Saturday, March 30, 2019

Many partitions: on Krishna Sobti’s last book गुजरात पाकिस्तान से गुजरात हिंदुस्तान

[Did this book review for Open magazine]

Around 80 pages into A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There – the English translation of Krishna Sobti’s novelized memoir about a young woman seeking a preschool job in the princely state Sirohi shortly after Partition – comes a chapter that marks a shift from the narrative we have so far experienced. Up to this point, the book has been in a third-person voice, albeit a subjective or limited one that keeps us tied to Krishna’s actions and thoughts. Now this chapter, printed in another font – more cursive and childlike – has Krishna writing in the first person, recalling a birthday picnic she had successfully organized for her friends during her college days in Lahore.

Food and tea were ordered – from a restaurant that had its own van, which could deliver anywhere in the city – and the Principal Sahiba was persuaded to allow a riverside party. A minor boat accident during the picnic led to two boys joining the group. Folk songs, ghazals and poems were recited, everyone had a good time. But in Krishna’s telling, the party also lost some of its sheen because it grew dark very suddenly – and because she didn’t know if she and her friends would ever return to that idyllic spot for another such celebration.

Is this a premonition of partings to come, one wonders, or is she writing with the benefit of hindsight, adding a dab of melancholia to an episode that was unrestrictedly happy when it took place?

The sense of a childhood lost – or ending before one realizes it, in the storm of Partition – is vivid, but equally notable is how it sneaks up on us. The change in font and perspective has prepared us for something different, but as the memory-dream unfolds we yield to its languid flow. And then, in the last lines, without anything overtly dramatic taking place, the chattering of young people gives way to an ominous stillness. There is something very cinematic about the episode, and very haunting in the way it disrupts the main story.

That story is a seemingly straightforward one. A refugee from Delhi, young Krishna – headstrong and wavering in turn – arrives in Sirohi where she must deal with self-doubts as well as some resistance from the educational director, Zutshi Sahib, who would have preferred another candidate for the job. She meets the more welcoming Divan Sahib, as well as members of the royal family; she travels on work to Ahmedabad and Bombay, in the process also spending time with some of her relatives and slipping into other distant memories; on returning to Sirohi, since the preschool has not yet opened, she is employed as governess to the four-year-old Maharajah Tej Singh, and witnesses the political intrigues and inter-clan rivalries bearing down on a way of life that is about to fade.


Reading this memoir, with limited knowledge of Sobti’s earlier work, two things leaped out at me. First, the celebrated author – who passed away this year, aged 93 – was well into her eighties when she wrote this book (the original was published in 2016). Second, the playful experimentalism of the writing. Though I was personally very taken by the picnic interlude mentioned above, that isn’t the first instance of the book deviating from linear storytelling – there are other asides and disruptions. Early on, for instance, there is a long stream-of-consciousness passage, made up of disjointed thoughts about the 1947 massacres: about the many Abduls and Rams who turned on each other; how the gulistan ki bulbulein (the rose garden’s nightingales, a reference to a line from the Indian national anthem) stopped making sweet music in unison and took up knives and cleavers instead.

Much later, even as the third-person narrative continues, a delicate shift occurs: where Krishna was earlier referred to only as “she” or “her”, she is now variously called “Bai” or “the Governess” or “Ma’am”, with the reference sometimes changing from one paragraph to another depending on context and terms of engagement. It is as if the book’s canvas is expanding to accommodate the perspectives of other people – the maids appointed to serve her, the child maharajah, the other royals – and her identity is being broadened from being just “that refugee girl” to something fuller, something that commands respect. Or perhaps this is only happening in her own mind?

Then there are the many short, staccato sentences – in that picnic account, for example. “Colourful dupattas and fresh river breezes. […] The imposing height of the principal sahiba. A unique glow to her face. Her hair pulled back in a small bun. A white sari with a white border. Kanchan Lata Sabarwal. A unique personality. […] The banks of the Ravi. Boating. Girls splashing into water, then a rescue. Tea from the Standard.”

It’s possible to wonder if some of these characteristics of Sobti’s prose might have a practical source: an aging writer putting things down as quickly as possible, perhaps even conserving energy by not writing full sentences. As translator Daisy Rockwell suggests in her Introduction, this book has the feel of an old person drawing on ancient memories, including seemingly trivial ones, and setting them down simply because she remembered them and wanted to
preserve them. However, Rockwell also points to the more general difficulty of translating Sobti, who doesn’t set out to make things easy for a reader by describing things at length, but often uses language in a condensed, fragmentary way to convey impressions.

These formal qualities – the restlessness, the memories bleeding into each other, the shifting of viewpoints even within a broadly standardized narrative voice, the hint of fractured personalities – are well suited to a book that has the shadow of Partition over it. The title refers to two Gujarats – the Indian state that Sirohi is on the verge of being assimilated into, and the district that is now in Pakistan (usually spelt “Gujrat” in English, but spelled the same way as the Indian Gujarat for the purposes of this book). But there are other partitions here, as there are elsewhere in Sobti’s writings. Having used the male pseudonym Hashmat for some of her work (as Rockwell points out, she even took a little dig at “Krishna Sobti” while writing in this voice!), she certainly knew about the many dualities present in people. The Krishna of this story is internally divided herself, vacillating in her early days in Sirohi (she contemplates going back to the station a few minutes after arriving) – and interestingly, when she does make up her mind, it comes from defiance, after she happens to learn that Zutshi Sahib doesn’t want her in the position.

Other divides that run through this book include the one between past and present (or looking back and looking forward), between childhood innocence and adult pragmatism, between Rajputs, the merchant class and Brahmins, between the types of clothes that people wear in different states and kingdoms, between the old world where a little child may be taught how to comport himself as a ruler, and the rapidly arriving new one where there is only a proud young democracy with no time for the fancies and protocols of kings (at least not of the old variety).

And there are the partitions that separate ghosts from the living, as Krishna discovers when she is haunted by the spirits of friends and acquaintances who were murdered during the riots. “Krishna Krishna,” one of them teased her when they were children, “As thirsty as a well / How much water will you pull / How much thirst will you quench / As much nectar as you drink / That’s how long you’ll live.” It’s a reminder of the pressures that the octogenarian Krishna Sobti must have carried as a living well of memories, writing furiously, using mind and pen to give voice to those whom she had survived by so many decades.


  1. This is a beautiful book review, thank you. It makes me want to go out and get Krishna Sobti's memoir right away.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. Some months ago I read another impressive partition novel translated by Daisy Rockwell called ‘Aangan’/ ‘The Women’s Courtyard’ by the Urdu writer Khadija Mastur. It’s a highly engrossing inter-generational novel set in 1930’s and 40’s Uttar Pradesh and provides an interesting window into diverging Muslim perspectives on partition at the time. Prior to reading the novel I had never heard of Khatija Mastur. She now ranks as my favourite female Urdu writer, and in terms of her literary capabilities I would rate her much much higher than authors like Ismat Chugtai, who we tend hear about more often. I even prefer Mastur’s writing over that of Qurrutul Ain Hyder, whose novels (some of which also engaged with the partition) I never really warmed up to. Rockwell’s translation is very good, though I did find some of her comments on the themes broached by the novel to be slightly reductive. Just recommending the book, and I really hope that Daisy goes on to translate more of Mastur’s work.

    Have u read the second book in the ‘Falling Walls’ series yet? It came out some months ago. I had really been looking forward to reading it, and was kind of disappointed by the book. It’s no way near as good as the first one. Seemed like the product of a haphazard effort on Ashk’s part, and there’s no Bhai Sahib in it :/ I still want to read the remaining books in the series though.

  3. Lovely review.!..will try and get hold of this book but I live abroad.

  4. Thanks for the review. I'll certainly read the book.
    Which leads to another point: why read a translation when I know Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi and can read Devanagari?
    It will require some effort in tracing the book and the reading will be slower, but it will be more rewarding.

    One problem is that there are no good, comprehensive, online dictionaries for Hindi. I gave up on one book because the vocabulary used was so much above my level that I didn't follow what's happening (I would have had to do the reading with a big fat printed dictionary handy all the time)
    But that won't be a problem with Krishna Sobti

    Have you tried reading the originals?