In his preface to this book, Ashok Vajpeyi characterizes Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh as a Hindi poet who earned ‘posthumous pre-eminence’. Therein hangs a tale in this cryptic phrase, indeed a modern literary saga, which is known to all in Hindi but may need explaining in English. Muktibodh was 46 when he died on 11 September 1964 after suffering a paralytic stroke in February that year. Following urgent petitions by numerous Hindi writers, Muktibodh was in March brought from Rajnandgaon, where he taught in a college, to a hospital in Bhopal at the intervention of then Chief Minister, D. P. Mishra, who was also a litterateur. In June, at the intervention of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, he was admitted to the AIIMS in New Delhi where he lingered in a state of coma for another three months. Meanwhile, several volumes of his work were hastily sent to press including the first collection of his poems, Chand ka Munh Terha Hai (The Moon has a Crooked Face), which appeared a fortnight after he died. His reputation and influence have not stopped growing ever since, and he is now widely regarded as one of the greatest Hindi poets of the twentieth century.
There is a romantic aura to this legend of an indigent poet dying relatively young and still at the beginning of his publishing career, despite late attempts by friends and even the state to save him. But Muktibodh was anything but a romantic poet. He is in fact regarded as the iconic poet of the political Left in Hindi, notwithstanding an element of sonorous Sanskritic obscurity and dark dramatic mystery at the heart of his poetry. He was certainly a very well read and insightful Marxist critic of literature and culture. Of the two books of his published in his life-time, one offers a trenchant ‘civilizational critique’ of a revered modern Hindi epic, and the other, a school text-book, was actually banned by the state government on grounds that were later upheld by the High Court.
Such radical commitment nurtured in the midst of material adversity forms a keynote of the present volume in which are collected 306 letters spanning nearly three decades, from 1936 to 1964 written to Muktibodh by 46 friends and relatives of his. His major correspondents are nearly all of the same progressive persuasion and as they carry on, idealistically struggling, suffering for their convictions and often feeling besieged and beleaguered through those perfervid decades, they provide moving testimony to what a different world one lived in then and how utterly the world has moved on since.
This band of friends is bound together not only by their Marxism but perhaps even more by their devotion to literature and their deep faith in the value of the written word. Indeed, this volume throbs, vibrates and fairly pulsates with literary activity and production. The 46 friends of Muktibodh jostling within the covers of this book are nearly all writers, including several who are, or at least once were, widely recognized and highly reputed: Jainendra Kumar, Ajneya, Trilochan, Makhan Lal Chaturvedi, Nemichandra Jain, Naresh Mehta, Harishankar Parsai, Shrikant Verma, Shamsher, Namvar Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Ramesh Chandra Shah and, last but not least, Ashok Vajpeyi, who is a mere lad of eighteen when he first writes to Muktibodh in 1959 but is already busy helping to compile and publish books by Muktibodh by 1964—as he has done this one.
What is more, most of the writers in this volume are seen much of the time to be engaged in the collaborative enterprise of editing some small literary journal or the other. Thus, in a substantial proportion of their letters here, they are constantly requesting or reminding Muktibodh urgently to send them for their next issue some poems, and an essay or a book review as well, and perhaps a few passages from his literary diary, and occasionally a photograph! Though time has since then sifted the major from the minor writers, there was apparently then an air of great equality in this bustling literary traffic. For example, when Muktibodh sends them what they want, as he very often does not only out of solidarity but also out of the large liberality of his warm heart, the magisterial editors seem to feel free to keep some poems and return the others—including incidentally the poem from which the epigraph and the title of this volume are taken.
As for their epistolary practices, there is again a level playing field, stylistically and even linguistically. A fair proportion of the letters here are written in Marathi, which was the language Muktibodh came to Hindi from, while his brother Sharatchandra Muktibodh went on writing in Marathi. Several others are in English, including all from one of his dearest friends Nemichandra Jain, to whom Muktibodh too habitually wrote in English: ‘Dear friend and comrade…’ etc. And at least one letter here is such a virtuoso multilingual performance that it has not been type-set but reproduced in manuscript—understandably. For it begins in Russian in the Cyrillic script, moves to Hindi in Devanagari, contains a self-composed limerick in which all the five rhyme words are in Greek written in the Greek script, proceeds to incorporate words and phrases from or have references to Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Panjabi and English, before concluding as it began in Cyrillic. This thunder-stealing cameo performance is by Yugjeet Navalpuri who was apparently a fellow-travelling journeyman and is all but forgotten now.
These little bits of show-off Russian are only the tip of the iceberg of the pervasive Soviet presence in this book, with the Cold War battle-lines drawn firmly vis-a-vis America. At least two correspondents here are identified as ‘Comrade Pandhe’ and ‘Comrade Diwakar’, and the great Comrade Dange himself is a named off-stage presence. In 1953 Naresh Mehta grandly reports that his name heads a list of 53 writers who are going to be sacked by the All India Radio, with the file against him, initiated after a complaint from the US Embassy, running to 1400 pages. Three months later, in his next letter, he is excitedly participating in a ‘sublime’ meeting with a delegation of Chinese writers at an event in Allahabad over which Mahadevi Verma presided, whom no one has ever accused of being even in her (or their) wildest dreams a Marxist.
A vital aspect of the Hindi literary scene evoked in this book is that with all their entrenched ideologies, writers of all shades of political opinion come together and interact with each other freely and openly, at least in the beginning. Ajneya, who is now in schematic Hindi criticism seen as the very opposite of Muktibodh, is represented here by 18 letters running to 15 pages. He is at first seen assiduously shepherding seven young and unknown poets, with Muktibodh placed as the first among them, into an epoch-making anthology, Tar Saptak (1943), and then, as the gratified editor, rounding them all up again for an augmented edition twenty years on by which date all of them have achieved considerable fame—with all the bodhisattvas having turned into Buddhas, as Ajneya himself wryly remarks. (In his bio-note to this reprint of Tar Saptak, published after his death in 1966, Muktibodh sums up the last two decades of his life tersely and bleakly: ‘Found and left many jobs … Lower-middle-class life, wife-kids, illness-treatment, births-deaths.’)
But over these twenty years, the divisions, gradually deepened between the progressives and the modernists, the ‘pragativadis’ and the ‘prayogavadis’. Some progressives grew disillusioned and defect, including one who joined by 1959 a big commercial journal run by the Bennett Coleman group, a man whom Muktibodh had already denounced in 1942 for spouting Marxism without ever actually having read Marx. It was of all places in Shujalpur Mandi that Muktibodh himself seems to have undergone a conversion to Marxism in the early 1940s—a place so small that its PIN code has not a single zero in it. (That is my own little rule of thumb for determining just how remote, rural and small a place is in India: whether it has in its PIN code one zero or none. Incidentally, the place where Muktibodh held his best-paid job for the last six years of his life, Rajnandgaon, has no zeros either.)
But, in whatever part of the back of the beyond he may be, a wider world held together by a common ideology reaches out to Muktibodh. A dear friend, the satirist Parsai, receives in 1962 an invitation to visit the Soviet Union and raises a couple of thousand rupees from like-minded friends to fund his visit. In the 1950s a Russian researcher named Natalia comes to study the Hindi progressive scene, and Muktibodh commemorates a conversation with her in what has become one of his best known poems. She is followed by a more serious and ardent admirer of Muktibodh’s poetry from Poland, a young lady named Agneshka who arranges to send Muktibodh books and journals about her own country through the Polish Embassy in Delhi. These reveal to him how Poland, though a Communist state, knows a degree of freedom that the Soviet Union itself cannot imagine. Muktibodh promptly acclaims Adam Mickiewicz as a poet of the first rank in the world on the basis of a small sample of his work that he gets to read, and comes down heavily against Communist writers who, unlike Patsternak or Lukacs, have escaped into exile—a judgement that makes poor Agneshka quail. For she has by now married an Indian journalist working for Link and herself become an exile; she hopes that Muktibodh will treat women as a special case in this regard! And after Muktibodh has suffered a paralytic stroke in 1964, a Hindi critic and Party functionary in Delhi, who had in 1941 rejected an article by Muktibodh because it did not have clarity of point of view, writes to reassure him that if the treatment in India is not successful, arrangements will be made to send him to the Soviet Union.
Those were heady times (‘Bliss was it in that dawn. . .’, etc.), and this book captures their thrill and their utopian optimism in all their contemporary immediacy and excitement. Nor is this the whole picture, for it was during this period, for example, that Bhisham Sahni, who is not in this book, stayed in the Soviet Union from 1957 to 1963, translating directly between Russian and Hindi, and Nirmal Verma, who is not in this book either and whom the Hindi Left now shuns and disparages but who was a card-carrying Party member then, similarly went off to live in (the erstwhile) Czechoslovakia from 1959 to 1968 to translate directly between Czech and Hindi and to discover for himself budding writers such as Milan Kundera. Indeed, unlike the Indian Anglophone literary and intellectual elite which still remained tethered to the (post)colonial Anglo-American peg, Hindi writers in these decades explored a new creative cosmopolitanism by discovering affinities and forging bonds with the now defunct Second World. And on the evidence of this book, which is a bustling living record of that phenomenon, it was quite a wonderful and liberating experience while it lasted.
It is to be hoped that when a second edition of this fascinating and historically valuable book is brought out, which will probably be sooner than later, it will be with fewer misprints (especially in the English passages), with the letters in Marathi and in English accompanied by Hindi translations, with a detailed index of names and subjects, and with short biographical notes on all the correspondents as well as a long one on Muktibodh himself. It will be even better, of course, if these letters to Muktibodh could be printed together with letters from Muktibodh to these correspondents, some of which were published in the sixth and last volume of the Muktibodh Rachanavali (1980). That would form an indispensable source for the big definitive biography of Muktibodh which remains yet to be written, and which will constitute equally a narrative of his stirring and deeply contested times.
Harish Trivedi is Professor of English in the University of Delhi. Now and then, he also writes in Hindi.