Nayantara (Pandit) Sahgal Biography
Nayantara Sahgal comments:
Nationality: Indian. Born: Allahabad, 1927. Education: Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1943-47, B.A. in history 1947. Career: Scholar-in-residence, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 1973, 1977; research scholar, Radcliffe Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1976; lecturer, University of Colorado semester-at-sea, 1979; fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C., 1981, and National Humanities Center, North Carolina, 1983. Political journalist for Indian, American, and British newspapers; columnist, Sunday Observer, New Delhi. Awards: Sinclair prize, 1985; Sahitya Akademi award, 1987; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1987. Foreign honorary member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1990. Member: United Nations Indian Delegation, New York, 1978.
A Time to Be Happy. New York, Knopf, and London, Gollancz, 1958.
This Time of Morning. London, Gollancz, 1965; New York, Norton, 1966.
Storm in Chandigarh. New York, Norton, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1969.
The Day in Shadow. New Delhi, Vikas, 1971; New York, Norton, 1972; London, London Magazine Editions, 1975.
A Situation in New Delhi. London, London Magazine Editions, 1977.
Rich Like Us. London, Heinemann, 1985; New York, Norton, 1986.
Plans for Departure. New York, Norton, 1985; London, Heinemann, 1986.
Mistaken Identity. London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, NewDirections, 1989.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Promising Young Woman," in Illustrated Weekly of India(Bombay), January 1959.
"The Golden Afternoon," in Illustrated Weekly of India (Bombay), February 1959.
"The Trials of Siru," in Triveni (Madras), January 1967.
"The Girl in the Bookshop," in Cosmopolitan (London), September, 1973.
"Martand," in London Magazine, August-September 1974.
"Crucify Me," in Indian Horizons (New Delhi), October 1979.
"Earthy Love," in Trafika (Prague), Autumn 1993.
Prison and Chocolate Cake (autobiography). New York, Knopf, andLondon, Gollancz, 1954.
From Fear Set Free (autobiography). London, Gollancz, 1962; NewYork, Norton, 1963.
The Freedom Movement in India. New Delhi, National Council ofEducational Research and Training, 1970.
Sunlight Surround You, with Chandralekha Mehta and Rita Dar. Privately printed, 1970.
A Voice for Freedom. New Delhi, Hind, 1977.
Indira Gandhi's Emergence and Style. New Delhi, Vikas and Durham, North Carolina, Academic Press, 1978.
Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power. New York, Ungar, 1982;London, Macdonald, 1983.
Relationship: Extracts from a Correspondence (with E.N. MangatRai). New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1994.
Point of View: A Personal Response to Life, Literature, and Politics. New Delhi, Prestige, 1997.
Bibliography of Indian Writing in English 2 by Hilda Pontes, New Delhi, Concept, 1985.
Bridges of Literature by M.L. Malhotra, Ajmer, Sunanda, 1971; essay by Sahgal, in Adam (London), August 1971; Nayantara Sahgal and the Craft of Fiction by Suresh Kohli, New Delhi, Vikas, 1972; Nayantara Sahgal: A Study of Her Fiction and Non-Fiction 1954-1974 by A.V. Krishna Rao, Madras, Seshachalam, 1976; Nayantara Sahgal by Jasbir Jain, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1978; interview with Nergis Dalal, in Times of India Sunday Review (New Delhi), 30 June 1985; "Naryantara Sahgal's Rich Like Us" by Shirley Chew, and "The Search for Freedom in Indian Women's Writing" by Ranjana Ash, both in Motherlands, edited by Susheil Nasta, London, Women's Press, 1992; "The Crisis of Contemporary India and Nayantara Sahgal's Fiction" by Makarnd Paranjape, in World Literature Today, Spring 1994; Nayantara Sahgal by Jasbir Jain, Jaipur, India, Printwell, 1994; The Fiction of Nayantara Sahgal by Manmohan Bhatnagar, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1996; Woman's Space: The Mosaic World of Margaret Drabble and Nayantara Sahgal by Sree Rashmi Talwar, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1997; Microcosms of Modern India: A Study of the Novels of Nayantara Sahgal by Madhuranthakam Narendra, New Delhi, Classical Pub. Co., 1998; This Is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Sahgal, Buchi Emecheta, and the Politics of Gender by Joya Uraizee, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.
I am a novelist and a political journalist. My novels have a political background or political ambiance. I didn't plan it that way—I was dealing with people and situations—but looking back, each one seems to reflect the hopes and fears the political scene held out to us at the time.
I have a very strong emotional as well as intellectual attachment to my roots … I have certainly been plagued with wondering from time to time why I was born and what I'm doing here and why I haven't had to worry about my next meal when millions live lives of anxiety and drudgery. And then there is the problem of evil and pain. At times all that abstract conjecture has become very personal, with the need to atone for the terrible things people do to each other. Some of these matters fell into place for me when I gave up the struggle to be an atheist. Atheism—or agnosticism—is my general family background, but I am. a believer to the marrow of my bones, and much has become clearer to me since I faced the fact.
I see myself as both novelist and journalist. In the course of a lifetime one is many things, fiction is my abiding love, but I need to express myself on vital political issues. Political and social forces shape our lives. How can we be unaware of them? I believe there is a "poetics of engagement" where commitment and aesthetics meet and give each other beauty and power.
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Most of Nayantara Sahgal's characters belong to the affluent upper class of Indian society. Sahgal sticks scrupulously to the people she knows intimately; she does not try to write about the caste-ridden middle class or the poor Indian villager just to conform with the accepted image of India. Her range of characters simplifies her technique; she does not have to struggle to present Indian conversation in English (a problem which bedevils many other Indian novelists writing in English) as most of her characters are the kind of people who would talk and think in English in real life.
Sahgal has a first-hand knowledge of politics and political figures in India, for she spent most of her childhood in Anand Bhawan, the ancestral home of the Nehrus in Allahabad. One could say that politics is in her blood—Jawaharlal Nehru was her mother's brother, while her father died because of an illness he suffered in prison when he was jailed for participating in India's freedom struggle. An important political event forms the background for each of her novels. Her first novel, A Time to Be Happy, presents the dawn of Indian independence. This Time of Morning comes later, when the initial euphoria has worn off, and things no longer look rosy. Storm in Chandigarh deals with the partition of the Punjab on linguistic lines just when the state had recovered from the trauma of the 1947 partition. A Situation in New Delhi presents the Indian capital faced with the After-Nehru-Who question; established politicians have given up all moral values, and the frustrated youth are becoming Naxalites (Communist extremists). But sometimes this political consciousness is not transmuted fully in artistic terms. Some of her characters are easily recognizable public figures: Kailash Sinha (Krishna Menon) in This Time of Morning or Shivraj (Jawaharlal Nehru) in A Situation in New Delhi are two examples. Her autobiographies, Prison and Chocolate Cake and From Fear Set Free are more satisfying than her earlier novels. An outstanding novel is The Day in Shadow; here personal concerns take precedence over politics. The heroine, Simrit Raman, a writer, is a divorcée (like Sahgal herself), and the novel shows the prejudice she faces in male-dominated Indian society. She grows close to Raj, an idealistic Member of Parliament, who shares her values, unlike her husband, who believes in money-making above all. Sahgal gives an authentic picture of high-level politicians and bureaucrats, wrapped up in their cocktail parties, worried more about themselves than about the problems which face the country. The mutual attraction between Simrit and Raj is not primarily sexual. As in her other novels, Sahgal suggests that marriage is not just a sexual relationship, it means companionship on equal terms. She pleads for a basic honesty in human relationships, whether they are between man and woman or the ruler and the ruled.
Because of her birth and upbringing, Sahgal makes an ideal spokesman for the western-educated Indian who finds it difficult to come to terms with India. As her character Sanad in A Time to Be Happy confesses, "I don't belong entirely to India. I can't. My education, my upbringing, and my sense of values have all combined to make me unIndian…. Of course there can be no question of my belonging to any other country." Jawaharlal Nehru, too, had articulated the same problem when he wrote in his autobiography, "I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways." This realization leads to a passionate concern with the Indian heritage and its meaning in the modern age; all of Sahgal's novels are concerned with the present decadence of India, and how creative use can be made of its past. It is this concern with the country which led her to protest against the Emergency imposed by her cousin Indira Gandhi when the majority of Indian writers preferred to keep silent. Her political acumen had led her to anticipate Mrs. Gandhi's action, and she had cautioned against it in her weekly newspaper column.
Rich Like Us, which won the Sinclair prize for fiction, is probably her best novel. Sahgal's searching look at India during the Emergency reveals that democracy and spirituality are only skin-deep. The murder of the narrator Sonali's great-grandmother in the name of suttee, the mutilation of the sharecropper because he asks for his due, the rape of the village women by the police because their menfolk dare to resist the landlord, and the murder of Rose, the large-hearted Englishwoman in New Delhi just because her frank talk is an embarrassment to her stepson Dev, are all described in an entirely credible manner. The narrative technique is interesting; the narrator is Sonali, but alternate chapters deal (in the third person) with her father Keshav's friend Ram, a businessman who loves Rose, so we get a dual perspective on events. The novel ends on a note of hope; in the midst of sycophancy, there are persons like Kishori Lal, a petty shopkeeper, who have the courage to protest against tyranny.
Sahgal's subsequent novels go back to the past. Plans for Departure has been hailed as a "novel of ideas," though a less sympathetic reviewer has labelled it a "backdated Jewel in the Crown." The usual Raj characters are present in the imaginary hill station of Himapur—the sympathetic British administrator, the missionary, the racist white woman out to uphold Imperialistic glory, the nationalist Indian leader etc. The heroine is Anna Hansen, a Danish woman on a visit to India, who makes her plans for departure when the shadows of World War I fall over Europe. She goes back to marry Nicholas Wyatt, the scion of an old English family. Anna's Indian experiences reach a kind of consummation when their son marries an Indian girl who is a political activist. The India of the early decades of this century is evoked more vividly in Sahgal's eighth novel, Mistaken Identity, which has a male narrator, just like her first novel, A Time to Be Happy. Bhushan Singh, the playboy son of the Raja of Vijaygarh, is on his way home from college in America in 1929 when he is arrested on a mistaken charge of sedition. He has to spend almost three years in jail, where his companions are idealistic followers of Mahatma Gandhi and militant trade union leaders, both trying to win freedom in their own ways; the hero's interaction with them is at times quite comic. These two later novels show Sahgal's continued preoccupation with India, though they lack the social commitment and contemporary relevance of Rich Like Us.
—Shyamala A. Narayan