Authors Nirmal Verma and Gurdial Singh, who share this year's Jnanpith award, are mutually antipodean in terms of their artistic and ideological convictions, but their creative endeavours curiously complement each other.VISHNU KHARE
WHEN the jury of a major literary award like the Bharatiya Jnanpith decides that this year it will be shared by two authors in two different languages, a layperson would not be at fault in concluding that the honour has been split between two writers who either practise two different genres of writing but have dilemmatically equal merit or satisfy a set of common literary and aesthetic criteria and tastes. But laypersons would be puzzled by the jury's decision, even as the cognoscenti are, if they read even a single work each by Nirmal Verma (born April 3, 1929), the Hindi practitioner of fiction, and Gurdial Singh (born January 10, 1933), his literary counterpart in Punjabi, who have been declared joint winners of this year's prize, for perhaps no oth er two senior living Indian authors of fiction could be so mutually antipodean.
One school of literary artists and critics, whose passionate votaries include Nirmal Verma himself, believes that the biography of an author is an inadmissible tool in his or her artistic evaluation. It is true that sometimes biographical information cou ld be wholly or partly paradoxical, irrelevant and misleading in the analysis of a writer's work, but it appears to be supremely useful, even to the extent of being sine qua non, in the case of both Gurdial Singh and Nirmal Verma. One can already hear protests of a posteriori, ex post facto and 'hindsight', but all literary evaluation, like all biography, is post facto. Moreover, both the laureates are alive and continue to be creative and their biographies are far from closed.
Sikhism, tainted like all religions in South Asia by the Hindu caste system, has a 'backward' artisan clan whose members are called Ramgarhia Sikhs. Gurdial Singh was born in a family of traditional carpenters belonging to this clan. Poverty, illiteracy, exploitation and discrimination were rampant around him. An unlettered carpenter-father's unlettered apprentice-son, Gurdial Singh was made to marry at the age of 13. Jaitu Mandi, his ancestral village, fell in the neglected Malwa region of Punjab where Malwi, a scorned dialect of mainstream Punjabi, was popularly spoken. Largely an autodidact, Gurdial Singh passed his matriculation examination in 1953 and the 'Giyani' examination in Punjabi language and literature in 1954 before becoming a primary sch ool teacher in a village. He could get a college lecturership only in 1971, four years after doing his M.A. in Punjabi. Although he had started publishing his works in 1952, his first big break came in 1957 when the poet Mohan Singh accepted his short st ory ''Bhagan Wale'' for the magazine Punj Darya. Gurdial Singh achieved instant fame and lasting repute with his very first novel Marhi Da Diva (The Memorial Lamp), published in 1966.
Nirmal Verma belongs to a middle class, forward caste Hindu family and was born in Shimla, the queen of hill stations, where his father was an officer during the Raj. The young Nirmal generally alternated between sundry hill resorts and Delhi, where his father later bought a house. His was an urban, enlightened, modern family and Verma became a precocious, voracious and also introverted reader, studying in better schools and finishing with a Master's in History from St. Stephen's College in Delhi, argua bly the most sought-after college in South Asia. Although fluent in both spoken and written English, Verma chose to do his creative writing in Hindi, having been largely initiated into the language and its literature by his mother and elder sister. Verma began publishing short stories in the early 1950s, bringing his deep awareness of and empathy with European literature to bear upon his creativity. Soon Verma became one of the spearheads of the Nayi Kahani (New Story) movement in Hindi and created a n iche for himself within the movement with his altogether new protagonists and locales, a mysteriously haunting, tenderly throbbing language and an evocative style which marked him out from the rest. He joined the Communist Party but a seven-year (1959-66 ) sojourn in Czechoslovakia and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague made him anti-Left. He has almost never worked for a living and has been Hindi's most celebrated freelancer. He has visited a number of Western countries.
Gurdial Singh remained rooted in his milieu. He chose not to go beyond Bhatinda and kept his professorship at the Regional Centre of the Punjabi University. And his ancestral home in Jaitu Mandi, a small town, to which he has now retired, has continued t o be his permanent address. He had read and imbibed Premchand during his apprenticeship years and was later influenced by such Russian masters as Chekhov and Gorki but what basically inspired and empowered his writing was his own life and the lives of th e downtrodden, like his own family around him. His essential sensibility and locale are rural and his medium is not the urban, middle class Punjabi but a language liberally, even belligerently, laced with his native Malwi vernacular (not to be confused w ith the eponymous region and dialect of western Madhya Pradesh). In this he resembles Phanishwar Nath 'Renu', who shook sophisticated Hindi out of its urbane narcissism with his melange of dialects from northern Bihar. Gurdial Singh, in his Marhi Da D iva, depicts the betrayal of the low-caste sharecropper Jagseer by his surrogate upper caste landlord-nephew Bhanta. A parallel rural romantic-erotic narrative is provided by the illicit relationship between Jagseer and Bhani, his friend Nikke's wife .
The novel was hailed as the first realistic work in Punjabi which was unflinching in dealing with the problems of caste, class and personal relationships in the Sikh-dominated rural Punjab. The pioneering use of Malwi lent the extra authenticity to the n ovel, which was turned by the director Surinder Singh into the first "neo-realistic" "art" film in Punjabi and it won national laurels. A Hindi version was also released.
The leftist, yet highly esoteric and experimental, Kumar Shahani chose ''Maya Darpan'' (The Illusory Mirror), one of Nirmal Verma's earlier, rare psycho-socio-familial short-stories, to make his debut film in 1972, 17 years before Gurdial Singh's novel w as filmed. If Nirmal is innovative in his treatment of a youngish, unmarried middle class woman torn between a widower father, a widowed aunt and a distant brother and tormented by her own desire for an unsuspecting engineer, Shahani turned the story int o a near-phantasy, taking the liberty from the highly mnemonic title. One cannot blame him, as most of the 'action' in Verma's fiction takes place either in the interior monologues of his protagonists accentuated by minimal conversations between long sil ences, or through epigrammatic, aphoristic asides by the "narrator". Nature, especially hilly or northern European grass, flowers and trees, rains and monsoon clouds, sunshine, moonlight, tender animals, circuit houses, dak bungalows, civil lines, servan ts' quarters, aging colonial houses, Western cities such as Prague, Vienna and London, convents, churches, hospitals, town squares, walks and gardens, restaurants and concert halls, sausages, beer, chianti and cognac, Chopin and Mozart - all these popula te his short stories and novels. Love, separation, abortion, divorce, alienation, lack of dialogue and mutual understanding between most intimate relations, nostalgia, guilt and repentance over unnamed things done and undone, secrets and mysteries and ho rror of relationships and psyche, mental masochism and sadism, death wish, death and the conjuring up and eternal presence of the dead, all enveloped in brooding, pitying tenderness, are Nirmal Verma's recurring themes. Even the 1989 novel Raat Ka Rep orter (The Night-shift Reporter), which supposedly deals with Indira Gandhi's Emergency, is basically a story of vulnerable interpersonal relations. Verma's characters are all educated people, middle class students, intellectuals, professionals and o fficials, capable of highly sophisticated experience and expression.
An entirely different world articulates itself in Gurdial Singh's novels. They are peopled by an economically and socially marginalised Indian humanity. His 1975 Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel Adh Chanani Raat (The Night of the Half Moon) rel ates the story of Pala, an honest and simple farmer, who is implicated in a false criminal case by the village landlord Chhane to avenge the loss of illegally usurped land. Pala dies and later his son is also humiliated and succumbs to the wounds sustain ed in a bloody confrontation with Chhane. Those Hindu untouchables who embrace the supposedly casteless Sikhism only to discover that they will be given the pejorative label of "Majhabi Sikhs" and be doubly discriminated against forever, find their voice in Gurdial Singh's Anne Ghore Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse) where the ex-untouchable-turned-Sikh Gelu discovers that nothing can save him and his family from hunger and humiliation. However, in his recent novel Parsa, the eponymous he ro is a strong-willed rebel who refuses to weep even when his naxalite son Basanta is killed in a police action. Gurdial Singh is no card-holding copy-book Marxist but he is committed to a writer's struggle against inequality, exploitation and injustice.
Nirmal Verma asserts that in the modern world, where all manner of tricks and terrors are exercised to compromise the human conscience, art in its freedom is perhaps most deeply committed to the language of truth, without which all social commitments los e their value. He is also one of India's most alert and sensitive intellectuals, and his essays betray his wide-ranging, non-literary concerns though he has written perceptively on such authors as Hazari Prasad Dwiwedi, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh and 'Renu '. After his disillusionment with Marxism he has been attracted to Gandhi, Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan in politics and had opposed the 1975 Emergency. Hindu scriptures and philosophy combined with Martin Heidegger, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Virginia Woolf, S imone Weil, Catherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have been major creative and intellectual influences. His is not the BJP brand of Hindutva but he confesses that he finds himself at ease only in the enlightened Hindu ethos. His six novels (Antim Aranya, The Last Forest, the most recent one, was published in February) and fifty-odd stories, however, are almost entirely secular and cosmopolitan and translate with ease into foreign languages. With one novel (Ve Din< /I>, Days of Longing in K.B. Vaid's translation) and four volumes of short stories in English translation, the BBC telefilm on his life and work, translations in French, German and Italian and scores of readings and seminars abroad, Nirmal Verma is easil y the best-known non-Indian English author outside India.
In Punjabi, Gurdial Singh is also hailed as the most important living novelist and has been internationally honoured by the Punjabi-speaking diaspora. The National Book Trust has translated his Marhi Da Diva in all Indian languages and the Sahitya Akademi has similarly honoured his Adh Chanani Raat. He has also been translated into Russian and other foreign languages.
Nirmal Verma and Gurdial Singh might be mutually diametrically opposite in their subject matter, style and artistic and ideological convictions, but their sharing of the Jnanpith Award, howsoever eyebrow-raising, has perhaps one tiny message both for the two stalwarts and their admirers and readers - in the realm of human creativity and reception, the private and the public, the individual and the social, and freedom and commitment only complement each other and make the arts and human beings less incom plete. For a long time, in India at least, what we will go on needing is a Nirmal Singh or a Gurdial Verma.
Vishnu Khare is a poet and critic who writes chiefly in Hindi.