Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Some Hindi Books and a Poem by Amitabh Bachchan

Vacation over and I am back from the ancient city of Pataliputra (link to Wikipedia entry. Has this great line, "In spite of the very bad press, Patna has a moderate crime rate." Hmmm.) Anyway, it was a regular home visit. Attended a cousin sister's marriage. And for those who were worried(!) my own marital status is not changing anytime soon!

Now for the main thing. I was reading lots of Hindi books at home. And since the online world contains so little information about Hindi literature (I am sure it is true for other Indian languages too) I thought I should add something to the blogosphere. More detailed posts will follow.

Will start with a book which both shocked and disappointed me. Rahul Sankrityayan was one of the most important and widely travelled scholars of his time. He spent most of his life travelling to far off places, learning different languages, collecting manuscripts and translating them into Hindi and other languages. His most important contribution was to the study of ancient and medieval Buddhist literature. He went to Tibet and spent many years there, mastering the Pali language and translating ancient Buddhist texts into Hindi and English. He was also known as Mahapandit (the great scholar). Now the shock and the disappointment part. I was reading his biography (actually it should be called hagiography) of Stalin and was shocked to see the level of ignorance and muddle headed propaganda in the book. It doesn't come as a surprise that his main sources are the "official" histories, interviews, memoirs and other documents published in the Russian language (he was obviously an expert in Russian too). He paints the portrait of Stalin as Mahamanav. He skirts and sweeps issues like the horrors of multiple famines, gulag, Hitler-Stalin pact etc under the carpet. He extols the ingenious five-year plans, the rapid industrialisation, Soviet Union's remarkable progress on the journey towards a classless society. Most of this praise is interspersed with merciless invectives towards the capitalists, Trostykites, Mensheviks, the Nomenklatura, the Kulaks and other enemies of the proletariat and the Soviet Union. I was surprised because I hadn't expected such language from a scholar, specially from someone who was known for his literary sensibilities. In the foreword to this book he mentions his desire to pen similar biographies of other "Mahapurush" like Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung too. A look at his works informed me that he indeed wrote all of these, all within a year!

Anyway, all of this is written in a really high-falutin (in a nice way) and fluent Hindi and I read the whole book just for its prose. Also, I think the general euphoria was kind of understandable given the time when he wrote the book, Stalin had just died and the historic Khruschev speech, after which the official communist line tried to distance itself from Stalin, was still a few years ahead. Earlier I had picked up his Volga se Ganga Tak, the book for which he is most widely known. The book recounts the story of the Aryan Migration in a novelistic manner. I didn't finish the book because I soon got bored with it. (It was many years ago.) I was looking for it this time at home but couldn't find it. Anyway here is the wiki entry and here is another article about his life and works.

Peeli Chatri Wali Ladki
by Uday Prakash is one of the most widely discussed Hindi stories (it is actually a novella) of the last few years. I hadn't read anything by Uday Prakash before and it was a nice surprise. I look forward to reading more of his work. It is a very intriguing story with lots of surprises. I will write in detail about it later. Incidentally I later came to know that an English translation of the story won the international PEN award last year for best translation into English. The English version is called The Girl with a Golden Parasol. The award sounds justified. I would have definitely called it "yellow umbrella" which sounds a little too banal! Some information about Uday Prakash here.

I also read an anthology of modern (as in "modernist") short stories and was pleasantly surprised to discover a few stories and writers which I had not read before. One of them was Mannu Bhandari whose story Yehi Sach hai (this is the truth) is a delightful account of a love triangle. The summary would sound banal. It is actually about a young girl in her mid-twenties who is unable to decide which one of her loves has "the truth". The one who dumped her years ago when she was a teenager, who she meets again and her old feelings are reignited or her current boyfriend? The story is told in a series of diary entries and offers brilliant insights into the mind of the girl and explores the problems of indecision and uncertainty that goes with every romantic relationships, at least for people who are a little too self-aware of their feelings and character, like that girl in the story. Easily one of my favourite love stories ever. I later came to know that the story was made into a Hindi film Rajnigandha. I think I have seen it but don't remember anything about it. Anyway, I don't think any film can capture the introspective tone and inner struggles of the mind as well as a written story.

I then jumped onto her story collection and found another gem titled Stree Subodhini (roughly, Lessons or Wisdom for Women) there. It is a hilarious first-person account by a woman who is now in her early forties about a love affair that she had when she was young with her middle-aged and married boss, who also writes (guess) romantic poems! It is very funny and is brilliantly insightful about how our ideas about gender roles come into conflict with any idealized notions of love or romance. It is a brilliant put-down of romance, that too without being cynical, rhetorical, dry or smartassy. It is very funny and very playful. Certainly a lesson all young women should learn. Hahaha!

Then there was this massive autobiography of the great Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. It is in four volumes and I read bits and pieces from all fours. It is indeed beautifully written, very honest without being either a self-advertisement or self-flagellant. It is a gentle, unintellectual yet insightful about issues of literature and life and very touching at various moments. Actually, I have never liked his most famous poem Madhushala (The Tavern. Or is it The Pub? Or The Bar?), whose romanticism I always find a little too naive and youthful (ahem!) for my tastes. Bachchan discusses (and manages to defend too) Madhushala and other poems of the same period, which were all about the praise of life of escape into love and alcohol, very well. He wrote Madhushala at the peak of the nationalist struggle in the mid thirties. Gandhiji was predictably very pissed off with him because of this. What I was actually looking for was the episode of the death of his first wife Shyama and as expected it was really very well done. Bachchan was extremely attached and devoted to his wife and after her death he went into an inconsolable creative stupor which lasted few years. After that he wrote his best poems (my opinion of course). Nisha Nimantran (Invitation to Night, or is it Night's Invitation?), Aakur Antar, Ekant Sangeet and a few others. He also wrote poems about moving on and getting on with life despite losses like Jo Beet Gayi So Baat Gayi and Need ka Nirman Fir (which is also the title of one of the autobiography volumes). He soon met a sikh girl named Teji Suri and promptly fell in love. They got married couple of years afterwards and soon Amitabh and Ajitabh were born. This episode is also very interesting. Bachchan and Teji Suri meet at a common friend's house and request is made to Bachchan for a poem recital. He chooses one of his poems which express cynicism about love, titled Kya Karoon Samvednayein Lekar Tumhari ? (what do I do with your sentiments?). They were obviously attracted to each other from before but soon after the poem they were both in tears and they knew they were in love. I am making it sound childish and cheesy but you have to read the book (Need ka Nirman Fir, the second volume) to get the real thing. It works there, I assure you!

Okay so now coming to what I promised in the title of the blog. A poem by Amitabh Bachchan. The final volume also contains the episode of Amitabh battling for his life after he was injured while shooting for Coolie. While recovering at the Breach Candy Hospital in Bombay Amitabh scribbles the following lines in his notebook. His father translates those lines in Hindi. The Hindi version follows (in non-standard transliteration of course)

Breach Candy Hospital
ICU Room No. 1, Bombay
29th August 1982



Granite ugly rocks
Turbulent mud-laden sea-
Dark frightening clouds hovering above-


Whiteness, purity
Clean sheets, soft pillows
Gentle care, soft words
And my agony-

--Amitabh Bachchan


Upar mandrate, darpate
Andhiyala chhate se badal
Neeche, kali kathor bhaddi chattano per
Uchhal, matmaili jaladhi-tarangon ki kreeda


Sab ujjwal, shuddh, saaf
Chadar safed, komal takiye,
Dheeme-dheeme swar se sinchit
Mamtamay sari dekh-rekh
Au' meri ekaki peeda

With the connection between "
jaladhi-tarangon ki kreeda" and "Aur meri ekaki peeda" the Hindi translation works better in expressing a feeling of contrast between "outside" and "inside" than the English version by Bachchan Jr. Thats what I think. It is also comforting to know that even Amitabh feels lonely when in pain, that too when millions were ready to do anything for him. Anyway here's a link to Wiki entry of Harivansh Rai Bachchan.

I think this post has already become a little too long. I wanted to write about Yashpal, Phanishwarnath Renu, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Sobti and others too but all those for later posts.


bhaya said...

Well written Alok. Welcome back. Looking forward to promised posts.

Vidya said...

I found this observation about Rahul Sankrityayan interesting because I have seen this exact approach (among some home-grown,self-taught scholars in Tamil) to biography and an attachment to the subject that does not permit the modern academic objectivity and most importantly written in a high-flown language, the more archaic the better.So much so that one has to wade through pages of invective to get to the gist of the matter!!

Alok said...

Vidya: Yes, I think you are right. Being a self-taught scholar must mean excessive attachment and passion towards the subject and that might be the reason why objectivity and detached scepticism are generally absent from such books.

bhaya, thank you !! :)

Anonymous said...

just read "peeli chatri..." yesterday and googled it today and thus arrived at your blog. Liked it very much. You're right that the net has near-zilch information on regional lit, and I hope you do post about other Hindi writers ... that's one sorely-missed reading list.

Haridas Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ravi,chennai said...

well ,I totally disagree with you about the works of Rahul sankrityayan, i have read his books in tamil and they have made a very positive and powerful impact on many readers not only me.. while for u quoting his poem as a creative thing is funny

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Anonymous said...

Hi There,

I am interested in reading Stalin's biography written by Rahul Sankrityayan. Is it possible for you to share the copy with me? I am even willing to purchase it from you, if you do not find it fit for your personal library. Send me an e-mail.

Thank you.