Nayantara Sahgal (born 1927) belongs to India’s best-known political family, the Nehrus, and is a journalist, political commentator, essayist, biographer and novelist. She is perhaps the only Indian writer in English to have consistently reflected the political life of the country in her novels. Sahgal grew up with her cousin Indira Gandhi in Anand Bhawan, the family home in Allahabad, at a time when both girls’ parents were frequently away or in jail, and the two went to boarding school together. As a young woman, Nayantara idealised her mother’s brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she considered a father figure after her own father passed away when she was seventeen. Her political outlook was strongly shaped by Nehruvian ideas, and her columns from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s consistently criticised the dismantling of his legacy by his daughter, Indira, first as a leader of the Congress and then as prime minister. This outspokenness, especially in the face of Indira’s growing authoritarianism in the lead-up to her declaration of emergency in 1975, earned Sahgal the extreme displeasure of India’s most powerful woman at the time, and brought her perilously close to becoming a political prisoner. She remained undeterred, however, refusing to be censored by those in power. The following essay is adapted from Ritu Menon’s Out of Line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal, forthcoming this month from HarperCollins India.
BY A CURIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE OF HISTORY, both personal and political, Nayantara Sahgal relocated to Delhi in 1967, at the same time that her cousin, Indira Gandhi, embarked on recasting the Congress party in her own mould. And, by the same curious circumstance, this was also when Nayantara began writing the political columns that would reconfigure her relationship with Indira unalterably and permanently.
Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher; the author, with Kamla Bhasin, of Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition; and the editor of numerous anthologies of fiction and poetry by women. She lives in Delhi.