Right at the gate of the fortress
Fought the gallant
Right at the gate of the fortress
This is called the ovum
Fought endless spermatozoa –
blinded, wounded, smitten, and tired
And the arms of a man and woman
Clasped savagely –
Perspiring, sinking and dying.
And right at the gate
Was a battle grimy
A battle blind -
And death was silence
And silence dead.
(…)— Excerpted from "The Romance of the Spermatozoa", 1936
The knight who fought
The knight who won
The knight who is our very birth.
The writer and critic Doodhnath Singh called this poem a perfect poetic synopsis of Kalidas’s 5th century Sanskrit epic poem Kumarasambhava. It was, interestingly, written originally in English by the Hindi writer Bhuvaneshwar, and only later translated into Hindi as Shukranuon Ki Premkatha by another poet Shamsher Singh. The strange image of a madman of Hindi literature writing a poem in English, stripping a Sanskrit classic to its very basics, is perhaps the best introduction to the aesthetics of the avant-garde Bhuwaneshwar.
Born in 1910, or 1912, or 1915, in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Bhuwaneshwar lost his mother when he was about a year old. His father married a woman who, according to some, treated her stepson badly for the rest of his life. Things only got worse after the death of his father and uncle in a childhood already marked with poverty and neglect.
A teacher from Bhuwanershar’s childhood remembered him as a boy of quiet disposition, always writing or reading, something like a philosopher, never getting into any trouble or mischief, a kind of a genius with a secret habit of smoking cigarettes.
Meeting the master
After school, he never enrolled in college, and spent most of his teenage years visiting friends studying in other cities. It was in 1933 that he was discovered by someone who became an unlikely mentor. This was the famous author Premchand, whose literary and social aesthetics could not have been more different than his protégé’s, although it was he who published Bhuwaneshar’s stories in the eminent literary magazine Hans.
A busy period of literary activity followed with the publication of his first book, a collection of one-act plays titled Karwaan, and completion of a collection of English poems, titled Words of Passage. In 1936, at the inaugural speech of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, Premchand declared that Bhuwaneshwar was the future of Hindi literature. In 1937, he wrote one of his most important short stories, “Wolves”:
“… and right at that moment the bulls suddenly paused, moved their tails and started running. I heard a sound from miles away, very faint like the sound of wind moving in ancient ruins –
Hwa aa aa aa aa aa aa aa aa!
‘Wind,’ I said. ‘Wolves,’ my father said with disgust, and pulled the bulls together. They didn’t need to be whipped. They had smelled the wolves and were already running as fast as they could. I could see a black stain stirring at a distance. You could see anything from miles away in that flat barren endless desert. And I could see that black stain move towards us like a cloud.”— Excerpted from "Wolves", short story, translated by Saudamini Deo, originally published in "Hans", 1938
Days of abandonment
For a writer who had expected to always remain overlooked, this literary success was perhaps too much to bear. He soon abandoned writing altogether. Following his literary success, the literary community turned somewhat cold towards him – critic Rajkumar Sharma describes it as a period of cold war against the writer – and none of his writings was published anywhere.
This hostility could partly be explained by the ingrained moral and social codes that Bhuwaneshwar and his works insisted on shattering. His writing questioned the very basis of society, and his sharp eye saw only the hidden element of primal truth, ignoring every thing else as false ornamentation. Premchand wrote, “Bhuwaneshwar has brought to light our secrets, our perversions with such brutality that one is scared to look at them.”
“Rajen: ‘I believe in a god that nourishes and nurtures all human kind.’— Excerpted from "The Degenerate (Devil)", translated by Saudamini Deo
Withdrawal and oblivion
Living as Bhuwaneshwar did on the income from his writing, this literary hostility translated into another period of poverty. He spent his nights either with friends willing to put him up, or in vacant first-class train compartments, before passengers got in the next morning. In 1941-42, the cold war subsided a little, and three of his short stories were published.
He followed this with the brilliant one-act play, The Copper Insect. However, after a marriage proposal that the recipient rejected, and continued financial problems, Bhuwaneshwar soon descended into alcoholism and spent many days living on the benches of railway stations in Lukhnow. Friends tried to help him, and brought him to Allahabad, but an inability to intergate himself into domestic environments soon left him homeless.
In 1955, a friend found Bhuwaneshwar on the street, in a mentally unstable state. When the friend tried to take him home, he reportedly approached other people, complaining of being harassed by a stranger. Bhuwaneshwar spent his remaining days in Allahabad, from where he eventually went missing. There is no definitive date of his death date, but it is assumed that he died sometime in 1957. The last time he was spotted was in Varanasi, near Dashashwamedh Ghat, ill and among beggars.
Bhuwaneshwar may well have written his own life, reminding us that existence, no matter what, will evaporate into the nothingness of an untraceable dream. The wolves of our certain fate are approaching, he said, and we are afraid to look at them. In the end, the wolves will eat us.