(Published in the Business Standard, October 30, 2013)
In the 1990s, the heart of Indian publishing in English and Hindi could be mapped across Daryaganj. Rickety stairs, often half-rotted, led to establishments as varied as the Marwari Library, the old offices of Rupa & Co, Cambridge University Press, and Hans, the Hindi literary magazine that everyone read for Rajendra Yadav’s jousting editorials.
As a fledgling journalist in search of a city of writers, it gave me inordinate, if juvenile, pleasure when I discovered that the offices of Akshar Prakashan, the publishers of Hans–which had been edited by Premchand and was resurrected by Yadavji–were brilliantly located in literary history. Akshar Prakashan could be found off Ansari Road, where pavement booksellers held court every Sunday, near Hindi Park. If you walked up from Ansari Road, you could walk past Rajendra Yadav’s bustling world of printed proofs and editorials, into the Chandni Chowk described by Krishna Sobti, detour through Ahmed Ali’s twilight in Delhi, and stop to pay your respects to Ghalib sahib in Ballimaran.
Rajendra Yadav died yesterday at the age of 84. Most of his obituaries call him the pioneer of the Nayi Kahani movement, refer to his famous 1951 first novel, Sara Akash (The Open Sky), and speak of his life as a public intellectual. His wife, Mannu Bhandari, is an equally formidable writer; they collaborated on one novel, Ek Inch Muskaan (The One-Inch Smile) before their eventual separation.
The writer’s world in which Rajendra Yadav flourished was very different from the relatively anaemic universe of South Delhi launches. As Ugra recalled in his memoirs, Apni Khabar, even the feuds of the Hindi publishing world had a certain zest to them. The sniping that happens at today’s literary festivals cannot match, for instance, the time that the poet Nirala was attacked by his publisher in Calcutta’s Burrabazaar. Ugra recorded that the aggrieved man’s weapon was only a wooden sword, but “the mouse-like” publisher wielded it to some effect against “the elephant-like” Nirala.
Yadav, born in Agra in 1929, also studied in Meerut, where the lanes were festooned with some of the most colourful of Hindi pulp fiction publishers, stalwarts of the trade whose spy novels, upright detectives and heaving-bosomed Bhabhijis sold by the sackful. But perhaps it is fitting that Delhi should claim him as one of the city’s own; it was here that he carried on the robust tradition of the writer as gadfly. It was a full, bustling life for both Yadav and Mannu Bhandari, as practicing writers in this city. They were in their lives– together and separately — mentors, consulting-editors-for-free, rescuers of impoverished academics, and friends to a wide swathe of Delhi’s citizens.
Sara Akash, which explores the schism between a married couple, was startlingly avant-garde in its form, as well as its content. As with Ukhre Huey Log (Uprooted People), his second novel, his focus was on couples and their domestic world—and what made both these books so unusual was Yadav’s willingness to step away from the conventional cliches about Indian family life.
I love the first four minutes of Basu Chatterjee’s film version of Sara Akash, where the camera walks the viewer briskly through the winding lanes of a mohalla from what Bhisham Sahni called Middle India. There are two quick, rough cuts to slides of the Taj Mahal before the tuneless, cheerful music of a wedding band starts off, introducing the young couple who will spend a year estranged. The camera lingers on the rough walls, bumping behind the carts, catching sunlight, dirt, pedestrians, neighbours. Later, the silent or angry struggles between Yadav’s protagonists plays out as the neighbours watch against that classic urban Indian backdrop of intricately interlinked rooftops.
The things Yadav marked as desirable were so radically different from those associated with “normal” Indian family life: privacy, individuality, growth, a reaching for something that could not be contained within the comforts and suffocation of ‘parivar’. He based the young couple in his novel on the real-life example of a couple who did not speak to each other for eight years, though he shortened the time in deference to potentially sceptical readers.
Yadav was unabashed about sharing his opinions, which often got him into trouble. In 2002, he enraged Hindutva rightwing groups when he wrote an editorial on the importance of perspective and the use of the word “terrorist” after the 9/11 attacks. The controversial line pointed out that even Hanuman would have been a terrorist in the eyes of Ravana and that Bhagat Singh would have been a terrorist in the eyes of the British. Yadav refused to back down and ignored the groups who burned copies of Hans on the streets; he was entitled, he felt, to make his intellectual point.
It was not an idle argument, either. In other speeches, stories and writings, Yadav interrogated history, Indian culture and family life, the Hindu savarna system, the foibles of the overly Anglicized and the pieties and strictures of the middle class with a blend of ferocious intellectual inquiry and despair. In a long speech he made in 1999, he reiterates his position: we could not borrow our ideas from the West; but we could not glorify a past that, in his words, rested on feudal, undemocratic values that justified human bondage and oppression. He drew some hope from parts of the past, such as the Bhakti movement, and he closed the speech with the words of another provocative writer, Dinkar: “All the wars of the world are an attempt at unity.”
It will be a long time before another one of his kind comes along: shaped by the dust and bustle of middle India, Rajendra Yadav looked out from those low, crowded roofs, and saw a better, but distant country.