Master of modern prose

Print edition : December 02, 2005

Nirmal Verma, 1929-2005.

ANNIE ZAIDI in New Delhi

"To die whilst still living - that has been my greatest ambition. And because I could never realise it, the ghost of this unfulfilled aspiration forever hovers between me and my writing."

ON 25 October, this "ghost" finally claimed Nirmal Verma, who found comfort in being "less than nothing, deader than dead".

At a condolence meeting attended by nearly everybody in the Hindi literary community in Delhi, Verma's close contemporary Krishna Sobti said in a "farewell note" that her dear friend "has finally solved that lifelong dilemma of being and un-being."

This dilemma, is reflected in almost every piece of writing associated with Nirmal Verma, be it is his own diary, his novels or his short stories. For instance, in his short story The Lost Stream he wrote, "She fervently wishes for the floods to come before the exams and sweep away the entire lane. Or a storm or an earthquake to swallow the teacher, the school, the tea-stall, everything - leaving behind just a cloud of dust. It is all possible... Everything is possible. But nothing ever happens. Time moves, days are exhausted and the lane goes about its business in the bright April breeze. The falling leaves land on her books, notebooks, school bag and hair as if each leaf knows its final destination."

Now that Verma has found his own final destination, the bibliophile will continue to go about his or her business. But it is also true that the Hindi literary community has, self-admittedly, lost so much through losing him, that there isn't much left to lose.

Summing up life and work of Nirmal Verma is a hard task. It is unfair, even when the most ordinary of men die, to reduce a lifetime's worth of struggle, hope, pain and exaltation, to a dateline. When the man in question is an intellectual of Verma's proportions, it becomes impossible to think simply in terms of a birth date, an appointment with death, and a curriculum vitae filled with accolades, controversy and labels in the interim period.

That he was a very fine writer of Hindi prose is indisputable, but he was not only that. He was also a great translator, journalist, social activist and critic. He wrote five novels, eight collections of short stories, nine collections of essays and travelogues, and nine translations of books from the Czech and other European languages. In his lifetime, he was honoured with a plethora of awards, including the Sahitya Academy award, the Padma Vibhushan and the Bharatiya Jnanpith, the country's highest literary honour.

BORN in 1929 in Shimla, Verma was known as an introspective young boy with a strong social conscience. His first stories appeared in student magazines in the early 1950s, but soon he gained a reputation for writing what is now known as Nayi Kahani (the New Story). Along with writers such as Mohan Rakesh and Kamleshwar, Verma is credited with having created the New Story Movement. By 1959, when he published his first collection Parinde (Birds), he had found his feet in the literary firmament of the Hindi writers' world.

Nirmal Verma is best known for his fiction, in which he magically, effortlessly, walked the tightrope between the tags of `popular' and `serious'. While novels such as Laal Tin ki Chhat (Red Tin Roof), Antim Aranya (The Last Wilderness) and Raat ka Riportar (The Night Reporter) have been widely read, they have also been critically acclaimed works of brilliance, which gave a new language of thought and expression to Indian literature. Curiously, Verma was often labelled `un-Indian' in his sensibilities, and paradoxically, also conservative in his outlook. This was probably the result of his having first spread his creative wings in Europe, where he spent several years, mostly in Czechoslovakia. This was where he set his first novel Vedina, while he also translated, and thereby introduced the Hindi-speaking Indian to the works of European greats like Karel Capek, Jiri Fried, Joseph Skoversky, Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal.

Between 1959 and 1970, he travelled extensively writing for newspapers in India and studying the socio-economic situation of Europe at the time. Although he started off as a staunch Marxist, he returned to India disillusioned with Communism. Later in his life he was accused of being more Right than Left, and being pro-Hindutva.

Poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi explains that Marxism and Gandhism were his two greatest influences. "Nirmal Verma started off as a card-holding member of the Communist Party of India. But the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the `Prague Spring' turned him against Communism. When he returned to India, he was also hurt and outraged by the Emergency. Nor did he approve of the Chinese annexation of Tibet. Around then, he also began taking a second look at Indian tradition, discovering that there was a native tradition of modernism in India that was different from the one that was forced on us from the West. That might have brought him close to Hinduism but his creative work was not concerned with issues of Hindutva at all. He was concerned with loneliness, melancholy, nature, death, even politics. Any writer worth his name rises above not only the prevalent ideological and political convictions, but also his own. Nirmal Verma's creativity was more vigorous than his views."

Unfortunately, his true views are often not taken into account. Verma questioned everything, including the existence of God and the absoluteness of Nature. In fact, he mistrusted anything that was `almighty' or `absolute', for it was anti-art and anti-humanity.

In Antim Aranya, he compares a lack of belief in God to a sense of missing something one has never had - like a childless mother would miss her children. The writer's spirit, according to him, must seek neither relief nor ideological refuge. He wrote that, "for a writer to desire spiritual security is as fatal as an aspiration to material pleasure. For a writer, every place of refuge is a pitfall; you fall once, and the clear sky of creativity is lost forever."

These are words from his diary - published as Dhund se Uthati Dhun. In it he set down his inner conflicts as a writer and a social being, including his attitude to spiritualism and his reaction to current events such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which, he says, caused him to wake up at night, as if from a nightmare but all the more frightening because it was real.

Verma has been described as a mild, hospitable man who protected his solitude despite the mad rush of this world.. Nevertheless, he was no recluse; even when he was too ill to attend events he seemed to hover over most literary seminars like Banquo's ghost. Poet Kunwar Narayan recalled the time he went to Verma's house and was offered tea, coffee or rum.

"Verma felt that his hospitality would be remiss if he didn't give me something to drink, but I said I wanted nothing. So he gave me a mixture of tea, coffee and rum, saying, "Drink this, this is neither tea, nor coffee, nor rum"."

Nirmal Verma was, a man of few words, but these are words that feel like a moment of stillness, hanging between two notes of a song. His is a lyrical prose, bringing wave upon wave of thought crashing against the reader's consciousness. His is not a screaming, ranting voice; it's a lonely voice whispering secrets of the soul. And it keeps his readers restless, thirsting, as he thirsted.

This great writer is perhaps best summed up in the words of one of his friends: "Nirmal changes you... It [his writing] does what it ought to do".