“Having just woken up from a siesta, I was standing in my study, smoking a cigar, and looking at the library filled with many shelves. I was thinking of reading a work by a great writer, but from one corner to another all I could see were the greats. Goethe, Rousseau, Mazzini, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hugo, Maupassant, Dickens, Spencer, Macaulay, Milton, Moliere – uff. Each one greater than the other! I couldn’t decide which great to spend a few minutes with and was distressed from reading the names of so many great people. 

Meanwhil,  a car honked. I leaned out of the window and saw a red Fiat. I thought – good, maybe a friend has come. Saved from the Greats!”

— From the short story “Uski Maa”, translated by Saudamini Deo

It must be examined whether being saved from the greats is a fate worth having, or whether, indeed, there are any greats in literature and in life, or what the elusive notion of greatness constitutes of. These are questions that a Hindi language writer from Mirzapur asked all his life, and was attacked for being crass and pornographic in the process, not to mention being mocked for not being “artistic” or “literary” enough.

To these accusations, Ugra responded by saying that “if there is any art in reality, then there is art in my writing.”

Born Brahmin, brought up Dalit

Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra”, literally “extreme” or “aggressive”, was probably one of the most popular and controversial writers of his era, arguably even more popular than Premchand at the time, and known for his unusually provocative and satirical writings. In his autobiography titled Apni Khabar (My News), which details the account of roughly the first twenty years of his life, it is revealed that he was born in a poor Brahmin family in 1900 at Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. Several of his siblings had died in infancy, and so his parents sold him to a Dalit woman in a superstitious bid to avert another such misfortune, hence the name “bechan” or “sold”.

Ugra did manage to escape death, growing up in conditions of dire poverty that only became worse after the untimely death of his father. His elder brother ran away from home after being caught by the police for running an illegal sex racket, forcing Ugra to work as an actor in local ramlilas to earn money.

He tried continuing his education in various schools, only to give up after being unable to acclimate to the environment of schools. He started writing in his teenage years, encouraged by the support of the Hindi scholar and editor Lala Bhagwandin.

It was in 1919, with the publication of his poem in Swadesh magazine, that he adopted the pen name of Ugra, and became associated with magazines like Aaj and Matwala (which he also sometimes helped edit). He also wrote satirical columns in various magazines under the pseudonym Ashtavrak (after the famous Vedic sage). He also started two short-lived magazines, titled Bhoot and Ugra.

In 1924, owing to the “explosive” anti-colonial issue of Swadesh, the British government in India issued a warrant against Ugra. After spending several months underground, he was arrested in Malabar Hills in Bombay and sentenced to nine months in jail. Later, Ugra wen on to work for many literary magazines, newspapers, and the Hindi film industry (most notably on the film Chhoti Bahu, starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore), but all these ventures remained somewhat half-hearted and decidedly without any great success.

“… I consider Calcutta to be the estate of that great woman named Kali, who you have seen cut her own head off, drink her own blood and trample over her own great husband. Which means that Calcutta belongs to the one who doesn’t forgive herself or her own. The Calcutta that is beautiful, wealthy, healthy, and powerful belongs to women and the Calcutta that is ugly, clumsy, poor, ill, weak, and wicked belongs to men.”

— From “Kadhi Mein Koyla”, translated by Saudamini Deo

The contradiction

Ugra is best known in Anglophone scholarship for his short stories dealing with homosexuality, which he termed the path of chocolate. Although, Ugra was the first modern Hindi prose writer willing to depict homosexuality without any reserve, he maintained that he did so purely to rid society of this “evil”. His unusual and authentic depiction of the subject made him an object of great controversy and condemnation while his popularity soared among general readers, with the second edition of Chocolate being printed within weeks of the first.

Not much is known about his own sexuality. He remained unmarried all his life. Ugra died in 1967, leaving behind twenty short story collections, fourteen novels, seven plays, three poetry collections, one autobiography, and many satirical pieces.

His writing – decidedly nationalistic, anti-colonial, moralistic, and (by his own admission) homophobic – is remarkable for its willingness to use mixed dialect (Hindi-Urdu peppered with English) and for bringing forth subjects until then considered taboo in mainstream Hindi literature. His strengths should be noted, his problems need to examined and critiqued with nuance, and it must be remembered that a writer must be read, even if only to be hated.

Whether Ugra deserves to be named among the Hindi greats is an irrelevant question. Perhaps, like Ugra’s character, we are better off being rescued from greatness.