Nayantara Sahgal could have chosen a better path, less confrontational to her cousin in her political excesses, than the one she had in her sphere of activities. Everything was positive for her to be on the track, easily enjoying shades of a comfortable Nehruvian era. But she had chosen a rough path, less traveled, with a host of unsparing questions to a relatively new society that has winged its way across the colony rule of England. The writing was her forte along with the indispensability of history and politics entwined.
Nayantara Sahgal is the second daughter of the three born to Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the freedom fighter and first prime minister of India. Having taken birth in one of the most affluent families in India, the law of averages was either keeping afloat enjoying all the riches they inherited or going with the tide. But she took a third path of keeping her eyes open to the rough realities pulling the country back. She decided to write about women. Women defined by the times! She defined women’s identity in a complex family set up. Her focus was on the downtrodden wreathed in the miasma of society smokes.
Her childhood days had witnessed an unwholesome and oppressive rule over women. And she chose to stand in the way creating impediments to the unquestioned sweep-asides. Religion, caste and creed appear to be the biggest drawbacks in Indian society, even now. Imagine how worse it could have been a few decades ago. People in the lower level were destined to breathe the stench of the air prevailing, not knowing that there was another healthy and correct way around. Most of the bigwigs were not ready, risking their fortunes in order to fight against injustice.
Nayantara was a fiery critic of her favorite cousin, Indira Gandhi and fell out many a time with her unholy rackets. Politics was the air they breathed at home. Anything happened at some part of the country had its influence at home.
Nayantara Sahgal was one of the guests of the literary festival held at Chennai in January 2015. Ritu Menon, the biographer and co-founder of her feminist press was also with her at the festival stage, organized by The Hindu, a leading newspaper in India. The role of gender relations that entwined politics was the interesting component brought Ritu Menon to Nayantara Sahgal.
Nayantara commented about her association with Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister of India.
”We were so close knit a family and our childhood was interesting. I have totally turned into writing later and always an opposition to injustice. We fell out in the darkest days of her declaring Emergency in India. I still strongly feel that she went against the family wish and what we stood for. Indira did not tolerate opposition and never cared to analyze things in the proper way. I’ve no regrets whatsoever for what I stood for and wrote. I could have been less aggressive to her, closing my eyes towards reality. But I preferred to keep my eyes open. We may get counted in the process of conquering fear I think my idea is simple to speak up for the India we believe in what it ought to be!”
January 2015 was the time perturbed with the Perumal Murugan issue, in India. A literary work that has survived a few years peacefully became an emotional aversion all of a sudden for a few vested and intolerant interests and the author a persona non grata. Perumal Murugan, a Tamilian professor, the author of Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman) crept back to his chrysalis declaring himself ‘dead as a writer!’ The authorities have banned the book, saving their skins. Nayantara was the first writer came forward publicly defending the writer’s liberty. Freedom to speak and write is facing the greatest challenges in India, despite being proclaimed ‘the biggest democracy in the world’. She called for a collective support from artistes and writers for their freedom of expression.
Nayantara Sahgal’s novel, ‘Rich Like Us’ won Sahitya Akademi Award in 1986. She has around ten novels to her credit and a few other books. Ritu Menon is the author of ‘Out of Line : A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal.
Nayantara even at the age of 88 is well concerned about the India in her dreams and responds befittingly to the issues we’re facing.