I once recorded a long interview with Krishna Baldev Vaid over several sessions. Elaborating the significance of ilham (epiphany) in literature, he made a statement that can be on the desk of any creative artist: “Ilhaam ke liye ibadat jaruri hai (Regular worship is necessary to achieve an epiphany).” Born in a small town in Pakistan in July 1927, Vaid migrated to India during Partition, went to Harvard in the 1950s for a PhD on Henry James, alternated between the US and India for decades before he died in New York on Thursday.
The multiple relocations defined his life and work: He epitomised a mid-20th century writer, uprooted, searching for a home in his words. An author for whom the written word was the only truth. He rejected the reader, mocked the critic, spurned the market and firmly remained on the other side of all possible boundaries. Along with Nirmal Verma and Krishna Sobti, Vaid defined Hindi fiction for nearly seven decades. Sobti had a vocal public presence, Nirmal was reticent, Vaid a recluse.
Ten novels, 15 story collections, six books of personal journals, seven plays and a large number of translations from Hindi to English and vice versa. His oeuvre is staggering, as is his artistic achievement. Some writers hit a wonderful chord in the beginning and play the same familiar note through their lives. Vaid always stepped into uncharted zones, sought a new form with almost every novel.
His first novel, Uska Bachpan (Steps Into Darkness, 1957), was a classic but Vaid did not repeat its realist narrative and became among the most experimental writers of 20th century India. Guzara Hua Jamana (The Broken Mirror, 1981) is about Partition trauma, Doosra Na Koi (No Other, 1992) is the monologue of an old writer dying alone in a crumbling home. In Kala Kolaj and Maya Lok he shattered the boundaries of fiction and embraced what is called the anti-novel. Add to this his seminal work of literary criticism, Technique in the Tales of Henry James, which he published in his 30s.
James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were among his favourite authors and his erudition ranged from the Sanskrit epics to the Western classics. A master in Persian and English, he taught English literature at various US universities for decades but chose Hindi for his creative writing. He is also perhaps the most Urdu-ised Hindi writer.
Besides novels, his diaries make for great literature. Remarkable for their candour, self-deprecating humour and a reflection on his writerly struggle, he also records in vivid details his relations with friends. People ranging from Anais Nin, Ramchandra Gandhi, A K Ramanujan, J Swaminathan, Nirmal Verma and M F Husain recur in his diaries. A diary entry talks about the instance he sold his Chandigarh home to Manmohan Singh long before the latter became the prime minister.
Some rigid progressive writers often accused Vaid of being “influenced by the west”. Responding to them, he wrote that alienation and disillusion are essential Indian values, often witnessed among ancient monks and sages. It was a profound form of alienation that germinated paralysing doubts within Arjuna before the beginning of the great war.
A thematic thread runs through Vaid’s work as the child protagonist of Uska Bachpan eventually grows into the old writer, pondering over his childhood, Partition violence and the relationship between men and women. But underneath these themes run deep metaphysical anxieties, a desire to realise the higher truth, aatm-bodha. His protagonist knows more than he can convey and, thus, his entire quest is to express his knowledge in exact words that often elude him. His inquiry, like that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, is essentially a linguistic one.
His unflinching commitment to the word brought him many admirers, rather devotees. Some writers have a large following of readers, some are writers’s writers. He belonged to the second category. Called K B by his contemporaries and Vaid Saab by younger ones, he was widely believed to be the epitome of a modern monk-writer. Along with Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, Henry James’s The Madonna of the Future and Franz Kafka’s Hunger Artist, I rate Doosra Na Koi among the greatest works ever written about the life and death of a creative artist.
Vaid remained away from the literary establishment. Perhaps that’s why he did not receive awards. In fact, he withdrew his name from the only award Delhi’s Hindi Akademi once announced for him because the Sheila Dixit government had suddenly decided to reconsider the awards after a Congressman had complained of “obscenity” in his writings.
I once published a short story, Mithya (The Illusion), whose protagonist, a young writer, is living with guilt because he is unable to write anything worthy that he could offer as guru dakshina to a veteran author he secretly admires. Tonight I can reveal who the Guru was. Vaid Saab, Pranam.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 8, 2020 under the title “His experiments with form.” Bhardwaj is a journalist and writer. His forthcoming book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency.