Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2017



Nayantara Sahgal an Indian English Novelist as well as a Political Activist & Columnist:A Perspective through her Novels ‘A Situation in New Delhi’ & ‘Rich like Us’

Dr. Payal Bhardwaj, Assistant Professor & Head, Department of English, Hapur

The aim of the research paper is to understand the socio-political milieu of the nation during post colonial period and hear the resonance of remarkable political issues and crisis in the fiction of Nayantara Sahgal. Political turmoil of those momentous years is remarkably portrayed in the novels of Nayantara Sahgal.

Indian English fiction has acquired a prestigious position  all over the world during recent times. It is acclaimed world-wide as the most convincing of all the contemporary genres of literature. It occupies a significant place in world literature. But the Indian English fiction has passed through many stages before occupying this prestigious position and worldwide acclaim. As the early novels and writers were aloof from socio-political concerns or issues, the deeper issues of national significance as well as human life were not the prominent issues for the novelist of that particular period. Indian English novel was affected by socio-political upheavals during the 1930s onwards. The writers such as Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao emerged on the literary scene in 1930s and attempted to project the contemporary Indian political scenario with their specific viewpoint without distorting and twisting of facts. These prominent novelists respectively started the era of political novels through creating the masterpieces of fiction and the great work of art- Coolie, Untouchable, Kanthapura and Waiting for Mahatma. All these literary creations are considered epoch making creations of Indian English fiction.

The Indian English fiction gradually evolved and matured in the hands of literary scholars like B. Bhattacharya, Khushwant Singh and Nayantara Sahgal etc. during the post colonial years. All these novelists are regarded the masters of political novels. Among them, Nayantara Sahgal occupies a unique place and is widely known for her contribution to Indian English fiction. She is remarkably unique for having the honour of being the first Indian women novelist in English dealing with political themes. Political consciousness as well as nationalism was natural to her. The reason lies in her family background and upbringing, as she belongs to a politically conscious elite family of freedom fighters. In this regard P. Rajamuniyammal rightly states:

“Sahgal’s childhood was spent in Anand Bhawan at Allahabad with her parents, her maternal uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru and her cousin, Indira Gandhi. Her childhood and adolescence were spent amidst India's political reverberations, the struggle for independence from the British yoke and the influence of Gandhian ideas of freedom and non-violence.” (1)

Political and social changes occurred during mid half of 20th century means post independence era also brought forth changes in the themes of Indian writers. That’s why the political milieu is the dominant framework of all Sahgal’s novels. She admits strongly that socio-political turmoil of contemporary Indian scenario left a deep impression on her mind and soul. Mrs. Sahgal states in her biography:

“I am a novelist and a political journalist. My novels have a political background or political ambiance. I didn't plan it that way—I was dealing with people and situations—but looking back, each one seems to reflect the hopes and fears the political scene held out to us at the time.”(2)
She further states:

“….the political situation is the background of all my books. I notice that nobody else in India at least writing in English has used the technique of having a political situation- a specific political situation as the backdrop of every single novel. There have been novels of political situations, isolated ones, but I have developed this as a genre, as a whole style of political novel….” (3)

Through her novels she truthfully portrays various political changes that took place in contemporary period. She depicts with all the force and brilliance the political issues and problems, which were tormenting Indian spirit during those post independence years. She was active mainly as a political columnist on the literary scene, as she has contributed a large number of political articles to various newspapers and magazines along with two political commentaries. She expresses herself: “I see myself as both novelist and journalist. In the course of a lifetime one is many things, fiction is my abiding love, but I need to express myself on vital political issues. Political and social forces shape our lives. How can we be unaware of them? I believe there is a ‘poetics of engagement’ where commitment and aesthetics meet and give each other beauty and power.”(4)

This is the reason that in each of her novels she uses political framework. Her very first novel, ‘A Time to be Happy’ (1958) represents the initial phase of Indian independence. Her another novel ‘The Time of Morning’ (1965) projects the scenario of a just liberated and a newly born nation, while the initial euphoria was over and the millions of challenges were raising their head. Her novel ‘Storm in Chandigarh’ (1969) is based on political upheaval in Punjab during late sixties. The novel depicts the political tension and chaos at the time of partition of Punjab on the basis of linguistic lines. ‘A Situation in New Delhi’ deals with the emerging outcomes after the culmination of Nehruvian era. His most remarkable piece of fiction ‘Rich like Us’ deals with the power politics of Indira Gandhi. It highlights and unmasks the dirt of actual Indian politics. In the series her latest collection of essays ‘Nothing but the Truth’ is also remarkable, as it emphasizes on the political role and relevance of Nehru as a maker of modern India, on the one hand and on the other confirms that he is a much misunderstood Indian P.M.

If we closely examine the theme of her novels, we may find a chronological account of political events from the last phase of national movement to the breakdown of democracy in mid seventies. From her very first novel ‘A Time to be Happy’ to ‘Lesser Breeds’ in 2003 and ‘Nothing But The Truth’ 2015, Sahgal closely observes the Indian political scenario and whatever she writes about freedom fighters, politicians and bureaucrats is really convincing. In her fiction we find an authentic picture of high class politicians and bureaucrats, engaged in their cocktail parties, concerned more about themselves than about the problems, which are plaguing the country. The images of demoralized politicians, their blind race for power are also portrayed in her novels.  She relentlessly exposes the murders committed to safeguard the vested interests of the politicians, bureaucrats and the cabinet ministers. She also highlights the ardent urge of freedom fighters for independence and their sacrifice for motherland.  Miami Michison aptly comments: “As Nayantara grew up she saw politics from the inside. This world is implicit in her novels”. (5)

Sahgal has a deep knowledge of the political panorama, and a clear insight towards the political policies as laid by the major political figures of India. The novel A Situation in New Delhi published in 1977 is distinctively unique and remarkable, as the novel truthfully projects the culmination of Nehruvian era. The whole theme centers round the emerging political crisis and outcomes after the death of young, charismatic and popular leader and Prime Minister Shivraj, who is modeled on the character of Jawaharlal Lal Nehru. The novel explores real Indian political scenario. It also vividly portrays the Naxalite movement and student unrest during late sixties and early seventies.   The novel begins with the startling news of death of Indian P.M. The novel also discusses about opportunistic politics pursued in New Delhi that created frustration in young Indian generation.

The whole story revolves round the character of Shivraj and Devi, which typically represents the personality of strong character of J. L. Nehru and her vibrant sister Vijyalaxmi Pandit. In the novel she has created the image of women as a powerful political leader. The character of Devi is a combination of the characters of three powerful and strong women of contemporary time Indira Gandhi, Sarojini naidu, Vijyalaxmi Pandit. Through the character of Devi, from A Situation in New Delhi, Sahgal tries to reveal the conflict between the woman and the cabinet minister. She seeks fulfillment at both fronts. Before the public and in a political sphere, she tries her utmost to live and act as per the policies and principles set by her brother and Prime Minister J. L. Nehru, but at her personal level she gets fulfillment, when she initiates the mass movement with Usman. The novel reaffirms the abiding influence of Sahgal’s uncle J. L. Nehru and her mother Vijya Laxmi Pandit on her persona. In her view an old chapter closes with the death of shivraz and it is the indication of the arrival of new one. Amid this situation of great political turmoil, she poses certain questions about contemporary political framework and public life.

From here the line of concentration shifts towards the era of madam, the female imperialist. It was a darkest phase in Indian politics while the nexus between business, politics and crime was flourishing well. An authentic picture of this critical phase is depicted in Nayantara Sahgal’s most powerful novel, Rich like Us, for which she was awarded with Sinclair prize for fiction 1985 and Sahitya Academy award 1987. This is probably her most remarkable piece of fiction probably due to its social commitment and contemporary relevance. The novel is based on an important political event in the Indian political history of modern era--The political turmoil provoked by Mrs.Indira Gandhi’s sterilization campaign and state of emergency during 1975 to 1977. M. Ashok rightly comments: “Politics is the central running theme in this novel”. (6)The novel focuses upon the vast social and political changes that have occurred due to this suffocating political environment. It is aptly mentioned about the novel:

“Rich like us explores on variety of themes ranging from the political one of power craving, corruption and atrocities all depicted against the backdrop of emergency. The perpetrator of which is the ‘madam’- nameless, faceless but all powerful, madam. The female exploitative force is portrayed as an abstraction, an allegory of the negative forces of power represented in the female.”(7)

Rich like us gives us graphic details of two families of Indian elite class during the state of emergency. It was the remarkable phase of negative power-politics in modern Indian history, while Mrs. Indira Gandhi exercised her supreme power by suspending the election process and neglecting the civil liberties. The novel is a spectacle of how a leader with absolute power becomes an anarchist, tramples individual rights on the name of political stability. In the novel the character of Dev is modeled on Sanjay Gandhi, who represents the corruption of Indian politics. Dhar comments:

“One of the dismal features of the times, the novel stresses, was that Madam, (Mrs. Indira Gandhi) succeeded in getting the support of lawyers, professors, newspaper editors, and other liberal and progressive groups for her unrestricted use of power.”(8)

Democracy was in crisis like situation, as everybody was silent during this political crisis. It is due to Sahgal’s concern for the nation, which forced her to protest against the power- politics of her cousin, Indira Gandhi. She does not even conceal the identities of her relatives, comes at the forefront and boldly reveals the name of political figures and events through his novel Rich like Us.  This is how Indira’s first cousin and famous novelist Nayantara Sahgal foresees the consequences of her decisions and as a dutiful political journalist becomes critical about her cousin and cautions the public against her political move through weekly newspaper columns. She writes deliberately against the emergency imposed by her cousin Indira Gandhi on Indian masses.  Although this step made her lose her job, as she was about to be appointed Indira’s ambassador to Italy. Her pangs of conscience are recounted in the novel through the character of Sonali, an IAS topper. She is demoted, punished and humiliated, as she does not support the ill motives of powerful leaders, while the characters like Ravi Kachru, another IAS officer,  flatters the power, salutes the rising sun and smoothly sails with the current.

Sahgal’s novels of later period give the factual and vivid account of political events of the post independence period of Indian history. While describing political reality, she prefers sheer and harsh truth and never compromises with reality. Through her political insight, she foresees the direction of political wind and anticipates the further outcomes. Her acute political awareness is clearly visible in her fiction. “Her portrayal of political reality is basically interpretative and predicative rather than retrospective. Politics is embedded deep in her emotional and intellectual make up.”(9) She herself asserts “I have a very strong emotional as well as intellectual attachment to my roots…. and each of her novels more or less reflects the political era we are passing through”.  (10)

Thus it is asserted that her novels ‘A Situation in New Delhi and Rich like Us’ clearly show her pre-occupation with Indian politics, as the theme of the novel. ‘A Situation in New Delhi’ centers round the emerging political crisis and outcomes after the culmination of Nehruvian era. The novel also realistically portrays the Naxalite movement and students unrest during early seventies. Her novel ‘Rich like Us’ portrays the graphic details of Indian politics during the state of emergency. The novel is a projection of power politics, how a leader with absolute power becomes an anarchist, tramples individual rights on the name of political stability.  Thus we can say that her major contribution to the art of fiction is giving shape and essence to the genre of political novel. Though her upbringing was western, yet her love and devotion to the Indian spirit and essence is worth remarkable. Sahgal has won international acclaim in the field of Indian English fiction due to her evocative but reliable description of political issues of post independence India.

If we examine her position & significance in present context, she is now 88 year old and is still actively engaged as a political activist and columnist. She is representing the recent socio-political scenario through her works. In October, 2015 she remained in limelight for spearheading the ‘Award Wapasi’ campaign and returning her Sahitya Akademi award, which she had won in 1986 for her political novel Rich Like Us. It has been confirmed in an article in Indian express:

“Nayantara Sahgal, renowned writer and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, returned the Sahitya Akademi award she had won in 1986 for her political novel Rich Like Us. In an open letter, she said she was returning the award “in memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent”. Citing the murders of Kannada writer M M Kalburgi and anti-superstition activists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, besides the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri over rumours that he ate beef, Sahgal criticised the Prime Minister for remaining “silent about this reign of terror”. Always opposed to authoritarianism, Sahgal fell out with her cousin Indira Gandhi at the time of the Emergency. Her writings have been critical of both the BJP’s Hindutva politics as well as the dynastic rule in the Congress.”(11)

In an open letter headlined ‘The Unmaking of India’, Sahgal quotes Vice President Hamid Ansari’s recent speech that the Constitution promises all Indians “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.”(12) Thus she reaffirms that the right to dissent is an integral part of this Constitutional guarantee. She feels that the very idea of secularism is in danger. Being anguished on contemporary socio-political scenario she expresses her concern over the matter through an article:

 “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault. Rationalists who question superstition, anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism … whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle — are being marginalized, persecuted, or murdered.”(13)

Being agonized, she dissents or expresses her disapproval against the silence of Indian government regarding Dadri lynching episode and several others issues regarding intolerance. Through this firm move of returning the award, she has also expressed her dissatisfaction with the Sahitya Akademi’s attitude towards safety of writers, as the academies were set up as guardians of the creative imagination, and promoters of its finest products in art and literature and it is painful that many of the eminent writers were attacked and even murdered these days for their freedom of expression and the academy was silent. It was equally tormenting for her that justice dragged his feet in all cases. Favoring Sahgal’s stand, a majority from scholars and writers’ community came forward against these continuing attacks on freedom of expression and raised their voices against growing intolerance in the country. Supporting her bold step, 35 eminent writers had returned their Sahitya Akademi awards late last year, citing growing tolerance in the country. She proclaims: “There are times in history when you have to stand up and be counted. This is one of them.” (14)

When she was asked by PTI regarding how successful the writers have been in getting their voices heard, Sahgal answers that the campaign has already yielded huge results because the whole country is responding – not only writers but Historians, sociologists, scientists, filmmakers, filmstars, , everyone is responding. Thus we can say that she is a multitalented academician as well as an activist, as around the globe she is well-known as a political journalist and civil liberties activist.


Ashok V. M.. The Books I read -Nayantara Sahgal 22:15.

Dhar, T. N. History-Fiction Interface in Indian English Novel. New Delhi: Prestige         Books, 1999. Print, p.153.

Malhotra M.L. Bridges of literature. Ajmer: Sunnanda Publications, 1991.Print.p.10.       

Machison, Maomi. Contemporary novelists.London: St. James Press, 1976.Print.p.1186-88.

Nayantara Sahgal: Political and Cultural Allegory: An analysis of her novels, 13:15.

Rajamuniyammal P. ‘Feminine Sensibility and Socio- political Concerns in Nayantara Sahgal’s Novels,’ Language in India, Vol. 13:10.

Sahgal Nayantara. New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1978. Print