The atmabodh of Nirmal Verma

India may live or die in its villages but between the villages and the metropolitan global cities lies a vast hinterland of the mofussil world. Nirmal Verma’s life and work is a reminder that our languages need to expand beyond linguistics before we can reclaim what we have lost.

Nirmal Verma's exceptionalism in the world of Hindi letters has been universally acknowledged. One of the most widely translated and well-known writers overseas, Verma has employed subjects and themes that are unique in Hindi fiction. He writes of the existential dilemmas of individuals wandering across a European landscape, humming Mozart, and reflecting on Heidegger; or of bohemian intellectuals of the Indian capital, suffering inarticulate tensions in relationships while pursuing their avant-garde interests in humid, beer-drenched terraces of Delhi. In some measure, this reflects Verma's personal background. With a Masters in History from the capital's St Stephen's College, that cradle for IAS officers and English novelists, Verma could well have been an English writer.

Indeed, like Bankim Chandra Chatterji or Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who started their careers as English writers and left volumes of correspondence and journals in that language while churning out formative prose works in Bangla, language played a complex role in Verma's intellectual life. Accused for long of being a vilayati writer for the 'foreignness' of his themes and characters, Verma started his literary life by writing poems in English and ended his career as a bitter critic of English and the destructive influence of Western modernity on indigenous wholesomeness.

One way to recover that wholesomeness, or what Verma termed as atmabodh, was to write in one's own language. Language, he said, "is the most hopeful guarantee against forgetting". It is the "home of one's being". Swaraj in ideas is closely linked with "the freedom to think and conceptualise in our own languages". Knowledge of Sanskrit, he came to believe, was a prerequisite in any attempt towards understanding the uniqueness of Indian civilisation.

This from a writer whose six novels and fifty-odd stories are almost entirely secular and cosmopolitan and translate with ease into foreign languages. With one novel (Ve Din, Days of Longing in K B Vaid's translation) and four volumes of short stories in English translation, a BBC telefilm on his life and work; translations in French, German and Italian; notices in foreign newspapers and scores of readings and seminars abroad, Verma was one of India's best-known non-English authors outside the country. At first sight then, Verma may seem an apt prototype for Dipesh Chakravarty's call for a new kind of transcendence in relations between the dominant West and the rest — the humanities enriched and enriching individual who would move beyond the conditionalities of decolonisation and post-colonialism in this new global and de-territorialised world.

Bhashas of Bharat
Verma seems best placed to engage with this difference between the global and the local, and his writings are a cross-fertilisation of ideas and themes in many fundamental ways. Yet, Verma's achievement and the limits of his achievement are more complex than that. He is very aware and laudatory of the achievement of a Bankim or a Tagore, constructing a cosmopolitan world view without surrendering their particularity as Bengalis. At the same time, he is also aware that the simplicities of the anti-colonial struggle cannot be replicated in a post-colonial condition of today, what he calls, an "internalisation of hegemony". This position is remarkably similar to the Gandhian formulation about the seductive materiality of the Western civilisation, which though merely an 'idea' had proved highly potent in its grasp. The Gandhian urge to adopt bhasha, Indian languages, for our aatmasamman (self-respect) and Verma's gropings for a resurrected atmabodh, both rest on two essentialised assumptions.

For long, it was believed that there was a dichotomised space within the Subcontinent — Bharat and India. In the essentialised world view of Gandhi, real India lived in villages and since many early Hindi writers evoked this pastoral, idyllic world, they were held to be more authentic representatives of India. This is a position that has had a long afterlife. Take a contemporary critic like Meenakshi Mukherjee: "Without trying to privilege ethnographic documentation in fiction [the specifics of caste, locales, names] over other aspects, nor insisting that mimetic representation should always be the desired narrative mode," Mukherji writes that, "in the English texts of India there may be a greater pull towards a homogenisation of reality, an essentialising of India, a certain flattening out of the complicated and conflicting contours, the ambiguous and shifting relations that exist between individuals and groups in a plural society." When you add to that the uncertainty over the target audience, this attenuation gets further complicated.

The second assumption is that Indian 'truths' can be best expressed in a language that is 'Indian', in the sense that the language has roots, echoes and reverberations of an organic cultural life that is autochthonous of political development and strategies. Indian literature, written in Indian languages, will find resonance not just with history and with other kinds of cultural productions (song, drama, music, films) but will also be more accessible to the 'subalterns' and will be, therefore, ipso facto more demotic and therefore democratic than English — the language of the power elites and the aspirational language of 'progress'.

In the case of Hindi, these assumptions have been greatly challenged by demographic changes and by Alok Rai. The latter interrogates the rise of modern Hindi and concludes that it is deeply implicated in the discourse of majoritarian nationalism and upper caste privileges. Merely using Hindi is not a liberating exercise especially when one takes into account the weakening of several well-developed literary traditions in the present-day Hindi belt such as Braj, Bhojpuri or Maithili, which had to be downgraded before Hindi could find its place as the pan-Indian language. For the vast majority of rural residents of the belt, Hindi is almost as much of an imposition as English was for urban, middle class citizens. Over the last hundred years, generations have grown, and continue to grow, who have had to learn Khari Boli Sanskritised Hindi, the language in which Verma writes, even though it was supposedly their 'mother tongue'. In that sense, Verma's writings are doubly removed from the everyday world of the Indian subaltern.

Language and mofussil
At the same time, Verma the essayist is far removed from Verma the cosmopolitan, world citizen, writer. While admiring Borges and Kafka and Proust, he has consistently criticised the Europeanisation of India in the 19th century. The valorisation of all things Western and the devaluation of all indigenous ways of knowledge have turned us into caricatures, he believed, so that we are neither of the tradition that is ours nor are in the tradition that we chase. This tearing apart of our selves where words like 'culture' and 'religion' connote either too little or an excess of their traditional understanding in Southasia, has today created a situation where our modern intellectuals and leaders wholly jettison the past so that figures like Tulsidas or Jayasi no longer speak to them. It is then that the moral fibre of our universe is left to the "putrid streams of a Rajnish or a Sai Baba."

Yet, there had been a big change — the shift, as Dipesh Chakravarty puts it, from a territorialised decolonisation to a dialogical decolonisation. In the initial years of the formation of modern Hindi, its writers and thinkers played a leading part in the anti-colonial movement and then in the developmentalist nation-building era that followed. Writers like Verma himself and others such as Agyeya, Raghuvir Sahay or Urdu poets like Firaq or Jafri, occupied the very summit of the social, political life in India due to their proximity to the ruling classes, who read and admired them. They also commanded countrywide constituencies, substantial in their numbers and influence at the urban as well as mofussil level. Merely 20 years ago, semi-literary Hindi magazines such as Dharmyug commanded a circulation running into lakhs.

However, the dismantling of the Nehruvian consensus that coincided with liberalisation and the arrival of satellite television culture has today rendered this visible world of Hindi letters so effete that there is not one magazine whether devoted to sports, entertainment or literature that can boast of a circulation beyond 25,000. The democratisation of higher education has no doubt produced a much greater number of neo-literates than before and perhaps that is why newspaper circulation is booming, but there is little solace otherwise. This may be why, today, the dominance of the English writer seems so complete. Devoid of its earlier liberal and civilising import and reduced to a more instrumental value, English is now becoming even more indigenous to Southasia, with its growing use in offices, businesses, media, entertainment and call centres.

Repertoire of seeing
In this very normalisation of English, however, there are grave dangers ahead for bhasha writers. For at least another 25 years, the number of people who arrive into Hindi would be far greater than those who learn English, whether in 'convent' schools or through English-speaking courses. For these mofussil neo-literates, English is as much a barrier as an opportunity. Regardless of its role in social mobility and global connections, however, it fragments the literary culture in such a way that one becomes Indian to the extent that one uses English. As a corollary, the world of Hindi letters, as that of other vernaculars, becomes parochial and constrictive. This poses obvious problems for linkages between cities and villages and concomitantly for social and political mobilisation. How would we conduct a mass politics in the absence of a mass language?

That is where Nirmal Verma, regardless of his affiliation with Hindutva, becomes important for us. He may have identified with the BJP or its version of Hindutva but he had no truck with the mechanised and powerful India that Hindutva proper conjures up, seeking to ape the West. Verma exhorted Sanskrit, but in his writings he used a simple, even colloquial and Urduised form of Hindi. In thinking about India or Indian civilisation, he often collapsed the distinction between ideas and the materialities which shape them, between thought and people, between custom and oppression, and between spirituality and hierarchy, but his was essentially an anti-colonial vision that wanted to resurrect an indigenous cosmogony as well as cosmology. There are interesting parallels between Nirmal Verma and Mohammed Hasan Askari, the gigantic figure of Urdu criticism. Askari, too, began his political career as a Progressive and was thoroughly well-versed with European (especially French) literature, but his contestation and resistance to the 'Europeanisation of the earth in the nineteenth century' eventually led him to espouse the cause of a Pakistani and then an Islamic literature.

Similar concerns have moved thinkers and writers in many parts of the non-Western world for over a century, and it was for the same reason that Marxism appeared as such a nationalising ideology in our parts. It allowed us to condemn ourselves at the same time as condemning imperialism. Whether we implicate ourselves or exculpate ourselves however, the political paths that we follow, especially in Southasia, leave us with two choices. The pedagogic variety of the elite reformer — Nehru in politics, the high art partisanship of Agyeya; or the desi mode of a man of the people —  Gandhi in politics, Nagarjuna in poetry, Renu in fiction.

India may live or die in its villages but between the villages and the metropolitan global cities lies a vast hinterland of the mofussil world. That hinterland can only be addressed in bhasha but it would not be enough to use bhasha. One would also have to adopt desi modes of other kinds, which consists of an entire repertoire of ways of seeing, interacting, being. Nirmal Verma's life and work is a reminder that our languages need to expand beyond linguistics before we can reclaim what we have lost.

You and Nirmal Verma are considered the exact anti-theses of each other, in terms of your writing, approach to writing, and social commitment.

The thing is that one of the ways the Nai Kahani differed from earlier writings was that writers inspired by Marxism had no conception of the individual; rather it was an abstract man. On the other hand, there were writings of Jainendra, Ilachand Joshi and others where there was only the individual, without any social concern. We were advocating an individual who would both be independent as well as a social being.

Nirmal only took the individual, which gradually got de-linked from society. The context around his individuals is a very limited social space, even his interior world is not as wide or multi-layered as say in Dostoyevsky. Therefore, inevitably what we find in Verma is a repetition, of feelings, sensibilities, loneliness, which he tried to glorify and turn into solitude, and he is wholly immersed in that. The same four or five characters, obsessed with their own problems, the same concern with the past. For instance in Ek Chhithhra Sukh, there is a character, a playwright, Nitti Bhai, who commits suicide in a bathtub by cutting his wrist. I remember that scene very well, the bathtub, the blood spilling out. But that is the only thing I remember in that novel, I do not remember Nitti Bhai at all…it's the visual element. Verma created very good visuals, perhaps because his own brother is such a renowned abstract painter. Sometimes I feel that he paints on paper, but it is this that differentiates us, the attitude towards society.

But both of you seem to regard the writer as some kind of a soothsayer in a largely illiterate society.

That is true, but it is your attitude towards language that matters. What happens sometimes, for example in Urdu, is that the language and the expression can sometimes carry you away and you forget about the content. That is specially true about Nirmal.

Hindi writers tend to be divided into progressives and modernists but there are desi writers like Renu, Nagarjuna or Premchand, and then urbane/bourgeois writers such as Agyeya.

Sometimes I think, and there are others who share this view, that we the urban people, our concerns, problems, priorities are very different from the majority of the village- dwelling population. This was sometimes regarded as the India vs Bharat divide, but I wonder that what we call Bharat is not a remnant of the feudal era — their languages, idioms, sayings, practices are all feudal. Admittedly, the feudal society produced great works of art and culture, but the assumption that only writing about the rural people can be called 'real writing' is something I cannot agree with. Today, some 30-40 percent of our people live in cities, have a different sensibility, and are literate. Writing about them is truer for us than visiting villages and write about them as tourists. But yes, the problems of an affluent society are wholly different from that of a developing society, and we cannot afford to be completely cut off. It is our destiny to link up with society. They, the Westerners, can celebrate their ennui, boredom, spiritualism and so on at the personal level. At the same time, the spiritual figures we celebrate are wholly divorced from society and have nothing to teach us. Verma celebrated the sensibility and concerns of the affluent class.

You have labeled Verma's vision of India as being orientalist, but he also questioned and contested Europe's colonialism.

This is what Edward Said says, that this whole reconstruction of the glory of ancient India was a part of the orientalising discourse of the colonising power. Yes, Verma criticises orientalists like Wiliam Jones but he is willing to use the texts they identified and created as being central to us.

I am suggesting that there is an anti-colonial vision in Verma.

Yes, he is against the racism and dominance of the white races against the rest of the world. There are contradictions in every writer and you find them in Verma too. He glorifies ancient, pre-colonial India but he does not acknowledge its inequalities and inequities at all, and is rather blind to caste, gender and other kinds of oppression. He is very conformist when it comes to our traditions and very critical of Europe at the same time. He said nothing about the Staines murder, about Gujarat…

His support for the BJP was undeniable, but he disagreed with political Hindutva and its mechanised, industrialised strong state dreams.

He opposed the fact that India should be modernised and industrialised not because it was coming from Europe but because it was destroying our roots and traditions. Technology, dams, industries, powerhouses, etc would secularise our society and he did not like that. He was not so much against colonisation as against the emasculation of Hindutva. We often approached modernisation or Marxism after reading texts and it was not something that emerged from the cauldron of our own experiences. Therefore, there was something romantic about our quest and urge and invariably romanticism culminates in spiritualism, take Amrita Pritam, take Sumitranandan Pant, take Verma — they all ended as spiritualists of some kind. Aurobindo, beginning as a bomb-making revolutionary, ends as a saint.

There is a particular thing with Hindi and with Urdu where the social and political problems surrounding them are integral to the way we think about them. There is an anxiety of existence that refuses to go away.

See, the other bhasha languages, Marathi, Tamil and others are geographically delimited. There is a geographical region that brings them together and into being, and a historical process that gives them identity. It is their strength and also their weakness. In Bangla, for instance, nobody knows what is happening in the literature in the rest of India or outside India. There is snobbery there, but this is not true for Hindi or Urdu. They have centers in Hyderabad, Muradabad, Calcutta. This dispersal gives them universality as well as a certain weakness. I maintain that Hindi, Urdu and English are languages in our country that do not have a geographical center; they are rootless and therefore pan-Indian. We say you speak very good Hindi or Urdu or English, I doubt anyone says you speak very good Marathi or Gujarati to each other. Because those are learnt languages, acquired languages. We speak Bundeli or Bhojpuri or Magahi at home but we learn Hindi and Urdu and English. English is our common enemy but also a common source of learning, modernity and communication. It is our necessity as well as our rival.

~ Mahmood Farooqui is a writer and performer in Delhi.

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