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Zindaginama by Krishna Sobti: book review

tale of undivided Punjab before partition

What if the country never got divided? What if everyone in the village lived together like a giant family irrespective of religion? What if gods and saints weren’t divided on faith? What if life was just a bit easier?

Before the line was drawn and papers were signed in the viceroy’s office, life was like that in undivided Punjab. One would go to the court of Lahore to solve land disputes and trade in the markets of Patiala. We, who were born much later of partition, don’t always understand the depth of wounds some bore deep inside their hearts. Escaped their own homes in the dark night, leaving everything, losing family members on the way, living in an unknown city, among unknown faces. We don’t understand their heartaches. My family is more connected to Bangladesh, we have our relatives there, a threadbare connection surviving via social media. I didn’t understand when my grandmother used to say you haven’t eaten proper firni ever, or the saree is not as good as the ones in her maternal home. They were never completely happy here. Haunted by the past, longing for a home they lost forever. Our roots and scars are constantly reminded, through food, through customs, through our speeches, and sometimes as a slur too. You are not an Indian, even I heard that too. So generations carry forward bitter-sweet memories.

Krishna sobti’s Zindaginama is the celebration of life, change the name and place it won't be very different from the tales my grandmother told me. Love and resentment live together, happiness with a tinge of sorrow, this obscure village is far from perfect. There is no single hero or heroine, everyone in the scene plays their role in showing us how life looks from different lenses.

There are Shahs the moneylender and landowners who control the village, jats tiled the lands as sharecroppers, living under heavy debts and probably can never repay it. Chachi, far more advanced for the time, widowed at a young age in a Sikh family decided to live with her lover, her courage reminded me of Binodini of Chokher Bali (Rabindranath Tagore). There’s an underlying sadness in the book, a woman’s worth still determined with childbirth. How ironic is it that a few things never change even today, the husband goes to court to seek divorce because his wife could not give him an heir. The role of Shahni is more like a commander, mentoring and controlling the female of the village, desperate for a child.

The author showed how we are never satisfied even after having everything, we still crave for more, something impossible, just like the thirst of thanadar, insatiable. This book is clearly an example of a plotless plot book. Interlaced with poetries of Bulleh Shah, Kabir, and the author's own pieces.

Filled with conversations between endless characters, the book flows into more tumultuous times, when the sons join the Imperial army for World war 2. Mothers unaware of the fact that they might never return or the treatment of Indians outside are content with the generous army rations. The sheer number of characters along with disjointed writings took some time to get adapted and often connected with Urdu words was sometimes difficult to comprehend. As the author slowly crept into tales of British rule and the cost paid by the ones who belong to the lower strata of the hierarchy, the innocence of the people disappears and the air becomes grimmer and darker. Zindaginama is not a hope giver, it’s the harsh reality of life.

Oftentimes it's debated whether the translated versions justify the original work and I’m still looking for that answer. I can’t read Hindi or Urdu and this is the best and the only way to know the story. This is how I once read Saraswatichandra. Truth be told, translations never completely represent the original work, it's wrong to even expect it. The feelings are sometimes regional, that beauty gets lost when it gets converted into an alien language. This opens the door slightly to the world which otherwise would be impossible to get into. Maybe I would have loved the book more if someone read it in Hindi for me.


It is sometime in the first decade of the 20th century. The British Imperialists have been in India for over 150 years. However, life in the small village of Shahpur in undivided Punjab has remained largely unchanged. The menfolk look to the wealthy and worldly-wise Shahji and his benevolent younger brother Kashi for support and advice, while it is Shahji's wife's home and hearth that is the centre of all celebrations for the women. Local disputes, trade, politics, a trickling of news from the Lahore newspaper are all discussed every evening at the Shah's haveli. But as the Ghadar Movement gains momentum elsewhere in Punjab and in Bengal, bringing into focus the excesses of the British, the simple village of Shahpur cannot help looking at itself. The discontent has set in. Krishna Sobti's magnum opus, Zindaginama brilliantly captures the story of India through a village where people of both faiths coexisted peacefully, living off the land. Detailing the intricately woven personal histories of a wide set of characters, she imbues each with a unique voice, enriching the text with their peculiar idiom. First published in Hindi in 1979, this is a magnificent portrait of India on the brink of its cataclysmic division.


Krishna Sobti was born in 1925. Her first short story 'Lama' was published in 1944. Her early novels Channa (1954) and Dar Se Bichchuri (1958) marked Sobti as one of the voices in contemporary Hindi prose that could not be ignored. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980 for Zindaginama and in 1996, she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship. In 2005, the English translation of her novel Dil-o-Danish won the Hutch-Crossword Award. Neer Kanwal Mani has translated a variety of literary and non-literary texts. Her twelve books in translation include the comic Du-Rex ke Jalwe for United Nations Development Programme, four books from The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, two novels by Paulo Coelho along folk narratives and oral epics for IGNCA, New Delhi. She translated Kerstin Ekman's Blackwater as a part of the Indo-Swedish Writers Union Project in 2001-02. Moyna Mazumdar is an editor and occasional translator based out of Kolkata with an interest in literary translation, long walks, and cycling.

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