Nayantara Sahgal: A Novelist of the Indian Corridors of Political Power

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Basudeb profiles Nayantara Sahgal, the second daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (sister of Jawaharlal Nehru). An important woman novelist of the 20th century, she penned many political novels too, having seen and experienced it closely. Read more in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.  

Nayantara Sahgal was the first Indian woman novelist, who could make her access to the serpentine corridors of social and political power centres of India, in general, and New Delhi, in particular. She was born on 10 May 1927 and belonged to the Nehru-Gandhi family. She was the second daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of Jawaharlal Nehru. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel Rich like Us (1985) in the year 1986.

Nayantara was a prolific writer. She wrote a good number of novels. Some of her most popular novels are A Time to be Happy (1957), This Time of Morning (1965), (1969), and many others. The novel, A Time to be Happy champions the fact that in a patriarchal society in India woman is always marginalised and woman’s interest is always subverted by her male counterpart. There are two types of woman characters in the novel. One group of characters in the novel belongs to the Hindu orthodox tradition. And they are content with their husband and with the environment to which they belong. The characters of the group do not challenge the ancient Hindu tradition.

The second group of woman characters in this novel is very much aware of the prudery, hypocrisy, oppression of the patriarchy and consequently subjugation of woman in society as well as individual family. The make a proposal to unshackle themselves from male –oppression and encourage the ideals of self-independence, self-respect and their due place in their families and societies. They do not aim at destroying the structure of the patriarchal hegemony. The novel is the story of a young, westernised and wealthy Indian against the backdrop of the Indian Freedom struggle, and, at the same time, this novel delineates “the smug nonchalance of the British Indian officers and their wives as well as their Indian admirers”. We also find reference to the National Congress Party and its activities particularly the events that took place in 1942. The novel is an ingenious remembrance of things past with somewhat indefinite attitude towards the present. It may be Indian Freedom Movement or the relations between Indian and Britain. The locale of the novel is Saharanpur in U P.

This Time of Morning (1965) gives readers a vivid picture of the drawing rooms and confidential discussions on various political issues of the contemporary political leaders of the National Congress Party after the Indian Independence. Those people are the elitist of the Indian society. They are concerned with what happened on the floor or lobbies in the Indian Parliament. One may remember she is the niece of Pandit Nehru. The locale of the novel is New Delhi. The reading of the novel often tempts readers to draw certain points of similarities between Sahgal fictional characters and some political personalities of India. This Time of Morning may be considered a political novel in the history of Indian novels in English.

Nayantara’s latest novel Storm in Chandigarh (196) may also be considered a political novel in the sense; the novel delineates the political rivalry between two groups of political leaders of Punjab and Haryana. Chandigarh becomes the Capital city of Punjab and Haryana. Krishna Sharma in her article, “A Search for New Morality between Violence and Passivity in Storm in Chandigarh”, published in Indian Women Novelist Comments: Critical Perspectives, “. . .

Into this chaotic political situation in Chandigarh, Nayantara weaves her story of quarrels and strife over the boundaries, water, and electric power, to which both the states put their exclusive claims…. Harpal Singh of Haryana and Gyan Singh of Punjab – who symbolises two political forces diametrically opposite in their approaches and ideologies, have been juxtaposed to present the working of power schemes in political corridors”. Harpal Singh and Gyan Singh both were friendly earlier but owing to get the maximum political mileage they start a nasty bickering with each other. In this novel, readers see how political leaders can sacrifice even their personal relationship for fulfilling their political interests.

Finally, two warring provinces are brought together to the table and. In this political feud, political powers in New Delhi had to intervene and to try a political settlement. There is also a human story. The character Vishal Dubey was sent to Chandigarh by the Central Government for negotiation between the hostile groups. Vishal supported Harpal. As a result, violence erupted in the city. Harpal was wounded and he was admitted to the hospital for treatment of an injury. The marriage of Vishal Dubey was incompatible. His wife died and after that Vishal was involved in a series of physical relationship with different women belonging to the elite society of Chandigarh. This part of the story shows how men and women of the powerful political, business and industrial elite groups are involved physically showing big thumbs to the Indian ethical norms and values.

Rich like Us (1985) is one of the post popular novels of Nayantara. Immediately after its publication, the novel receives wide serious acclaim. It may be also considered a historical novel. The locale of the novel is New Delhi. The narrative of this novel takes between post partition Independent period till the Emergency period proclaimed by the Prime Minister of India, in the year 1975. The turbulent period in this long span of time has been focused in this novel. The female protagonists of this novel are Rose and Sonali. Nayantara through these two characters delineates faithfully the crises of Rose and Sonali, who live and fight during the time of political turmoil and social reconstruction of Indian pluralistic society. Both of them belong to the upper strata of the Indian society. Rose marries an affluent and rich person Ram and she becomes an immigrant in India, though Ram is married at the time when he marries Rose. Rose being an Indian wife tries to accept and internalise the Indian norms and values. She intently follows Indian customs. She tries to believe Indian Purana and other ancient Indian social conventions. After sometimes, Ram’s health deteriorated and passes away. After his death, Rose feels that she gradually loses her status as Ram’s wife in the family.

In the family, Rose’s status starts to be questioned by the son of Ram’s first wife Mona. They make an organised conspiracy to deprive Rose of her rights to the assets of her dead husband. Rosé meets her friend Sonali and faces the problem. During the time of Indian Emergency, an emergence of a particular political force attack the people belonging to low caste. The interest of the common people is crushed and the rich become richer. By the application of forces, democratic rights of Indians are snapped. Vasectomies are made compulsory for the control of population explosion. The state Emergency declared by the President of India, Dr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, is the most important environment of this novel. One of the important characteristic features of the narratives of the novel is that this novel attempts to bring about a harmonious blend of people belonging to two different religious creeds and of two different civilisations. One is Hindu and the second is Christian.

The narratives in the novels written by Nayantara is postcolonial in nature because it is found that most of the Indian novelist after Independence start looking and reacting to every aspect of Indian life and Indian society in different perspectives. M.K Naik’s comment is relevant to this context,” [The post independent Indian writers in English] include nostalgic idealisation of freedom struggle, an eagerness to rediscover one’s roots in Indian ethos and also to examine this ethos afresh in the light of modern ideas and satirical comments on the darker side…and on the decline of values in all the spheres of life consequent to the general erosion of idealism of the Gandhi an age.”

From this point of view, Nayantara, looking at the inner circle of the Indian power politics and the patriarchal roles, subverting the causes of the woman empowerment of Indian elite groups, records wide-ranging novelistic visions.

©Basudeb Chakroborti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy’s View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.