Nirmal Verma is a distinguished writer of fiction in Hindi. He is also a fine moral and political critic who risks making difficult engagements with each of the life-historical moments that have made the present social reality of India so bitter, in order to find more civilised modes of being human. His fiction explores the arid silence that lies between people who have lost faith in each other, the paralysing stillness that keeps us apart even as we long for the grace of companionship, and the imaginative drought that renders it impossible for us to make moral discriminations. His essays, however, are not elaborations of his fictional world; they are not written to make what little sad sense they can out of contemporary political or literary practices in the country. They are, instead, small pilgrim paths discovered by a writer who is disenchanted with modernity; paths which lead back to the sources of Indian traditions where myths, words, gestures or precepts still have meanings and can sustain us in our moment of spiritual crisis.
Nirmal Verma was born in 1929 in Shimla. He did his M.A. in History from St. Stephen's College, Delhi. From 1959 to 1968, he lived in Czechoslovakia where he translated a number of Czech works into Hindi. For a brief while he was a member of the Communist Party of India, but resigned from it in protest against its support for dictatorships. On returning to India, he was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. In 1977, he took part in the International Writers' Programme at the University of Iowa (USA). He has, thus far, published four novels (including Ek Chithra Sukh and Raat Ka Reporter), eight collections of short stories (including Jalti Jhadi and Kawey aur Kaala Paanz) , three travelogues, six collections of essays and three plays. Many of his works have been translated into English, German and French. He has received many awards for his writings, including the Nirala Award (1981), Sahitya Akademi Award (1985), Yaspal Award (1989), and Moortidevi Award (1997). He lives in Delhi.
Alok Bhalla is a Professor of English Literature at the Central Institute of English and Foreign. Languages, Hyderabad. He has published extensively on literature and politics. His most recent publications include Stories About the Partition of India (3 volumes), Yatra: Writings from the Indian Subcontinent (6 volumes) and The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto (a collection of essays by different scholars). He has also translated the works of Nirmal Verma, Intizar Husain, Ram Kumar and others into English. Recently, he was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and the Rockefeller Institute at Bellagio in Italy
Some years ago, the Institute formulated a plan for developing, within its framework, a Centre for the Study of Indian Civilization. One of the major programmes of the Centre was to be the publication of a multi-volume series of books consisting of some of the finest of the creative texts written in modem times in the Indian sub-continent. Each book published in the series could either consist of representative selections of a single author from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, or be an anthology which addresses itself to urgent literary, social, moral or political issues, which are concerned with the civilization fate of the sub-continent. The Centre has not yet been formally established. The Institute, however, has taken a decision to undertake at least a part of the publication programme envisaged under the Centre. This is partly because we already have an ongoing publication programme and also because of the great importance of some of the texts which we have been considering. The present volume is a result of this decision.
The volume in print is English translation of the essays of a very distinguished writer-Nirmal Verma-who is well known as a fiction writer in Hindi. His essays are not mere extensions of his fictional world. They are rather critique of contemporary political and literary trends with which he is disenchanted. His disenchantment with modernity has led him back to the sources of Indian traditions where myths, words and symbols have meanings which go to sustain us in periods of spiritual crisis. The translation of such critical essays opens this material to wider reading public. I felicitate Dr. Alok Bhalla on this successful production of a very important contemporary vision of life and thought. I do hope that this work along with two earlier works in the series will go a long way in unfolding the value of Indian tradition, vis-a-vis modernity-the very aim for which this Institute stands for.
Nirmal Verma is a distinguished writer of fiction in Hindi. He is also a fine moral and political critic who risks making difficult engagements with each of the life-historical moments that have made the present social reality of India so bitter, in order to find more civilised modes of being human. His fiction explores the arid silence that lies between people who have lost faith in each other, the paralysing stillness that keeps us apart even as we long for the grace of companionship, and the imaginative drought that renders it impossible for us to make moral discriminations. His essays, however, are not elaborations of his fictional world; they are not written to make what little sad sense they can out of contemporary political or literary practices in the country. They are, instead, small pilgrim paths discovered by a writer who is disenchanted with modernity; paths which lead back to the sources ofIndian traditions where myths, words, gestures or precepts still have meanings and can sustain us in our moment of spiritual crisis.
Many of Nirmal's essays have already acquired the status of classics. "The Burning Bush," for instance, is a profoundly moving record of his journey to the Kumbh Mela in Prayag. It is a complex piece in which he recognises that his own sensibility is so intricately textured by the practices of modernity that he will never again be able to participate empathetically, and without the ache of critical judgements, in the ancient and holy rites which still inspire a people. The devotees at the Kumbh Mela genuinely regard themselves as passing figures in the great karmic history of India which reaches far back to the Rig Vedic times and has been radiant ever since with prophecy; while Nirmal, as a self-conscious modem novelist realises, at the end of his journey, that he is a figure apart who can only make his home at the boundaries of pilgrim India. He is utterly respectful of the pilgrims because he understands that for them Prayag is a place where darshan is always possible, where tirtha can lead to an encounter with the divine. Simultaneously, as a modem rationalist he is honest enough to see himself as a lost and liminal figure, whose conversations with the devotees trail into silence, and whose meetings at the ghat leave him feeling both like a deserter from his urban home and an exile from the sacred. But the encounter between his modernity and their religiosity at least convinces him of the reality and the reliability of a shared, common. Traditionally inherited ground of virtue from which he can still derive his courage to face the contingencies and the despondencies of life.
In other essays, Nirmal asserts that his various encounters with India's traditions of religious wisdom and social thought have taught him, as they had earlier in the century taught Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Premchand, that dharma is a mode of conduct which illuminates the path of duty, and that virtuousness always presupposes the right and dignity of all living things; that an exemplary dhannic life is radically non-egotistical and non-coercive. Given this understanding, it is not difficult to see why Indian myths always associated acts of violent manipulation of others with asuras, for whom strategic victories were a sufficient guarantee of the justness of their own narrow beliefs, grasping acquisitiveness and unquestioned power. Unlike the asuras, men of godliness in Indian myths were not enchanted by their Own selfhood. They never asserted that their path was the only path to truth, their laws were the only laws of duty and their texts were the only texts of god. Nor did they aggressively "interrogate the past" - an ugly phrase which modem Indian intellectuals use with all the subtlety of the commissar - but sought to establish, with delight and ceremony, an 'inquiring' and a dialogic relation with the traditions of knowledge they had inherited. As they began their own journeys towards the sacred, they understood that the dharma of Indian civilisation - its sense of duty, virtue or law - could be found anywhere in the random splendour of its religious texts, epic tales, puranic myths, bhakti or sufi songs and the historical lives of saintly wanderers, and that they had the freedom to choose their own guides - follow their own pilgrim paths to holiness. That is perhaps why one of the unique features of India's moral and religious civilisation has been that those who set out to acquire knowledge understand in advance that the culture's stock of wisdom is not immune from criticism; and, that their own interpretative skills or visionary insights can always find grounds for rejecting the past and creating their own forms of understanding of the self and the world, without inviting the charge of heresy and facing its consequences. Such a critical and reflective relationship to the past that has both kept India’s inherited knowledge systems from dissolving into the stream of history, and at the same time led to the illumination of realms of meaning not understood before.
Indeed, it is this dialogic character of the civilisation which is emphasised in all the popular stories we still tell about those who set out to acquire wisdom and sainthood. Buddha's path towards enlightenment, for instance, lay through the vast forest of knowledge that flourished prior to his birth. According to legend, he spent his years as a bhikshu talking to men of learning and subjecting their knowledge to rational critique, so that at the end of his discipleship he was ready to make his own unique way towards nirvana. The same is the case with Adi Shankaracharya, who according to most versions of his life, travelled across the country engaging learned men in non- egocentric debates in search of clarity. Similarly, it is said that Nanak created a new visionary space for himself by listening to the songs of Hindu bhaktas and sufifaqirs. These, and countless other accounts of the dialogic modes of knowledge-making, are the Indian civilization’s images of its truth-seekers and ideal versions of its sacred and civil structures. These narratives, which stretch across the historical geography of India, perhaps explain why, even after the holocaust of the partition, many who spoke about the civilisational history of this country placed an enormous emphasis, not just on its tolerance of different versions of truth, but on the respectful attention it paid to heterogeneous ideas of the good and the holy. It is worth noting here that, unlike Europe and America, the Indian civilisation never spent its energies in identifying heretics, cleansing the word of God of satanic infections, or purifying its ethnic stock with the help of inquisition fires. The partition was an aberration caused by modern sectarian thinkers, whose demand for separate enclaves for particular religious communities was contrary to the ideals and the practices of the civilisation, and a grievous violation of its self- understanding.
Nirmal, however, is not one of the 'nee-nativists' who have been clamouring for a revival of Indian, or more specifically, Hindu traditions. The nativists defend tradition because they seem to be baffled by the encroachments of modernity, and resentful of the attention paid to western rationality. They retreat into the cognitive enclosures of tradition and hurl the epithet "western" as an abuse at those who criticise traditional practices like sati in the name of reason and universal human rights. Nirmal, on the other hand, is a genuinely modernist thinker in the open-minded manner of Gandhi or Premchand, who is as much an inheritor ofIndian knowledge-systems as of western rational thought. He believes that a modem Indian self can reflect upon its inner world and seek relationship with the community outside only if its moral and cognitive structures are constructed out of the Ramayana and Simone Weil, the Gita and Heidegger, Gandhi and Dostoyevsky. Unlike the nativists, he refuses to surrender his reasoning self to Hindu traditions because he recognises that such a surrender could turn into a nightmare; but, at the same time, he does feel the sad nostalgia of exile from a custom- bound community with its normative rules for action, and perhaps its proximity to the holy. He knows that traditionally enforced moral laws could lead to paralysed despair; but he also understands that a life in India in which terms like religion, nation, identity or culture are not richly interwoven could end up in a moral void.
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