Walking through the ever-busy lanes of Delhi’s famous Rajouri Garden market with its fast fashion stores, one never expects the area to be an abode of a writer. Yet, in a colony where the market ends, stays one of Delhi’s most respected Hindi authors, Pratap Sehgal.
I always wondered what the house of a writer looks like: does it have a large window overlooking the entire city? A hill facing a lake or a serious desk with an ashtray and ink? At writer Pratap Sehgal’s house what stands out are books. A side table kept next to the sofa sets includes a set of newspapers, books and magazines. Pratap Sehgal, in his seventies, opens the door, offers us water and says, “Relax, the work can wait.” The discussion that followed took us on a sojourn of the essence of literature in all its forms and languages.
Pratap Sehgal sat against his wall made of books. His writing desk was near him, while the setting sun filled the room with soft golden rays.
Also read: Hemant Malhotra: Expressions of Nature
“One never decides to be a writer, it comes as destiny. For some, it's a catharsis for submerged feelings, a way of expressing for some, and a way to fame to others. Yet, the love for writing is something inherent", says he, who first published his first story at the age of 14. In a career that lasts over several decades, Pratap Sehgal has penned many novels, short stories, poems and travelogues.
He has recently published a set of new fiction including plays such as Bulle Shah, Teen Gumsuhuda log, and small pays for children. He has also been featured in a series on the journey of poets called ‘Kavi Ke Mann Se’, a book of short stories called ‘Machli machli Kitna Paani’ and also a set of travelogues.
Pratap Sehgal himself had never set out to be a writer. He had moved to Delhi after the partition of 1947. “At the time, he mentions, there were no jobs, businesses or settlements. The biggest challenge was to earn a livelihood and an education. The country had just gained independence, there were no jobs at the time."
The uncertainty and the confusion of the Partition found a place in his successful novel Anhad Naad, a coming of age story of a young boy who moves to a new place with his parents and grows slowly in a fast-changing newly independent India. It is a personal journey, but also of the country.
Drawing comparisons, I asked him “So is it true that your novel is in fact an autobiographical piece?” Pratap Sehgal while answering my question said all writings to an extent is autobiographical. “You write from your experiences and observations. It only depends on how much of a social angle you provide. Everyone has experiences yet not everyone writes. A writer knows and must know how to communicate personal sympathies to the rest of the world."
“Although seldom present physically, the most important character in a story is the writer himself(herself),” says Pratap Sehgal. His characters come from the people he has met, to historical figures, and imaginary ones. He often brings monumental figures from history, culture and science alive in his writing. His popular play Anveshak includes 13-14 imaginary characters. Two of these are historical figures Aryabhatta and Budh Gupta, the Samrat of that time. He also told me that he is working on a play with Sushrut Samhita, India’s first surgeon.
His steadiness in every form perhaps originates from the kind of research that goes into them. His library is made of bookshelves aligned with books from literary criticism, to mythology, to Karl Marx’s works on Capitalism remain proof of this. “To be a good writer, it is very important to read, have an understanding of social-political conditions, have conflicts, viewpoints. Apart from this, one needs to have experiences, travel and meet new people.”
Having been a celebrated Hindi author, we talked about the disappearance of interest among youth for Hindi literature. Pratap Sehgal says, “Literature goes beyond language. In public schools, we pester children to speak in English. We teach them that English is everything. What they do not understand is that English is also a medium for writing. It has French, German and Spanish Literature. There is a difference between literature in English and English literature. Then, there is a different class who appreciates literature in Hindi."
He continues, “I believe to appreciate literature in any language, one needs to have a good understanding of it and a sense for the music of words. Without it, words would seem blank. I write in Hindi yet most of my works have 8-10 editions in different languages.”
Pratap Sehgal who has also been involved in translation says that you cannot translate literature. “When working with stories, your work is to translate emotions and cultures. How can you do that? Translation of literature thus becomes transcreation. Each translated work is a unique work.”
Pratap Sehgal believes that rather than aiming to change the world, it would be better if writers can change the self through literature. "I don't think the anti-social elements on the roads are those who ever appreciated literature?" Despite writing on progressive issues, Pratap Sehgal does not believe in any labels. Yet, in his own words, “Oppression against women, voicing conservatory thoughts and busting dogmas are themes that find space in my literature.”
Slowly, our enriching conversation came to a close. While showing us his rich terrace library, I asked him, “Is there any story which you still want to tell?” Pratap Sehgal smilingly replied, “There are several stories that I want to tell. I want to keep on writing. Only death can come in my way.”