The Insomniac


KRISHNA SOBTI doesn’t choose to answer my question about whether, when she was younger, she ever thought about getting old. But her remarkable novel, Ai Ladki, written largely in the disconcerting voice of an old lady who alternates between rambling self-pity, paranoia and sudden lucidity, is a pretty good indication that she did think about it. And (if one is allowed to speculate) she’s taken great pains to avoid growing into that character (who was very likely modelled on her mother).

Krishna Sobti
Krishna Sobti
Age: 84
Profession: Hindi fiction writer and essayist
Secret lifestyle choice: She writes from 11 at night to 4.30 in the morning, wakes up to read the day’s editorials, then goes back to sleep for most of the afternoon Photo: Anay Mann

So Sobti is possibly the sunniest 84-year-old you’ll ever meet. She is happy to chat, with almost girlish excitement, about everything from the latest political upheaval in the BJP, to her great love, the mountains (“If I’m ever stuck in my writing, I go waste some money in a hill station and come back with a clear mind”). And yet no one could accuse her of being out of touch with reality. “I know I cannot go trekking in Ladakh as I did even at 65. I used to go for a walk every day, now I manage it rarely. But every season comes to a close. There’s no point thinking about it. I have had a vivid time, an exciting time.”

She certainly has. Born in Gujrat, Pakistan, Sobti grew up in Shimla and Delhi (where she still lives), with her civil servant father passing on a rich sense of the past. “I’ve been lucky enough to witness the colonial era, the time of independence, and the post-independence period. And we never felt like bystanders.” From the keenly observed 1920s Delhi of Dilo- Danish to the magisterially recreated rural Punjab of Zindaginama, Sobti’s work has reflected this sense of being a participant in history. She’s also a keen Delhizen. In fact, her upcoming book, Maarfat Delhi, is about the city’s literary landscape from the 1950s to 1970s.

Sobti has consistently refused to be slotted as a “woman writer”. Creativity, she believes, requires one to access both the male and the female aspects of one’s persona, “to be an ardhanarishwar of sorts”. In her personal life, too, Sobti has kept her distance from conventional domesticity. “Household chores sap women’s energies. If the family becomes the limit of your world, then you cannot think big,” she says in her gentle but firm manner. “As a writer, sometimes you need isolation; but when you sit down to write at night, the whole world must be with you at your desk.” The world is still her oyster.