India on their minds



‘The main character in my novels has always been India,’ Nayantara Sahgal said to me. We were sitting on the verandah of her home, overlooking the garden, in Dehradun, discussing her writing. An India that she called ‘a glittering aspiration’; newly independent, blindsided and knocked sideways by Partition, yet aspiring to secularism, pluralism, diversity and equality. And democracy.

Every one of Nayanatara’s eleven novels, from A Time to be Happy to The Fate of Butterflies, is about India, tracking the country’s journey from pre-Independence through the development decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the Emergency of the mid-1970s, to the slow but steady rise of right-wingism right up to the present, with the prospect of a Hindu Rashtra in plain sight. The events that take place, the men and women who chart the country’s course, the trials and challenges, experiences and encounters, are familiar and immediately recog-nisable to those of us who grew up, and grew into maturity, as midnight’s children.

There is history, and then there are stories, which more often than not, trump history. We instinctively think Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing and J.M. Coetzee when we think of South Africa, in the same breath as we think of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Novelists write their countries just as historians and revolutionaries do, they just write them differently.

Like Gordimer and Lessing, Nayantara wrote from an experience of colonialism. To write about one’s country without affectation, without being patronising, writing with what Nayantara called ‘a certain tenderness’ is perhaps a woman’s way of writing. Essential, too, as ingredients in this endeavour, are the ideas of non-violence, secularism, freedom – both personal and political – and democracy; not merely as political goals for a country that had cast off the colonial yoke, but for creating a society in which women and the disadvantaged would find their rightful place.

A feminist project then. A writing life in which the personal, the political, and the literary were so intertwined as to be like three-ply yarn.

A writer is not separate from what she writes. In Nayantara’s case, her individual story and family history became the means by which she could tell two stories at the same time: a fictional one that drew its material from her personal and political selves, and a ‘national’ one, about the making of modern India. Carrying politics – which was an emotional engagement for her – into fiction came naturally, that’s what she had to do because the material compelled her to. In the early novels, up until Rich Like Us, the resemblance between characters, situations and resolutions in them and those in her own life are immediately recognisable. So too specific political developments and conjunctures in the life of the country.

In this regard, there is no attempt on her part to present herself as dispassionate, to see the personal as ‘subjective’ and the political as ‘objective’. This twinning is what resonates in all her writing, fictional and journalistic, transparent and unambiguous.



Nayantara’s detractors might complain that the greater part of her writing, fiction and non-fiction, simply extends and mythifies the cult of the Nehrus as the National Family, and the Nehruvian project for the country as the ideal to be attained. She is unapologetic about the latter; and regarding the former, one might say that even if one were to evacuate the ‘familial’ and the familiar from her novels, the foundation and super-structure would remain inviolate, for her main ‘character’ is India. Placing the country at the centre of her novels enabled her to break free of both exoticism and Orientalism, to present a contemporary reality without either romanticising its past or pandering to received notions of what India was all about.

In all my years as a publisher and occasional writer, I have had the great privilege to meet and publish some of the most exceptional women in the country, but especially those of a particular generation – the generation that experienced, first hand, the freedom movement and liberation from the British. The ones that I mention in this very partial recall all had India on their minds, in one way or another, and all of them lived and expressed that preoccupation in their chosen fields.



In (for me) an unexpected similarity, I realised that, like Sahgal, Qurratulain Hyder also had India as her main character in her novels, but her India, rather than being a glittering aspiration is a civilisational reality, a composite of thousands of years of social, cultural, religious and political evolution. This magisterial understanding of history, and of time, in a country’s life is presented in Hyder’s brilliant novel, River of Fire, a multi-generational, syncretic, organic unfolding which ends with the rupture of Partition. Each one of her novels captures the pathos of this decisive break in the country’s civilisational make-up, via her very young protagonists. They become young India, grappling with shocks to their ideals and convictions, as all around them momentous changes are taking place.

Again and again, Hyder returns to her central concern: how was India’s history, as simultaneously ancient and contemporary, continuous yet unsettled, to be represented in her writing? Should these conundrums be embodied in the young men and women who populate her novels: cosmopolitan, urban, privileged, but on the brink of a future in a country that seemed to have broken free of its moorings.



One such young man, Kamal Reza, is on a ship, going back to an India that is now independent. Hyder writes:

‘While they were crossing the Canal the discussion drifted towards E.M. Forster. The British poet said, “Forster wrote his novel in 1924, at which time he created Dr. Aziz as a representative Indian. Dr. Aziz is no longer Indian – Muslims are now identified only with Pakistan.” He glanced at Kamal and added, “Now, our Kamal Reza is not the typical Indian, only our Pandit Gaur is”.

‘The remark hit Kamal between the eyes. He sat there motionless. Lightning seemed to have struck him. Perhaps he was now stateless. The friends continued to sip beer and talk of other things while they passed slowly through the date-palm-lined muddy waters.

‘On the deck, Sikh businessmen from Glasgow were singing Heer at the top of their voices. They also shared a secret language with the Muslims and Hindus of Punjab, and yet they had butchered one another in the riots of 1947. Politics has always been mightier than culture.

‘A full moon was rising sluggishly over the horizon. The boat moved forward with ease and dignity; the French Buddhist sat on a deck-chair in a corner. They entered the Arabian Sea...

‘Snow-white foam shone in the  moon. Everywhere, on all the oceans of the globe, all manner of ships were sailing on this seemingly shoreless sphere of liquid moonlight. The Constitution, The Queen Elizabeth, The United States, yachts of the rich, cargo boats, destroyers, aircraft-carriers. All kinds of people voyaged on the high seas – diplomats, cardinals, American tourists. Gujarati and Sindhi businessmen. Indian dancers. Pandit Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were in New Delhi and all was well with the world.

‘ “I have probably become stateless, and this is not your sukhvati, your state of bliss, Brother Ananda,” Kamal said politely to the French monk, and went back to his cabin. He banged the door shut and didn’t go down for dinner.’



The question of belonging, and of place, haunted Hyder’s imagination, and she would return to it repeatedly; in Fireflies in the Mist, written after the liberation of East Pakistan, she addresses the notion of nation and of what it might mean. Territory, or even country, had much less valence for her than the far more powerful value of syncretism, of creative coexistence. It was this idea of India, this rich cultural and civilisational matrix in which individual and collective lives are lived, that Partition threatened. For Hyder, it signified a profound loss.

In the late 1980s when I was thinking about enquiring into women’s particular experience of Partition, a colleague at INTACH, Nayana Kathpalia, asked me to take a look at her aunt, Kamlaben Patel’s ms. which had been translated from Gujarati.

With no idea of what to expect, I began reading it and was completely gobsmacked by what Kammoben had written. Her account (which we later published as Torn From the Roots, translated by Uma Randeria) dealt with what had generally been swept under the carpet by all Partition historiography – the large-scale and widespread kidnapping and abduction of women, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, in the aftermath of Partition and during the exchange of populations. Her account was both harrowing and shocking.


Kammoben was Mridula Sarabhai’s right-hand woman during the years (1947-1952) that India carried out its Recovery Programme, by which Hindu and Muslim women who had been abducted, converted, and married to their abductors were ‘recovered’ and restored to their respective religious communities, families, and countries. Kammoben was assigned to Lahore, where her base was Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

We met her in Bombay in 1989 and spent three days with her, listening to her experience of that traumatic assignment. Kammoben was a Gandhian, a tiny but wiry woman who only wore white khadi saris, and lived alone. She told us that she had got involved in recovery work by accident.

‘… I was supposed to go and work with Bapu at Sabarmati Ashram but I didn’t really want to go there. Mridulaben came to my rescue. She told Bapu, there are other things she can do, her health is fragile. I will find something else for her. So she asked me to work with her.... There were approximately 2,000 recovered women who were in my charge. Those thousands of women who came from various districts of Pakistan, and so many others who came from several places in India, all had to be rescued. Now, when I look back at all that I was able to accomplish, I myself marvel at my own courage and the circumstances that pushed me into this work... I will talk on behalf of women and will not deviate from this fact. I am not a politician. If I had been one, I would have said that the Muslims did everything, we never did anything. But we were no less – how many we kept back, how many women we sold in same way that baskets of oranges or grapes are sold or gifted – in the same way women were distributed.’

Kammoben was one of the many, many women, several of whom we met and interviewed, who worked in recovery and rehabilitation, post-Partition, with women who were widowed, abducted, or destituted. Rameshwari Nehru, Anis Kidwai, Krishna Thapar, Nirmal Anand, Miss Makhan Singh, Durga Rani Katyal.... For them, as it was for Kammoben, their social work became one way of achieving social progress, if they succeeded in rehabilitating the women in their charge. For them, social work was part of the nation-building project, as was refugee rehabilitation.

Refugees were a resource, not a liability or a burden.



Although Gandhian by conviction and in practice, so great was Kammoben’s revulsion against orthodox Hinduism and the traditionalism she found in Gandhian thought, that when she was asked to speak at a function commemorating Kasturba Gandhi in 1988, she refused. Her reason: Ba personified the subordinate status of Hindu women; she, Kamla Patel, could not endorse or celebrate that in any way. Yet she spent four long years in recovery work, believing genuinely that women who had been forcibly abducted should be returned to their ‘real place’. In this she supported Mridula Sarabhai but, as was evident from what she told us, she made it clear that she would go thus far and no further.

Not everyone agreed with Gandhi’s strategy for obtaining freedom, or with the principle of non-violent resistance, and among his more vocal and politically opposed critics was Subhas Chandra Bose who went on to form the Indian National Army and the first-of-its-kind Rani Jhansi Regiment. Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal, who joined the INA, was one of the women we interviewed about Partition, and whose book, A Revolutionary Life, we published.

Sitting with her in her drawing room in Kanpur, we spoke about all sorts of issues from the Meerut Conspiracy Case and the Indian Naval Mutiny of 1946 to the Sikh killings in Kanpur in 1984, the intractability of caste in Indian society, and the role of religion in politics. But one question was paramount: What drew her to the INA, when other members of her family were firm Congress supporters as she, too, had been? Was it a matter of INA ideology vs. Gandhi’s ideology?

‘You see, you can’t have it both ways,’ she told us,

‘Gandhi used to always say Muslims are like my left hand and Hindus are my right hand, yet he wanted to keep his left and right hands apart from each other. He always acknowledged a kind of separate identity for Muslims – their ethos, and a Hindu ethos. Then there was his great reverence for caste – he didn’t want to touch caste.



It seems evident now that, as a result, Partition was inevitable, but there was no need for it because the INA showed that it was not necessary to keep the Hindu and Muslim ethos separate – that we could evolve an Indian ethos if we kept religion out of the whole thing and emphasised the fact that we were Indians and had a common enemy in the British. After driving the British away we had to build this country afresh, together. In the INA this played a very prominent part, but not sufficient emphasis was placed on it in India, especially after 1942, after the Quit India Movement, when they all went and sat in jail. They completely lost touch with the masses. In India there was no real ideology at work after that.’

But what about an ideology of the nation? An idea of India, would that not make for rallying round a worthy cause? It could, responded Capt. Lakshmi, but the challenge lay in how to forge that unity, and as importantly, how to define that idea of India, of a nation that everyone could subscribe to. Capt. Lakshmi believed (as late as in 1995 when we met her) that an alternative to the Gandhi-Nehru vision would have been possible if Bose had lived. For one, he would never have agreed to a religion-based division of the country, ‘he would have opposed Partition tooth and nail.’

All this, of course, lies in the realm of the What Ifs of history; nevertheless, the very fact that the Rani Jhansi Regiment existed testifies to the presence of a very large number of women in a bold experiment and an ambitious conceptualisation of what an India-after-Independence could be. In Lakshmi Sahgal’s case, it led to an active engagement in politics that continued till the day she died.



In 1974, the noted film director, M.S. Sathyu, made what is probably the most critically acclaimed film on Partition, called Garam Hawa. Rightly considered one of the greats of Indian cinema, relatively few people know that it was based on a short story, Jarrein (Roots), by Ismat Chughtai, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film. In Jarrein, Dadi hides in the coal- scuttle while her sons prepare to leave for what is now their ‘own’ country, Pakistan. When discovered in her hideout, Dadi cries:

‘Own country? Of what feather is that bird? And tell me, good people, where does one find it? The place one is born in, that soil which has nurtured us, if that is not our country, can an abode of a few days hope to be it? And then, who knows, we could be pushed out of there, too, and told to find a new home, a new country. I’m at the end of my life. One last flutter and there’ll be no more quarrelling about countries. And then, all this uprooting and resettling doesn’t even amuse any more. Time was, the Mughals left their country  and came to create a new one here. Now you want to pick up and start again. Is it a country or an uncomfortable shoe? If it pinches, exchange it for another!’

When her brothers opted for Pakistan, Ismat Apa stayed back, and then, as an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, she, too, wrote her country and commented on it in every single novel, novella,  short story, play, essay and reminiscence. We have published almost her entire oeuvre (bar screenplays) in translation, a life in words, committed to a politics that was unwaveringly progressive, but never proselytising. ‘Maine jo chaha, likha,’ she told me when I met her in Indus Court, just a few months before she passed away in 1991, ‘par bhashan nahin jhada.’ (I wrote whatever I wanted, but didn’t preach.) ‘Has-khel ke likha.’

Running like a steely thread through Chughtai’s writing is the conviction that progressive social change is simply not possible without the emancipation from orthodoxy, for women. Her clear-sighted and unsentimental delineation of the  sexual politics that lie at the heart of family, community and society was radical, inasmuch as she drew a clear and direct line between it and the political goal of equality.



There would have been scores of women like the five I have written about here during those early post-Independence decades, so why discuss them, in particular? Partly because I have known (and published) them, but also because I recognise in them a steadfastness of purpose in pursuing and delineating a vision of, and for, country and society that stemmed from their deep engagement with both. As writers and social workers, as political activists and citizens, yes, but also, and unequi-vocally, as women.


Footnote :

* Ritu Menon is the author of ZOHRA! A Biography in Four Acts.