What do we expect when we pick up a biography to read, particularly one not of an unknown Indian, but an unknowable Indian, especially if he happens to be a celebrated writer who had become a legend even during his lifetime?
Why do we want to peep into the deep and dark recesses of his private life and eavesdrop on his intimate conversations? Does it help us understand his writings better?
W. B. Yeats had posed this question about dance, asking if we could know the dancer from his/her dance. And as T.S. Elliot explained the process of literary creation as the outcome of the dissolution of personality, this seems nigh impossible. Therefore, it becomes imperative to situate a writer’s writings in his/her life situations to understand what all went into the making of that work, although all literary writings are not necessarily autobiographical.
Writing a biography is a difficult literary project as it obliges the author to have an empathetic as well as objective attitude towards the subject; a kind of parkaya-pravesh (entering the body and soul of another individual).
Akshaya Mukul, whose first book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, firmly established his credentials as a painstaking and conscientious researcher and lucid writer, has successfully played the role of a first-rate biographer in writing Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya, his voluminous study of the multifaceted life of Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan, who the Hindi literary world knew as ‘Agyeya’ (Unknowable).
Those who become legends during their lifetime have an undefinable mystique and aura that separate them from all others and place them in a category of their own. Until his death on April 4, 1987, Agyeya dominated the literary scene. Loved and admired by his fans, he faced scathing criticism by those who did not like his literary stance. However, he could not be ignored and his presence loomed large over the Hindi literary world.
Although the title of Mukul’s book assigns the last place to ‘Lover’, Agyeya’s primary literary identity was that of a vagabond lover as the experiences he gathered over the course of his various relationships infused most of his writings, especially his two early novels – the two-part Shekhar: Ek Jeevani (Shekhar: A Biography) and Nadi Ke Dwip (Islands of the River). They also gave rise to speculation in the Hindi world about the identities of the female characters in his novels.
Mukul has made a big discovery in this respect. For the first time, the Hindi world has come to know about Kripa Sen, with whom Agyeya had a passionate relationship. And suddenly, with this awareness, one starts feeling her presence in Nadi Ke Dwip which too has, like Shekhar, an autobiographical tone.
It is interesting to note that famous Urdu writer Krishan Chander was a jealous rival of Agyeya as he was hopelessly besotted with Sen who, as Mukul informs us, “called herself a ‘gypsy’, equally at ease in cosmopolitan and mufussil settings.” Like Agyeya, she too was trying to come out of a failed marriage.
Mukul perceptively describes her as, “Beautiful in her unfussy cotton saris, well-travelled and chatty, Kripa was everything Agyeya was not: possessive, passionate, impulsive and plucky.” Like all his women, she too felt the pangs of love first while Agyeya played his aloof self for some time.
It is because of the author’s discovery of Sen that we now know who ‘Rekha’ in Nadi Ke Dwip was modelled on. It was always clear that ‘Gaura’ was based on Kapila Malik, who later became famous as Agyeya’s second wife, Kapila Vatsyayan.
As Mukul said at the launch of the book in August, all of Agyeya’s women were miserable in the end. He hinted that his domineering behaviour and aloofness were the two most important reasons behind the unhappiness of his lovers. After reading the book, one feels that his strained relations with his control-freak archaeologist father Hirananda Sastri and not-too-happy relations with his mother were perhaps responsible for shaping his personality in this way.
The Hindi world was overawed by Agyeya’s inscrutability, aloofness and silences and ascribed them to his being part of a westernised “elite” stratum of society. And these are the very attributes that contributed to creating his larger-than-life image and added to his mystique, both as a man and as a writer.
His revolutionary past and stint in jail – Shekhar was written during incarceration – made his persona even more mysterious and attractive. In the introduction to his book, Mukul quotes Agyeya who, as a very successful 34-year-old novelist, wrote to a fellow writer: “My entire life is led internally and never gets expressed. The other life, which is led on the surface, is almost impersonal. If the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde fits anyone, it’s me.”
He also insisted that contrary to what others thought of him, he was neither “stony” nor “abrasive”. A prolific writer, he also ironically remarked that “Silence has become my nature.”
How different two prolific writers can be from each other is best illustrated by what the great Marxist literary critic and philosopher, György Lukács, used to say: “ I am lucky in that I have no inner life”. Was it because different intellectual processes were at work behind their creations? While one was dealing with life experiences and the emotional pressures that went into writing novels, short stories and poems, the other’s stock in trade were philosophical ideas and arguments.
It seems Agyeya always had a feeling of incompleteness in all his creative endeavours as well as relationships and this might explain his vagabond nature (yaayaavari). He was a rebel in both senses – a revolutionary who rose against colonial rule and a rebel who broke social norms. His love affair and eventual live-in relationship with Ila Dalmia, more than three decades younger that him, is case in point.
Mukul has meticulously documented and analysed all the major events in Agyeya’s life. His literary success has overshadowed his contribution to Hindi journalism. Besides working as the editor for such popular and reputed publications as Sainik and Vishal Bharat, he created Hindi news weekly Dinman that combined reportage and analysis of political news with reporting on the developments in the fields of literature, art, cinema, music and dance.
Just as Shekhar was the first modern/modernist novel, Dinman was the first modern/modernist news weekly. It was through the magnetism of his personality that he could gather a team of such famous Hindi writers as Raghuvir Sahay, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, Srikant Verma, Prayag Shukla and others. It was Shukla and Netra Singh Rawat who started serious art and film criticism, respectively, and created the critical language required for this.
Later Vinod Bharadwaj too joined them and carried forward this tradition. As an editor, Agyeya broke the moulds of Hindi journalism and freed it from the realm of the pedestrian.
The author has also shed light on Agyeya’s short association with the Progressive Writers’ Association and his anti-fascist fervour that led him to join the British Army despite intense emotional pleading and protestations from Sen, who tried to dissuade him. Like many others, he too got peeved with the communists and broke ranks with them, only to turn to, just like Nirmal Verma, an undefinable “Indianness” that verged on cultural nationalism, better known as ‘Hindutva’.
While Mukul talks only of the novel Nadi Ke Dwip, Agyeya had also written a poem with the same title, celebrating the grandeur of an individual’s loneliness and distance from society. The progressives viewed the poem through the binary of individual versus society as a kind of literary manifesto against collective struggles. His later association with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, said to be sponsored by the CIA, reinforced their suspicions.
Mukul has given a detailed overview of those times and the role played by Agyeya. The biographer has not brushed anything under the carpet.
Suffice it to say that with this definitive biography of Agyeya, whom even his staunch critics like Namwar Singh and Ashok Vajpeyi began to admire after his demise, Mukul has raised the bar so high that it will not be easy to touch or cross it. One only wishes that such biographies are written in Hindi, too.
Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.