Society - - CONTENTS - By Mayuri Chawla

In this 1987 in­ter­view with So­ci­ety, Nayan­tara Sehgal, Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s niece, talks about mov­ing away from her priv­i­leged up­bring­ing and pre­fer­ring free­dom to the first fam­ily

The first fam­ily of In­dia has given three prime min­is­ters to the coun­try. But the only one who seems to have in­her­ited a touch of Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s way with words is his niece Nayan­tara Sehgal, daugh­ter of Vi­jaya Lak­shmi Pan­dit. Both mother and daugh­ter fell out with their fa­mous cousin years ago as Nayan­tara re­vealed that the last time when she called on Indira was af­ter the Bangladesh war. In later years, she be­came an arch critic of the Indira regime which sti­fled democ­racy at ev­ery avail­able op­por­tu­nity. And yet, it’s Nayan­tara’s credit that she re­fused cheap pub­lic­ity or de­clined to play the po­lit­i­cal game of an equally dis­cred­ited op­po­si­tion. She wouldn’t trade her free­dom for money or power. In a way, she has spurned the three to re­tain her in­de­pen­dence. “She may prove to be the best of the re­mark­able women writer’s to­day,” Spec­ta­tor’s Olivia Man­ning had re­marked as Nayan­tara Sehgal’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal From Fear Set Free and just got past the pub­lish­ers. That was many years ago, be­fore nov­els like Plans For De­par­ture and Rich Like Us evolved, with the lat­ter bring­ing her both the £5,000 Sin­clair prize for fic­tion and the Sahitya Akademi Award. Nayan­tara Sehgal was in Delhi re­cently to col­lect the Sahitya Akademi Award in recog­ni­tion of her work. Though she lives in the placid sur­round­ings of Dehradun, that hasn’t ham­pered her in any way in cre­at­ing fic­tion rooted in protest and free­dom, be­ing close to the most fa­mous fam­ily in the sub­con­ti­nent. In fact, Plans For De­par­ture is her only novel which is not grounded in her ex­pe­ri­ence. The light-hearted Plans For De­par­ture with its pre­ci­sion in char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion could well be a wor­thy con­tes­tant for all the awards as is Rich Like Us with its poignant por­trayal of the Emer­gency days, in fact, set one month af­ter it, fea­tures the un­scrupu­lous op­por­tunists at their best with a very sym­bolic arm­less beg­gar who roams the city as a re­minder of poverty and help­less­ness. “But awards are tor­tur­ous things as far as I am con­cerned,” says Nayan­tara. “I don’t want to say any­thing about them.” Though a bit re­luc­tant, she adds, “I’m glad to see that the Sahitya Akademi is much more open to­day,” and “it’s a beau­ti­ful plaque that they have given.” Her dis­il­lu­sion­ment with awards, or more par­tic­u­larly with the Sahitya Akademi has a his­tory of sorts be­hind it. It hap­pened when she was on its ad­vi­sory board for English in the 1970s. Dur­ing the Emer­gency im­posed by her cousin, she urged the Akademi to

pass a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing cen­sor­ship and im­pris­on­ment with­out trial. The res­o­lu­tion was kept un­der con­sid­er­a­tion for quite some time un­til the spine­less lot an­nounced that they were not will­ing to do it. “The learned mem­bers of the Akademi’s au­gust board trem­bled at the very idea of stand­ing up to be counted. I found their lack of in­tegrity nau­se­at­ing,” she said later in an in­ter­view, while re­fus­ing to be on their book se­lec­tion panel. Ms Sehgal has al­ways had her own ideas about the world and pol­i­tics and her pref­ace to Indira Gandhi, Her Road To Power de­scribed what it meant to be a writer with per­cep­tions of her own and still be­long to the first fam­ily. “A fam­ily in power is an even more for­mi­da­ble bas­tion and in In­dian cul­ture the roy­alty of those who be­long to it is an ef­fort­less as­sump­tion. It would have been eas­ier for me to suc­cumb to this mys­tique and live on it but I have re­jected it ut­terly where it con­flicted with my own ob­ser­va­tion and con­clu­sions. Nor have I any wor­ship to

In this 1987 in­ter­view with So­ci­ety, Nayan­tara Sehgal, daugh­ter of Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s sis­ter Vi­jaya Lak­shmi Pan­dit, raises the bar with her po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness. Mov­ing away from her priv­i­leged up­bring­ing, Nayan­tara pre­ferred free­dom to the first fam­ily

spare for fam­ily as such. My ad­mi­ra­tion for my un­cle Jawa­har­lal Nehru has lit­tle to do with the fact that I hap­pened to be his flesh and blood.” Her in­de­pen­dent ideas earned her much dis­plea­sure from cousin Indira Gandhi. “All was well un­til she be­came a Prime Min­is­ter and I be­came a critic. She had no use for any­one who crit­i­cised her, es­pe­cially when the per­son be­longed to her own fam­ily.” Per­sonal dis­cus­sion and con­fronta­tion never served much pur­pose, “be­cause” as Nayan­tara says “she sim­ply turned her face away. She could be quite adamant when she chose to and the last time I went to see her was when my mother and I went to con­grat­u­late her af­ter the Bangladesh vic­tory. I never called on her since.” The mem­o­ries of the young Indira whom she “very was close to” be­longs to a dif­fer­ent pe­riod al­to­gether. “She was much older than me and she was a very well trav­elled per­son. She had seen the world and it used to be very ex­cit­ing when she came back home and had a lot of sto­ries to tell.” Jawa­har­lal Nehru, she con­fessed, has ex­erted the max­i­mum in­flu­ence on her. “My un­cle was a great hero for me and since we lived in the same house, we saw a lot of him. He used to be out a lot, trav­el­ling. But a lot of his ideas and prin­ci­ples rubbed off on me, so much so that I could never rec­on­cile my­self to the at­tacks on democ­racy that took place af­ter he died. His com­mit­ment to democ­racy is the deep­est im­pres­sion he left on me. Dur­ing the emer­gency, when there was a com­plete sus­pen­sion of demo­cratic rule, I felt that the pact he had made with the peo­ple had been bro­ken and I took the stand I did in my po­lit­i­cal writ­ing. It had an im­pact on my life, in in­flu­enc­ing my think­ing, it was an im­pact of ideas, of love, of many things. Even af­ter I got mar­ried and moved out­side Bom­bay, we would visit him reg­u­larly once a year till the time he died. He was a per­son who al­ways had time for hu­man be­ings, for mem­bers of the fam­ily. When­ever you had a prob­lem, you could al­ways go to him and he would find time. It is a qual­ity very few peo­ple have. I think he was also a won­der­ful writer, and I have care­fully

“He(Nehru) was a per­son who al­ways had time for hu­man be­ings, for mem­bers of the fam­ily. When­ever you had a prob­lem you could al­ways go to him and he would find time. It is a qual­ity very few peo­ple have.”

read each and ev­ery one of the books he has writ­ten.” De­spite care­ful read­ing of Nehru’s works, Nayan­tara does not be­lieve that her own work re­sem­bles his in style. “If there is any­thing of his style of writ­ing in me it’s cer­tainly not a con­scious at­tempt be­cause I don’t be­lieve that you can bor­row a style of writ­ing. It has to be your own par­tic­u­lar voice and if it is some­body else’s, that is not a good thing at all. Also it does not last. And more so in fic­tion you can­not write like any­body else, your own in­di­vid­u­al­ity grows and be­comes a style in due course. One is not born that way but as you write more and more your style de­vel­ops.” Writ­ing was some­thing that hap­pened to Nayan­tara along the way. “I was the most am­bi­tion­less crea­ture,” she analy­ses, “I never had a burn­ing am­bi­tion to do any­thing, I be­gan to write and I loved writ­ing but I can’t de­fine it as an am­bi­tion. It was just some­thing that I wanted to do. I never had the least pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ei­ther mak­ing money or be­com­ing fa­mous.” Her writ­ing re­ally started more as a record of the strange, some­what trau­matic but priv­i­leged days she had as a child, liv­ing in a fam­ily that was mak­ing his­tory but which was con­stantly in and out of pris­ons. Nat­u­rally she was chang­ing schools as fre­quently as the Bri­tish changed their minds. She es­pe­cially re­mem­bers Wood­stock where she was sent in the third stan­dard. “It had beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings, even at that time I liked the at­mos­phere very much,” she re­calls. She spent five years there and learnt to rec­on­cile with the Western­ised cul­ture with the In­dian one at home. “We used to speak English at school but Hindi at home. My grand­mother and par­ents were very western­ised in a way but at home we were com­pletely In­dian be­cause at that time we were fol­low­ing Gand­hiji’s line of think­ing and noth­ing for­eign was al­lowed in the house.” In the early ’40s, she went to Amer­ica to study his­tory and phi­los­o­phy which were her favourite sub­jects and which would greatly help her later in her po­lit­i­cal fic­tion. “It was not a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to make where I should go to study fur­ther,” she says, “There was no al­ter­na­tive at the time be­cause in In­dia we had to sign an un­der­tak­ing that we would

“All was well be­tween us un­til she(Indira) be­came Prime Min­is­ter and I be­came a critic. She had no use for any­one who crit­i­cised her, es­pe­cially when the per­son be­longed to her own fam­ily.”

not take part in any po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties and nei­ther my par­ents nor I were agree­able to that. There was no ques­tion of go­ing to Bri­tain as it was in the midst of a war.” The de­ci­sion to go to Amer­ica proved to be a re­ward­ing one. “It was the first time I had left my own coun­try and also I was in a free coun­try for the first time in my life. Our whole ex­pe­ri­ence in In­dia had been based on a search for free­dom so it was ex­hil­a­rat­ing to be in a coun­try which was not oc­cu­pied by an­other and which was gov­erned by it­self and had its own con­scious­ness. I en­joyed my stud­ies there very much.” She was there from 1943-1947 and came back to a coun­try torn by ri­ots, but which had suc­cess­fully at­tained its free­dom. “We used to hear about the events tak­ing place here but be­ing so far away it was very dif­fer­ent from the horrifying ex­pe­ri­ence of par­ti­tion and all the tragedy that was com­mit­ted on such a joy­ful oc­ca­sion,” she re­mem­bers. Back in In­dia, Nayan­tara stayed with Pan­dit Nehru be­fore vis­it­ing her mother who had re­turned from her po­si­tion at the UN and was then sta­tioned at Moscow. She also met a young busi­ness­man, Gau­tam Sehgal whom she fell in love with and the wed­ding took place at the fam­ily house in Al­la­habad. “I was never a house­wife in the strict sense of the term be­cause I was writ­ing books much be­fore I be­gan my jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer. My first book was an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It was just a pass­ing in­ter­est at that time but it was re­ally af­ter my di­vorce that I de­cided to put my jour­nal­is­tic writ­ing on a busi­ness ba­sis,” she re­calls. It was later that her col­umn in the Ex­press magazine be­came a reg­u­lar affair and she di­vided her time be­tween the var­i­ous kinds of writ­ing she had cho­sen to do. Along with the writ­ing she also brought up her three chil­dren of whom Ran­jit is set­tled in New York, Gita is in Lon­don work­ing for Chan­nel Four and Nonika, the el­dest, is in be­tween jobs in Delhi. She is also one of the most avid read­ers and ad­mir­ers of Nayan­tara’s work. She has never grum­bled that her mother is most of the time in­ac­ces­si­ble or re­sented the se­cret na­ture which shrouds her novel un­til it is pub­lished. “I have read and reread her books many times,” states Nonika, “and out of all of them I think Plans For De­par­ture is cer­tainly the best. It had a fab­u­lous sense of hu­mour, ex­cel­lent char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and a ter­rific story. I am sur­prised it hasn’t won any award yet.” Nayan­tara’s two au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal works Pri­son and Cho­co­late Cake and later From Fear Set Free proved her ex­cel­lence as a sort of his­to­rian record­ing the events of her child­hood and the at­mos­phere at that time. “I am a nov­el­ist and a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist and this com­bi­na­tion is not cal­cu­lated to pro­mote san­ity or peace of mind,” she said at a sem­i­nar of the award win­ners at the Sahitya Akademi. “Fic­tion is my abid­ing love and jour­nal­ism my con­science, and there has never been and ques­tion of aban­don­ing one for the other.” The theme of free­dom that has re­curred in her writ­ing has merged, in a sense, with her per­sonal free­dom as well. “It helped me to de­velop an iden­tity of my own, a pro­fes­sion of my own. It also helped me to be eco­nom­i­cally in­de­pen­dent. What is mere in­de­pen­dence with­out eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence?” She has been an ac­tive mem­ber of the Peo­ple’s Union for Civil Lib­er­ties (PUCL), work­ing to­wards free­dom in yet an­other way. “One thing by it­self like writ­ing an ar­ti­cle or a book is not go­ing to pro­vide civil lib­er­ties. Ev­ery­thing put to­gether can im­prove the sit­u­a­tion, and writ­ing is my way of mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion. It is pos­si­ble that peo­ple will read it, the world will spread and the con­scious­ness will grow.”

Nayan­tara with her first-born Nonika

Plans for a fam­ily. Nayantra with Nonika and Ran­jit

Miss­ing cousins. Nonika and Ra­jiv

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