What do the election results in Uttar Pradesh tell us about the literary culture of the Hindi heartland? It is obvious that the people have embraced the saffron ideology, but has the Hindi literary establishment—that was once dominated by leftists—also shifted base? Where do the political writings of Hindi literature, through which it once offered great resistance to the ruling regime, stand today? An ongoing storm in the Hindi world can offer a few clues to these questions that may define the course of the language and its literature, as well as the politics of its catchment area for years to come.
A few days before the election results, Vinod Kumar Shukla (85), one of Hindi’s most-loved and reticent writers, stunned his readers by releasing a short video clip in which he demanded the withdrawal of his books from his publishers. The publishers cheated him, he said, by not paying due royalty and publishing his books despite his clear instruction to not do so. The heart-wrenching video drew wide anger. His was not the isolated instance. Most Hindi writers often complain of being duped by their publishers. And yet, as a campaign began in his support, a large number of Hindi writers, including progressive ones, sided with the publishers. These writers even blamed Shukla and those who had taken up his issue.
Why did they abandon the ageing writer? Fiction writer Chandan Pandey draws an insightful connection between the Shukla episode and the electoral results in UP. “When, in a contest between a writer and publishers, most intellectuals are taking the side of the mighty, how can you expect the common man to abandon the powerful rulers?” he asks. The comparison is incisive.
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“The Hindi literary world is centered on the publisher. Senior writer Asgar Wajahat, also the office-bearer of a leftist organisation, announced the withdrawal of his books from his publisher after Shukla raised the issue. But the organisation didn’t come to his support,” says writer Prabhat Ranjan, who teaches at a Delhi University college. In other words, either a large part of the Hindi literati has quietly made its new home in the Hindutva camp, or no longer has the tools or the stamina and the intent to confront the political challenge. Dig deeper and it appears that its failure was perhaps inevitable. First, most writers couldn’t sufficiently contest the Hindutva sentiment as it surged over the last few decades. Second, the Hindi literati, marked by bitter casteism and misogyny, could not have possibly challenged the religious lure of saffron. Third, the digital revolution celebrated popular writing and fundamentally altered the reading culture. And fourth, let’s not forget that the Hindi media had turned rightwards long ago during the temple movement of the 1980s.
Speaking about the feeble challenge to Hindutva by Hindi writers, senior leftist writer Akhilesh says: “There is a resistance to communalism at the level of consciousness, but it is not reflected in literary works. Several poets wrote poetry about December 6, the day Babri mosque was demolished. Then there was an entire series of poems marking Narendra Modi’s appointment as the PM. But most of these poems seemed to be written out of a given commitment, and didn’t reflect an inner turmoil.”
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Akhilesh, who edits the influential literary journal Tadbhav, underlines that most of the political writings in the recent decades were written out of an imposed “commitment”, a sentiment “since there was an incident, I had to write on this”. These “committed” writings could not have possibly countered the passionate agenda of the temple movement. But why was the commitment not genuine? Perhaps most writers carried a soft element for the BJP’s politics. They might not have declared it in public, but they had changed the fence long ago, and hence the engagement with the religious polarisation was not serious enough. “There is a simplistic explanation of communalism in Hindi literature, but it’s a far more complex phenomenon,” adds Akhilesh.
Then there are the inherent misogyny and casteism. Even someone like the late Namvar Singh, the doyen of the progressive front, proudly flaunted his Thakur origins. If a prime figure of the left establishment was promoting a particular caste, it had little moral ground to counter the BJP’s Thakurvaad that was to arrive decades later in UP. Young writer Anu Shakti Singh narrates her personal experience of facing sexist comments by fellow writers. “Writers with a massive following use social media to openly display their hatred against women, other religions and castes. When the literary establishment is itself compromised, what can you expect of their writings?”
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To be sure, most writers do carry a cruel dichotomy within them. Their lives refute the very ideals they advocate in their writings. However, the schism that was once known only to their inner circle is now on public display in the digital era. Devoted readers carry an ideal image of the writer, which may not be in consonance with their real lives, but nevertheless helps maintain a mystery, an aura about the author. Social media has stripped writers off the aura. They now stand naked, performing inane gimmicks and obscene stunts to attract people’s attention and sell their books. The disillusionment with literature is inevitable. “How can such writers influence the masses and provide intellectual leadership?” asks Singh.
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Avinash Mishra, the young editor of web magazine Hindwi, is also unsparing in his criticism. “The inherent structure of the Hindi literary world has been deeply political since the beginning. But the public sphere of Hindi is inherently casteist, communal and violent. Due to this irony, a Hindi writer is unable to form a social base,” Mishra says.
Birthed during the freedom movement, modern Hindi literature was firmly idealistic and anti-establishment, and played a major role during the tumultuous period. Hindi writers were friends with topmost national leaders and helped forge a national identity. Akhilesh notes that the nature of political writings changed after Independence. “Hindi literature after Independence had a stamp of Nehruvian values, and thus could not carry a significant critique of contemporary politics,” he says, and then offers an insight into post-Nehruvian political writings. When the disillusionment with the Nehruvian era set in, most writers, instead of offering a critique of the decay, portrayed individuals who withdrew into themselves. “Instead of showing resistance to politics, the protagonists of the post-Nehruvian era literature turned lonely and melancholic,” he says.
Of the little political writings Hindi had, most thus lacked a profound understanding and critique of power structures. “There’s an ample account of sufferers in our writings, but hardly the reality and complexities of the power structure,” Akhilesh says. He cites poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s famous verses “todne honge mutt (the bastions must be demolished)”, and asks: “There is resistance, but what is the bastion, how does it operate, what are its fortifications, the methods of exploitation? The critique of power structure is mostly absent. At best, it comes as a bland depiction, not as an insightful critique.” Akhilesh underlines that many works of fiction “that were written in the name of class conflict were marked by a fake revolution and fake idealism. This fiction had more enthusiasm but less depth.” Such a forged progressive sentiment couldn’t have possibly influenced the masses, who found the saffron alternative at least convincing and passionate.
Amid this came the challenge from globalisation. Ever since Hindi emerged as a national project during the freedom struggle, the language had the responsibility of shaping the nation’s historical legacy. It has had a tradition of popular fiction, but it found little regard from the literary establishment. The last decade has seen a stunning reversal, as prominent publishers have lapped up popular writings. The crime-thriller writer Surendra Mohan Pathak, whose novels were printed on smudgy paper by small-time publishers for decades, now finds himself the toast of major publishers. When most writers receive a meagre royalty, popular verse-master Kumar Vishwas recently received an eight-figure advance royalty, perhaps the highest ever. Never before in Hindi were popular texts celebrated to the extent of denigrating serious literature. “In the last three decades, the Hindi community has de-intellectualised at a great pace. The novels that have come in the last seven years are flooded with trash romances and cheap thrills. These works don’t examine the crisis that is unfolding around them,” says Avinash Mishra.
The triumph of populism has ensured that the word buddhijivi (intellectual) is now often thrown as a derogatory usage. One can blame the BJP’s campaign against intellectuals, but several Hindi writers also ceded their ground. “The credibility of political writing has gone down. The right-wing political writing has never had any credibility; the credibility of leftist writing has now declined. The intellectual community is now facing questions from the very people they claimed to represent,” says Prabhat Ranjan.
The foundation of the transformation was perhaps laid in the 1980s during the Hindi media’s coverage of the Ram temple movement. Until then, the Hindi sphere had glorious publications like Dharmyug, Saptahik Hindustan and Dinmaan, led by towering writers who had pan-Indian recognition. The literary and the media publications amply nourished each other. The temple movement, which took place around the time when the USSR was collapsing and the Indian economy was embracing globalisation, saw the Hindi media taking a decisive turn. While English publications called the demolition of Babri Masjid a “national shame”, the coverage of several Hindi dailies was celebratory. The trend has intensified. In the Hindi media of the last seven years, one can’t easily find voices of dissenters who speak truth to power. When several English dailies carried articles supporting the #MeToo movement in 2018, major Hindi newspapers questioned the protesting women and even lent credence to the version of the accused.
Despite massive circulation and advertisement revenues, Hindi print media has invested very little in original reporting, happily rehashing copies from wire agencies or translating stories from its sister publications in English. The language of some 530 million people, the first language of some 10 states, a language that aspires to become the “national language” has ceded its intellectual leadership. “Allahabad was the ‘Hindi sahitya ka garh (fortress of Hindi literature)’ certainly from about 1900 till about 1980—whereafter the glory was conceded to have departed,” says Professor Harish Trivedi, among the illustrious products of Allahabad University. He lists several writers from Allahabad “who left for bigger pastures, which should have been read as an omen of the things to come”.
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Any political challenge to the BJP must arrive from the heartland because the Hindi belt is formidable enough to pull down whatever resistance other states put up. And any movement in the Hindi heartland is unlikely to arrive without a massive transformation of the Hindi literary and the media sphere. “The UP election results don’t indicate an illness, but a symptom. The illness is cultural and social decay, but we didn’t address that,” says Chandan Pandey.
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The Hindi world is facing perhaps the biggest existential question till date. Six decades ago, the challenge before the poet was to “demolish all mutts (bastions)”. Having lost their uprightness, all bastions stand severely diminished today. Hindi awaits a new home.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Write Choice")