For Hindi readers, this should be seen as a moment of rejoicing because their two favorite writers –Agyeya and Nirmal Verma – whose important works have inspired generations of writers and readers, are releasing their biographies this year, and that too, in English. Not only that, but it also reaffirms the belief that Hindi writers seem to have long lost – that Hindi literature is often sidelined by the English writing word.
Interesting to read Vine and Gill’s Here and Beyond: The Literary Life of Nirmal Verma in this light. For a writer like Verma, whose affinity with foreign places or writers made his fellow writers often question his Indianness, had the expertise to write in English but never really did. Not one bhasha a strict chauvinist, Verma even found merit in the works of Indians who adopted English as their literary language, such as Mulk Raj Anand and RK Narayan. “It’s because my stories and novels are the product of my emotional world and the language of my inner world is Hindi,” Verma told one of her interviewers.
Another thing that stood out when reading the book is that except for the obvious parallels between Verma’s personal and written life, Gill doesn’t seem interested in taking a voyeuristic peek into the premiere. This also seems perhaps the reason why the title characteristically mentions Verma’s life. In the litterature.
He cites the example of Reiner Stach, whose long list of people interviewed for his Kafka biography even included the neighbor who heard Kafka coughing and spitting from his apartment balcony. Calling this kind of biographical digging exciting but futile, Gill thinks it comes with the dangers of oversimplification – both of life and of literature.
“When the critic has finished recounting the life of the character, he turns to the other essential: the life of the author. With life so constantly in the spotlight, what suffers is the art.
Critics have often questioned the direction of Verma’s writing – most of his fiction, if not much of the non-fiction, deals with big existential questions, never addressing issues of caste, religion or poverty. Verma reasons, in his critical essay Shabd aur Smritithat those who see art as a mere mirror of society are underestimating the powers of literature – which has its own living breath.
Gill’s study shows us why Verma is often referred to as a writer’s writer in critical studies. What it means to live a life subsumed by misery and loneliness seems to take center stage in Verma’s works, especially in novels such as Antim Aranya and Ek Chithda Soukhamong others.
As a counterpoint to the widely held concept of narrow realism, Verma believed in antrik yatharthvad, internal realism, which integrates reality, but as it is seen, processed and memorized, taking into account the intellectual and ontological aspects of what it means to be a human being.
Gill quite effectively explores the concerns that have guided Verma’s writing – be it his obsession with Shimla, Delhi or Prague, his fascination with Virginia Woolf, his love for nature writing and travel writing, or the impact of Russian writers, which was far greater than that of any Indian writer. (For years I kept looking for the remaining part of Gorky’s novel Mother and I was saddened to find that the ending I had read was actually the actual ending, as Verma wrote in a journal entry.)
This biography, exceptional for Gill’s lucid writing and unusual format, draws on the writer’s fascination with Verma’s polemical views of world literature in Shabd Aur Smriti, the second-hand copy he stumbled upon at a roadside bookstand in Delhi. Interestingly, Gill never met Verma – which also reaffirms that, in choosing between art and artist, Gill chose to focus on art, which could also have avoid possible disappointment. (Remember Eunice D’Souza: “It is better to meet poets in poems.”)
But although this book is about Verma, it is also about Gill – as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra also mentions in his blurb – his discovery of writers, his writing activities, his critical observations of Verma and the world literature in general:
“We recall the old Aristotelian idea that all literature is the product of two fundamental plots: a person leaves a familiar setting; a person arrives in an unfamiliar setting. It is the literature of the movement. Seen in this light, every book is a travel book, every writer a travel writer.
These are arguably the best sections of the book, making it much more than a simple biography and inviting us to multiple re-readings.
Here and Beyond: The Literary Life of Nirmal VermaVineet Gill, Vintage.