She grew up during India's fight for freedom under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi and is among the country's foremost writers with feminist concerns. But Nayantara Sahgal, a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, says that contemporary Indian history is being fantasised, the minorities are under threat and there's a long fight ahead to preserve the "true meaning of India".
"In the BJP-ruled states, history is not just being rewritten. It is being fantasised. The Mughal empire is being ruled out of it. (Jawaharlal) Nehru has been wiped out of it. A fictitious narrative is being created in place of history, just as mythology is being promoted as science.
"The threat to the minorities and attacks on them, especially Muslims, and all others who do not fall in line with the ruling (party's) ideology are destroying India's great achievement of unity in diversity and the democratic freedoms and equality that Indian citizens have enjoyed since independence," Sahgal said.
"We, for whom India is a secular, democratic, inclusive republic — whose citizens have grown up in freedom — can never settle for less, and the protests against the crushing of dissent and debate are coming from many different groups: Writers, historians, scientists, students, professors and Dalits. One cannot despair of an India that refuses to bow down to any form of dictatorship. But there is a long fight ahead to preserve the true meaning of India," she added.
Sahgal, along with a host of leading literary stalwarts, returned her Sahitya Akademi award in 2015 to protest against rising intolerance in the country. While many joined the silent protests with black gags and bands that rocked the Rabindra Bhavan (which houses the Sahitya Akademi here), there was "an equal music" from the other end of the political spectrum.
Those opposed to these spontaneous protests questioned the motives of the protesting writers, dubbed them as politically motivated by people with "vested interests" and questioned why these writers couldn't show the 'social reality' that they are protesting against through their writings.
Two years later, Sahgal is out with her novel When The Moon Shines By Day (Speaking Tiger/Rs 399/168 pages). It is a fitting response to the contemporary state of affairs, and is billed as a "dystopian satire" that draws a telling portrait of our times. In this extremely symbolic work of fiction, Sahgal achieves the rare feat of critical imagination and elegantly wraps it around "her deepest concerns".
And, therefore in the novel, a character finds her father's books on medieval history disappearing from bookstores and libraries. Her young domestic help, Abdul, discovers it is safer to be called Morari Lal on the street, but there is no such protection from vigilante fury for his Dalit friend, Suraj. Kamlesh, a diplomat and writer, comes up against official wrath for his anti-war views.
Sahgal said that all writers tell different stories, out of differtent backgrounds and urges, but maintained that her own "background has been political so politics is my natural material".
"Writing, for me, has been a way of expressing my deepest concerns, through both fiction and non-fiction. My novels have been set against the political situations of their times, and have reflected the aspirations and shortcomings of India since independence. In that sense they have been about the making of modern India. Reflecting the times we are living in, my new novel is about the unmaking of modern India," Sahgal explained.
Reflecting on her early days, she recalled that she grew up during India's fight for freedom. Her family was involved in the struggle, and her father, Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, died during his fourth imprisonment under British rule. At independence in 1947, India, Sahgal contended, a deeply religious country of many religions chose to become a secular democratic republic, rejecting a religious identity and making religion a private affair. The constitution guaranteed every Indian the right to freedom of expression, worship and lifestyle.
"This is no longer the case. These freedoms are now under attack and the present government seeks to give India an exclusive Hindu identity, calling it a Hindu rashtra," she lamented.
When The Moon Shines By Day is a rather unusual title. She explained that the moon obviously does not shine by day nor does the sun shine by night. "Something is wrong if one is forced to agree with such propositions, or be punished for refusing to agree," she quipped.
Apart from the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1986, Sahgal has also received Britain's Sinclair Prize for fiction in 1985 and the Commonwealth Writers Award (Eurasia) in 1987. She was also a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, from 1981 to 1982.