Knowing The Unknown
One of Hindi literature’s early modernists grapples with urbanity, caste and sexuality
Shekhar’s entry to the world of English nearly 80 years after its advent in Hindi tells you about the distance between the sensibility zones of two languages which on other occasions intersect each other. It is strange that Ageyaya, a true polyglot, ignored his first and most iconic novel while translating his novels Apne Apne Ajnabi and Nadi ke Dweep and his poems into English. This gap has now been addressed with Snehal Shingavi and Vasudha Dalmia translating this avant-garde novel. Shekhar had taken the Hindi world by storm when it appeared in 1941. It brought a revolution in the way novelistic characters would be created henceforth. It is not surprising that his patron was Jainendra, whose novels were a significant departure from Premchand. Interestingly, Premchand encouraged Jainendra, while constantly arguing with him. It was again Premchand who first published Agyeya and gave him this name. His short story was sent from jail. Jainendra gave it to Premchand, who called the author of the story Agyeya (unknown), as the author did not want to disclose himself while publishing it.
Shekhar was also the announcement of the arrival of an authentic modernist voice in Hindi literature. Premchand had created a language of fictional prose, but Agyeya took it to a different level. Premchand created a language which could be an honest witness to the reality around us, but Agyeya for the first time posed the problem of a language which could see also the eye—that is, looking at reality. Agyeya, through Shekhar, demonstrated that novels could think.
There was also a mystery around Shekhar, as it was announced as a novel in three parts. But after the publication of the second part, readers were made to wait eternally for the third. It was, therefore, always read as a yet to be completed novel.
This suspense about the destiny of the protagonist was also symbolic. To comprehend an individual fully is impossible. Shekhar talks about the agony of evolving individuality in a society where community-based norms are supreme. To gain this individuality, rebellion is a must. So, essentially, Shekhar is a rebel. It is not surprising that the novel becomes the first in which an urban youth confronts not only the question of caste but also grapples with the traditional notion of love and sexuality. Shashi, in the book, is yet another character in the history of Hindi novel who has her admirers and detractors, like Mirnal from Tyagpatra by Jainendra.
A young revolutionary waiting for his imminent death in jail reflects on his brief life and battles with the questions of the efficacy of the method of violence in social and political change and what makes a rebel. He is a nationalist but with a cosmopolitan mind, the first polyglot character of Hindi novels, as observed by Snehal. Is it a coincidence that Agyeya also translated Tagore’s Gora, which is also a story of discovering one’s identity and relationship with the world? Is Shekhar to be seen as coming after him? Taking his questions forward? Seen this way, Shekhar in itself turns into an act of translation.