Muktibodh Rachanvali is a six volume compilation of the total literary output of one of the most remarkable writers of our time. Born in 1917 at Sheopur, Gwalior, in a middle-class family, Muktibodh died in New Delhi in 1964 after a prolonged illness, leaving behind a sizeable body of work most of it unpublished. His lifelong struggle against poverty left his literary gifts undiminished, but it did, coupled with the indifference of the reading public and the hostility of his contemporary criticism, make him indifferent to cataloguing or preserving his work. This must have made the task of collecting, arranging in proper order and chronologically his various poems and prose writings very difficult indeed. The editor of the volumes, the well-known Hindi poet-critic Shri Namichand Jain, an old and close friend and associate of the late poet, deserves to be congratulated for presenting, in spite of the odds, in as neat and orderly a sequence, the complete output of a mercurial writer, as was possible.
Of the six volumes the first two contain all Muktibodh’s published and unpublished poems; including their various drafts. Some of which are incomplete, abandoned midway for some reason or another. Volume Three contains Muktibodh’s short stories and parts of an incomplete novel. Volume Four and Five contain Muktibodh’s critical writings covering a wide field of literature, history and political philosophy. Volume Six is a collection of Muktibodh’s letters, written to various friends, colleagues and fellow writers. Some of the letters are in English, most in Hindi. Missing from the collection is Muktibodh’s book on Indian history, Bharatiya Itihas Aur Sanskriti, written as a text book for school children, and banned for a shameful reason by the State Government.
Muktibodh arrived on the literary scene at the critical time when the literate Hindu mind in our country was first faced with the scientific humanism of Western thinkers like Marx and Lenin who recognized the world one lives in, not as ‘given’, but as a product of innumerable socio-political choices, decisions and adjustments. Muktibodh turns upon the world around him in a raging scientific curiosity that rejects the romantic sad ‘pastness’ of’ the past that his Chhayavadi predecessors and contemporaries were so fond of emphasizing and demands a ruthless reassessment of the accepted social and aesthetic values. Rooted in the feudal ethos that not only accepted the caste system, but strengthened it, the Hindu writers chose to treat art as its own source of values and in the process rendered most of our literature solipsistic and self regarding. Perhaps after Tulsidas, Muktibodh was the first Hindu writer so preoccupied with the moral dimensions of his voccation, using style not as a social grace but as a tool for ethical analysis.
Muktibodh’s central problem is in direct contrast to that of a Western writer’s, who finds it hard to express the impoverished reality of a decadent life in the rich fullness of his craft, without appearing either paradoxical or drab:
The problem today is not that the ingredients of life are far removed from us. The truth is that in our country they are too much around us, and too close. Each day from the morning to the night, life batters our souls again and again, so much so that we create a protective vacuum deliberately around ourselves. But the ingredients of life do not die out, they merely proceed to go underground.
More than any other Hindi writer of his time Muktibodh recognized the political failure of the Indian intelligentsia as a moral failure that had created a vast gulf between the writer and the common man, and had led to a critical point of alienation of the individual from the social values. But his castigation of the middle class and his denouncement of the feudal values of the Indian middle-classes (which had been encouraged by the Vaishnava literature of the middle-ages) is not so much a revolt against his own cramping circumstances or his family background, as a comprehension of a historical moment:
We cannot analyse a literature properly until we do not probe the roots of the dynamic social powers that manifest themselves on the psychological and cultural planes within it.
We firmly believe that during the period of the British Imperialism, the rebirth of the mystical monotheistic thought strengthened the roots of a self centered individualism and gave no help whatsoever to those who were fighting for true reforms in our suffocatingly feudal society…it suggested various escape routes instead…and this is the chief reason for the images of rot and decay the romantic Chhayavad projects.
Muktibodh realized that moral values in literature are seldom, if ever, present as a unitary and exemplary totality, and warns against searching creative literature for overt moral principles. In doing so he often comes close to contradicting himself. The duality of the literary truth and truth in real life is as old as literature, and in fact this is what rescues art from melodrama and opens up before the reader larger vistas of ambiguity and irony. But it would be a mistake to over-emphasize the dichotomy. What makes Muktibodh a great writer is the spiritual and aesthetic effort that went into the control of the contending forces and his transparent honesty that spares no one, least of all himself. Life of spirit to Muktibodh was not contemplative but active, and uncertainty was not a stage in the process, but an essential condition of knowledge.
Muktibodh’s short stories are preoccupied with the patterns of familiar domination in an Indian’s life and how it shapes him. He recognizes astutely, that the alienation of the modern man is as much a fossilization as conformism. The much admired ‘outsider’ has no more right to claim individual Nirvana than a bourgeoisie ‘insider’:
Salvation can not come to an individual in isolation. The lonely man in a lonely· corner will never attain it.
However, Muktibodh is far removed from the cruder social realism of many other short story writers who define some areas and classes as more worthwhile for the artist because they are more ‘real.’ Most of his stories center around an individual, and this man is nearly always an alter ego of the man Muktibodh; a voyeur wandering through the dark lanes and bylanes of the Indian suburbia, where past and present coexist among scenes of unimaginable squalor and poverty. The secondary characters in these stories are all severely drawn taciturn creatures, silently suffering and withdrawn. The real dramatic power here is derived from the protagonist’s passion and his deep shame that so much suffering should exist all round him. Imbued with the doubts and anxieties of the central character, the imagery in these stories is a hallucinatory, floating one and although the expectation of progress is created, doubts inhibit the real action that creates a beginning, a middle and an end in a story. Nirmal Verma has rightly pointed out that these are stories lying in wait. And what do they await? The restlessness, the heavy gloom and the acute tensions of these stories perhaps find full release in Muktibodh’s poems, the finest fruit of his tortured genius.
Whereas in his short stories Muktibodh was trying to project a complex situation through a traditionally linear narrative and found it lacking in the requisite elasticity of time, place and action. In his poems he has found the perfect objective correlative in a blending of the traditional allegorical form of writing with the free verse and the prosaic idiom of the later ages. Muktibodh differs from a traditional poet like say Tulsidas in that he does not follow the firmly established hierarchy of religious values that define the progress of a character like Rama and see him as a personification of the Ultimate Good. In Muktibodh’s poems, especially the longer ones like Brahma Rak shas or Andhere Mein; the extended metaphors are present; but they are Janiform—bifaced in a very human way; expectation of progress is therefore created in a series of ironical, fragmented incidents. The linear narrative form of the stories would have inhibited this elliptical conflict from coming to a satisfactory close, but the winding and repetitive form of the allegory often results in poems of extraordinary beauty and power. Another major point of departure between these poems and the traditional allegory is that in a traditional allegory it is the collective, accepted values that are being threatened by an individual, who is the Evil Principle Incarnate, be it Ravana or Duryodhana. In Muktibodh’s poems, the individual is alone in his knowledge that the collective values are false, and it is he who needs to defend his soul (and thereby the collective destiny of his brethren) against the onslaught of the traditional collective values. The· experience of the protagonist here, is understand ably baffling and unique and haunted by misgivings, but the brutality and remorselessness of the age is always seen, not as part of an irrevocable universal pattern, but as rooted in a corrupt social system, and hence redeemable.
Ultimately an allegory is a shared experience, however authoritarian the moral tone. Working with the presupposition that his readers are prepared to learn, the writer of an allegory can assume a constant interplay between his work and the responses of the traditionally trained mind of the reader. This constitutes a special strength of Muktibodh’s verse. Few poets attract and involve the reader in the central action in the poem as Muktibodh does. His tone is always warm and confiding, and unsparingly sharp where he demands
We died not because
We were rebels, but because we were not
Buried here with me in the rubble
O pulses, to throb
Is now our painful responsibility.
Try to live
Even while buried so deep
Within the earth.
This dialogue with the audience is what, ironically, leads us away from literature and eventually shows it to be just one of the ways of looking at life. It lifts us not beyond but above the world, and offers us the awesome sight Arjuna’s eyes saw at the Kurukshetra before he picked up his bow.
Invariably in a collection as comprehensive as the present one, there will be many poems and stories which would be best described as studio pieces; works neither destined for, nor of interest to the common reader. Muktibodh worked long and painstakingly over his poems, and short stories, working from several drafts to prepare the final one. Some of the poems and stories included in the collection fall into this category and provide in their own way, a rare glimpse into the workings of a creative mind. As such they should be invaluable to the students and creators of literature alike.
In all an excellent set of volumes, meticulously edited and published, one which each good library that stocks Hindi books ought to acquire.
Mrinal Pande is writer in English and Hindi.