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An Ode To Hindi Wordsmith Nirmal Verma

The literary biography of Hindi author Nirmal Verma, written by writer-journalist Vineet Gill, is an ode to the master

An Ode To Hindi Wordsmith Nirmal Verma
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Great literature often transports you into the realm of memory – both personal and textual. The other day I found myself in a South Delhi café, reading Nirmal Verma’s short story Lovers. It suddenly occurred to me that the corner of the café I was seated in was not dissimilar to the one Verma’s protagonist chose in a Connaught Place café. The young man yearned for the fiction he had not yet written, perhaps would never be able to write. This was a typical Verma story, where every inanimate object, however mundane, registered some presence, with a tinge of Verma’s own personality echoing in the narrator. As the story unfolded, the narrator faced rejection from his lover. It, however, brings no change to his life. Nothing. I wait for this “nothing” every time I read this story.

It also reminded me of Vineet Gill’s recent book, Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature, which emphatically suggests: “Verma was a writer of nothingness.”

Journalist-author Gill traces the development of Verma’s ‘writerly sensibility,’ and explores his life as a reader, critic, and essayist. Gill insists that his book not be read as a biography, though the idea of ‘biographical excavation’ excites him. He finds biographies “a way of oversimplification of certain complications – in life and literature.” Instead of choosing the conventional path of presenting the chronological life of his subject, Gill vividly details nuances in Verma’s life and craft as and when they occur to him.

Verma once said in an interview, “I think all my writings together constitute an autobiography.” Gill writes, “While reading about the young narrator of ‘Ve Din’ (Those Days) – a tragic but ebullient hero – how can one not think about Verma as a young man in Prague?”

Ve Din’ is not the only instance. Verma’s other works also carry imprints of personal sorrow. In “Ek Din Ka Mehman” (A Day’s Guest), a man makes an uneasy visit to his daughter and his ex-wife, which reminds of Verma’s own troubled first marriage.

Verma’s fiction often leads me to a prolonged maun (silence), a melancholic yet alluring contemplation of life. His uprooted characters form intimate bonds with cafés, roads, leaves—even pullovers and corduroy jeans. I instantly identify myself with homelessness, the loneliness of metro life, and a longing for lost childhood. In Gill, I found a perfect interlocutor who decoded and translated the unsaid emotions Verma writes about.

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Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature | Penguin Random House | 168 Pages | Rs. 499

Verma was also a passionate reader and traveller. For Verma, Gill writes, travelling was a ‘creative practice’ and his writing was an ‘offshoot’ of his journeys. Verma travelled like a flâneur “with an eye on historical currents”. His travel writing has the imagination of an artist, the curiosity of a reporter, and sensibility of a poet.

Verma is also a writer of memories. He saw places as ‘habitation of memories’ – the daily grind of life that make us appreciate nature, inanimate objects, and things we leave behind. The memories he writes about swiftly come to occupy the solitary space of the reader.

Gill underlines that memory is central to Verma’s craft, as “it provides a form, an idiom, a language to his realism.” While Verma believed that “every writer is absolutely alone in his own experience”, he did not consider writing to be the product of a singular mind as he stated that “every writer, no matter how alone he is in his experience, is always connected to others through his memory.” It lends several layers to his text, sometimes “concealing altogether different linguistic sensibilities”.

Verma was essentially a cosmopolitan writer. His story, ‘Parinde’ (Birds), 1959, called the first notable example of Nayi Kahani (New Story) by renowned Hindi critic, Namvar Singh, ushers in a cosmopolitan sensibility in Hindi literature. ‘Parinde’s’ Mr. Hubert addresses its protagonist Latika in Elizabethan English, while ‘Picture Postcard,’ another short story, Gill points out, is set in “strictly Anglophone set-ups”. Characters greet each other “with posh affection: ‘How do you do?’ The travelogue Cheedon Pe Chandin (1962) marks the beginning of Verma’s European writings and becomes a “record of his cultural discoveries.”

And what was his literary politics? Gill underlines that Verma sought a middle ground in his writing between art for art’s sake and engagé art (morally or politically committed art).

For Verma, writes Gill, literature “is a record, an exploration of a set of questions more pressing than any politics.” Verma faced several accusations of being a right-wing sympathiser towards the end of his life. While he always claimed that for a writer “ideological independence was of paramount importance”, the accusation refuses to diminish. Gill quotes the late Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral: “Verma fell victim to the notion of ‘civilisational superiority’ that “the Indian right has drawn sustenance from.” However, Gill avoids examining this crucial aspect of Verma’s life, as he remains focused on Verma’s craft.

According to Gill, the turning point in Verma’s life was an essay he wrote after his visit to the Kumbh Mela in 1976. Gill feels, “as is often the case with Verma’s non-fiction, what’s at the centre of it is a personal void, a sense of loss”. It was the loss of one’s civilisation that perhaps took the Europe-returned writer to undertake the search for ‘Indianness.’  Soon it became an ‘abiding preoccupation’ for Verma, with many of his essays dealing with a lost Indian identity.

Here and Hereafter articulates the loneliness of artistic endeavour— a sentiment jointly shared by the writer, the reader, and the critic. The book invents its own form. A personal meditation, analytical reportage, a literary pilgrimage—one can read it in multiple ways but whatever the case, it is a compelling read.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The Power Of Nothingness")

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