Book Review | Man of contradictions who galvanised Hindi literature

The Asian Age.  | Malati Mathur

Review of Writer Rebel Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya by Akshaya Mukul

Cover photo of Writer Rebel Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya by Akshaya Mukul (Photo: By arrangement)

The title aptly encapsulates the mindscape as well as the various milestones that mark the journey of a man who straddles the Hindi literary world like the proverbial colossus.  A formidable work of research (pages 569 to 767 of this weighty tome are devoted to notes and bibliography), the figure of Agyeya is brought to life word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, section by section.  All the clichés that spring to mind when thinking of this redoubtable writer are as true as their very opposites.

A man of contradictions  (someone who thought and wrote about women’s rights but whose relationships with women often tended to be extractive), a person who admitted to thinking and dreaming in English but championed the cause of Hindi vehemently enough to seem a linguistic chauvinist (even if he was described as having Western tastes and sensibility, he went on to later become an unexpected torch bearer of language nationalism), a man of the world, sophisticated and well travelled, with eclectic reading and lifestyle tastes, but who insisted on rootedness to tradition (“rebel-traditionalist” was what he described himself as in his Jnanpith award acceptance speech), and a revolutionary who fought against British rule, got involved in the Delhi Conspiracy Case of 1912 and was sent to prison but who later joined the British Army to fight against fascist forces during WWII, Agyeya’s persona could fit in all these conflicting traits. His charm and appeal stretched across generations as a reticent, enigmatic personality, famed for his aloofness which he possibly also consciously draped around himself later.  He distrusted government institutions and juries that presumed to judge a writer’s work for awards but did accept some of those awards. He could be caustic and outspoken but later penitent, even self-abasing if he felt that his words had caused offence and might harm his own interests.  This biography too seems to reflect these inherent contradictions — it talks about one of the giants of the Hindi literary firmament but in English. Apart from being a poet and a writer of fiction, travelogues, essays, a critic, an editor, a diarist and a journalist, Agyeya was also a revolutionary, painter, sculptor, cook, interior decorator, tailor, gardener, photographer, organiser of writers’ camps and trips, cat and animal lover, environmentalist — and a man who could turn out delightful sketches!

Here is a man who was part of history in the making — two World Wars, the clamour and struggle for India’s freedom, Gandhi and Partition, the newly minted Indian democratic republic with its ideals and later disenchantment, the erosion of democracy during the Emergency. But his life is not only a history of political and social change but also displays the ebb and flow  of literary styles and sensibilities, with its impassioned debates, acrimonious rivalries and lasting intellectual bonds. Chhyavad, pragativad, prayogvad, nayi kavita and nayi kahani, Agyeya saw it all.  Along the way, he contributed to the edifice of Hindi literature with his controversial Shekar: Ek Jiwani (which Prof. Namvar Singh, his critic, later described as one of the five classic Hindi novels), Nadi ke Dvip (which received mixed reviews at the time of its publication) and his editing of the landmark Saptak series of anthologies. Agyeya was often the bridge between tradition and modernity in his mentoring of new writers and experiments with style.  

The list of his friends, collaborators and companions reads like a veritable who’s who of the greats of that era.  Never shying away from controversy or his tenacity to carve his own path, at a time when the Hindi literary world was dominated by followers of Marxism, Agyeya was a freethinker.  He asserted that his non-political stance was itself a political act though he did align with certain political forces and ideologies later. Everything about him evoked strong opinion, from his writing, his themes, his life, his relationships and the way he conducted himself.  He was sometimes criticised for believing in the messiah-like qualities that adoring readers and friends credited him with.   He thought of and wrote about a number of issues, ranging from language, society, politics, environment, modernism, the status of women and culture.

The biography gives a detailed account of Agyeya’s father’s professional life, his own childhood and the early influences that shaped his thinking and personality. The distinction Agyeya made between dharma and religion may be debatable but is interesting nevertheless as he envisages the former as something that imbibes while the latter binds.  Similarly, the idea that “self-consciousness about the freedom of others is the real freedom… The claim of ‘I’ is animal instinct, claim for others is humanity” is a noteworthy articulation of the basis of democracy and the idea of civil rights.

The elusive nature of his personality evokes Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead as the various people who inhabit his life, especially women, discover but fail to escape the effects of his strong charisma. But readers who approach this book with hopes of salacious descriptions of the various loves of Agyeya’s life will be disappointed.

The voluminous records that Agyeya kept of his life and relationships are remarkable for the light they throw on this man’s life and journey.  Akshaya Mukul has admirably managed not to bring out a hagiography and his dispassionate descriptions, supported by references to letters, books, etc., flesh out the figure of a public intellectual whose life was largely internally lived — bearing out his own words that “poetry is really an arrangement of silences between words”. As the book comes to a conclusion, one is left with a strange feeling of loss akin to that of a dear, deeply loved, friend.

Writer Rebel Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya  
 By Akshaya Mukul                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Vintage Penguin Random House
pp. 779, Rs 999