For Hindi readers, this should be considered a moment of rejoicing as their two favourite writers –Agyeya and Nirmal Verma – whose significant works have inspired generations of writers and readers alike, have their biographies out this year, and, that too, in English. Not only that, but it also reaffirms the belief that Hindi writers seem to have lost long ago – that Hindi literature is often sidelined by the English writing word.
It is interesting to read Vineet Gill’s Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature in this light. For, a writer like Verma, whose affinity to foreign places or writers made fellow writers often question his Indianness, had the expertise to write in English but never quite did it. Not a bhasha chauvinist in a strict sense, Verma even found merit in the works of Indians who adopted English as their literary language, such as Mulk Raj Anand and RK Narayan. “It is because my stories and novels are a yield of my emotional world, and the language of my inner world is Hindi,” Verma told one of his interviewers.
Another thing that stood out while reading the book is that except for obvious parallels between Verma’s personal and writing life, Gill doesn’t seem to be interested in voyeuristically peeping into the former. That perhaps also seems to be the reason why the title characteristically mentions Verma’s Life in Literature.
He quotes the example of Reiner Stach, whose long list of interviewees for his Kafka biography included even the neighbour who would hear Kafka coughing and spitting from the balcony of his flat. Terming this kind of biographical excavation exciting but futile, Gill believes it comes with the dangers of oversimplification – both of life and literature.
“When the reviewer is done recounting the character’s life, he turns to the other essential: the author’s life. With life so constantly under the spotlight, what suffers is art.”
Critics have often questioned the focus of Verma’s writing – most of his fiction, or even a major chunk of non-fiction, is concerned with the big, existential questions, never touching upon questions of caste, religion, or poverty. Verma reasons, in his critical essay Shabd aur Smriti, that those who view art as a mere mirror to society are underestimating the powers of literature – which has a living breath of its own.
Gill’s study shows us why Verma is often referred to as a writer’s writer in critical studies. What it means to be living a life subsumed with misery and loneliness seems to occupy centre stage in Verma’s works, especially in novels such as Antim Aranya and Ek Chithda Sukh, among others.
As a counterpoint to the widely prevalent concept of narrow realism, Verma believed in antrik yatharthvad, internal realism, which incorporates reality, but as it is seen, processed, and remembered, taking into account the intellectual and ontological aspects of what it means to be a human being.
Gill explores the concerns that guided Verma’s writing quite effectively – whether be it his obsession with Shimla, Delhi or Prague, his fascination for Virginia Woolf, his love for nature writing and travel writing, or the impact of Russian writers, which was much more than that of any Indian writer. (For years I kept searching for the remaining part of Gorky’s novel Mother and I was saddened to find that the ending I’d read was in fact the actual end, as Verma wrote in a diary entry.)
This biography, exceptional as it is owing to Gill’s lucid writing and an unusual format, draws from the writer’s fascination with Verma’s polemical views on world literature in Shabd Aur Smriti, the second-hand copy of which he chanced upon at a roadside bookstall in Delhi. It is interesting to note that Gill never got to meet Verma – which also reaffirms that, in the choice between the art and the artist, Gill has chosen to focus on the art, which might also have saved him from potential disillusionment. (Remember Eunice D’ Souza: “It is best to meet poets in poems”.)
But as much as this book is about Verma, it is equally about Gill too – as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra also mentions in his blurb – about his discovery of writers, his writing pursuits, his critical observations about Verma, and world literature in general:
“One calls to mind the old Aristotelian idea that all literature is the product of two basic plots: a person leaves a familiar setting; a person arrives in an unfamiliar setting. This is the literature of movement. Viewed in this light, every book is a travel book, every writer a travel writer.”
Arguably, these are the best sections of the book, making it much more than just a biography, and inviting us for multiple re-readings.
Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature, Vineet Gill, Vintage.