Nayantara Sahgal’s stark choice for India: it’s freedom or fascism
As the author releases her new novel, 'The Fate of Butterflies', we question why the 91-year-old's words still resonate so deeply in a modern landscape
The small town of Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills of north India is greatly prized by its residents for its peace and quiet; a refuge from the dust and clamour of the plains below. Only one of the people who live there goes against the grain, as passionately involved in the great debates of Indian life and as proudly nonconformist today as she was 50 years ago.
Even at 91, author Nayantara Sahgal pulls no punches. Perhaps it’s the act of writing that makes the grande dame of Indian literature seem ageless. From her high vantage point over India, and with the discipline and authority acquired from 65 years as a writer of novels, essays, journalism and memoirs, Sahgal still seems fresh, relevant and urgent.
She has featured prominently in India’s news of late, using the power of language and ideas to keep up an unremitting focus on what she has described as the greatest crisis to befall India since independence: the rise to power in 2014 by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and the attempt by the forces of Hindu nationalism, backed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to reshape Indian society and democracy along majoritarian lines.
A stark choice
The choice facing Indians is stark, according to Sahgal – the niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the creator of a series of novels in which the values of Gandhi and Nehru (who themselves continued a running debate throughout their lives) are fleshed out into human drama. She believes the new India created by Modi’s regime threatens to undo the painstaking progress made by the country in seven decades as a secular, multicultural democracy.
Sahgal has succeeded in making her mark, and it’s a remarkable achievement for someone who, for much of the last 30 years, seemed to have faded from the scene. Social media has helped amplify her stirring words among liberal Indians, many of whom are so young they have no idea about her lineage. Yet you cannot accuse Sahgal of being hostage to her familial history. In the 1970s, she was a trenchant critic of the Emergency – a draconian suspension of civil liberties and press freedom – imposed on India between 1975 and 1977, by the prime minister at the time, her cousin Indira Gandhi, with whom Sahgal grew up.
In January this year, she had an invitation to a literary festival rescinded after a right-wing political party opposed her participation. The incident made the news, and in its wake some media outlets published the speech she planned to deliver. In it she wrote: “Inclusiveness has been our way of life and this ancient multicultural civilisation whose name is India is a most remarkable achievement that no other country has known. Today it is threatened by a policy to wipe out our religious and cultural differences and force us into a single identity. With one stroke, this policy wipes out the constitutional rights of millions of our countrymen and women who are not Hindus, and makes invaders, outsiders and enemies of them.”
'The Fate of Butterflies'
At the same time, Sahgal has written a new novel, The Fate of Butterflies, her second in two years. But 2017’s When The Moon Shines by Day – an acerbic reference to the reshaping of truth by a virulent political ideology – was her first novel in 15 years. This is evidence that the new political climate in India has supplied ink for her pen. In both of her most recent novels, the protagonists come from an upper-class world like her own. They love art and good food, poetry and ruminations on history, and take it for granted – as does Prabhakar, the professor of history, the protagonist of The Fate of Butterflies – “that most things Indian were mixtures of here and elsewhere”.
Until now I have marvelled at India’s continuing commitment to the visionary compact laid down by the founding fathers
But the books are searing, dystopian visions of a society in which zealots ravage the richness of the Indian cultural inheritance, and the brunt of the violence they visit on the world is borne by the poor among India’s minorities: Dalits, or low-caste Hindus, in When The Moon Shines by Day, and Muslims in The Fate of Butterflies. If anything, it is the vividness with which sensual and intellectual pleasure in the daily life of privileged Indians is evoked by Sahgal that makes the all-too realistic visions of violence she summons so unsettling. She describes mobs entering the homes of artists and dissidents to break their bones, and zealots using abuse as a tool of coercion.
All of these episodes have precedents in real-world examples from Indian history, but in Sahgal’s hands they acquire real power and resonance, because of the lightness and lucidity of her prose and the clarity of her understanding of what is at stake in this conflict. In a harrowing scene in The Fate of Butterflies, Prabhakar falls in love with Katerina, a human-rights activist who was raped while documenting violence against women. Seeing the scars on her arm for the first time, he is moved to hug her – only to find that she recoils violently. “I can’t manage physical contact, any kind, any more,” Katerina explains.
But despite the ubiquity of hate and violence in Sahgal’s latest novels, they both end on notes of guarded optimism and even redemption. We are in a dark time, they seem to say, but the battle is by no means done, and there is much in India’s recent past to draw inspiration from.
With the latest Indian election taking place until May 19, we ask the author whether she is hopeful for the future of the country whose polyphonic ethos she has done so much to broadcast. “For the first time in my life I have to say, ‘I don’t know’,” she replies. “Until now I have marvelled at India’s continuing commitment to the visionary compact laid down by the founding fathers. That the liberty, equality and fraternity guaranteed by our constitution could be replaced by a call for an exclusively Hindu identity that robbed all other Indians of their rights was unthinkable.
We are at a crossroads where the choice as I see it, is between freedom and fascism, and can go either way.”
It seems that no matter what happens when the result of this election is delivered next month, Sahgal will still have plenty to say.
Updated: April 20, 2019 08:59 AM