“A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” by Krishna Sobti

Krishna Sobti (via Wikimedia CommonsSobti

Krishna Sobti, the grande dame of Hindi literature (as she is often called in India), passed away in January this year. She was an unusual writer, writing as a woman and publishing some of her work under a masculine name. Her writing in Hindi is inflected with Urdu and Punjabi ways of speaking and makes translating her a challenge. Among her last works was Gujrat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan (2016), a novelized memoir about the early years of her career and of independent India.

Now available in an English translation by Daisy Rockwell, the novella is an account of Sobti’s first job as a governess to the child maharaja of Sirohi, a district now in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Readers will pick up Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There with expectation. But it is not about the Indian state of Gujarat, the title notwithstanding, nor is it  quite a novel. But it will be of immense appeal to those interested in Sobti, the person.

 

A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There, Krishna Sobti, Daisy Rockwell (trans) (Penguin Hamish Hamilton, February 2019)
A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There, Krishna Sobti, Daisy Rockwell (trans) (Penguin Hamish Hamilton, February 2019)

Sobti was born in Gujrat, Pakistan (spelled differently from the Indian Gujarat in English) and had to move to Delhi after the 1947 Partition. She ended up in Sirohi in response to a job advertisement. The book is a recollection of how she began her journey towards financial independence—a reflection written, notably, towards the end of her life and career. The novella also offers a nuanced understanding of the aftermath of Indian independence and Partition. The plot is thin, but is compensated by considerable commentary on her self-confidence, her surroundings, the princely ways and the political events.

Young Sobti is full of doubt regarding what she has set out to do. In leaving her family and stepping out to fend for herself, she is constantly in a dialogue with herself. The first half has many moments of such conflict with other side of her interior dialogue differentiated in italics:

 

As she took her clothes from her suitcase, she became distracted. Will I like it here? Who knows. Perhaps I’m worrying too much. Has my desire to make decisions grown weak, or does insight make one capable of sensing what is to come? Nothing is in my hands now. But at least you are yourself. You read the advertisement in the paper. You learnt of the new situation here from Desai Uncle. On his suggestion, you looked at the gazetteer in the  Secretariat Library. How can you be conflicted about staying here now? Why this apathy?

 

As Sobti transitions into becoming an employee, India transitions into becoming a sovereign nation. The British did not leave behind only India and Pakistan (East and West): Sirohi was just one of the various princely states that were to decide for themselves whether they would join either of the new nation states, or stay sovereign. Independence and Partition, the triumph and the tragedy, are well-explored in Indian literature, but the events around the integration of the princely states into the republic of India remain obscure.

When Sobti comes to the kingdom of Sirohi, she finds the ways of the royal family very awkward; she comments on the princely ways and princely notions of time in the way she gazes at the queens and the mansions:

 

The sunlight streamed in through the large glass door and spilled over half the floor, gingerly cradling the relics of the royal family’s regal authority. The majestic daughter of Kutch, Buj and Bhairavi sat motionless, like a statue in a museum, clad in a bright white silk sari.

 

It is not just that she finds herself in another era; she finds time itself changes in the kingdom—it becomes ancient, and someone one else’s. As she further scrutinizes her surroundings, she has no patience for the provincial outlook of the princes. She is appalled when someone narrates to her a story about a maharaja ridiculing a Baniya (someone from business community) and a Rajput (representative of warrior community). The tendency to stereotype, to divide, to create many internal partitions is something that free India does not know how to deal with. In her telling, even the Mahatma is not above such pigeonholing. She records a journalist commenting on Gandhi’s assassination (another context intertwined with the decolonization of South Asia):

 

The truth is something quite different. The Chitpavan Brahmin community started this bloody quarrel. This dispute was not actually against Gandhi, it was to make the Baniyas look low. They simply could not tolerate the fact that a Baniya Mahatma could get the respect that Brahmins do. The people worshipped him like a holy man.

 

The ghost of Sobti’s friend Beembo—who died during the Partition violence—comes to see her, to see how those who survived the rape and murder struggle as they forge new paths. Sobti’s responses form a very unflattering portrait of how the survivors manage. The refugees in a camp live in awful conditions but when Lady Mountbatten and Rameshwari Nehru come to visit them, they are made to see it differently:

 

The camp inhabitants were instructed to wear clean clothes. The children’s hair was tidied and they were seated on the ground in the front rows.
     Then rows of women. Some orhnis in the middle began to sparkle among the ordinary clothes.
     The Laat Sahiba found this peculiar.
     Rameshwari Nehru said to the women, ‘Sisters! Our guest is surprised at how gaudy your sparkly star-studded dupattas and shawls look. Where did you get these expensive veils from? Memsahib is a bit taken aback by this.’
     The women who’d come from Multan rose and began a bitter tongue-lashing.
     ‘Sister! How could we greet the Laat Sahib’s wife in our filthy, wrinkled clothing? Those women who had managed to save their wedding orhnis and bring them here, they brought them out for today. We’ve all been ruined, but we had to show some respect for the Laat Sahiba.

 

It is in moments such as this one that A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There provides insights into the chaotic times after 1947. While these are fragments and do not necessarily constitute a coherent plot, the book deserves to be read as a memory of conflicted times, brought to light almost two-thirds of a century later.


Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.