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At a time when the country is simmering over freedom of speech and writers galore have returned awards, one recalls a doughty lady who rejected recognition way back in 2010. Krishna Sobti declined the Padma Bhushan saying that as a writer she had to keep a distance from the establishment. Sobti’s Mitro Marjani turned 50 this year. Expertly translated as To Hell with You Mitro by Gita Rajan and Raji Narasimhan, the book is popularly believed to have pushed the Hindi novelist to overnight fame, largely due to the explicit sexual voice of the protagonist Mitro, among the earliest such sustained voices in Hindi by a woman author.
Such an evaluation, while true enough, is inadequate. Indeed, Mitro Marjani is eventually more likely to be remembered for its crisscrossing voices that allowed the Hindi novel to break out of the straitjacket of social realism, or the more stereotyped notions of ‘women’s fiction’. It is in her formalist inventiveness that Sobti’s legacy lies — generating, on the one hand, the innovations in form of later Hindi writers like Alka Saraogi and Geetanjali Shree, and on the other hand, the bold, taboo-breaking memoirs of writers like Prabha Khetan. Mitro also allowed Sobti herself the space to open up other inner voices, often at the other end of the sexualised spectrum, for example, the heartbreakingly diaphanous voice of the mentally-distressed Ratti in Sobti’s later novel, Sunflowers in the Dark.
Mitro, then, is the breaking of a realist shell — it is in itself not the easiest novel to read even today. The skein of voices (that eschew the classic omniscient voice) is set in the dark, pulsing interiors of a haveli seething with its joint families. The entire novel is a back-and-forth of biting dialogue, with only the barest background of context.
Instead of the classic realist novel’s conventional settings (of class, caste, status, dialect, neighbourhood and so on), there is a slippery honeycomb of voices. If there are more conventional realist settings, they act chiefly as punctuation to the flow of voice. As poet Ashok Vajpayee once said: “A writer is a person who takes language where it has never been before and Krishnaji does so in each sentence.”
The absence of parental authority opens up the novel to many expectations. Mitro is introduced sensorially — to the sounds of physical violence from her husband, her angry screams, her looking her husband and elders straight in the eye. Soon, other characters are introduced — the elderly couple has three sons, and each with his wife lives with them. The reader is disoriented by the names and with trying to gauge the relative strength of each person within the family. Here, in the face of the impotence of the parents, power within the household does not follow conventional patterns of age and gender.
In later novels like The Heart has its Reasons, Sobti is able to more skilfully contain the sexual energy within families; there is scope for both explicit display and constrained aggression.
The haveli is full of lusts — a younger daughter-in-law gorges on sweets, another on jewellery. There are comparisons of the wealth of the natal family to that of the husband’s family. What is anxiety is theatre and relish for Mitro.
The expertise in different dialects (Rajasthani, Punjabi, Urdu, etc.) that Sobti is so famed for is put to good use, for though there are universal themes in Sobti’s opus of the slow implosion of the traditional family, there is a particular originality in each type of inner collapse — the entropy of the family in Mitro is not quite the entropy in The Heart has Its Reasons, or Memory’s Daughter (her first novel).
There is a line, even if wavering, between Mitro, and Sobti’s last great novel, The Music of Solitude. The relationship between voice and body, so minutely crafted in Sobti, reaches a culmination in the latter work. Ageing bodies drift in the ageing, feckless city of Delhi. A Mitro might now seek less an uncertain and aggressively sexual love, but would rather seek the unique ease of friendship that Aranya and Ishan manage in their older years with their happy nourishment in each other’s taunting banter.
Sobti had herself commented on the special autonomy that Mitro commanded in her oeuvre: “I was amazed at the surprises Mitro gave me at every turn… Mitro is her mother’s daughter who can voice her desires and get away with it.” But where desire takes one (in writing, or life) is rarely foreseen, and rarely unsurprising.
Nikhil Govind is the head of the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University.