#DesiBooksReview 3: Krishna Sobti shows us the horrors of a country at the brink of change

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Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Currently, she is working on her postgraduate degree in linguistics at the University of Rochester, New York. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 3

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti | Translated from the Hindi into English by Daisy Rockwell | India Penguin Modern Classics | February 4, 2019

If you look at images of Krishna Sobti, you will find irresistibly slick portraits of her gazing into the camera with a self-assured smile, clad in a comfortable headscarf, wearing thick-rimmed glasses with photochromatic lenses. The woman behind the exacting gaze is cognizant of her experimental use of language and the distinct voice of her women characters, but abhors the idea of being called a “woman writer.” Sobti grew up in Gujrat, Pakistan, spent summers in Shimla, studied in Lahore, and then lived in Delhi for most of her life. Though she could speak English well, she chose to write in Hindi, with a patently complex brevity. Her prose flourishes with poetic grace, then cuts with its unsparing wit, making her one of Hindi language’s most revered writers.

In A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, a woman’s endeavors toward self-reliance mirror the nation’s struggle for independence and identity during the Partition. One of her last literary works to be published, though allegedly one of the first she ever wrote, it narrativizes her youth in an episodic text that showcases an ability to delineate thought itself. After Sobti won the Sahitya Akademi award for her magnum opus Zindaginama (which she later returned in protest), she became a household name, known both for her unabashed exploration of female sexuality, and her peculiar but delightful linguistic khichdi—an idiolect comprising Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Rajasthani, which even someone as accomplished as Rockwell found extremely difficult to translate.

“Hindi has a unique dhwani sansar (auditory world), drawn from various dialects. Every word has a distinct sound. The words that have come from Punjabi have a roughness but Rajasthani words carry a unique brevity and rhythm. My creative world carries the memory of various Hindi dialects, Urdu, and Sanskrit.”

So said Sobti in one of her last interviews with The Indian Express. I confess I tried to read Krishna Sobti’s Mitro Marjani in Hindi and gave up after about twenty pages. Rockwell had already warned that Sobti is “creating and bending language and seeing what it will do for her” and that reading her even in Hindi is difficult, asking us to think of her writing like that of “James Joyce or William Faulkner, only with brevity.”

Sobti looks at writing as a way to have a conversation with oneself. In Zindaginama, she recalls a Punjab of the past, not through romanticized nostalgia, but as a way to trace her roots and individuality. In A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, too, she looks back on her past, inserting herself as a protagonist, and letting us see the venerable author stumble, hide, or lose her breath. Rockwell invites us to read the book as if it were a palimpsest; fragments upon fragments of memories pile on top of each other, threatening to break loose. Sobti, with her iron grit, refuses to let certain memories take hold of her. They haunt her and she swats them away. 

The book begins with a young Sobti who, after completing her Masters in Arts (M.A.), responds to a job advertisement to work at a primary school in Sirohi. At the brink of the nation’s divide, she acquires a refugee status when she moves from there (Lahore) to here (Delhi). The ghosts of old conversations, slogans, news about corpses, and failed escapes plague her. Her inner voice, written in italics, exposes her vulnerability, but also her strict resolve to survive in a war-torn nation. Sirohi, with its elegant forts and charming monarchs, is no match for her Delhi. She regrets accepting the job, but scolds herself when resounding to bouts of self-pity. The primary school she is supposed to work at is closed because of a fight between the Rajputs and Baniyas. She despises the old ways of Sirohi, where she is doted upon as an act of surveillance and given two ladies in waiting, who wish to comply with all her demands. She explains to her helper, Phuli Bai, what freedom for the country means: “now the royal family will become equals with everyone else.” But Phuli Bai is unable to understand this idealism. Sobti feels a “rage bubbling inside her” and thinks “What is this backwardness, this lack of education? Why did Partition even happen?” The rage, though directed at a particular city and conversation, points to a larger, more painful helplessness of an entire generation. 

Sobti is sent to look at other schools in Bombay and Ahmedabad to draw up plans for the primary school of her employment. As she wonders about the perfect desk to chair ratio, memories of her friend Beembo, who was butchered on her wedding night, appear in her periphery. Sobti recalls Beembo’s mother’s lament that criticized the impenetrable leaders of the country: “If you didn’t have enough police or soldiers to save us all, why did you agree to the Partition?” Though reminders of the Partition’s bloodshed exist in the immediate memory, if conversation steers towards its acknowledgement, the topic is quickly changed. There is no knowing what might make one stiffen or burst into tears. A warm memory of vermicelli pudding could be a reminder of a home-cooked meal one can no longer afford.

As Sobti travels to different cities and meets her now scattered family, some units well-off, some fallen from grace, she is reminded that the movement for Independence that fueled her desires had become a playground for communal and caste politics. Stories of admirable neighbors provide intermittent breaks in the exhaustion and memories of relentless misfortune. “When we came here, all the well-to-do folks had pillows and quilts stitched for the refugees,” informs Sobti’s aunt. Misfortune clings to the air, but there is hope to be found.

As preparations for the primary school continue, Sobti is appointed to be the governess of Maharaja Tej Singh of Sirohi, whose seat on the throne is contested. In the Daisy Rockwell designed book cover, Sobti stands next to the young maharaja, clad in a Rajasthani poshak, with her quintessential smile, thick-rimmed glasses, and a bright pink hijab. Indian readers of Tomb of Sand will recognize Rockwell’s art style; her ability to paint a perceptive glint in the eye—in Tomb of Sand, Maa sits peacefully with her prized golden cane right at the center of the book. As a governess, Sobti is required to teach the young maharaja and starts to develop a soft spot for him. But when he asks her difficult questions, such as the meaning of oust, she is unable to respond. She tries to teach him discipline but training him in even the simple act of asking for permission before entering a classroom, as any student would, is met with strict reprimand. Unable to grasp these “ancient customs,” she stands her ground in having full control over his education, but ultimately, she leaves him to go back to Delhi.

A fusion of memoir and fiction, the book is about determination in a turbulent time. Sobti, who declined the Padma Bhushan to “keep her distance from the establishment” and fell in love and got married at the age of seventy has left behind a legacy of conviction, courage, and defiance. In her world, what has collapsed has the ability to be rebuilt and refashioned. Just as she melts down language, letting it shapeshift and mutate along with her plot, she also bares the heart of her characters. Rockwell’s translation brings both her lexical and stylistic experimentations into English. Although she concurs that the “textures” of Sobti’s language may not have an English equivalent, her translation has brought the author to a broader audience. Rockwell, the recipient of the International Booker Prize for her translation of Tomb of Sand, is remarkable, not just in her ability to translate, but also to pick lyrical books that defy the boundaries of language and plot. 

While Sobti’s other books are known for their meticulous chronicling and long passages of dialogue, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is slippery both in its tempo and plot. Some critics have pointed out that the book is not Sobti’s finest work. Perhaps, this will ring true for some readers, but I saw, through Sobti’s eyes, the horrors of a country at the brink of change. Rockwell’s timely translation allows us to not only read Sobti’s reflections, but also reckon with the current polarizing times. As the Modi government moves forward with its Hindutva agenda, we can learn from Sobti’s perseverance in staying true to her ideals and never surrendering. 

Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 3

Website | Bylines

Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Currently, she is working on her postgraduate degree in linguistics at the University of Rochester, New York. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

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