The BS Column: Nirmal Verma

“Sometimes I think what we call our lives, our past, our history, brings us peace—no matter how painful it may have been to live. No matter how forbidding its terrain might have been, it is familiar country.”

It was almost 40 years after Nirmal Verma had startled the Hindi literary world with ‘Parinde’ and the stories that marked the beginning of the Nayi Kahani movement that he wrote these lines in Antim Aranya (The Last Wilderness) . But the words he gave his narrator could have served as a personal philosophy of sorts for this most private of writers, who died last week in Delhi after a long illness.

He was a familiar and yet distant figure, a small, almost fragile, almost birdlike man who retained a quiet wall of silence between him and the world he observed with such care and understanding. The myth that has grown up around him over the years stresses the silence and the privacy, with good reason, but also stresses his ability to engage with the world—on his own terms. He was often called apolitical; though his essays, travelogues, novels and short stories explored the world of politics, it would be a very foolhardy critic who attempted to label Nirmal Verma, to pin him down as a socialist or a leftist or an espouser of any other ism.

But his quiet voice rang out several times over the years in support of the causes he truly believed in. He joined the Communist Party in his youth, and spent several years travelling in East Europe, many of them in Czechoslovakia. (“Kafka and Prague,” he wrote, “in those day, the haunted dreams of one were strangely intermingled in my mind with the confused images of the other.”)

What he saw and absorbed in that period made him critical of the politics of the Left in action; he gently criticized Bhisham Sahni, whose writings he admired greatly, for that great author’s inability to see the flaws in Communism as clearly as he did. He wrote about the Free Tibet movement often, and lent his voice in support of their cause; they have lost a generous, open minded supporter in him. When India became the first country to ban The Satanic Verses , he raised his voice in support of Rushdie’s right to write freely, while gently excoriating what he saw as Rushdie’s distance from and ignorance of India. He was unequivocal, though, when he said that the Indian state had no business censoring writers.

In later years, many of his colleagues viewed Nirmal Verma’s growing interest in Hindu philosophy and the underpinnings of Indian culture with dismay; he was accused, inaccurately, of being a soft supporter of Hindutva. His actual position is more accurately understood if you look at what he said when he was discussing the Rushdie ban in an interview: “There is a double standard of ‘secularist modernity’, both in public life as well as in the sphere of art. In Indian culture, there is no line of demarcation between sacred and profane. All art is sacred, precisely because it contains within itself all the profanities of worldly life. This traditional concept of the sacred, itself, should serve as the bedrock of genuine secular polity in our country.”

To see a position as nuanced as this as an attack on secularism would be naïve; and naïve interlocutors would make little or no sense of Nirmal Verma’s body of Jnanpith-award winning work. He was interested in human relationships, in how some of these were breaking down in the age of anomie, and what was emerging out of the wreckage. He explored the darker reaches of the human psyche, and the silent spaces between what people said and what they thought. The past has its own comfort to offer, he suggested, no matter how painful it might be to remember; and he was the ultimate poet of memory.

What I loved most about Nirmal Verma, perhaps, was the ease with which he moved between cultures; he was a translator as much as he was a writer. In one of his interviews, asked to name his favourite writers, he came up with this eclectic list of names: Simone Weil, Camus, Rilke, Orwell, Vaclav Havel, Toni Morrison, Chekov, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Agyeya, Virginia Woolf. It’s just the list you would expect from a writer who was deeply rooted in his own culture, but who claimed the entire universe as his rightful terrain.

(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, November 1, 2005)

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