Novelist Nayantara Sahgal's latest book is about the making and unmaking of independent India


Novelist Nayantara Sahgal’s latest book is about the making and unmaking of independent India

The 90-year-old novelist belongs to India's premier political family

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  January 15th, 2018

In Nayantara Sahgal’s new novella When The Moon Shines By Day (Speaking Tiger; on stands now), an enigmatic female protagonist registers with cold horror, India’s paint-by-numbers hurtle towards a fascist Hindu reality. Her father’s books on medieval India are now blanks on bookshelves, curriculums and publishers’ lists. The violent ethnic cleansing of Muslims is overseen by a comely, botany-enthusiast ‘director of cultural transformation’. Multiple pregnancies are in vogue for patriotic Hindu women, and artists are dangerous entities to be carefully monitored and, if required, mitigated. Insulated from it all, in a book club for rich ladies, gossip and idle pontification are still possible, along with cups of aromatic Flowery Orange Pekoe. Depending on who’s reading it, the slim volume could be a brisk dystopian drama, a faithful rendering of reality, or both. But only those familiar with Sahgal’s personal history will detect its emotional undertow. “What is happening [in the country] today has been like a blow in the dark for me,” she says of India’s growing intolerance of diversity, dissent and debate under the current administration. “So, this book came out with brevity, but force.”

I meet the 90-year-old author and essayist on a hot November morning in the busy lobby of The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. She is in the city to launch the book and speak at the Tata Literature Live! Festival—and at 11am, this is already her third interview of the day. She is warm, gentle and alert, and pauses patiently every time a loud talker walks by. Neither the member-of-India’s-premier-political-family, nor the thorn-in-the-side-of-authoritarian-regimes aspects of her personality are apparent. 

“All my previous novels were written in what we were proud to call a secular, democratic India. They were about the making of a modern nation.” Sahgal is the author of 11 works of fiction, including a collection of short stories. When The Moon Shines By Day, she says, is the first one about the country’s “unmaking”. This erosion takes on a patina of personal loss when you consider that democracy was practically her family legacy. Her beloved “mamu” Jawaharlal Nehru shepherded the newborn republic and her parents, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, were vociferous freedom fighters. Gandhi, her lifelong hero, was a close family friend. “My childhood was spent during Mahatma Gandhi’s movement for freedom. I’d compare mamu to Sir Galahad following the Holy Grail, which is freedom. My parents, too, they didn’t know freedom would come in their lifetime—they had no idea what the next day would bring. But they just kept going. My father died of his fourth imprisonment,” she says.

Fraught and often traumatic as such a childhood was, Sahgal emphasises that it was equally heady, hopeful and full of good humour. “I remember all the leaders foregathering at Anand Bhavan [the Nehru family home. In her latest book, Nayantara Sahgal, one of independent India’s foremost chroniclers, records its worrying transformation. We may be looking at our next freedom struggle, she tells Cheryl-Ann Couto in Allahabad]. They would sit on the floor with takiyas upstairs in the library and make important decisions. Later, they would come down and there would be much laughter over a meal. Purushottam Das [Tandon] would tell jokes and Maulana [Abul Kalam Azad] saab… with his beautiful Urdu. Sarojini Naidu was very funny, too. She would ask my mother, ‘How did a beautiful woman like you have such odd-looking children?”

Sahgal cast this ringside view of the freedom movement in her first book, Prison And Chocolate Cake (1954), an intimate memoir. It was the beginning of the writer. “The writing chooses you. I knew then that I had to preserve these experiences or the memory would be wiped out,” she says. “For me, writing became a necessity.” This dutiful archiving, bolstered by a fierce liberal consciousness, permeated her fiction too. With politics as their pivot, her novels routinely mined the anxieties of people— especially the elite and intelligentsia—wit droll wit, unornamented prose and sharp dialogue. When The Moon Shines By Day is no different, but for anyone who’s kept up with her public life, the book will read like a narrative checklist of all Sahgal’s political concerns of the last few years. (This sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t—she is able to turn over urgent moral questions without moralising, and sustains delicious muffled tension throughout.)

In 2015, Sahgal returned the Sahitya Akademi Award she won for her 1985 historical fiction Rich Like Us to protest the lynching of a Muslim blacksmith in Dadri by cow vigilantes, as well as the murders of rationalists MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. A wave of writers, poets and playwrights across the country followed suit. “There is a Hindi saying: raja, waisa raj. It means the kind of signals the leadership gives is what trickles down to the people. And what our present leadership signals is violence and intolerance is also enabling.”

Speaking truth to power rarely goes well for those who do it, and Sahgal is intimate with its cost. The last authoritarian prime minister she vehemently criticised was her own first
cousin and earliest girlhood confidante, Indira Gandhi. In a political column for The Sunday Standard, she turned a relentless lens on Gandhi’s divisive, centralised style of leadership leading up to the Emergency. For it, she received threats to her safety, estrangement from her cousin and the larger family, and the revoking of a prospective diplomatic career. All this while she struggled to make ends meet after divorcing her industrialist-husband to be with her then-lover and eventual second husband, EN Mangat Rai, a civil servant, juggled motherhood and novel writing.

When the moon shines by day by Nayantara Sahgal

What were you saying to yourself through that time, I ask her. How were you able to dig your heels in? “When I went against the Emergency, I never once thought should I or shouldn’t ,” she says. “It was just the right thing to do. Here, democracy is being murdered, do you stand aside and stay chup?” It was love, she says, that really saved the day. “I was fortunate I had a man in my life who was a rock-solid support, a man of high integrity and one who had the same values. If I had been entirely alone, I don’t know how I would have managed.” Relationship (1994) was an explosive compilation of her and Rai’s love letters from when she was still married to her first husband, coming to grips with this new dalliance and qearing to face the inevitable scandal it would stir. Sahgal is, and has always been, what in modern parlance might be called a badass. Or, well, a feminist. She laughs softly. “I’ve never called myself a feminist, but my daughter [noted human rights activist Gita Sahgal] assures me I am one. ‘Not just in your public life, but also in your personal life,’ she says. And can see her point. I led my life that way without knowing the word.”

In Dehradun, where she lives alone in a home built by her mother, Sahgal shuts off the noise and returns to the page. Presently all her mornings until lunchtime are reserved for the new novel she’s working on. There is yoga, reading and catching the occasional film at the local theatre too, but the writing is her lifeblood. And she applies herself to recording this moment with the same vim and focus she began with more than half a century ago. “The ruling party is trying to wipe out history,” she says. Nehru, she has alleged, is blatantly being
written out of history, and medieval texts are being insidiously saffronised. “Art, therefore, is activism.”

Rohner, the German historian in the novella, is full of foreboding about India’s future—the present political climate doesn’t give him any cause to believe democracy will prevail. Sahgal isn’t exactly aglow with hope either, but looks to history for comfort. “The Emergency was, in effect, a dictatorship. The constitution was amended, our rights to life and liberty were denied, the media was banned. The silence was so complete that you could hear a pin drop. And yet when the next election came, [Indira] was taken down in a crashing defeat,” she says. “So I can hope for India yet. The Indian people have not said the last word.”