Khojta hoon pathaar…
Jahaan mil sake mujhe
Meri vah khoyi hui
Param abhivyakti anivaar
I search plateaus… moutains… oceans
Where I might find
—Andhere Mein, by Muktibodh
Any story on bans and ostracisations in the Hindi literary world must necessarily begin with Gajanan Madhav (Muktibodh), its most iconic practitioner. The story begins with his book Bharat: Itihaas Aur Sanskriti getting listed as a school textbook in Madhya Pradesh in the early 60s. Soon, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (which later became BJP) raised objections to get it banned.
In his memoir, Muktibodh’s contemporary Harishankar Parsai recalls the incident in these words: “In those days, his (Muktibodh’s) book Bharat: Itihas Aur Sanskriti was banned. The book was in the course. The people who created the stir against the book were publishers. Jana Sangh opposed the book vehemently. Editors of some so-called non-communal newspapers supported the Jana Sangh. In Rajnandgaon, swayamsevaks harassed the author. The Madhya Pradesh governor of the time heard his plea for an hour-and-a-half, but nothing came out of it. When he tried to talk to the chief minister, he ignored the plea, saying he didn’t have time.” (translation by this writer)
It’s during those dark days of fear and depression that Muktibodh wrote the poem Andhere Mein, which is still taught in universities. He died in penury and was only resurrected later by his critics.
One is reminded of what happened with Phanishwar Nath Renu’s novel Maila Aanchal. All big Hindi publishers rejected the book, claiming his linguistic experiments appeared rustic, and creative licenses he had taken with names (such as Jawahirlal for Jawaharlal or Bhains Chancellor for Vice Chancellor) were problematic. It was eventually published by a nondescript publisher in Patna. Only after a reviewer underlined the importance of Renu’s experiments, did the big Rajkamal Publishers pick it up. And even then, for a long time, Maila Aanchal was categorised as an aanchlik upanyas or vernacular literature and confined to speakers of a region.
One should keep in mind that the Hindi speaking world and the Hindi literary world are two different entities. The latter is elitist and casteist. It may have produced many great works, but it has also suppressed as many independent voices and their works. This is a major reason why Hindi doesn’t have much to show for by way of radical, experimental writing or even good translations.
And even translations are politicised. We may celebrate the 2022 International Booker Prize for the translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi, but under its long shadow are many authors and their works waiting to be published and translated. At a rough estimate, not more than 300 Hindi novels have been translated into English since 1947.
Hindi literature might still appear to hold promise, with names such as Rahi Masoom Raza, Krishna Sobti, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Agyeya and lighting up its portals, but there is darkness in the Hindi public sphere and the publishing world, with its networks of affiliation, ideology, caste and aversion to experiments.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Dark Underbelly")
(Views expressed are personal)
Jey Sushil is the author of the Hindi novel House Husband ki Diary and a PhD student