Within a month of his arrest, Vatsyayan had begun writing. He wrote straight through his incarceration, despite the subhuman conditions of imprisonment and occasional solitary confinement. He wrote on whatever he could lay his hands on, pouring poetry, diary entries, stories, essays and translations out into school exercise books and the back of discarded tribunal proceedings papers.

Vatsyayan was also able to explore a new passion for pastel crayons, often drawing self-portraits with evocative titles like ‘His First Offence’. Slowly, he began smuggling his writing out with the help of a fellow defendant on bail or a visitor. And books and journals were smuggled in.

In the second year of his imprisonment, a door to the literary world opened to him in the form of Jainendra Kumar, a writer often credited with introducing psychological insight to the modern Hindi novel. Six years older than Vatsyayan, Jainendra was an established writer and Gandhian, and was close to Premchand – modern Hindustani literature’s so-called ‘Upanyas Samrat’ (Emperor of Novelists) – and had already served time in prison for his efforts in the independence movement as a Congress party activist. Jainendra was also friendly with the well-connected Vimal Prasad Jain, Vatsyayan’s co-defendant who was notorious for boycotting the tribunal proceedings.

In late 1932, one of Vatsyayan’s stories reached Jainendra through Vimal Prasad or his brother. The former scribbled his review – ‘It is good, very good’ – on the torn-off margin of a newspaper. Soon he was deluged by Vatsyayan’s writings, and they began a regular correspondence in a mix of Hindi and English. Jainendra, who lived in Delhi, attended a hearing, where he saw Vatsyayan, in fetters, for the first time. They managed to have a long conversation in the courtroom and Jainendra was impressed with the younger man’s ‘cultured, soft-spoken and educated’ demeanour.

He was the young revolutionary’s window to the Hindi world. The two discussed literature, literary gossip, schisms of the literary world and life in general. They were frank about each other’s work. Intensely hungry for feedback, Vatsyayan sent every story and essay he wrote to Jainendra for comment. Even a slightly delayed response had him restless; ‘I don’t want to believe my own opinion,’ he wrote once.

Sometime in 1932, Jainendra took two of Vatsyayan’s stories to Premchand, the leading light of Progressive literature and eventually president of the Progressive Writers’ Association, in Kashi. At the time, Premchand was editing his monthly, Hans, and had recently taken over Jagran, among the first generation of Hindi weeklies, which was still trying to find its feet. Both journals were known for their intellectual heft, and were occasionally slapped with short-term publication bans when some story or the other came under the colonial scanner. Financially, however, Jagran and Hans brought Premchand constant grief and a long line of creditors.

Two of Vatsyayan’s stories passed the tough standard that Premchand had set for Jagran. One was highly political, and Premchand joked that Jainendra ought to organise Rs 5000 to deal with the imposition of a government fine or even a temporary ban if he wanted it published. He was willing to print the other one.

But there was a problem. The story did not bear the name of its writer. When asked, Jainendra said the writer is ‘agyeya’, unknowable. Premchand deemed this an apt byline.

‘Amar Vallari’ (Immortal Vine) was published under this new pen name in the 5 October 1932 issue of Jagran, which had on its cover a picture of Paul von Hindenberg, the German president who preceded Hitler. The story’s second instalment appeared the next week. A remarkable debut, ‘Amar Vallari’ was an account of the life of a sacred tree that watched hopeful devotees worship it through the seasons.

After its success, Premchand demanded more stories from Agyeya via Jainendra. ‘The view here is Agyeya’s story is very good,’ he wrote to Jainendra. ‘As for his poems, the opinion is the emotion is superior but he lacks deftness. People say his stories and prose-poems are better than his poems.’

When the clipping of Jagran reached Agyeya, he was disappointed with the moniker but could say little about the decision, coming as it did from the great Premchand.4 When Jainendra told him he had suggested the name, Agyeya said he already had a nickname – Srivatsa, which meant ‘elephant’, among other things. ‘If you look at me you will realise how apt the name is,’ he said.

In hindsight, the name ‘Agyeya’ was fortuitously appropriate. So much of his life involved treading the grey area between absolute positions; much remained unknowable about the writer throughout his lifetime, and that is still true. Born with the tedious name Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan Sastri, he went from Sachcha the student to Vatsyayan the revolutionary, and now added Agyeya, the writer, to his identities.

The name added an air of mystery, fuelling conversations about him among the literary set. Agyeya’s circle was expanding and he began corresponding with other writers as well. Soon, his fellow inmates found out that Agyeya was their own Vatsyayan, much to their excitement. Dhanwantri in particular helped further Agyeya’s success, sending his writing, like the essay ‘Vargwad Ke Siddhant’ (Principles of Class), to people for comment.408

Jainendra and Miriam Benade were both instrumental in the development of Agyeya’s literary tastes. The Benades had lent him some books and copies of Harper’s magazine in Lahore. Agyeya was well fed with access to Indian journals too, and formed strong likes and dislikes. He thought the quality of Saraswati had suffered of late, and read the monthly Vishal Bharat, but dismissed Jagran, despite having been published for the first time in its pages.

Agyeya could also nurse a grudge – for example, against the iconic journal Madhuri, which accepted but never published four of his stories. He received no reply to his demand that they be returned. His blacklist included frontline Hindi journals such as Veena, Sudha and Chand.

Agyeya was insatiably curious about authors’ influences and readings. Jainendra was often at the receiving end of his endless questions. Which works of Anatole France, John Galsworthy and Thomas Hardy had he read? What was his favourite foreign fiction? Were the last two stories of Vatayan (Jainendra’s collected stories) written in jail, and when?

He also offered up a disarming confession: ‘I have stolen a title of one of your stories – “Apne, Apne Bhagya” [Everyone Has Their Own Fate] – and begun a story with the same name.’ Perhaps he was referring to his story ‘Purush ka Bhagya’ (The Fate of Man), published 1940.

The two sustained each other creatively, sharing reading recommendations. Agyeya’s suggestions were eclectic, shaped by his homeschooling and father’s library. At the top of his list was Alexander Kuprin’s Yama: The Pit, the controversial tale of a woman who owned a brothel. Despite the story being about a bhrast (corrupt) subject, Agyeya felt it was realistic, unlike the works of Emile Zola and other French writers who explored similar conventionally ‘objectionable’ themes.

Agyeya contrasted Kuprin’s treatment of the brothel with a ‘pornographic’ book by Hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ – likely a reference to Dilli ka Dalal (Pimp of Delhi). If only Ugra had read Kuprin, Agyeya argued, Hindi literature might have been saved from certain afflictions when it came to describing such subjects. Agyeya exhorted Jainendra to get Kuprin’s Yama translated into Hindi. (A few years later, Jainendra published Tyagpatra, his own widely acclaimed novel about a ‘fallen woman’, which has been compared to French writer Andre Gide’s La Porte Étroite.)

Agyeya also recommended Red Lily by Anatole France, and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, in which a witness investigates the lives of five men killed in a rope-bridge collapse in Peru. Agyeya was impressed by Wilder’s narrative style, finding Hindi novels lacking in comparison. After reading it, he felt Indians did not possess a ‘serious, scientific and experimental attitude’.

John Galsworthy too was among his favourite authors. Agyeya admired Galsworthy’s criticism of bourgeoise life, written without a trace of radicalism. A bourgeois himself, Galsworthy painted an objective view of his class: ‘They are true life even through a very limited, non-permanent, non-universal life,’ Agyeya noted. He contended that no one could become progressive reading Galsworthy, but every progressive must read him.

As for Russian literature, he thought Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution – a revelation to him – ought to be read alongside modern Russian works, like Leonid Andreyev’s The Red Laugh, Alexander Blok’s Twelve, Boris Pilnyak’s Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffee. These books were available in English translations through the Hardinge Library series or in Masterpieces of Russian Drama edited by George Rapall Noyes.

While drawing inspiration from European titles, Agyeya continued his own experiments with translation, though not necessarily literary translation. He was keen to publish a Hindi version of the Russian book ABC of Trade Unionism for Colonies, but proposed deleting or modifying a problematic chapter on running illegal trade union movements under repressive regimes. He also claimed to have translated other subversive texts for pamphlets, sometimes moderating them to avoid police attention. There was a book on the history of revolution, but between an institute in Hitler’s Germany holding translation rights, a communist publisher in the Soviet Union and a translator sitting in an Indian jail, the project never got off the ground.

Writer, Rebel, Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya

Excerpted with permission from Writer, Rebel, Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya, Akshaya Mukul, Vintage.