“He will last not because some academy recognises him and shows him respect but because those who get to read him become drunk on his poetry.”
– Satti Khanna (Nirala’s Translator)
For all of us who grew up with a little knowledge of Hindi literature, the name of Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” is a familiar one. Unfortunately our rather boring school textbooks failed to communicate to us the real meaning and significance of his work.
My fascination with him has arisen simply from his pen name “Nirala,” which means “unique.” The idea that a poet could have a name separate from his real one was intriguing to me as a child. Nobody explained to me that a takhallus, or pen name, is the norm among Urdu poets, and Nirala’s pen name indicates how intertwined literary traditions still were in his lifetime (1896-1961). It was much later that I realised how iconic this Hindi poet, novelist and essayist was.
It is to Nirala that Hindi literature is indebted when we talk of the Chhayavaad movement, which lasted roughly from 1918 to 1938. Literally translated as “shadowism,” this literary movement can be compared to Romanticism in European literature, which was exemplified by writers such as William Wordsworth. Chhayavaad writing was characterised by an enquiry of the self and layered with themes of love and nature, similarly to Romanticism, but contained an additional touch of mysticism. Nirala was of course not alone in this literary endeavour. Prominent Hindi writers like Jaishankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant and Mahadevi Verma were also major figures in the Chhayavaad movement.
A forbidden friendship
We have a renewed occasion to remember Nirala today. HarperCollins has recently published the English translation of the writer’s memoir Kulli Bhat, titled A Life Misspent (2016). Set during the freedom struggle and originally published by Ganga Pustak Mala Kaaryala in 1939, the novel is a coming-of-age story of a young man who went on to become one of modern Hindi literature’s most influential figures. The translation by Satti Khanna, who has also translated works by Mohan Rakesh and Vinod Kumar Shukla, successfully captures the concise, ironic and detached tone of the original.
“Pustika mein hasya-ras ki pradhanta hai, is liye koi naraz ho kar apni kamzori na sabit karein, unse prarthna hai.”
(“The tone of the book is comic. It would be good if people did not take offence at it and thereby reveal their inadequacy as readers.”)
These lines by Nirala in the book’s preface, dated 5 May, 1939, and translated by Khanna, have an intimacy to them, as if the writer is about to let us in on a secret. And in a sense, that is what happens. The memoir is a stunning confrontation of two social taboos that continue to resonate with the Indian public today: the caste system and homosexuality.
A Life Misspent is the chronicle of a man unafraid to speak his mind. “From childhood on, I was a lover of freedom. I couldn’t bear restrictions when they lacked all reason.” A young Nirala disobeyed his strict father by mingling with a family of “untouchables” or Dalits even after his sacred thread ceremony. At the age of sixteen, he met Kulli Bhat, a Dalit from Dalmau, the same village where Nirala’s wife had grown up. Bhat was unashamed of his attraction to Nirala, and later went on to marry a Muslim woman. As a Dalit, an individual unafraid of his attraction to other men, and married to a Muslim, Kulli Bhat embodied the perfect social pariah for an intolerant society.
Bhat struggled for acceptance in society, very much like Nirala in the world of literature. The boldness and drive for social change that Bhat epitomised, by which he lived, inspired Nirala deeply. Nirala’s fascination with this man made their interactions even more forbidden, since the whole town was already suspicious of Kulli Bhat’s sexuality. Rejecting Kulli’s sexual advances but maintaining their friendship, Nirala supported Bhat until the end – and even beyond the end. He performed Bhat’s last rites when the Brahmin priests refused to do so.
Nirala’s treatment of the subject of the caste system, inter-religious marriage and homosexuality is remarkably sensitive, non-judgmental and progressive. The open mindedness exhibited in this book published in 1939 is far greater than found in most literature on similar subjects today. The very fact that his own memoir is titled after a Dalit whom he respected tells us that Nirala chose to judge an individual based on his capability than the nominal place determined for him by society. Nirala’s audience would have expected nothing less from him. It was a time of great writers questioning the status quo. The openly homosexual Raghupati Sahay, better known by his takhallus Firaq Gorakhpuri, was one such. He resigned from the Indian Civil Service to take part in the Non-Cooperation Movement and ended up in jail. Shabbir Hasan Khan, known better as Josh Mallihabadi, was another – Khan managed to have himself exiled from the state of Hyderabad in 1925 for writing a poem criticising the Nizam.
A Life Misspent
Like his great contemporaries, Nirala was a proud man. He earned small sums from his stints as an editor at noted journals and magazines like the Ramakrishna Mission publication Samanvaya, and later at the 1920s-launched Matvala. The money he earned from copy-editing, proofreading, and submitting his own poems and essays for publication was not enough to make a living. Recognition came to him only later, and when it did, the government was willing to offer him money to sustain himself – but he refused it because of his ego. His friend and renowned poet Mahadevi Verma was then granted a certain amount every month in order to take care of him. His circumstances and the early tragic losses of his mother, wife and daughter led to a mental breakdown – it is believed that he turned schizophrenic. Nirala’s greatest elegy Saroj Smriti to his 18-year old daughter Saroj is heart-wrenching:
Dukh hi jivan ki katha rahi
Kya kahun aaj, jo nahi kahi!
The story of my life has been full of woe
What can I say now, that I haven’t said before!
Hindi’s coming of age
Just as A Life Misspent traces Nirala’s coming-of-age, the Chhayavaad movement can be seen as the coming-of-age of ‘Hindi’ as we know it today.
Chhayavaad remains the foremost movement to raise Hindi to a literary language. The Hindi that is spoken in Delhi and north India today is just over a century old. Before that, the two literary dialects of Hindustani were Braj Bhasha, the language of Surdas or Amir Khusro, and Avadhi, the language of Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas. Modern Hindi is closest to the Khari Boli dialect spoken in Delhi-Meerut in the early 1900s – considered not as sophisticated as Braj or Avadhi until writers such as Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi propagated it. Nirala, influenced strongly by Dwivedi, was one of the first writers to claim this modern Hindi as his own through his experimental and articulate use of the language in his poetry – both rhyme and free verse – essays and memoirs. It is therefore to writers like Nirala that we owe the creation of modern Hindi.
It is ironic that Nirala learnt Hindi only at a later age, at the insistence of his wife Manohara Devi – a process of learning he described in his book as “akin to the joy of knowing God.” His evolution as a Hindi poet is evident through the spectrum of his works. His journey has been compared to the dramatic poetic evolution of Yeats.
Sneh-nirjhar beh gaya hai…
Main alakshit hoon; yehi kavi keh gaya hai.
The stream of love flows away untamed…
I am the oblivion; the poet proclaimed.
– Sneh-Nirjhar Beh Gaya Hai (translation mine)
While many of us study the works of Wordsworth and Keats in context of Romanticism in the West, Indian universities do not introduce the works of such a significant name as Nirala in Hindi poetry to English literature students, despite having introduced several texts and poems in Indian languages into the curriculum.
Nirala’s Todti Patthar (Breaking Stones) is far better for an Indian audience than Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper to understand the often-romanticised figure of a woman manual labourer and her daily struggles.
The absence of Nirala’s work in Indian English literature departments could be attributed to the lack of available translations of his works. While the Hindi version is still in print thanks to Rajkamal Prakashan’s reprints in 2007 and 2015, Satti Khanna’s translation of Kulli Bhat as A Life Misspent helps fill that void.
Mohini Gupta is currently the Programme Lead at the newly-launched Vedica Scholars Programme for Women in New Delhi and a former Research Fellow at Sarai, Centre for the Study of Developing Studies