My introduction to Krishna Sobti has been through The Music of Solitude, a gentle yet meaningful account of two retired neighbours and their intricately entwined lives. Her prose flows like a river deep and yet placid. In A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There, her pen astounds and holds in its belly a raging tumultuous sea. The world of Indian literature diminished on the January 25 this year at the demise of Krishna Sobti. Deep bereavement is palpable in the genuine outpourings of loss and grief by generations of writers who have been nurtured or influenced by her warmth and intellect.
Gujarat, in the title, refers to the Indian state and the province Gujrat (the pronunciation and Hindi transcription is identical for the two names) that is now in Pakistan—same and enduring in every way except that now a border divides them and they lie on opposite sides, in animosity. This novel, set in the era of Partition, was actually written 50 years after, and relates to intense personal experiences. Holding on to those images over a lifetime, Sobti hones them and grants ferocity to each of her words such that the palpable horrors of Partition feel immediate. “That time, those lovely seasons, those months have already disappeared. Never to return. They’ll never be back.”
Uprooted by the political events and rendered homeless, our protagonist abandons her plans to study towards her MA degree and chooses instead to apply for the position of a teacher in the princely state of Sirohi. Now Sirohi has the unique predicament of sitting right on the common ground between Gujarat and Rajasthan while the borders of the states are being finalised and it is still unclear which way it will go despite strong persuasions for either option.
Within the erstwhile kingdom there are other manoeuvres afoot. Maharaja Saroop Singh Bahadur, who led a life of pleasure mainly away from his throne, had passed away leaving behind an adopted son Tej Bahadur Singh and a biological son with his concubine, Leelavati. The other contender to the throne Abhai Singh of Manadar is approved of by his widow, the Queen Mother. Sobti is appointed to head the proposed pre-primary school and instead becomes the governess to Maharaja Tej Singh, the child ruler, and finds herself completely encircled by palace intrigue and the turmoil of a nascent nation.
Autobiography as a genre tends to cover the highlights of its author’s life. This version is a true-to-life account of one brief period of Sobti’s life written in an effervescent fictional style. Various elements elevate the discourse of the work: like how refugees are perceived, how at Gandhi’s death baniyas shaved their heads while Rajputs went about saying the father of the baniyas had been shot, the fierce unspoken intrigue by which the middle orders of the powers-that-be prefer to give Popat Lal her post and then the evolved machinations of her helpers Mishri Bai and Phuli Bai.
At her insistence, Sobti is given Gangawa, a beautiful cottage on the grounds of Swaroop Vilas Palace that locals fear is haunted. A rationalist and disbeliever of ghosts, she asks the terrified and weeping Mishri Bai which home has not seen death. Despite this, she encounters the spirit of her childhood friend Beembo as a bride who returns to recount to her friend the horrific circumstances of her death the very evening of her wedding—her arms dismembered by the furious mobs.
On composing herself she wonders whether that is the fate of all the souls that were killed in the violence of Partition, to forever float around homeless. This is a book that encapsulates the events around the time of Partition in a strong contemporary idiom, rendering it a work of national importance. Written in liquid prose with flashes of poetic intensity, this is an opus to remember the author by. A
Title: Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There
By: Krishna Sobti