THE NOVELS OF NAYANTARA SAHGAL
Dr. P. RAMACHANDRAIAH
The achievement of Nayantara Sahgal as a writer is quite an impressive one. With seven novels (A Time to be Happy, This Time of Morning, Storm in Chandigarh, The Day in Shadow, A Situation in New Delhi, Rich Like Us, Plans For Departure), two autobiographical works (Prison and Chocolate Cake and From Fear Set Free) and a book of history (History of the Freedom Movement) to her credit, she has made her mark, if not among the top-ranking craftsmen like Narayan, Raja Rao and Anand, atleast among other significant voices in the realm of Indo-Anglian fiction. Active enough both as a novelist and a champion of the emancipated woman, she is “essentially a writer who extends and enriches an Indian creative tradition that includes, among numerous others. Tagore and Sarat Chandra”.1 Considering the depth and sophistication of her novels one feels tempted to say that it is the case of a writer still awaiting adequate critical recognition.
The second daughter of Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit and the niece of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs. Sahgal was born into the highly cultured, sophisticated atmosphere of high life in Delhi. It is an atmosphere that not only makes one aware of the social and political problems of the day, but also an atmosphere enriched by constant touch with the most leading minds of the day. This atmosphere, along with the Western education she had, seems to have given Mrs. Sahgal, not only depth and range, but also a kaleidoscopic view of things. Belonging to a privileged class, she could also free herself from the need for conformity to conventional attitudes and feelings, displaying courage to express what she considers to be good in the most candid way.
That there is a close link between Sahgal’s life and the stuff of her novels is borne out not only by her pre-occupation with politics but also by her constant examination of marital problems of men and women. Especially some of her women characters such as Kusum and Saroj seem to reflect her own problems, and Saroj in Storm in Chandigarh seems to be such an accurate projection of herself that this novel, along with A Time to be Happy, has come to be regarded as her emotional autobiography. She herself acknowledges this when she says that there were “pieces of me going into the men and women I created when I really began to write.”2
Mrs. Sahgal’s birth and upbringing also seem to have influenced her choice of themes. Most of her novels deal with political expediency employed in solving the Chandigarh problem, the misunderstandings and quarrels among ministers and professional elections and the role of money in them. She considers her novels to be political in content and she says “each of the novels more or less reflect the political era we were passing through”.3 Her fictional world is occupied by political leaders, business tycoons, foreign advisers, upper class people, journalists and highly qualified persons like ambassadors, ministers, vice-chancellor’s and professors. With these political themes is often combined the theme of man-woman relationship, their marital problems, their temperamental incompatibility, the problems arising out of their ego or submissiveness, and finally the problem of the place of woman in society.
If Mulk Raj Anand’s novel’s show the personal pre-occupation with the working and the middle classes and their problems, Sahgal’s novels concern themselves with the dialect of the high life in cosmopolitan cities. It is a life marked by a greater degree of sophistication than the life presented in Kamala Markandaya’s novels. Shyam M. Asnani remarks about the “selective world of upper class people of power and position in her novels”.4 The dynamic life-styles of those circles and their changing traditions provide her with the material. People of other classes of society may occasionally bob into this world but they certainly do not belong there.
The meeting point between this life and the outside world, in Sahgal’s novels, is politics or administration. So, the scene of action always is either the drawing rooms of a society lady, the bungalow of a minister or ambassador, the posh residence of a vice-chancellor, the office of a top officer, the party thrown by a climbing businessman or the neatly trimmed garden of an equally important person. And the things talked about are parties, varieties of wine, picnics, marital relationships, divorces, settlements, litigations, positions, politics and student-violence. It is just the stuff of restoration comedy of manners, with this difference – t hat politics is not part of the game of those comedies and that we don’t find in Sahgal’s Devi, Saroj or Simrit, the hypocricy and smuttiness of a Lady Wishfort or Mrs. Pinchwife.
But we cannot characterize Sahgal’s novels as novels of manners; nor can we call them political novels, in spite of the fact that very often the action unfolds itself against the background of important political uphearals of the times. For it is not what happens in politics that finally matters in the story. It is what happens to a Devi, an Usman, an Inder, a Vishal Dubey, a Saroj that engages our attention. Though the nuances of arranging parties, of receiving guests or of making a polite conversation does count in this world, we are soon made to look beyond them into the conflicts raging at the bottom. It is these conflicts which constitute the central stuff of Sahgal’s novels.
And the conflicts spring mainly from an absence of communication, and the resultant estrangement, between individuals husband and wife, mother and son, between the vice-chancellor and his students, between the politician and the beaurocrat, even between the host and the guest, between social classes, creeds and groups. With all her love and admiration for her son Rishad, Devi feels the presence of an unsurmountable gap between him and herself. If finally Rishad ends up as a member of an extremist group, his own sense of estrangement from his mother is no less responsible for it. As a matter of fact, the very political confusion presented in the novel can be traced to the estrangement of the leaders from their public, In the absence of a communicating and binding personality like Shivraj’s, just as all the storm in Chandigarh can be attributed, at one level, to the estrangement between Gyan Singh and Harpal Singh, “What use was he in a set up that had forged no working alliance between government and civil servant?”, Vishal Dubey asks himself in Storm in Chandigarh, 5 but it is just the matter with others also in the novel. What dawns on people is the realization that “two people could live in intimacy all their adult lives and still remain strangers to each other”. Saroj comes to know that “she could not tear away the blinds between herself and Iader.” 6 And the sum and substance of it all is that “we’re the lonely ones, you and I”.7 All other issues in the narration always seem to be subordinated to this problem of estrangement. Simrit in The Day in Shadow, like Saroj, finds herself shut out of Som’s world. She feels uprooted and abandoned in a ‘husband-centred’ world. For her divorce does not bring freedom; instead, it is a confrontation with all that is orthodox and confining in Indian society. She is estranged not by Som’s rough methods but by his growing obsession with power and possession. This concern of Mrs. Sahgal with the predicament of the individual, especially of women, in a world dominated by power and privilege, determines her narrative technique. Because the central business is the gradually emerging awareness in the Indian woman of the inadequacy of her social and sexual identity, the omniscient narrator feels obliged to take us frequently into the minds of Devi, Saroj or Mara by means of what Wayne Booth calls ‘inside views’. This results in the telling of the story from multiple points of view, exploring the nuances of different psychological situations and unfolding the interesting drama of the inner conflicts of people caught in those strange situations.
If this estrangement sometimes leads to violence as in the raping of Madhu, beating of a vice-chancellor, the death of Rishad and the crude things that Gyan Singh does – such violence is rarely brought to the centre of the stage in the novel. The omniscient narrator casually reports it and then goes on to concern herself with an analysis of the problem of estrangement itself. What we thus have is a deep probing into the desires, motives, fears and inhibitions of people.
This kind of probing necessitates the telling of the story from the points of view of all these characters who are victims of estrangement. So, Sahgal frequently employs a multiple point of view, taking the reader straight into the minds of those characters and making him watch leisurely what is happening there. The emphasis is on the landscape of the mind, not so much on what happens outside. The result is, we are always in the company of brooding, contemplating, longing or regretting characters who seldom go beyond thinking, praising, blaming, reminiscing, understanding or misunderstanding. No sooner are we introduced to a character than it slips into its own inner depths.
Naturally, therefore, there is not much ‘action’ in Sahga1’s novels. Of course, action in the sense of doing things or ‘things happening’ is also lacking in such great novels as, say, Raja Rao’s The Serpant and the Rope. But this absence of action is compensated by the spectacular way in which the multifaceted personality of a Ramaswamy or a Madeleine comes to life there. And what strikes us there is the rare substantialness of the world in which the characters of Raja Rao move, apart from the powerful situations he creates. But in the case of Sahgal, we feel that something is wanting even in her most intricate situations. And in spite of all the microscopic examination of the working of their minds, her characters fall to assume a clear form or a convincing existence of their own. At best, it must be admitted, they remain shadowy figures, or mouthpieces for long arguments about social assumptions governing sex and morality. “Character portrayal takes place in a number of ways in her novels”, claims Jasbir Jain, 8 but one wonders whether all these ways lead, in the novels, to the conception of characters from what T. S. Eliot calls “emotional unity”.
If, in spite of this weak point in her characters, the reader feels engaged by them, it is because he is struck by the commitment that Sahgal displays about the problems of these characters. He feels that he is in touch with a sensitive probing mind impatient with the ‘lady of Shalott’ image of the domesticated Indian woman which is often to be found in the contemporary fiction and which is a complex of certain social and literary conditions and attitudes. Deviating from the portrayal of the self-enclosed woman who is often conceived within a certain accepted moral scheme, Mrs. Sahgal draws, in her characteristically unorthodox way, the picture of a woman who restlessly tries to tread out of her confineness which seem to limit her horizons. It is in these pictures that Mrs. Sahgal’s novels have their origin and their strength.
This strength seems to derive from the strongly held convictions of Mrs. Sahgal about the emancipation of women and about man-woman relationship. Mrs. Sahgal seems to feel that in the process of emancipation, the Indian women have to overcome not only hardened social opinions but also their own fears, inhibitions and their temptation to conform. As Sahgal sees it, their conformist attitudes are only too readily strengthened by men who want to cling to their pampered status and who want an endless perpetuation of the subjugation of woman to a limited conventional role. This, for Sahgal, is symbolic of a universal tragedy a result of the stifling of individual emotions and intuitions by organised social structures. She is, therefore, naturally concerned about the complex of literary and social conventions and attitudes that go to create the images of submissive women.
Mrs. Sahgal’s interest in presenting such images is not just the result of a feminist Ingle. Rather it is the result of her awareness that this passiveness or submissiveness, springing from a cult of conformity, rocks the very basis of the man-woman relationship and creates a situation in which people mechanically feel committed to “continuing the adventure of being man and woman in the confusion of living”. 9 Thus, what Mrs. Sahgal is concerned about not merely the emergence of the new woman but the emergence of a new human situation in which the “oxygen of understanding” always invigorates the individual.
1 M. N. Sharma, Nayantara Sahgal’s Novels: Some Thematic Concerns. Journal of Indian Writing in English, January 1976, Volume 4.
2 This Time of Fulfilment. Femina, 7-20. May. 1976, P. 15
3 Letter to Jasbir Jain, November 19, 1976 (Nayantara Sahgal, Jasbin, P. 143)
4 Shyam M Asnani. Form and Technique in Nayantara Sahgal’s Novel’s, The Literary Endeavour, January, 1980)
5 Storm in Chandigarh, P. 29.
6 Ibid., P. 96.
7 Ibid., P. 98.
8 Nayantara Sahgal’s Novels, 1978, Arnold Heinemann.
9 Storm in Chandigarh, p. 220