Some deaths arrive with the footfalls of snow, with grace and quietude. Author Krishna Sobti departed on a day Shimla, her beloved town, was under a spell of snow. This was the city she spent her childhood in and would visit often before she joined the Indian Institute of Advanced Study as a National Fellow in the mid-1990s.
The ideal to several generations of writers, Sobti, who would have been 94 in three weeks, lived with an unflinching faith in the written word and firmly countered all attempts that questioned the seat of the writer. Among the many anecdotes of her self-belief, this one perhaps has gone largely unnoticed.
Historian Govind Chandra Pande was visiting IIAS after being appointed its chairman. During a formal interaction session, Fellows were asked to introduce themselves to the new boss. Sobti took strong offence that the man who already knew her wanted her introduction. “We have been meeting for the last few days, still you want to know my name. I have an ordinary name but my signature is very expensive,” she said.
She was among the foremost voices of sanity, sensuality and dissent in Indian literature. A writer who was aware of her political responsibilities, yet never indulged in politics or sought political gain. She rejected the Padma Bhushan announced by the UPA and then returned the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship protesting against rising intolerance in 2015.
In the past few years she was particularly worried about the cultural scene. The government, she would say, is taking the country to a new partition.
Sobti epitomized the life of a solitary writer. Courageous, sensitive and fiercely independent. She created among the most assertive women characters in Indian literature, yet resisted being called a “woman writer”. A writer transcends gender distinction, she would say.
The oeuvre of Sobti, who received both the Sahitya Akademi and the Jnanpith awards, is staggering. In Mitro Marjani (1966), she created a married woman who asserts her sexuality and taunts her husband for not fulfilling her desires. Zindaginama (1979), an epic novel, is the story of a Punjab village that spans decades. Perhaps her most loved work is Ae Ladki (1991), a haunting conversation between a dying old woman and her daughter, as they talk about love, life and death.
She opted to remain childless and married in the twilight of her life. Sobti had her friends and loves but she kept them buried in the casket of her being. She remained an enigma even to her close circle, her solitude impregnable.
I once found letters of some writers in her files. Initially hesitant, I gathered courage to ask her.
“Romance? With him?” she laughed it away, in a way that could be indicative of either possibility.
She mastered a form of fiction in Hindi that saw an effortless fusion of several dialects as if asserting that the literature of this nation can never be monolingual. She could regale her visitors with stories that ranged from her native village in Pakistan to Shimla and pre-partition Lahore.
And she wrote until the end, recently publishing a book on her contemporary poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh. There aren’t many instances in world literature of a writer in her 93rd year publishing a work on her contemporary. The perfectionist in her was annoyed with the publisher for what she believed was poor printing. “Should I withdraw all the copies?” she asked me after the first copies had arrived.
Her commitment to the word was absolute.
For the past few years, she saw several of her close friends depart. A quiet melancholy often enveloped her. “Main abhi bhi bachi hun (I am still around),” she would say.
Did the thought of what would happen to her belongings after she’s gone ever affect her? Our conversations often seemed to needle on the question. She was too self-possessed to admit to such concerns but at times her anxieties brimmed over her large-framed glasses. She wanted to establish a residency for writers with her rich collection of books becoming its library.
Several veteran writers nourish the younger crop. Sobti’s way was distinct. I first got a call from her in 2010. She wanted me to read the manuscript of her book before sending it to the publisher.
I had published just a few short stories till then. Still to grasp the trust she was placing in me, as I hesitatingly received the papers, she asked her attendant Vimlesh (who cared for her in her last years with utmost devotion) to give me an envelope. I was flabbergasted. It contained a substantial amount. Writers often read manuscripts of their friends, even of strangers. Money in lieu of it is unheard of. I resisted, but she wouldn’t agree. “I value the time of people who write.”
When I came to Shimla, she’d ask often me about the weather and the hills. She loved snow, her wrinkles had its freshness.
Just about the moment she took her last breath in Delhi, a woman with an umbrella passed under my window. It was snowing. Was it Krishnaji, on her final journey to the hills?
O Ladki, Alvida.
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