“Fish are swimming in darkness, leaping to grasp each other. But there are no arms. Fish are desperate to cling to each other, but there are no feet. 

Darkness contracts, intensifies. Fish come near. They shrink. They stick to each other. They remain clung to each other. Time stops. Place is erased. Characters end. There are two blue fish, darkness, and nothing. 

One fish says, ‘Come nearer, and drink me from your lips. Insert your tongue in my mouth. Keep rubbing me with your body. I am dying…’

The second fish says, ‘I am dying…break my bones. Nibble on my lips with your teeth. Kill me…I want to die.’”

— from "Dead Fish", a novel by Rajkamal Chowdhary

To speak of Hindi literature is to step on a potential minefield: to describe it without Urdu, Hindustani, Persian, Sanskrit or even English is to blatantly ignore history, to read its literature as marginalised is to overlook the position of privilege it occupies in the Indian subcontinent, and yet to mention only its privilege would be to brutally neglect its constant exclusion. It’s the complicated equation of identity politics.

But if we were to keep these large, unanswered questions aside for a moment, for any attempt at answering them sufficiently would be to enter an abyss as large as human history, one cannot argue that there are writers, poets, artists whose talents far outweigh their fame. Like secret back alleys in an old city, they are not completely forgotten, but exist only for the few in the know, far from where the traffic is. Rajkamal Chaudhary is one of them.

A complicated life

Named Manindra Narayan Chaudhary after his birth in 1929 at Rampur Haveli in northern Bihar, his childhood was marked by a strictly religious upbringing, the early death of his mother, and the subsequent tensions with his father who married a much younger woman. It was perhaps in high school in Nawada that he first started writing poetry in Maithili. He then moved to the capital Patna to study an arts programme, where painting briefly interested him, but was quickly distracted sufficiently by a love-affair to move to Bhagalpur, where he enrolled in another programme. It was finally in Gaya that he completed his education.

He had also married his first wife Shashikanta Choudhary by then, and despite an immense dislike for routine, started working for the government at the Patna Secretariat. It was around this time that he decided to also write in Hindi, which promised a wider readership and more money than Maithili.

Choudhary was eventually dismissed from his government job on account of a long absence, one of the reasons for which was an affair with Savitri Sharma. This brief relationship lasted about a year-and-a-half, including an eight-month long marriage, which broke down (depending on the source) either after his romantic involvement with his wife’s niece, or over an incident involving a platinum ring.

He returned to his first wife, and moved to Calcutta, where he got involved with numerous women, and came into close contact with the Bengali avant-garde literary movement piloted by The Hungry Generation.

“A dead person 
Any dead person 
is not just a dead person 
More poetic 
More beautiful
than a dog crushed by a government vehicle
or a cat’s bloated body on a lake
A dead person 
is more erotic
This is what an unknown woman, seeing me lying unconscious on a hospital bed, 
Used to say
in condolence.”

— From “Freedom Episode”, a poem by Rajkamal Chaudhary

Chaudhury remained in Calcutta for another six years, working both as a translator and a writer (under his pen name Rajkamal and many other male and female pseudonyms). He also founded a literary magazine, Raagrang, in 1960, which he published until 1963, when he left Calcutta for Patna. In Patna, he worked as an editor for Bharat Mail for some time, after which he devoted his time entirely to his writing. In 1966, he fell ill with doctors suspecting lymphosarcoma. After a short-lived recovery, he succumbed to the illness on June 19, 1967 at the age of 37.

Questioning the virtues

Rajkamal Chaudhury wrote 11 novels, seven short story collections, and hundreds of poems in Maithili and Hindi. Translations of his writing are rare, if any. His writing style remained mostly experimental, with its themes ranging from the human need for financial and emotional security, hypocrisy rampant in interpersonal relationships, false morality espoused by the upper strata of society, same-sex relationships, and the immense gap visible in the Indian rural-urban divide.

His dislike for the rich and the privileged is palpable from his works, and his frank sexual depictions reveal his need to question the so-called virtues of what still remains a largely conservative society. However, in his lifetime and afterwards, he is not just an experimental but also a controversial creative figure, owing especially to his views on women and man-woman relationships, and his drug and alcohol addiction.

His unconventional life and unconventional writing strictly places him outside the mainstream, and so it would not be wrong to say that Rajkamal Chaudhary remains as uncategorisable as the language he wrote in. His writing is a potential minefield.

“It was your last Calcutta night, and so many memorable symbols were being erected in your mind. Flowers on shrines, endless peace, innumerable boats covering the nudity of dead trees and Hooghly – Belur on this side, Dakshineshwar on the other, fish (or snakes?) in its water? … the fish are swimming in the currents of water, Anima Didi! But they are real fish, not colourful fish painted with Pelikan watercolours on expensive art paper. And your eyes cannot truly distinguish between the two anymore. I know that.”

— From “The Snakes of Silent Valleys”, a short story by Rajkamal Chaudhary.

Also read: Re-reading Bhuvaneshwar, the absurdist Hindi writer who lived in railway stations and trains