Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Review of A Life Misspent

Love in the Time of Cholera in Pre-Independent 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 the book – give the readers give a key to unlock the mysteries of the book, so to speak. With this slim auto/biographical sketch from one of Hindi’s foremost modern poets, the founder of Chayyavad school of poetry, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, translated by Satti Khanna, I cannot find the key.

In 117 pages, the book (it’s not a novel, neither a biography or 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 royalty. Nirala leaves his job under a Raja in Bengal.). The book is also critical of Nehru and Gandhi, and the book notices the seed of discontent regarding Jam Janambhumi-Babri Masjid.

Amidst all these, the book is the story of two men, in their 20s and 30s, struggling to survive in a world, which is decidedly against them. This is where my problem as a reviewer begins. For help, I seek out other reviews. I read the headline of the first review I find: “The biography of a Brahmin homosexual, written in the 1930s, is a testament to Nirala’s radical talent.”

Everything about this sentence is wrong (not perhaps about Nirala’s radical talent). We must remember that the book was written in 1930s, in Hindi, set in a remote UP village, by a 40-year-old man who is largely self-educated and who, in all likelihood, did not have much knowledge about human sexuality. To read the book from the prism of our understanding would be doing it a disservice.

Even the translator is guilty of this a-historical reading. Nirala called the book simply Kulli Bhat, after his eponymous hero. Khanna decides to call it A Life Misspent. Whose life was misspent? If you read the book, you’d realise despite his alleged homosexuality, Kulli Bhat found a purpose in life and died a hero. This is why Nirala decided to write the book, after spending years waiting for a worthy subject, and certainly, his life was not misspent.

Then there is the problems of Nirala’s own writing (Khanna’s translation is largely elegant, even though I may not agree with some editing choices. He manages to convey Nirala’s tongue-in-cheek humour. If you have read Manohar Shyam Joshi, you know where he got his humour.).

The is designed as a biography of a man called Kulli Bhat, whom the poet met on the first day he visited his wife in her maternal village, the man who tried to ‘seduce’ him and was thwarted, the man who over the years became Nirala’s friend and confidant, influencing each others’ life choices. Yet, the book is more about Nirala, the man who would be the poet, and about his one great love, his wife, who was claimed by a cholera epidemic, as it did most of Nirala’s paternal family.

The story starts when Nirala is 16 and Kulli Bhat is 25 and it ends with Bhat’s death in his early 40s from sexually-transmitted disease. In a dramatic dialogue, we learn that Bhat’s penis was already missing by the time he took ill. By then, however, from a disdained outsider (Nirala’s mother-in-law did not trust him; reasons not specified) Bhat had transformed himself into a local hero, who started a branch of the Congress Party in the village, started a school for the untouchables (there is a touching scene when Nirala, the Brahmin, visits the school) and worked for the downtrodden. Even his marriage to a Muslim woman, who converted to Hinduism in Ayodhya, was conveniently ignored, if not forgotten. He had become saint. Nirala mentions the peaceful glow on his face as his body wasted away. This certainly doesn’t qualify as a life misspent.

At the same time, this is also the story of the formation of Nirala’s Chayavaad. There is an interesting passage of mysticism involving a Sadhu, which prompts Nirala do leave his job and be a struggling poet. Yet, for the readers today, it would be an interesting exercise to understand the mind of the young poet, who decided to tell his potentially anti-establishment story at the age of 40. Was everything true? Was some of it wish fulfillment? Was there some self-censorship?

Probing into one of the issues, Bhat’s alleged homosexuality, there is evidence in the book that Nirala, a handsome youth enjoyed the attention showered upon him. The seduction scene ends abruptly. There is, of course, no discussions on sex or sexuality. The next time they meet, everything is forgotten and Bhat is in love with a Muslim woman, and Nirala encourages him to marry her. I am suspicious that there was no discussion on the subject. Nirala refuses to judge Bhat based on his sexual proclivities, yet he refuses discuss the issues. This is at odds with Nirala’s personality, who is ever willing to dismantle the existing social mores – a rebel with too many causes.

Perhaps this is what makes A Life Misspent an interesting an important book. It raises more questions than it answers, and the interaction between these two men open up the idea of a country, which we will come to inhabit more than half-a-century later.

In short, A Life Misspent is an enigmatic cipher for the malaise of modern India.

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