Writing politically, moving personally

Last Updated 22 August 2014, 15:28 IST

In Nayantara Sahgal’s latest biography, Ritu Menon gives us a glimpse of the socio-political happenings that affected her life and writing

The Nehrus and Pandits were not simply a family of rebels against empire, but a family of rebels against empire who also wrote – and wrote autobiographies. Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Krishna Hutheesing; ‘It is odd,’ wrote Jawaharlal to Mrs Pandit in 1943, ‘that the whole family should feel an inner urge for autobiography – I set a catching example.’ But it was also a family that, in a subtle way, wrote back.

Nayantara has said, ‘There was no such thing as an Indian point of view, we were always being interpreted by others … as people under occupation one of the main ways you were suppressed is that you were not allowed to express yourself politically … even the fiction and non-fiction written at the time was through the lens of the Raj. It became a way for me to have my say about what really happened.

A political way of writing was, for me, a very fundamental thing because one had been denied freedom of speech. There was very real censorship then … a degrading and humiliating experience to have one’s mouth shut … To write politically was the only way for me to proceed.’

Nayantara’s foray into writing, then, was not so much an exercise in self-expression or a young woman’s dabbling in the realm of the literary. Rather, it was the medium she chose in order to fulfill a clear purpose: communicating an idea of India in an
idiom inflected with an Indian accent, presenting a perspective that was a counter to prevailing and received wisdoms; presenting moreover, an account of an alternative politics.

Although she has written that, ‘The process leading to freedom had so closely affected my family and my upbringing that it seemed to me an event almost of
personal significance,’ the difference in tone and texture between Prison and Chocolate Cake and From Fear Set Free is marked; it marked, as well, a shift, albeit temporary, in her preoccupations. Prison and Chocolate Cake was focused almost exclusively on the struggle for freedom, in which the intertwined histories of
the nationalist movement and family

involvement came together seamlessly in a narrative that was, at once, charming autobiography and incipient national biography. ...

The two memoirs, then, cannot be read in the same register. Where Prison
and Chocolate Cake is wholeheartedly about the tumult and exhilaration of
political action and an intense personal commitment to it, From Fear Set Free is about concealment, with the tension of uncertainty replaced by the mundane
detail of daily, or what Nayantara called ‘normal’, life.

It was written in 1959, after she had made a conscious decision to bury her past so that her marriage could

continue peacefully. The writing became a ‘polite exercise’, reflecting nothing of what was going on, it became part of her attempt to bring the curtain down on everything that had happened earlier.

Superficially, it was a continuation of her life as it had ended in Prison and Chocolate Cake. ... ‘Before marriage and after marriage, a woman’s life changes,’ she said, by way of explanation, ‘a woman’s life is very different from a man’s.’Although this
provides a clue to the differing tone and temper of both books, it tells only part of the story. In Prison and Chocolate Cake the author’s personal and political selves are a harmonious whole, there is no disjunction between the life she and her family led, the politics they believed in and practised, and her recounting of it.

Although she might later have described it as ‘naïve’, and wondered how it could have ‘come out sounding like this (i.e.,upbeat) when it was about emotional strain and tragedy, about financial pressures, the repeated hardships of jail sentences’ and the uncertainty about how they would affect the family, she never doubted the integrity of the endeavour or of her own place in it.

From Fear Set Free, on the other hand, sees a split in this personal/political
persona, where both personal and political are concealed; the former as a conscious, deliberately exercised choice, the latter, because she was no longer connected to the historic and heroic in the same way. Was far removed from it, in fact. Tara
Pandit had become Nayantara Sahgal. …

Nayantara Sahgal’s married life began to fall apart when she tried to deviate from a male-designed social and gender script for women, and very specifically, from her husband’s script for her – and for them as a couple. Ostensibly, and certainly as far as Gautam was concerned, she had everything a woman could want – a husband who idolised her, the comfort and security of his success, a future of assured privilege.

What could be ailing her? But as we know, by her mid-twenties she had begun to want to create another script for her life, perhaps even to create another self. In the eight years that elapsed between Prison and Chocolate Cake and From Fear Set Free she simultaneously found and suppressed an emerging self, an alter ego who held the promise of freedom but who also threatened to rock the marital boat.

(Excerpts from Out of Line by Ritu Menon; published by Harper Collins)

(Published 22 August 2014, 12:17 IST)

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