Partition is not the end, but a beginning for Krishna Sobti’s elegiac and lyrical A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, recently translated into English by Daisy Rockwell. The book was supposed to be launched and presented to the author on her 93rd birthday, but she died a few days before its release.
Sobti was widely mourned in India as a leading author, an iconoclastic warrior for literary causes and a fiery, feisty, rather independent spirit. Unfortunately, her death in January this year went largely unnoticed in Pakistan as her works are not well-known in the land where she was born and from where she moved away, as depicted in this poignant book. As such, ‘here’ and ‘there’ become relative terms. In the Hindi original, the book is called Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan and, as pointed out in the translator’s introduction, “the names were the same, but now the two Gujrat/Gujarat have ended up in two different countries.” The English title makes an additional point by retaining the same spelling for both the Pakistani city and the Indian state, divergent but still bound to each other, if nothing else than for Sobti’s touching narrative.
The doyenne of Hindi fiction, Sobti had won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi and the Jnanpith awards. As the news of her death filtered in and obituaries kept piling up in the media across the border, I recalled a few meetings in New Delhi with the ‘grande dame of letters’; going through my memories of more than a decade ago, I consider my conversations with her as unfinished business. The poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena had invited me to watch his play at the Shri Ram Centre and there, sitting on the patio, I was introduced to Sobti — a formidable presence even in a casual conversation. She immediately took note and began asking me about Intizar Husain. On returning to Pakistan, when I recounted my journey to Husain, he also took note of Sobti’s name and I realised that the interest was mutual.
This was not enough to arouse my interest, though. I became biased against her when Amrita Pritam told me of a lawsuit the two grande dames were locked in. Sobti accused Pritam of stealing the title of the former’s book Zindagi Namah and, faced with legal proceedings for violation of copyright laws, Pritam asked me to help her locate books with similar names from the University of the Punjab in order to prove that this was a common expression, not something exclusive for any writer. I had read nothing of Sobti at the time, while Pritam was a cherished author of my youthful days. Later, when I interviewed the great Urdu and Hindi novelist Upendranath Ashk in Karachi, he took me to task, saying that Sobti was a cut above the rest and Pritam was not “original.” His words were harsh, but without giving up on Amrita Pritam, I kept on the lookout for Krishna Sobti. My interest deepened as I read a few of her stories in English and then was able to find Urdu translations of Ai Larki and Dil-o-Danish, Sobti’s haunting novel of forbidden love set in old Delhi.
She radiated warmth when I visited her home a few years later. Clad in a rainbow-coloured gown with matching cap, she beamed at me in a kindly, genial manner. (I was later to learn that she designed her own dresses.) I owe another visit to Sukrita Paul Kumar who took me to her place and I cherish the memories of Sobti’s animated conversation.
She bends and breaks open the genre to suit her rather eccentric style of narration which fuses reminiscences, autobiographical notes, fiction and musings to create a unique book that is, above all, itself, and by an author who is like none other.
Moving across the different registers of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, Sobti was very much at home in her own language, a stylist in her own way. While one can hanker after the original, Sobti is well served by her translator Rockwell, who recently published a magnificent translation of Khadija Mastur’s Aangan and followed her earlier translation of Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls with its sequel In the City a Mirror Wandering, making her one of the most accomplished translators of Hindi-Urdu fiction into English. More than the translator’s firm hand, though, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There shares some common elements with Mastur’s Aangan. It is also a post-Partition novel focusing on a young woman’s search for her bearings, but Sobti is more than a novelist. She bends and breaks open the genre to suit her rather eccentric style of narration which fuses reminiscences, autobiographical notes, fiction and musings to create a unique book that is, above all, itself, and by an author who is like none other.
Memories of Partition continue to haunt the opening section, but then the narrator journeys ahead. She tries to find a place for herself in a small princely state as a governess of the young ruler, but her dreams of personal and financial independence are thwarted by political intrigue as things are far from settled in the newly independent country. A review in The Indian Express pronounced it as “not a very remarkable book — certainly nowhere Sobti’s finest.” This judgement is rather harsh and I prefer the translator’s description of her own engagement with this particular book. “Think of it as a palimpsest,” Rockwell advises in the introduction. “What Sobti is laying before us are fragments of her memories from 70 years ago. Memory is always fallible, and yet most of us can agree that certain events and episodes from our early 20s are indelibly inked in our imagination.” This also explains the mixture of forms and styles.
In conversation with Alok Bhalla for Partitions Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, Sobti stated that “fiction about the Partition has made an attempt, despite the enormity of the horror it describes, to preserve the essential values,” and it is these values which illuminate her book. It is clear why writer Amitabha Bagchi commented on her death that “she was a sage of our time.”
The columnist is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 19th, 2019