A member of the Nehru-Gandhi family and one of India’s foremost writers with feminist concerns, Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award in 2015 to protest against rising intolerance in the country. Will she ever accept a recognition from the state again? Never!
The widely acclaimed author of the novel “Rich Like Us”, for which she received the 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award, in fact, laughed off the idea. Dubbing the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance regime as the “RSS government”, she said it is not possible for them to recognise progressive writers like her.
“I have never, all my life, stood in line for any award, any job or anything. And I would certainly not do so under this regime,” she told IANS in a freewheeling interview.
The 89-year-old writer further said that she has not seen any signs from the Sahitya Akademi of support for the cause of free speech in the country.
The Akademi, according to Sahgal, did not say anything when a Sahitya Akademi award winner, Narendra Dabholkar, was murdered. If they have done anything at all to protect the rights of the authors and rational thinkers, the author said, it must have been very silent.
But what do writers fear? Is there any imminent threat to the fraternity?
“It is not a threat any more, there has been a murder. Three writers have been killed! (Perumal) Murugan was hounded out of his home, he was on pain of death, that if you stay here we will kill you, we will kill your family. People are in danger of their lives if they disagree with their Hindutva ideology and these so called gau-rakshaks,” Sahgal immediately responded.
Sahgal also stressed on the need for authors to “show through their stories what they stand for” but maintained that it is “a very individual thing” as storytelling is about human beings and not about ideas. There may be a political setting or contemporary issues in many stories, but the story is about characters who live there.
The former advisor to Sahitya Akademi’s Board for English from 1972 to 1975 went on to say that her writings have been inspired by the times she grew up in. With her mother Vijayalakshmi Pandit as India’s first ambassador to the U.N., her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru as first Prime Minister, and her cousin, Indira Gandhi as third Prime Minister, it is not surprising that politics and history inspire and underlie much of her writing.
Beginning with her memoir “Prison and Chocolate Cake”, published in 1954, Sahgal authored other political writings — “The Freedom Movement in India” and “Indira Gandhi, Her Road to Power” — along with a collection of essays, “Point of View: A Personal response to Life, Literature and Politics”.
“The great thing that happened at independence was that we are a country of many great religions and we are deeply religious. And therefore we chose to be a secular republic so that all religions would have pride of place, so that all citizens would be equal, so that every man and woman would have the right to live and worship and dress and think and eat and make love as they choose. This was extremely great and progressive idea at independence and that is what is now being destroyed,” she lamented.
Sahgal further said that religion is not a state affair, it is rather a matter of one’s personal choice and one’s personal relationship with god.
“The state can’t tell you to do this and that with regard to religion. That was a very precious inheritance where all Indians felt equal and felt safe. Now I am sorry to say that the minorities do not feel safe, in particular the Muslim community is being hounded, persecuted and killed. That is not accepted by any civilised Indian,” she added.
The much-acclaimed author also said that she often hears the Prime Minister making a “very fine speech”, but on the ground, something else is happening.
“That which they call the fringe elements are not isolated people, they are being backed by very, very powerful people. The Bajrang Dal or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others back them openly.
“The ruling establishment, the Prime Minister himself, should make it very clear, and make it clear not only in speech but practice, that these things cannot be allowed to happen in a democracy where it is our constitutional right to speak and practise what we choose to,” she said.
All changes from the times that she grew up in to now are, fortunately, not unpleasant. Sahgal recalled that when she began writing in the 1950s the Indian publishing industry was very small and was competing against leading international publishers. Writers today, she said, can be published more easily than ever before.
Apart from the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1986, she has also received the Sinclair Prize (Britain) for fiction in 1985 and the Commonwealth Writers Award (Eurasia) in 1987. She was also a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, from 1981 to 1982.