Hum jhamela karne wale log thay (we were troublemakers)," laughs Krishna Sobti as she recounts an incident when she suggested that the Sahitya Akademi would be doing a great service to writers by opening a bar on its premises. Jokes aside, the 91-year-old Hindi novelist, who starts her day close to noon with some four newspapers, finds herself angry and anguished every day at what she calls the Bharatiya Janata Party regime’s destruction of a “dream, and a country". During a conversation at her apartment in New Delhi, Sobti talks about watching herself get old, her 26-year court battle with poet Amrita Pritam, whom she accused of plagiarizing the title of her novel Zindaginama (an English translation by Neer Kanwal Mani and Moyna Mazumdar has just been published by HarperCollins), the importance of distancing herself from her characters, and the need to prevent another “Pakistan". Edited excerpts from the interview:

You are now 91. And you say it’s interesting to watch yourself get old. Tell us more.

It’s great to be alive, especially when things are again changing. Mine is the first generation (of Indians) post Partition and independence. That was a (time of) great upheaval. And now, when you hear the same kind of noise (from right-wing elements), it is such a big thing. Fortunately or not, I had a passage of history I walked through. I spent my childhood in colonial times, and we knew jo haqumat (the rulers) hai, they were English, and you are very much Indians. And that kind of feeling, you know, that you are “Indian", we always associated with those people who were fighting for it; our heroes were the inquilabis (freedom fighters).

And Partition, that was something very powerful—the killings, the migrations. And now, when you hear about the migration in Europe, I get worked up. Prior to Partition, I was in my hostel in Lahore. I packed my suitcases, looked at the rooms, they were empty, and came down. I ventured towards the swimming pool, I don’t know why. I went to the gate, took my suitcases there. The chowkidar (guard) did not look at me and I didn’t look at him—when we left that place, there was something telling you that it’s over. From the gate, I went up to my room, and looked at the empty room. Only one pencil was there. I picked it up and wrote on the wall: Behati hawao yaad rakhna/Hum yahan par reh gaye hain (Blowing winds, please remember/we too have stayed here).

And when I came down, I cried.

After that, the camps, seeing people, their happiness destroyed, it was difficult. I didn’t know how to deal with myself. Finally, I wrote this novel (Zindaginama), and submitted it to a very high-profile publisher in Allahabad, Leader Press. (After the edits) I opened it and so many words had been changed. They were half serious with me. They thought I was a Punjabi girl, and my Hindi not strong enough. I told them you don’t know there is a difference between an urban narrative and a rural narrative. I am dealing with the rural. So I paid them money and got the manuscript back.

For six years, it was lying with me. Finally, (publisher) Sheila Sandhu said please open it and do something with it. I decided one night—maybe by that time I was wiser—to rewrite it. There was something (in the earlier version) that did not appeal to the heart and mind. At that time, there was that finality, that that (Gujrat, in Pakistan) is not your place—and that is the place you belonged to. This (novel) was going back to what life was. That was one place where God was known by one word—rab. Whether somebody was Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Isahi—rab. Even their culture, their way of thinking, of cooking, of dressing up...and still each one of them had their own identity. That was fantastic.

I was one of those writers rotting on Curzon Road (in Delhi), thinking back to those times.

At that point, in the works of artists and writers, the notion of nation-building was very much present, isn’t it?

You are saying something beautiful. It’s very strange, we took ourselves seriously, the writers. It is not on this side or that side. We were on the human side. It was a political identity that forced them to do Partition. But this time, it’s your (political regime’s) thinking, you will destroy not only a dream, you will destroy a country. You are a free nation. Why don’t you look after this? If you know what it means to be a citizen, I have every reason to feel touchy and to feel angry.

Immediately after independence, it was a great time for writers. One day, Bhisham (Sahni) and I were having a cup of tea. We treated him as a senior. He said, Krishnaji, do you have time to read something? I said, Yes, I have only one thing to read and write, nothing else. So he gave me a book. I read that the whole night, and in the morning, I told Sheila (Sandhu) something big is happening. That was Tamas. There was an ideology, but it was much more than that. It was something quite human.

‘Zindaginama’ was initially planned as a trilogy, but that never happened. Why?

With the book Zindaginama, I had to go to court, and for 26 years I was in court. Amritaji (Amrita Pritam) wrote a book, uska naam tha Hardatt Ka Zindaginama (the title was Hardatt Ka Zindaginama). Intellectual property was very important for me, and I thought I must safeguard it, and I went to court. Amritaji was a great poetess, but I knew that this book was different, and I knew the law, that if it was the same genre, you can object. I don’t keep kachra (rubbish) in my mind, you know. If there is something bothering me, I will do the needful then and there, at any cost. I lost the case, but I never lost any faith in the judiciary, knowing fully well that writing is just not an intellectual pursuit, it is also labour. Even now, intellectual property is not looked after well. After that, I started the second part, Dil-O-Danish.

Can you pinpoint the time when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

I could not have done anything else. I was in class VI, I went to a poetry competition, in Shimla, with my mother. I wrote four lines of poetry. Unfortunately (laughs), after these four lines, I never wrote any poems. I was too prosaic, you know.

Is your work ‘Ai Ladki’, on a mother-daughter relationship, based on reality?

Writing is a very complicated thing, it’s a completely cerebral experience. And everything has to be at a distance, even you have to be at a distance. You are not writing your story, it has to go beyond the experience. And I can tell you very frankly that if I know how the story will turn out, I never write it. I have to deal with myself, with my capacity and capabilities to get things out of the narrative.

Clothes, food, their detailed descriptions form such an important part of your stories. They help to set a cultural context, build a character. In ‘Ai Ladki’, there’s even a detailed passage on the right way to make tea. Is food a deep personal interest?

I hardly take interest in that, but it is something to do with humans. I’ve seen people, when they have a chapati, what satisfaction they get. At an elemental level, just observing people, you are actually living with that. When writing, you are far away from them, but you are also very close to them. Balance should not be on this side or that side. Actually, I do think that the writer is the last person to be in the story. Because it is the character you are writing about, and that person’s life. You only have to know, very deeply, the texture of that person. And you can only do it, you know, if you are not very close to that person.

I am thankful that I have a very discriminating readership, as also critics. They’ve been very kind to me. When I wrote my first story, Sikka Badal Gaya, that was after Partition, I sent it to (Sachchidananda) Vatsyayan, a major poet of the time, who was editing the paper Prateek. Things were simple in New Delhi at that time. He asked if I was free to meet him the day after—imagine, a high-profile gentleman like him asking me, a writer just starting out. He gave me my manuscript, I wanted to know how merciless he had been. I had used some words which only rural Muslims would know. I thought he would change it, but nothing was changed. That’s when I knew I should take myself seriously as a writer. Later, I also saw the sentence, “Aur sab to theek hai (everything else is fine), but Krishna Sobti is a very old-fashioned name (laughs)".

Are you still writing?

A biographical novel, Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Taq, is now going to press. Those days when I migrated from Lahore to this place, what all happened, my first job and all that. And I am writing a book on Delhi, on the changes it has seen.

I have one promise with me. The moment I use a wrong word, the next day I’m going to lie down.

Your work speaks of your love for languages and dialects.

Now Hindi is (an) epic language. Earlier, it used to be known as a vegetarian language. Hindi was limited in many ways. Now, we are opening up to things from different languages, getting enriched. When I came from Lahore, I heard a man speaking to a girl in Rajasthani. Rajasthani ke peeche hai ek leher jo Punjabi mein nahin hai (Rajasthani had a flow that is missing in Punjabi). Punjabi mein ek sankshipta hai, gravity, Rajasthani mein leher hain, jaise lehnga hota hai (Rajasthani has a fluidity as compared to the conciseness of Punjabi). Not only music, but the rhythm. After years, when I wrote Mitro Marjani, I thought there is no harm in mixing Rajasthani and Punjabi. And that made me write that book, otherwise I would not have written it.

Why did you refuse the Padma Bhushan?

I think Partition and independence gave us the eye to see things clearly. I owed it not only to myself, but to my readers. I do believe that political culture is different from intellectual culture. In political culture, if you do this, I’ll do that. If thinking people start to do that... Recently, a minister insulted writers, called us darukhor (alcoholic). I remember one Sahitya Akademi president, he was a Gandhian, wo jab ja rahe the, to bataye aisi kya cheez hai jo mujhe karni chahiye thi aur maine nahin ki (he asked what it was that I should have done as the Sahitya Akademi president that I did not do). Hum jhamela karne wale log the. I said, Sir if I tell you something, you will not like it. Sahitya Akademi mein bar hona chahiye (there should be a bar). You don’t like your boys going to Faridabad in the evening to buy liquor only because they will have to pay 4 less. He replied, Dhat, mein Gandhiwadi hoon (don’t be silly, I am a Gandhian). Maine kaha, Sir, I have never seen anybody having a cup of milk and then writing.

The Sahitya Akademi does not know what to do. Six years back, I had suggested that if the Rajya Sabha could have a channel, the Lok Sabha could have a channel, then why couldn’t the Akademi have a channel? There are so many languages, and publishers will come with ads. They don’t want intellectuals to be powerful.

Are you optimistic about the future of the country?

They are playing with the concept of one country. If they continue like this, they will have another Pakistan. Pucca.