Reading Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya, Akshay Mukul’s colossal biography of Agyeya, a stalwart of Hindi Literature, was like entering the fascinating world of my literary forefathers. With Agyeya at the center of this socio-cultural and literary cosmos, I got to see intimate glimpses of so many names I have grown up reading passionately but could never meet in person. Mostly because most of these writers were either dead before I was born or were gone later, while I was still years away from foraying into my own reading journey.

Agyeya’s pulsating universe

Right from Premchand to Jainendra Kumar to Phanishwar Nath Renu to Nemi Chandra Jain to Muktibodh to Shamsher Bahadur Singh to Malayaj to Nirmal Verma and Namvar Singh – anyone who has been of some serious significance in the world of Hindi Literature in the decades around independence is there in the biography. For this reason alone, this 800 pages long epic book is an absolute joy to read. My reading experience was an adventure which has left me elated and in daze.

There are scenes of Hindi giants no less than Hazari Prasad Dwivedi taking walks in flower-gardens with Agyeya, discussing plants with the passion of love. And then there are scenes where despite juggling with his own chaotic work-world, a mature Agyeya is making time for getting the PHD submissions of deadline-distressed younger Hindi writers typed in Allahabad. Not stopping here, he is also then proof-reading those submissions and even arranging for a car to send off the younger writer to Banaras, all for the sake of ensuring a timely submission by a junior.

There are scenes where a very young Agyeya, locked in prison as a undertrial for his rebellion against the British empire, is having dreams with explicit sexual overtones. And he is boldly noting down what Mukul calls ‘his nocturnal fantasies’ – out of all places, on the back of his court documents! There are scenes of long and often poignant, correspondences of Agyeya with an astonishing range of people – from Maithili Sharan Gupt to Muktibodh. The concerns that these letters betray give us a rare glimpse into the worries, delusions, disagreements, insecurities and more than often, into the vulnerabilities that marked the lives of some of the most brilliant minds that shaped India.

It is remarkable details like these through which Mukul humanizes his subject, expands the empathy of the reader and turns Agyeya’s world into a real, pulsating, authentic universe for all of us. A vulnerable universe which was often full of a multitude of ironic contradictions and a few significant triumphs.

With the page count of only notes and references running to 200, Mukul has clearly handled staggering amount of research. One can only imagine the challenges of creating this hefty biography largely out of Agyeya’s papers – a massive ‘twenty trunks, few cartons and two almirahs worth of material’. Though the subject himself is often considered a daunting figure in Hindi literature and the endless sifting through his life-papers might look intimidating to some, but Mukul comes across with flying colours.

He has clearly written the book with passion, I could feel the undercurrent of that passion on the pages while reading the text. But what’s remarkable here is that while being at it, Mukul is able to maintain the dispassion and precision of a surgeon. He is empathetic towards his subject but never goes overboard. He is not only sensitive but obsessed with details, sub-plots and side stories – which eventually proves significant in giving the reader a fleshed out and solid reading experience.

Mukul’s nuanced, subtle and restrained approach also comes into play when he is dealing with the many literary and political battels surrounding Agyeya. Be it the allegations around Agyeya being called a CIA agent or him being painted as a reactionary pro-right intellectual – Mukul meticulously investigates through a maze of papers and busts all the myths – but he is never loud and lets facts do all the talking. What moved me most was the way Mukul treats the women in Agyeya’s life. Santosh, Kripa, Indumati, Kapila and Ila – he is considerate, empathetic and has genuinely listened to all of them via reading their papers as well as their circumstances.

A cautionary tale

While growing up in my regular university days circles, I remember being fed on the spiraling narrative of the almost mystical battle between a progressive pro-people Muktibodh and an individualistic bourgeois Agyeya. I used to feel stifled by this constant stress on choosing a side – even before being given an opportunity to read both writers and make up my own mind. It did not took me long to realize that this was a manufactured battle that the Hindi literary world has been dragging on for decades and was now imposing it on the younger generation as well. I always saw this whole thing as sort of a trap which puts readers (and writers) in camps and hence limit them and the possibilities of relating to and responding to literature.

Hence this biography of Agyeya came to me as – what now feels as the authentic back story of the most historical feud in my own extended (literary) family. After years of living through the torture of seeing this boxing and limiting of the lives and works of my beloved writers – I could finally read a fact-based account of how did all this started, to begin with. It was a relief to know that the two writers themselves were sincere and respectable towards each other for large parts of their lives. The section dealing with Muktibodh’s death in particularly poignant and moved me to tears.

The descriptions of the ideologically divided and emotionally fractured Hindi world were sad to read. The constant fighting and the exchange of blistering letters between numerous important Hindi writers of that era, often left me disappointed. It is true that Agyeya was relentlessly attacked by the ‘progressives’, but more than often, he himself showed little to zero restraint in attacking them back.

I read the biography during a course of one week and throughout felt a weird kind of grief while encountering these otherwise sensitive Hindi poets and writers – fighting bitterly among themselves on the pages. This went on even while India was at the threshold of attaining independence. While the whole country was shaking through waves of violence, Hindi writers were fighting among themselves to decide who was progressive and who was not. In this sense, Mukul has created in this biography what I personally like to call ‘a cautionary tale of what not to do’. For the same reason, this can prove to be a crucial read for younger generations.

The women in Agyeya’s life

Kripa Sen, Agyeya’s secret lover from the 1940s, is one of the many feats of this biography. I connected to Kripa so much that I feel I will carry her with me forever. In the book she comes across as a great lover– and here I am not writing the word ‘great’ in a sense of hyperbole. The lover in Kripa has a Sufi heart and which comes straight from the legacy of Meer and Majnu. She was a remarkable woman with extraordinary capacities for sustaining love and the wounds that one sometimes earns while being in love. Hindi literature should be thankful to Mukul for introducing us to Kripa, who would otherwise have slipped through the pages of History.

The sections dealing with the women in Agyeya’s life had an undercurrent of the impending grief which kept hovering over the love. But here, grief was not only limited to the loss of love. As Mukul puts it, “His (Agyeya’s) relationships with women – each of them talented in her own right – tended to be extractive, whether financially or for creative gain.” His constant infidelity with zero guilt about how he was treating the women in his live was painful to read through.

In his book titled Wagner: The Terrible Man and his Truthful Art, American-Canadian author M Owen Lee addresses the historic literary question we all struggle with – How can a seriously flawed person produce true and great art?

I do not believe in moral judgements as my own ambivalence about these sensitive questions often overwhelms me. But still, even if I take a considerate view, the patriarchal and insensitive approach of Agyeya towards the women in his life remains so glaringly evident on the record now, that it’s impossible to ignore. Here too, the biography is a cautionary tale.

Agyeya, the writer

One of my favorite sections in the biography moves around Agyeya and Phanishwar Nath Renu. The most eminent Hindi novelist from Bihar, Renu’s letters to Agyeya are both tender and poetic. During the 1966 drought in Bihar, Agyeya went to report on the ground along with a young and enthusiastic Renu. Meeting common people and visiting villages while reporting in the good old school manner, the two produced some seminal longform reportage for Dinaman magazine. Agyeya called out the administration for the pathetic situation in the state – but he did not spared the public intellectuals of Bihar too.

The most poignant pages of the biography details the last months and eventual demise of Renu – who passed away in April 1977, right after emergency was lifted. Renu was a passionate critique of emergency and was locked in a jail in Bihar for a long time. Later, when emergency was lifted, he was out on Parole. But despite being gravely sick due to abdominal complications, Renu kept ‘raring to campaign for the opposition’. Constantly in and out of hospital, he wanted to delay his surgery till fresh elections could happen and the new government is formed. But before that, he had to be taken to Patna Medical College where he died at the age of 56. While reading this I was overwhelmed with grief – thinking about how much we all owe to selfless writers and public intellectuals like Renu, who risked their lives to ensure that the democratic values of our constitution are not compromised.

On a biography spree, I finished reading five writer-biographies this year. Among all five, Agyeya’s biography is the one which has least number of pages devoted to the writer’s work in fiction and poetry. Hence the book is fittingly titled The Many Lives of Agyeya. Literature was just one of Agyeya’s many passions. As much as it can, the biography provides deep insights into his works – especially on ‘Shekhar: Ek Jeevani’. But more often than not, Agyeya is either planning a new magazine, planning for a weekly, heading a daily newspaper or preparing for one of his incessant foreign travels. Besides taking multiple fellowships and long teaching assignments abroad, lecturing around the world and organizing literary events were his big passion. It’s a surprise, perhaps an educational one too – that despite leading such a multifaceted life, Agyeya was able to write and publish as much as he did.

Writer, Rebel, Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya, Akshaya Mukul, Vintage.