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Nayantara Sahgal on her new book The Fate of Butterflies, the times we live in and what lies ahead for India

Veteran author Nayantara Sahgal’s new book, The Fate of Butterflies, is about a series of political events which determine the course of its protagonist Prabhakar’s life. A commentary on many events which have occurred in the country over the past few years, the 91-year-old author, who is also the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, delivers a hard-hitting book on the times we live in.

Speaking exclusively with Firstpost, she touches on many topics – from the journey of the characters in her book, to having a ringside view of India’s struggle for Independence and the role of media in today’s times.

Q. The scope of the book is vast (though the number of pages belies the fact)… what was the trigger to this work?

The trigger was the times we are living in. This novella, as well as, the one which came before this (When the Moon Shines by Day, 2017) are companion pieces in the sense that they are about the times around us.

Q. Many of the incidents described in the book have happened around us – from the chilling gang rape to the beef ban, how big a role does the world outside play on an author’s mind?

All my novels have been really about the times around us, about what was happening and how people were responding to it. These two (novels) are not different except that the times we are living in have never happened before. We are living in an India where the unimaginable is happening. We are told that we are a Hindu country, we are told that all other religions are outsiders, that Islam is our enemy.

These things have not happened before, so it’s a dramatic departure from our modern democratic past. Secularism and democracy are under attack because freedom of speech is being suppressed, writers have been shot dead and nobody has been punished. Poor men are falsely charged for transporting beef when they are not doing anything of that kind. These are absolutely new in India. We have had violence at all times in our history. In India, violence is not new but it has never been state-sponsored.

 Nayantara Sahgal on her new book The Fate of Butterflies, the times we live in and what lies ahead for India

The Fate of Butterflies, by Nayantara Sahgal

Q. Many believe that the ‘idea of India’ is too strong to be threatened. And, if violence is state-sponsored, then this government will go but India will survive…

In a democracy, governments come and go. That’s perfectly alright. We are technically a democracy but we are a dictatorship under the cover of a democracy. Because what is happening – bans on cinema and free writing; mob violence against people who have no defense, cannot happen without the guilty being punished for it. But, we do not see anyone being punished for these crimes, it makes one a little apprehensive that this situation can be changed.

It’s a new situation. You can throw out a government in a democratic set-up, but with the opposition alleging that the EVM functioning is compromised and the high technological advances in today’s times have put a great deal of power in the government’s hand which no government has had before. These things have put a doubt on whether this government can be thrown aside as easily as other governments have been, which should be the norm in any democracy.

Q. The personal and the political were inseparable says the protagonist Prabhakar... how much of it holds true for the India and Indians of 2019?

Obviously it holds true, don’t look at the billionaires, they are not worried about anything. Look at the poor people who suffered under demonisation and the middle class. That is a classic instance in which the political has affected the personal very strongly. Apart from that, look at the blacksmith murdered by a mob for storing beef, you have politics infringing on personal rights.

Q. You mention in the book as to how the government of the day starts referring to India as Pitrubhumi and compare them to the Nazis… one would think is an extrapolation of a situation not as bad…

If you have read your history, you will know that in the early years of the Hindu Mahasabha, in the 1920s, one of their leaders went to Italy to pay homage to Mussolini, for the great work he was doing and took his blessings for what should be done in India. Later, they had openly admired Hitler, because they think what he did was great – he wanted to keep his country and culture pure. Racial and religious purity was important to the Nazis and that’s what’s they are trying to do here. These are their icons. Today, their icon is Naturam Godse… so the comparison to Nazi Germany was due to historical reasons.

Q. The role of media has come increasingly under fire the past few years… what’s your take on Indian media?

A self-respecting media stays independent in any democracy. Our media, both during the Emergency and this period we are in, barring honorable exceptions, haven’t covered themselves with glory. A great many channels have been bought over by the government, while some in the print media which have even been told who to dismiss from the editorial positions. During Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency, The India Express, for which I was writing at the time, played a very proud role in defending freedom of the press.

File image of Nayantara Sahgal. Screengrab from YouTube

File image of Nayantara Sahgal. Screengrab from YouTube

Q. Freedom of speech has been at the crux of many debates in the past few years. Many would say that it’s not just the current government but most governments of the day (including the Congress) which limited this fundamental right…

No, it won’t be right if we say only this government is doing it but in other governments people haven’t been killed for it.

Q. In your book, you express terror at where the country is heading. Are you worried for the India of tomorrow?

I’m worried about the India of today. Because if it continues this way, we know exactly what’s going happen tomorrow. I have said this many times and I will say this again, we are at a crossroads, and the decisions we take at this juncture, will be crucial for our future.

Q. You have written over 20 books, a staggering body of work by any standard… what is that that inspires you to keep writing?

I’m a writer, that’s what I do. (laughs) That’s my contribution. Just like an actor keeps acting, a writer goes on writing. Especially in my case, when I write about the times we are living in, that becomes a boon to my imagination.

Q. You have been a witness to the Independent history of India, right from the time of Nehru… do you think that he is being treated with disdain today?

It’s not disdain, it’s the complete murder of Nehruvian beliefs. I believe some states have either completely wiped him from textbooks or have openly reviled him. It’s a ferocious attack on Nehru, not only the person, but everything he stood for – a secular democratic India, the fact that we are a plural society, which is anathema for our current rulers. In my view, they want to uproot everything that happened since Independence, and they keep saying so – that nothing has happened since Independence up till now.

I was very fortunate to grow up during Independence struggle, my father died during his forced term in prison. I know what a great adventure it was – to achieve that freedom, although, Partition made it a tragic event. Then started the process of building a new India. For 70 years, we have succeeded, we have failed, but we have never faltered in the aspirations of building a secular society and above all lies the fact that all Indians are not Hindus, but Indians. We have been a civilisation that has been enriched by all the influences that have come our way and should be proud of those, that is what has made us unique. Some people are very busy, trying to wipe it all away and say that we must be an exclusively Hindu country when we had rejected a religious identity right at Independence.

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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2019 10:56:54 IST

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