The Telegraph
Friday , August 15 , 2014
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OUT OF LINE: A literary and political biography of Nayantara Sahgal By Ritu Menon, Fourth Estate, Rs 699

Ritu Menon would have done a service to social history by using this biography to explore the ritzy world of complaisant husbands and desperate housewives locked in long-running “romantic and sexual liaisons with each other’s husbands or wives (that) were neither clandestine nor considered reprehensible”.

This promiscuity wasn’t a result of the disorienting effect of Partition when traditional Indian values may have broken down without being replaced by any other social order. Menon says it flourished in Lahore before Partition and continued in Chandigarh — “intellectually vibrant, socially gregarious, sexually and romantically freewheeling”. Perhaps she means sexual permissiveness was the sine qua non of creativity since several of the players had intellectual pretensions. Or that this Westernized elite (the men were “educated at Oxford and Cambridge and all the women had university degrees”) overthrew Victorian colonialism’s suffocating morality and reclaimed the heritage of the Kama Sutra.

There is a rich lode here for sociological mining. Menon suggests Nayantara Sahgal was an outsider in this fast, amoral set. But she divorced her first husband and moved in with and eventually married (the chronology is confusing) a man who had been Khushwant Singh’s wife’s lover for many years while his own wife carried on (to use that old-fashioned phrase) with his brother-in-law.

The subject’s lineage is also intriguing. A packed Calcutta hall once exploded with applause when Sahgal was introduced as someone for whom blood wasn’t thicker than water. It’s disconcerting to find her biographer blatantly cashing in on the blood Sahgal supposedly spurns. The jacket blurb’s first sentence boasts of her being “born into the first family of Indian politics”. The first sentence of the first page has her married “in her ancestral home, Anand Bhawan, Allahabad”.

The “first family” was not that of Nayantara’s father, Ranjit Pandit, but of her mother’s brother, Jawaharlal Nehru. Anand Bhawan was the Nehru — not Pandit — “ancestral home”. If people suspected Gautam Sahgal of “social climbing” in courting Nehru’s niece, the niece is equally guilty for masquerading under her mother’s family’s identity. It doesn’t become excusable because Indira Gandhi and her offspring set the precedent with more calculation than self-respect. Nehru touched on only one aspect of his daughter’s problems when he advised Nayantara not to “be like Indu, neither married nor divorced”.

Showmanship is a very Indian failing. A wedding invitation isn’t complete in some regions unless plastered with the names of every relation of distinction. One hadn’t expected it in someone of Sahgal’s sophistication and sensitivity. But without it, she wouldn’t have been able to make the smug admission of not meeting “many ordinary people”. Expectedly, her friends included “the Paul Robesons in America; the E.P. Thompsons; the Chiang Kai-sheks; the Henry Walshes and John Kenneth Galbraiths in the US”. All doors opened to Nehru’s niece.

Since privilege can also imprison, it’s a wonder Sahgal broke out, found the time, and imposed on herself the discipline needed to give expression to her undoubted writing skills. Even though she denies being a “real writer” she published nine successful novels and several other books on history and politics as well as three very readable autobiographical memoirs. The title, Prison and Chocolate Cake, of the first of these, which this reviewer greatly enjoyed reading when it first came out while he was a teenage student in England, perhaps set the theme of the oscillation between pain and pleasure, high and low, of Sahgal’s own life.

Menon describes it movingly. But given her obvious sympathies, the reader may wonder about the objectivity of her accounts of Sahgal’s difficulties with her first husband or with Indira Gandhi. Apparently, Mrs Gandhi remained more friendly with her other aunt, Krishna Hutheesingh, which might explain why none of the latter’s four books are mentioned. Yet, Hutheesingh’s With No Regrets probably first forced the Nehrus on public attention as a kind of political royal family. It created the legend of wealth and luxury sacrificed for the nation that still sustains Sonia Gandhi and her children.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame Menon for not examining such posturing in a political context for Sahgal and her mother were more political dilettantes than politicians. Any discussion of ideas would have been out of place. The Woman’s Own tone is more appropriate. It also allows Menon to give even prison the gooey sweetness of chocolate cake in this sturdily loyal account of the life (but not the times) of her heroine. But someone should have told her Alec Douglas-Home’s name is only pronounced — not spelt — “Hume”.