The dark jacket copy of the 2022 edition of the Hindi book Ek Jogan Zindagi bears an image of two people: a man and a woman sitting next to each other. The light, resembling a renaissance painting, falls on their faces, illuminating their visage, while the military green and maroon of their clothing almost disappear into the black background. They are smiling, looking into the camera lens.

It can be deduced from their clothing that the image was taken during winter, or perhaps somewhere up in the mountains. Nothing besides the two figures is visible. Their gaze, and consequently, the image itself, seems fixed and timeless, as if these two people are looking at us from another dimension that cannot be reached. They are Snowa Borno and Sainni Ashesh.

Snowa Borno appeared like a mysterious dream on the Hindi literary scene in 2008 with the publication of her short stories in prominent Hindi literary magazines. Almost 20 stories written by Snowa Borno were published within one year in publications like Hans, Pahal, Vagarth, Naya Gyanodaya, India Today, India News, Sarita, Outlook, Kathakram, Pakhi, Vasudha, Vipasha, Iravati, Shesh, Parvat Raga etc. One of her memoirs won the first prize in a writing competition organised by Vagarth and her pieces were published in newspapers like Jansatta, Bhaskar, and Amar Ujwala.

This constant stream of publications created an uproar in Hindi literature, with everyone simultaneously intrigued and moved by her writing and identity. Suraj Paliwal, the noted Hindi critic and writer, compared Borno’s story “Mujhe Ghar Tak Chhod Aaye” to Phanishwar Nath Renu’s “Teesri Kasam” and Guleri’s “Usne Kaha Tha”. One of the most celebrated Hindi critics, Namwar Singh, declared he had never read such a stunning story in any language and that there was a need to understand the writing deeply, for new meanings would emerge in the future.

A photo of authors Snowa Borno and Sainni Ashesh on the back cover of the book. Image courtesy: Saudamini Deo.

European writer in Hindi literary landscape?

However, despite the enthusiasm with which her writing was received, there were also concerns and doubts brewing on the Hindi literary landscape. There were questions about how a seemingly European woman came to write fluently in Hindi and what exactly her connection to India was. Did she grow up in the country, did she live here, or was she merely one of the many tourists in the Himalayan region?

Who, exactly, was Snowa Borno? The mystery was exacerbated by the fact that no one had seen or met Snowa Borno, and neither was she interested in being in the public sphere, despite her stunning literary success. She had a Facebook page, through which she sometimes communicated directly with her readers. She once published a photo of herself and wrote, “I am deeply grateful to the readers for appreciating my stories and poems. My real aim is something other rather than literary creation. For some time, I am with my mentor Sainni Ashesh and all of you.” However, the Facebook page also disappeared after some time.

In 2015, two years after the death of Rajendra Yadav, the editor of the iconic Hindi literary magazine Hans, Amar Ujala published excerpts of his correspondence with Snowa Borno. Yadav never met Borno and his letters gave the impression that he didn’t entirely believe in the idea of the almost mythical Snowa Borno either even as he wrote letters to her.

In one of the letters, he wrote, “In the year 1960-61, I stayed with a friend of mine in Johnson Orchard for about two months in Raison (Katrain) between Kullu-Manali. This place was about two and a half kilometres before Naggar in Kullu. Has its name changed? After a while, I will schedule your story ‘Bardo’ … Hope you are as healthy and happy as you look in the photo. This time this picture will go with the story ‘Bardo’.” In another of the letters, Yadav asks Borno not to insist on publishing a story written by Sainni Ashesh. He wrote to Borno, “If possible, I will publish his story in your name.”

A nom de plume?

Rajendra Yadav, then, perhaps believed what many others were thinking – that Snowa Borno was an identity created by the Hindi writer Sainni Ashesh, and it was actually he who was writing these stories. There was a rumour that Sainni Ashesh had used old pictures of one of his friends or of an unidentified tourist to create the persona of Borno. Even those books of Snowa Borno that were eventually published bore Ashesh’s name as co-writer.

Sainni Ashesh, though, maintained he was only a friend and co-writer. In TV interview in 2018, he said Borno is one of the volunteers at the trekking serives company Mystic Himalayas, and that she was, in fact, present in the room when he was interviewed him. But he clarified that neither he nor Borno were interested in unveiling the mystery. He said during the interview that if someone were to believe there was only him and no Snowa Borno, or only Snowa Borno and no him, they would like it to keep it thay way. He said, “I don’t know if it’s a scam or a miracle. We will have to ask the leaders of literature what they will do with any proof when two people unite as one mind?”

So, who exactly is Snowa Borno? A writer uninterested in revealing her identity? A woman gauging the depth of misogyny on seeing her writing being attributed to a man? Sainni Ashesh? Or are Snowa Borno and Sainni Ashesh writing together like the characters from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love? Is it just a literary experiment or something more? At the moment, we do not know. Perhaps we never will.