04 June 2022

A Faded Souvenir Of The Forgotten Past


A Faded Souvenir Of The Forgotten Past

Rajkamal Chaudhary (1929–1967) wrote outside the dicta of dominant Hindi ethics. His stories can be read like montages, flashes and sudden glimpses of the past.

A faded souvenir of the forgotten past.
A faded souvenir of the forgotten past. Shutterstock

An unnamed writer, a man in his 30s, is observing objects in his room: the concrete floor, the inflated mattress bought from an auction house, pages of newspapers, a closed window frame, a mirror, a sick man standing in front of a mirror. There is also a Siamese cat. He goes out to meet his girlfriend at a restaurant in Connaught Place where he is fixated on the image of a woman on a poster. His mind is blurring the women surrounding him and the woman in the poster. He contemplates life, death and suicide but there is no longer any difference between the bathroom mirror and the mirror in his room. Every object is blurring into another, and every person he encounters opens the vortex of another person until it is no longer possible to differentiate between life and death. This strange, almost absurd ambience is peculiar to the meaningless world of Rajkamal Chaudhary (1929-1967), who wrote from the depths of Hindi literature.  

In the short story Nature Morte, which appears in the anthology, Traces of Boots on a Tongue and Other Stories, forthcoming in my translation from Seagull Books, Chaudhary writes: “I wake up in the morning, stand in front of a mirror, and look at both my hands — bloodstains are no longer on my fingers. Only the scent. Perfume from the whole of Arabia wouldn’t erase it. I feel frightened. I move my face closer to the mirror and feel scared of my pupils glowing in colossal abysses. Life begins from this fear. Life ends due to this fear.” This sick man standing in front of his mirror vortex could be Chaudhary himself. One of the rebel writers of Hindi literature, Chaudhary was uncomfortably uncategorisable, who wrote outside the given dicta of dominant Hindi sentiments. A star writer of little magazines, he was never quite accepted into the folds of the Hindi literary mainstream, always considered too vulgar, too immoral, too degraded to be deemed a writer of importance. However, his last poem, written on his deathbed, is still the milestone of modern Hindi poetry. Without Chaudhary’s Muktiprasang (Freedom Episode), we perhaps would not have arrived at Dhoomil and Raghuvir Sahay. Not even Alok Dhanwa. His novel Machli Mari Huyi (Dead Fish) is another absurdist narrative about homosexuality and his short stories constantly struggle against an amoral universe. 

Born in 1929 at Rampur Haveli in northern Bihar, his childhood was marked by a strictly religious upbringing, the early death of his mother, and a strained relationship with his father who married a younger woman. It was in high school in Nawada that he first started writing poetry in Maithili. He then moved to Patna to study an arts programme, where the study of painting briefly interested him but he was distracted sufficiently by a love affair.  

He married Shashikanta Choudhary, his first wife, and started working for the government at the Patna Secretariat. It was around this time that he decided to also write in Hindi, which promised a larger readership and hence more money. In due course, Chaudhary was dismissed from his government job on account of a long absence owing to his complicated affair with a woman named Savitri Sharma. They married but their marriage only lasted for eight months. There are many stories but it ended either due to Chaudhary’s romantic involvement with his wife’s niece or over a conflict centering around a platinum ring.  

After his marriage to Savitri Sharma ended, he returned to his first wife and moved to Calcutta where he was involved with many other women and came into close contact with the Bengali avant-garde movement. He became particularly close to the Hungryalist poets, who with their offbeat style and disregard for literary norms, significantly influenced his further writing. It was perhaps his Calcutta sojourn that inspired one of his starkly horrifying stories, Some People in a Burning House. Sample this passage from the story: “Switch on the light … light … But no light happens. The sound of the engineer’s shoes stops. But no matchstick is lit. The boy accompanying Chandravati blares — light a match! Engineer sahib, light a match. The snake will bite me … I had once killed a snake! The snake will take revenge … save me … save me … This has no effect on the engineer. He says — I have two cigarettes, and a total of two matchsticks. I will light a matchstick only when I feel like smoking a cigarette.” 

In the same story, there is another unnamed narrator, a salesman from Calcutta, trapped in the dark basement of a brothel in an unknown town with other people who are sharing a similar fate as him. The others include a factory engineer indifferent to others’ fate, a young student, an old coal supplier with a useless family, at least two prostitutes, many dead putrefying rats, a venomous snake, shards of broken glass, stubs of just extinguished cigarettes. The narrator who, like the others around him had arrived at the brothel for sexual pleasure and a night of mindless indulgence, is quickly overwhelmed by the horror of the basement. The prostitute he had hired for himself, Dipu, is intent on having sex with him even when he is unwilling. The old coal supplier has been bitten by a snake. He is bleeding to death while crying for help but no one cares. The brothel basement drowned in darkness starts resembling life itself from which there is no escape except by death. Life itself becomes the burning house.  

Chaudhary remained in Calcutta for another six years, working both as a translator and a writer. In 1960, he founded a literary magazine, Raagrang, that he continued to publish until 1963, when he returned to Patna. In Patna, he worked as an editor for Bharat Mail for some time, after which he devoted his time entirely to his writing. In 1966, he fell severely ill. The doctors diagnosed him with terminal lymphosarcoma. He died at the age of 37. By then, he had already written 11 novels, seven short story collections, and hundreds of poems in Maithili and Hindi. 

Chaudhary was perhaps the first to experiment with the cadence in which Hindi contemporary poetry and prose is being written even today. When he fell ill, Agyeya himself took a flight to visit him in Patna. This visit by the iconic writer created a commotion in the literary world of Bihar, who until then hadn’t quite realized the strange importance of the ailing writer. It was around the same time that Agyeya wrote an existential letter to Rajkamal, parts of which were published at the beginning of his Muktiprasang. He is now a faded souvenir of a time out of which, like a maze, we can’t seem to get out of.  

While reading his stories, it is interesting to note that Chaudhary’s quintessential protagonist is a young man, often a proxy for himself, caught in the postmodernist world where nothing really has any meaning anymore. The young men of Chaudhary’s stories are struggling to survive in a newly independent India, where the very idea of a future remains a mirage.  

There are women too, often seen from a distance, but sometimes experiencing the horrors of life firsthand: as a hysteria patient obsessed with a black cat, a woman who converted to Hinduism searching for her lost Christian past in cemeteries. In the short story, Sisters-in-law, a young woman living in a village has just had sex in a forest with a just-dead man. Her sister-in-law advises her: “… go take a bath in the pond and sprinkle some holy water from the Ganges. What else can you do? When there is no shame in sleeping with a living man, then why feel shame in sleeping with a dead man?”  

The stories are montages, flashes, almost documentary-like glimpses of the past that no longer feels like the past. Much like the nouvelle vague cinema that broke down boundaries between reality and fiction, Chaudhary’s stories seem to reject the characteristic formality of earlier Hindi literature and embrace a newer, more modern cadence of a world where there is no longer either god or morality, not even the desire for it. He is a writer writing not in a closed room but on the streets.  

Chaudhary’s world, situated in the India of the 1950s and 60s, is populated with eccentric characters as well as the depravity of both the urban and the rural world. In all of this, we sometimes catch a glance of not just our life but also of Chaudhary’s.  

These stories about bewildered and bitter characters trying to cope in a society that is fast breaking down, perfectly encapsulate not just the twentieth-century Indian existence but also the twenty-first-century one. Written more than 70 years ago, they sometimes read like they were written just this morning, but, much like in life, there are no resolutions on offer, no final meaning to be arrived at. The characters, like us, must just survive.  

(Saudamini Deo has translated selected short stories of Rajkamal Chaudhary. She is the co-founding editor of RIC Journal. She lives in Jaipur, Rajasthan)