Friday, August 19, 2016

A cipher for modern India

Name: A Life Misspent
Author: Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ (translated from the Hindi by Satti Khanna)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 117
Price: Rs 199

A reviewer’s job is not just to recommend a good book, but also to suggest a way to appreciate it. I will recommend this slim auto/biographical sketch from one of Hindi’s foremost modern poets, the founder of Chhayavaad school of poetry, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, translated by Satti Khanna. But how do I explain it?

In 117 pages, the book (not a novel, neither a biography nor autobiography, but a combination of all three), written in 1931, encompasses the core of the political reality of modern India, so much so that I am tempted to call it a history of India during Independence. The book has everything – the Brahminical system and the zeal to protect its hold, the reality of casteism in rural India, and the uneasy existence between Hindu and Muslim communities. The book also reveals the exact moment of the country’s willingness to break away from the feudal system (and the royalty). The book is also critical of Nehru and Gandhi, and it notices the seed of discontent in Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid.

Amidst all these, the book is the story of two men, in their 20s and 30s, struggling to survive in a world against them. A reviewer recently introduced the book as ‘biography of a Brahmin homosexual, written in the 1930s’. This may be headline grabbing, but it’s not true. We must remember that the book was written in 1930s, in Hindi, set in a remote UP village. To read the book from the prism of our understanding would be doing it a disservice.

The book is designed as a biography of a man called Kulli Bhat, the man who tried to ‘seduce’ Nirala and was thwarted, the man who over the years became Nirala’s friend and confidant. Yet, the book is more about Nirala, the man who would be the poet, and about his one great love, his wife.

Perhaps what makes A Life Misspent an important book is that raises more questions than it does answer. The interactions between these two men open up the idea of a country we will come to inhabit more than half-a-century later. It is an enigmatic cipher for the malaises of modern India.

(Published in Sakal Times, Pune, 14 August)

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