Vineet Gill’s book is neither a conventional biography nor an attempt to excavate biographical details of Nirmal Verma’s life from his published works. It reconstructs the life of an influential writer through views, opinions, controversies, and literary scuffles. It maps an artist’s mind through its multifarious wanderings and longings to carve out a place called “home” in his writings. Along the way, the book also charts some of the engaging debates of the Hindi literary sphere in the latter half of the 20th century.
Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature
Vintage Books (2022)
Nirmal Verma transmuted progressive idealism and pure aestheticism into a new literary idiom for the Hindi short story. The book opens with a brief introduction to “world literature”, the relevance of which will not be lost upon a prescient reader as Verma was a translator, writer, and critic who forged a broader and wider literary tradition.
Verma had diverse reading tastes. The dual epigraphs to each section (one from Verma’s works and the other from influences on Verma) acknowledge the composite credentials of his aesthetics and philosophy. Gill further places Verma’s literary works amid his own eclectic reading list of Berger, Orwell, Said and Aristotle.
Living for almost a decade in Prague and later in London, Verma saw India from a distance, and the West from a complex vantage. Gill asserts that Verma’s literary sensibility was “not that of an ‘Indian’ writer in the West, nor the rootless cosmopolitan wading through a globalised world” and in the same breath adds that “he refuses to position himself as an outsider”. As much as he resisted the monolithic representation of the East, he was equally unsettled by the reverse-Orientalism that constructed the West dominantly in Anglo-American terms.
All writers pour their lived experiences somewhere into their creative writings, exercising poetic licence in full measure. And since aesthetic truths are different from lived ones, any attempt to establish a direct correspondence between the writer’s words and his world is bound to prove frustrating. But what should one do when there is a lack of archival documents of a writer’s life? Gill asks: “Where are the Verma papers? Which university has the archives? The original manuscripts? The incomplete drafts? The unpublished letters? And, where are the previous Verma biographies? Where are the details of the lived life?”
One is then compelled, like Gill, to understand Verma’s life through his writing. Gill writes: “Going through his short story ‘Ek Din Ka Mehman’ (A Day’s Guest)—about a man’s reticent visit to his daughter and his ex-wife—it becomes abundantly clear that Verma’s own complicated first marriage inspired the tale.” We are quickly reminded both of the lack of “Verma papers” and the nature of this book.
Verma’s literary career was catapulted by a death—the death of a school friend. Verma claimed “…the writer has to be intimate with his mortality.” His writings remained tantalisingly preoccupied with death and disintegration. In his writings, Verma often maintains a sombre silence on death and dying but in his later days, he warmed up to some of the traditional ways of honouring death. After attending the funeral of a secular friend in an electric crematorium, he expressed his wish for a proper Hindu cremation: “Main vidhi vidhan ke sath jaana chahta hu (I want all the rituals performed at my funeral)”.
This supposed “softening” of Verma’s stance on Hindu rituals, expressed in his “cremation wish” and views penned in his essay on the Kumbh mela (1976), was critiqued by the Hindi literary world as a shift to right-wing ideology. Gill challenges such a naïve and simplistic reading. Verma endorsed what he perceived as the progressive elements of our civilisation and remained severely critical of any outright wholesale dismissal of Hinduism. He also maintained a distance from the “Western import of secularism” as he believed it could pave way for the “back-door entry” of communal elements. Some of his ideas risk being appropriated by the saffron brigade if removed from their deeply invested humanitarian moorings.
As an antidote, Gill reads an emancipatory potential in Verma’s philosophy that liberates religion for its aesthetic value, and “secularises the religious”. Although Verma was unambiguous in dispelling the charges laid against him by leftists and left-liberal critics, for decades a certain image of Verma had been cultivated in the academic world. The book certainly makes valuable observations on Verma’s contested past. But the past remains far from settled. To quote Verma himself after he had read Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, “I felt it has not yet ended…”
Abhishek Pundir is a Delhi-based writer.