Two years after writer Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award to protest against intolerance in the country, she remains implacable. Will she ever accept a recognition from the state again? Never, she says.
Who is Nayantara Sahgal?
Eighty-nine years old, Nayantara Sahgal is one of India's foremost writers. Her mother Vijayalakshmi Pandit was India's first ambassador to the UN, her uncle was Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi was her cousin, against whose Emergency she was a leading dissenter.
What books has she written?
Sahgal is widely acclaimed for the novel Rich Like Us, for which she received the 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award. She returned it in 2015 after the murder of liberal rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. Prison and Chocolate Cake is a memoir published in 1954. Sahgal’s works have always been political: The Freedom Movement in India and Indira Gandhi, Her Road to Power . She has also written a collection of essays, Point of View: A Personal Response to Life, Literature and Politics.
What’s her problem with the Sahitya Akademi?
Nayantara Sahgal was herself a former advisor to the Sahitya Akademi's Board for English from 1972 to 1975. Today she says it is not possible for the Akademi under the BJP regime to recognise progressive writers like her. She says 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 Narendra Dabholkar, was murdered.
Why does she say writers are under threat?
"It is not a threat any more,” she says. “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."
What does she think writers should do?
Sahgal says there is a need for authors to "show through their stories what they stand for".
Is everything going bad for writers, then?
Sahgal qualifies her criticism. All changes have not been unpleasant, she says. “When I began writing in the 1950s the Indian publishing industry was very small and was competing against international publishers. Writers today, she said, can be published more easily than ever before.”