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Book Review | Remembering Agyeya: Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover

For Agyeya, freedom and self-respect were values on which he never compromised. His biography penned by Akshaya Mukul affirms this notion.

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Akshaya Mukul has named the comprehensive biography which sums up the various facets of Agyeya’s life as Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya. The book has been published by Vintage, a part of the Penguin Group. The book is enormous not merely because it relates a factual, contextual tale of the many lives of a stalwart writer; it is humongous in size as well with a total of 565 pages of the biography and an additional 200 pages or more of reference material.

I believe it is the most thoroughly researched biography ever written of any Hindi litterateur. In fact, rarely has any writer been the subject of a biography of such epic proportions in the wider Indian literature. Mukul spent several years in writing the book and has scoured all possible sources from across the world looking for authentic facts and references.

Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya by Akshaya Mukul. (Penguin, 2022)

Such refinement and perseverance is rare in Hindi. Very few biographies meet the standard in terms of authenticity, detail and due diligence to facts and data. Penguin is soon going to publish the Hindi translation of this colossal biography. For almost four decades, Agyeya was a towering figure in modern Hindi literature. He was the most controversial Hindi writer during his lifetime. Countless rumors were spread about his personal life. Akshaya Mukul must have been cognizant of them too. But he has related the story of Agyeya’s life in a very objective manner based on references and documents. His narrative flows like an articulate novel and there is almost no room for boredom or quirks in it.

Another little-known romantic liaison between Agyeya and Kripa Sen is probably Akshaya’s discovery and, therefore, Agyeya has been appropriately designated as a lover in the book’s title. Besides, Agyeya did write some poignant love poems too.

The book contains a detailed account of Agyeya’s early life, his life in prison and his own advocacy of the court case. The arguments and facts presented by Agyeya in his defense gave a glimpse into his future: it was clear that he would challenge social and political norms.

To those who continuously accuse Agyeya of being an aristocrat and of staying away from the masses, the biography explains in detail how the writer had a close association with, for instance, the peasant movement. Later, he, along with Renu, continuously covered the plight of the farmers and the failures of the administration during the Bihar famine.

Also read: Remembering Kapila Vatsyayan: A Civilisational Voice in Post-Independence India

Agyeya was almost always short of money because he had opted for writing as a profession at a time when most writers in Hindi literature received very little, sometimes even nil, remuneration. Popular novels like Shekhar earned him a miniscule amount in royalties from Saraswati Press. Therefore, Agyeya’s insistence on being remunerated for his lectures later in his career makes sense.

It is also worth noting that when he started receiving some money, for instance, from the Jnanpith Award, he ventured to form a trust with twice the prize money and spent it on other writers. Agyeya was probably the first Hindi writer to do so.

Agyeya’s association with the Congress for Cultural Freedom was at the centre of another controversy. While the affiliation is a fact, it is also true that many of the world’s renowned writers at the time had such connections. Earlier, Agyeya had organised a major conference along with progressive writers against fascism. Freedom and self-respect were values on which he never compromised. This biography attests to this notion.

The literature, thought, and ideological pursuit of Agyeya do not prove his pro-Americanism. Moreover, if it was justified to receive financial aid from the then Soviet Union to publish books at cheap prices and to receive the Soviet Land Award, then any American aid should also be justified. Ironically, both the camps were ignoring the Soviet genocide at the time and the US involvement in the subsequent Vietnam and Korea wars and genocide.

The biography also reminds me of a personal incident which I had almost forgotten. My correspondence and communication with Agyeya started when I was 18 years old. During one such correspondence, when he had not even turned 50, Agyeya once expressed his desire to stop writing.

I registered my protest against such a desire and wrote to him that it would be unfortunate and a great loss. I even suggested that Agyeya should publish a new collection of poems and include in it a lengthy essay on his poetic experiences, problems faced by contemporary poets and ‘Nai Kavita’ or modern poetry.

I even dared to write that Nirmal Verma and Raghuveer Sahay were the most authentic representatives of modern fiction (nai kahani) and modern poetry at the time. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Agyeya preserved this correspondence while I lost the letters I had received from him.

Also read: Review: Why We Must Read ‘Nirala’

Another aspect of Agyeya emerges from this biography: his connection and interaction with many active members across generations during his time. He also supported many writers in due course. There have also been controversies regarding writer-camps organised by Vatsal Nidhi. Akshay Mukul has carefully scrutinised them contextually and studied the discussions held.

For decades, many left-wing writers have been condemning the stalwart as right-wing, anti-people, and what not. This biography makes it clear that unlike most leftists, Agyeya spent three years in prison for participating in the freedom movement. He remained associated with minor movements thereafter. He never adopted any pro-government, anti-people stance while he was the editor of Dinaman and Nav Bharat Times. Rather, he was democratic and critical of the government and supported Jayaprakash Narayan in his massive and decisive mass movement.

He shared long dialogues with Muktibodh and in Naya Prateek had even condemned the attack on Harishankar Parsai by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh goons.

If one reads this biography with a broad outlook, one will intimately envisage the struggle of Agyeya’s life, his self-respect and dignity as an author, and his authentic, though somewhat obscure, existence.

Ashok Vajpeyi is a well-known Hindi poet-critic and art lover. 

Originally published in Hindi, this piece was translated by Nausheen.