IN 1975, Nayantara Sahgal took to the streets to protest against the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her cousin. She did not shy away from joining Jayaprakash Narayan as he sought restoration of democracy and the Constitution. As the freedom of speech and expression was curbed, she did not think before taking on her own family. To her the Nehruvian legacy was about freedom and equality, and not what Indira Gandhi had sought to do.
More than 40 years later, she continues to fight for the climate of tolerance, peace and equality, this time taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party government. In 2015, she returned the Sahtiya Akademi award in protest against the killing of rationalists and the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq, a Muslim man accused of cow slaughter in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. Soon other writers began to return their Sahtiya Akademi awards, forcing the highest literary body to intervene.
At 91, she is not capable of hitting the streets but fights her battles with her pen. Her two recent novels, The Fate of Butterflies (2019) and When the Moon Shines by the Day (2018), are replete with contemporary energy, the emerging challenges, and how the idea of India is at stake. She does not mince words in writing or speaking out against the forces inimical to the soul of India.
Calling the Centre’s Kashmir policy “an absolute disaster”, she says that the “surgical strikes” failed to bring down the number of strikes from the other side of the border. She says it is only a segment, albeit large, of the middle class that has been swayed by the nationalism narrative post-Pulwama. For the rest, the core issues “of putting bread on the table, finding jobs and security for the family remain”.
Excerpts from an interview with Frontline:
Your latest novel, “The Fate of Butterflies”, seems like an extension of real life. It is fiction clothed in reality.
Well, all fiction is taken out of real life. All my novels have been about the times we are living in. So, this novella, and the one before this [When the Moon Shines by the Day] are about the times we are now living in, the challenges to Indianness that we confront. This fiction is created out of those times.
The times we are living in are uncomfortable. There are passages in the novel that are disturbing.
Yes, the times are disturbing also. So one cannot write a pretty novel about the times we are living in. They are very dangerous and very disturbing. And I feel we are at a crossroads in our modern Indian history. It is a new situation for us.
These are difficult times to be a writer. You have to be an activist. Otherwise, maybe you are not doing a good job.
Well, writing is a form of political activism. Very much so. That has been the case all over the world, writers in Latin America, the Soviet <FZ,1,0,20>Union, in America have through their fiction stepped into controversy. They have shown where they stand through their novels. They have been unflappable and resolute in the face of danger.
But here it is not just a question of controversy. One could pay with one’s life, as we have seen in the past four years. There have been killings of rationalists and journalists. Does it scare you?
Yes, it does. By controversy I mean that we are in a situation where certain sacred values of democracy, freedom of speech, inclusive identity which includes all our cultures and religions, is being challenged. So political activism for me today takes the form of writing about all this that is happening. Certainly, writers are paying the price, but so are many, many other Indians who are not writers or artists, but rationalists, journalists, and poor people who are just doing their job but are accused of being anti-national for transporting beef, or whatever. All this is happening. So the attitude we take towards this is important. It is essential we talk of these things and write about them. We have had cases of people being killed for what they eat.
Do you think our secular society has risen to the challenge in a positive way? Our political parties are quiet on the issue of lynching.
I am not sure what the political parties have said, but certainly there has been a great deal of protest not only about the fake charges against the men accused of transporting beef, but the entire suppression of religion, speech, and so on. There is anger at what is going on.
You were the first to raise the banner of warning that the idea of India is under challenge. How do you look at it now that your fears have been proved true?
You see, when the BJP came to power, I knew what to expect because their agenda has always been clear, and they have been making it clear since the time Mr L.K. Advani led his rath yatra at the height of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. That was the first big demonstration of their militant attitude towards an exclusive religious identity, and their intolerance of any other religion or influence. It became clear a long time ago, and it was no surprise to me that worse, much worse, has been happening over the past four years or so.
With the present politics of polarisation and exclusion, do you think we are in danger of forfeiting the legacy of our forefathers?
No, it is not a question of forgetting a legacy. The legacy is being destroyed by the new fundamentalist ideology that is ruling us. The ruling dispensation has to know what it is seeking to get rid of. They have no use for inclusiveness today. Their entire policy is about exclusive Hindu identity, so the legacy of our forefathers of a secular, socialist democratic republic is destroyed. The challenge is at the top level.
How do you think a work like “The Fate of Butterflies” will help the common man face the challenges ahead?
The common man does not need to be told about the challenges ahead because he is suffering more because of what is happening, like demonetisation. The well-off are not suffering. Let me give you an example. I was in Mumbai to thank the Marathi writers and intellectuals for the wonderful support I got from them [Nayantara Sahgal was invited to a Marathi literary fest but the invitation was withdrawn at the last moment when the organisers learned about her prepared speech for the occasion]. I said I am in the great city of Mumbai where we have the great industry of Bollywood. And here, not one actor raised his/her voice in support of Naseeruddin Shah, who spoke in anguish about what is happening to Muslims in this country. It was disturbing. So, these well-established billionaires do not bother. The common man who suffered terrible trials with demonetisation, inflation, petrol price hike, etc., has to speak up, and he does, too. The common man who is tortured and lynched, he is speaking out.
In the wake of the Pulwama attack, is the common man getting swayed by the BJP’s pseudo-nationalism?
I really do not believe that all Indians can be swayed. There is a large element of the middle class that still buys the idea of war. It is exciting for them, and this government has raised the pitch to such an extent in the last few years, that it will save India from any attack and so on. Actually, their policy has been a disaster. The surgical strikes have not brought down the number of strikes from the other side [of the Line of Control].
Their policy in Kashmir has been absolutely disastrous, and it has been a troubled policy for many years. Now things have reached the peak. The enmity from the Indian government has made things difficult. The government is taking a wrong step every day.
Do you mind if I call you an activist-writer rather than a writer-activist, considering how bravely you have been taking on the establishment?
All writing is a form of activism. You can call me whatever you like. For me as a writer, it is important to say or write about the challenges we face. More so in our troubled times. We need to speak up. These are critical times.