Book Review | Out Of Line
A candid portrait of one of the most distinguished women of letters in modern India
Men and meanderings
Very much like her beloved maternal uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru, the distinguished novelist and writer Nayantara Sahgal has experienced one of the most public and widely written-about lives in Indian contemporary history. So why bother to add another book to the pile?
Ritu Menon acknowledges the scale of the problem upfront in the Preface to her intensely collaborative new book, Out Of Line: A Literary And Political Biography Of Nayantara Sahgal. Such an endeavour, she writes, “contends with two potentially overwhelming facts: that the subject is member of one of the country’s most high-profile political families, almost relentlessly in the public eye and the public domain; and that she herself has recorded or written about practically everything of significance in her life. What then remains for the biographer?”
Menon answers this basic question by retracing Sahgal’s steps in a relatively complicated life journey, aided throughout by the author’s recollections, notes, and what must have been very lengthy conversations, together with all kinds of personal details, moods, attitudes and opinions. Out Of Line is a significant, creditable result. Many memoirs have been written about, and by, Sahgal’s close contemporaries (most notably by Raj Thapar and Khushwant Singh), but none has revealed the interior and private life of the subject quite as frankly.
Out Of Line surveys a remarkable, occasionally almost unbelievable, life. In a 2012 article for The Guardian, British-Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru has described his impression of Sahgal’s “almost Zelig-like quality”.
Part of this being-there ubiquity is obvious. She was born into the Nehru family. Her uncle (and father-figure) was one of the world’s most popular and charismatic leaders, and her mother, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, a political and diplomatic powerhouse in her own right. Kunzru rightly says, “She was in the room as India was transformed from colony, to a non-aligned would-be socialist state, to today’s world power.” From the beginning, this privileged Indian child was taught that “history was ourselves and we were making it”.
Sahgal’s “surrogate parents” in the US were author Pearl S. Buck and her husband. Her first “window into the world of journalism” was at the country home of the all-powerful magazine magnate, Henry Luce (often described as the “most influential private citizen in America”). She was invited to tea by Eleanor Roosevelt, learnt Russian from writer Vladimir Nabokov (he was a professor at Wellesley) and her summer vacation was spent in Mexico in the company of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
It was Buck who wrote presciently back to Sahgal’s mother that “she cannot be happy in simplicity. No one thing or person will satisfy her complexity”. She also revealed an unexpected aspect of the young Nayantara: “Men follow her, whether she knows it or not.”
Much of Out Of Line is about Sahgal’s heated, meandering love life and relationships—indeed, the title is chosen to reflect this theme. Even when she was just 17, 40-year-old sculptor Isamu Noguchi fell hard for her (he “proposed again and again”), and became “almost a father figure: a fount of knowledge, guiding her in art appreciation, in literary discovery and, one could say, self-discovery too”. According to Menon, Noguchi’s seminal masterwork Kouros is dedicated to Sahgal. It is a sculpture widely recognized as one of the most important of the 20th century.
As Buck had predicted, there was a long line of other men strongly drawn to Sahgal. In a letter to her then lover (later second husband) E.N. “Bunchi” Mangat Rai, Sahgal herself writes about her younger days: “I became very sex-sought-after.” There was Shankar Bajpai, a fellow-student in the US, who had “probably the sincerest attachment to me I’ve ever known”, and Nicolas Wyrouboff, an exiled Russian aristocrat in France to whom Sahgal was “enormously attracted”, enough to consider breaking off her engagement to the “giant of a man” but also “conventional Punjabi male” who met with family approval—Gautam Sahgal.
This rocky, then wrecked marriage, leading to a wretched, occasionally violent aftermath, and Sahgal’s increasingly irrevocable attachment to Bunchi that eventually resulted in many happy years together, loom throughout Menon’s biography like the Himalayas over Dehradun, where Sahgal retired in the early 1980s.
Menon is at her best describing Chandigarh in the early 1960s, where the New India was “newly minted. Everything started from scratch”. It was home to “a highly westernized, cosmopolitan group; most of the men had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge and all the women had university degrees. More than this, however, was their completely open and somewhat unusual attitude to marriage and extramarital relationships. At one time or another, some of them had romantic and sexual liaisons with each other’s husbands and wives, which were neither clandestine nor considered reprehensible. Such had been their way of life in Lahore, and so it continued in Chandigarh—intellectually vibrant, socially gregarious, sexually and romantically freewheeling.”
Gautam and Nayantara Sahgal stood out in this environment. They were not at all bohemian. He was neurotically possessive of his wife, and she—albeit unhappy in her marriage—maintained such a steely reserve that one day Bunchi Mangat Rai (who was still conducting a nearly two-decades-long affair with Kawal, wife of Khushwant Singh) was led to confront her: “You have been coming here for four years, and we still don’t know you.”
It became a new beginning for Sahgal, “that chance remark, Bunchi’s astute observation…would catapult her into a relationship that eventually changed the course of her life and, in some ways, of her writing too,” as Menon puts it.
The author is a writer, photographer, founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival.
Also Read: Excerpt | Out of Line
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