In what seems like a modern indictment of the race for instant literary labelling, Nirmal Verma’s writings defied the trappings of casual reading. There are many ways leading to his wide-ranging body of work but none of them is an easy route. To a large extent, that means that any attempt to revisit Verma’s life and writings – and, more so, the voguish urge to link the two – is fraught with risks that plague the recountings of many literary journeys.
That’s why it’s refreshing to note that Vineet Gill’s Here and Hereafter, published by Penguin Random House, steers clear of such dangers and offers a new prism to look back at Verma’s work. Gill excels in tracing the diffused elements that possibly went into the making of the great Hindi writer’s literary landscape and craft in the second half of the twentieth century.
Gill’s attempt to turn a reader’s gaze to the constituents that formed Verma produces a new kind of register to draw the arc of a literary life. It’s apt that the book doesn’t exceed 168 pages because it was the “slimmest of Verma’s books”, namely Shabd aur Smriti, that Gill recalls discovering Verma first at a roadside book stall in Delhi. So, before delving into his novels and travel writings, it was this 1976 compilation of Verma’s essays on the “big questions” of life, death and world literature that cast its spell on Gill, leaving a lingering impact.
This means Gill is clear about his refusal to wear a biographer’s hat and has drawn boundaries for his book’s modest ambitions. Any forays into the biographical zone are meant to be taken as points of aberration for this work. By all means, this exercise differs from the ambition of full-fledged biographical accounts. Incidentally, the genre, especially that of a towering literary figure, has crept again into the public realm with the passing of Patrick French, whose biography of VS Naipaul was widely acclaimed as a modern classic.
Gill, however, is clear about his lack of inclination for such an exercise and this shows in how he cites James Atlas’s book on the biographers of writers only to disagree with its emphasis on the need to dig for life details. To reflect on Verma’s literary canvas, Gill’s perch is more specific. “This is a book about reading, written from the standpoint of a reader,” he writes.
Blending erudition with a reader’s gaze, Gill examines how memory, places and Verma’s responses to them formed a sensibility – through phases of continuity as well as change – that permeated his work. In a way, it’s also a realisation of a form of creative integrity in the maze of divergences. This is important because the creative depth of Verma’s work often leads him to being seen in conflicting dyads – being something and not being at the time.
But Gill looks at him through places – the sites of his living and travel that underpinned the memory of the immediate and imagination of the essential in Verma’s writings, ranging from short story collection Parinde to Ve Din, a novel set entirely in Europe. It explains why Shimla-Delhi-Prague-Delhi, with a brief stop at London, form a continuum in Verma’s creative negation with time and space.
Verma’s nine years (1959-68) in erstwhile Czechoslovakia – particularly his creative links with Prague of the Sixties as a Hindi writer as well as a translator of Czech classics – consumes a sizable part of the book. This is aimed at tracing the strands of Verma’s evolving worldview and probing how he introduced a new Europe to a generation of Hindi readers in India – a region that offered tales of human condition and travel beyond the historical memory of colonial Britain. Gill deftly captures how Verma put eastern Europe on the literary landscape of a generation of readers. At the same time, the abrupt end to Verma’s Prague years also quickened his political evolution from a card-holding member of the institutional Left to a disillusioned critic of the totalitarian regime that spawned in its wake.
The book, however, restricts itself to fleeting mentions of Verma’s political outlook and responses. For instance, it talks about Verma compensating for the missed chance to protest Soviet action in Czechoslovakia with a spirited opposition to the Emergency in India. Gill also reflects on the perceptions regarding Verma’s shift towards an understanding of rootedly Indian wellsprings of culture and society, and even politics. Gill distances himself from the debate but views Verma as non-committal to any one tradition of thought, and certainly very far from any form of fundamentalism.
Interestingly, some of Verma’s takes on the flawed understanding of secularism in the Indian context resonate with contemporary debates. At one point in the book, Verma questions how Nirala’s philosophical reflections in the poem Ram ki Shakti Puja could be sectarian. In fact, he would have found support in a leading political commentator of avowedly liberal leanings who, in a , found the poem to be “one the great modern poetic renditions” and praised it for “linguistic inventiveness.”
One can have minor quibbles with Gill. At many places, the book meanders and becomes self-indulgent in its detours of comparative literature. The juxtaposition, for instance, of British writer and painter John Berger’s cultural and political experience of Europe with Verma impeded the flow for readers, even if it serves the writer’s purpose of showing different absorptions of the same socio-cultural milieu.
As if a tribute to the centrality of memory and silence in Nirmal Verma’s creative sensibility, Gill’s unusual account quietly refreshes, even resurrects, Verma’s work in our shared literary memory. That strikes you as this book’s key accomplishment and, in the process, it carves a genre of a particular kind of literary recollection.
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