri phiran chosen from her hospital bed and delivered in time so that I could wear it at the celebration. This was yet another expression of her love and care for others which she practiced all her life. She lived a life full of creativity, sensitivity and courage and died a few days before she would have been 94 years of age.

She was a prolific writer, and a rare one too – the only one in Hindi whose first novel written more than 60 years ago was published just a couple of weeks before she breathed her last.

Krishnaji was fiercely independent, totally fearless, lonely but empathetic both in her life and literature. She lost her home and hearth, her haveli in Pakistan after the partition and gradually found, almost formed, her true home in literature. It was not a literature of lament or wailing; on the contrary it was a literature of rare vibrancy, full of life and mirth boldly experimental and experimental and yet rooted in tradition and racial memory.

She was always innovative without being ever incomprehensible. She was a great communicator and never compromised with her liberal and pluralistic vision. If anything, her fiction emanated from a sense of loss and violence, betrayal and desertion. And yet she created a galaxy of characters who rose from ordinary life and, in several ways, affirmed the intensity, fury, passion and perseverance of the ordinary human beings.

In her writing, she brought to Hindi fiction a new narrative language forged by mixing Punjabi with Hindi. Her strategies of narration creatively fused the traditional story-telling techniques with modernist innovation. Her women characters emerged out of her imagination and a deep sense of reality as candid, passionate and very human – neither afraid of patriarchy or a social conservative morality nor willing to constrain their raw passion. In them, specially, the spiritual and the erotic, the sensuous and the metaphysical coalesced organically.

Krishna Sobti infused her epic vision of life, human condition and relationships with images and emotions, the lyricism of the utterly ordinary. In some ways, Krishnaji’s prose has deep poetic resonances. She was an epic poet of the ordinary, seeking no solace in ideology or simplifications of reality. She seized both the grandeur and the humility of the ordinary.

Krishna Sobti (centre) flanked by Ashok Vajpeyi (left) and Om Thanvi (right). Manish Pushkale is behind Sobti.  Credit: Om Thanvi

She always considered herself a citizen-writer of a democratic republic. An irrepressible liberal faces daily attacks and assaults, she constantly supported all struggles and resistance for social, cultural causes and, many a time, spoke powerfully and eloquently supporting them. She grew increasingly suspicious of the democratic pretensions of the Indian state and during writers’ campaign against growing intolerance gave up the Sahitya Akademi fellowship in protest.

She declined the Padma Bhusan award from the Government of India and donated a very large sum of her personal money, including the Gyanpeeth award money, to a foundation for the promotion of language and literature.

A woman of grit and tremendous zest, Krishna Sobti is the only Hindi writer who has written reminiscences of other writers and litterateurs, in four volumes. Her geography of empathy was very wide and her remarkable elegance of appearance and conduct was never separate from deep empathy for, and vulnerability to, others. She had a great sense of humour and she, more often than not, made fun of herself. Even on her hospital bed she was full of mirth and fun.

Krishna Sobti lived a life of dignity, courage, generosity and empathy inspite of the fact that she suffered the jolt of the partition very early in her life. For her, literature was her country. And yet she was deeply Indian though in jest sometimes she claimed that her family had some Greek element in their lineage! She will be missed by her friends and admirers but has created a body of work which has, more or less, already attained a classical status. She is firmly a modern Indian classic.