Book: A Life Misspent
Author: Suryakant Tripathi Nirala
Translated by Satti Khanna
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Price: Rs 199
For several years, the Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala nourished a wish. He wanted to write a biography. Born in 1896, the poet grew up through the turbulent phase of the freedom struggle, one dominated by towering personalities, but he found “no suitable person to write about, no leader of men”. He eventually realised that “India is an enslaved nation” because “our heroes compensate for their weaknesses with grand statements. The blaze of light around what they say hides how they live”. In the 1930s, Nirala wrote the biography of Kulli Bhat, an eponymous book on a Brahmin, who was treated as an untouchable due to his homosexual tendencies. Translated by Satti Khanna as A Life Misspent, this slim book is less about Bhat, it reveals more about Nirala. The author is present in almost all frames of the book — his early childhood, the journey from Bengal to Uttar Pradesh, marriage and the consequent creative struggle. The poet writes in the first person and offers himself through an inverted mirror of Kulli Bhat.
The book marks a significant intervention in the Hindi prose narrative. At that time, a well-defined linear plot and realism were the dominant trends. As if he’s creating cinematic jump cuts, Nirala abruptly flits across sequences and time frames within a single paragraph. He also transcended the period’s rather sentimental prose.
In the book, the narrator-poet loses several relatives to various diseases but death is addressed with irony and self-restraint that works to underline the tragedy. Consider this paragraph when Nirala records the death of his hero: “I was in the sitting room when I heard Kulli was dead. I was in the sitting room when I was told his corpse had arrived in Dalamu. I was in the sitting room when the funeral procession set out and returned. I was seated as before. That evening I ate my dinner as usual. Kulli’s wife sobbed and cried. I heard her and did nothing.” The death is recorded in the absolute stillness of a person in his sitting room.
Note that this paragraph appeared a few years before the most famous opening lines of a 20th century novel: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” However, Nirala is not an outsider. When no Brahmin is around to conduct the rituals after Kulli’s death, Nirala performs the puja for his wife. As part of the ritual, instead of puris, a vegetarian Nirala also orders some “mutton from a butcher”. “Kulli’s wife was a meat-eating Muslim before she was Kulli’s wife. I felt it was appropriate to align myself with her old customs. There is no fault in such things.” These are the last lines of the book.
Nearly a century later, Nirala’s anguish remains unresolved. The 125th birth centenary year of Dr BR Ambedkar has seen almost the entire political spectrum trying to embrace the leader. Nirala’s Brahmin-turned-untouchable hero marries a Muslim woman. Bhat calls Gandhi a “hypocrite” and asserts: “If Mahatma Gandhi believes in social reform, let him marry a Muslim woman and bring her home to live with him.” As if the author had foretold the debate a century ago.
The book has other instances when Nirala disagreed with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. For this courage, Nirala is among the few Hindi writers who is revered across ideologies. He has only two longer poetic works. Saroj Smriti is Nirala’s personal farewell to his daughter who died early and Ram Ki Shakti Puja is a masterpiece in extremely Sanskritised Hindi.
None of them, in length or sentiment even remotely aspires to be an epic or mahakavya, but Nirala is called Mahakavi. The only Mahakavi of modern Hindi, who recreated Ram’s myth, lent him supremely divine powers, and almost immediately wrote perhaps the earliest biography of a homosexual in modern Indian literature. Few possess such radical talent.