Krishna Sobti was not just an acclaimed Hindi writer — she was a trailblazer who carved space for women in a male-dominated industry. And a rebel who stood up in the face of injustice. Sobti’s work reflected her firebrand personality, as she unblinkingly took on the dominant narratives that shaped a woman’s life in 20th-century India.
She was born on 18 February 1925 in the Punjab province of pre-Partition era, which was part of Gujarat. After completing schooling in Delhi and Shimla, Sobti enrolled in Fatehchand College of Lahore but her education was disrupted during the Partition. So, she returned to India.
Surajmukhi Andhere ke to Zindaginama
At the time Sobti was writing, feminism in the context of Hindi novels was not a known phenomenon. When she burst onto the scene with her short novels Daar se Bichhudi (1958) and Mitro Marjani (1966), she told her audience what it meant to be a woman in a patriarchal set-up; the curtailing of freedoms, the sexual repression. Daar se Bichhudi was later translated to Memory’s Daughter and Mitro Marjani to To Hell With You Mitro.
In 1972, Sobti wrote Surajmukhi Andhere Ke. It was remarkable due to its portrayal of an abused woman’s psyche. It is about a woman living with an indelible emotional scar after she was raped in her childhood. She is stunted—often cold and cruel. By dealing with such subjects five decades ago, Surajmukhi Andhere Ke remains a testament to rare writerly grit.
However, Sobti truly came into her own as a writer, having developed a style and tenor unique to her, with Zindaginama (1979). In what is regarded as her magnum opus, the reader falls headfirst into the world of Shahpur— a Punjab village that represents the cultures, customs and politics of the Sikh community. Woven into the village are the personal histories of her cast of characters.
Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi called Zindaginama the ‘abridged Mahabharata of our times.’ It was the first part of a trilogy Sobti never finished. The year after its publication, Sobti was conferred with the Sahitya Akademi award.
Its whirlwind popularity led to controversy. In 1984, equally famous Punjabi poet and writer Amrita Pritam published Hardatt Ka Zindaginama. In retaliation, Sobti sued Pritam for copyright violations. The case went on till 2011, only for Sobti to lose. It involved colourful personalities at every level—author Khushwant Singh was a witness.
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Standing up for her beliefs
Sobti never shied away from controversy, especially if the alternative meant reneging on her beliefs. She wrote her first novel, Channa, in the years immediately after the Partition and submitted it for publication in 1952. It was a confluence of Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu words. But her editor peppered it with Hindi equivalents. So, Sobti decided to withdraw the book. “My creative world carries the memory of various Hindi dialects, Urdu and Sanskrit,” she said.
Channa was finally released weeks before Sobti’s death in 2019 and was translated by Daisy Rockwell, who also translated Booker awardee Gitanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand.
It was this attitude that Sobti carried through her life. She never faltered while standing up for her beliefs, even when it meant upsetting those in power. In 2015, Sobti returned her Sahitya Akademi award, citing the government’s apathy following the Dadri lynching.
This was five years after she declined the Padma Bhushan. “As a writer, I have to keep my distance from the establishment,” she declared.
When it was announced that Sobti was to be given the Jnanpith Award in 2017, arguably the country’s most prestigious literary award, there were whispers she would refuse it too. Since Sobti was hardly one to conform to public expectations, she accepted the award but gave away the prize money. She was worried about the times she was living in.
“The assaults on creative freedom and the disregard for writers are unprecedented. Perhaps, writers are also to be blamed. For long, they wanted to be seen with the establishment,” she said in a 2017 interview with The Indian Express.
It was in her twilight years that Sobti got married, to fellow writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Shivnath. They lived in an apartment in East Delhi until his death. It was in that she breathed her last, after 93 years of marching alone on the path of her beliefs.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)