This book is about the three published novels of S H Vatsyayan `Ajneya' who dominated the Hindi literary scene for forty years until his death in 1987. Many Indian literary critics have written about his work, but this is the first book about him by an English person and a Christian.
The book begins by creating a theological framework within which the novels can be studied with a critical openness to their contents. It sets them in the context of the wider literary developments of their period, both within India and the wider world. Subsequent chapters place Ajneya in his contemporary context and demonstrate that although in many respects his novels react against his Brahminical Hindu inheritance they are still deeply influenced by it, and indeed can be interpreted as reshaping its symbolic structure. The novels also reject the secular materialism which their author perceived to be taking root in the large cities of India.
Roger Hooker studied Modern History and then Theology at Oxford. After ordination as a priest he worked in India from 1965 to 78, teaching Theology in Hindi at Bareilly and studying Sanskrit at the Sampurnananda Sanskrit University in Varanasi. He now works in Birmingham, England, where he is the Bishop's Adviser for Inter-Faith relations.
The subject of this book is the Hindi author Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan 'Ajneya' (1911-87), one of the chief makers of Indian literature in the twentieth century though yet little known in the West or even among Anglophone Indians. Ajneya began writing in the 1930s during the hey-day of romanticism in Hindi literature, but he soon asserted his own original bent and inclination by emerging as the first important modernist poet as well as the first modernist novelist in Hindi. He was the founding father of prayogavad (literally experimentalism but broadly modernism) in Hindi poetry at a time when it was yet to divide into the divergent streams of modernism and progressivism (pragativad). Having published two volumes of his own poetry in 1933 and 1942. Ajneya made a decisive intervention in the development of Hindi poetry by editing an anthology of seven young poets including himself, Tar Saptak (1943; The Seven Notes); this proved to be probably the single most influential volume of verse published in Hindi this century. In the years which followed, Ajneya not only confirmed his own status as the foremost modernist poet in Hindi through publishing three further Saptaks or anthologies of seven newer poets each in 1951, 1959 and 1978, and by editing for many years the journals Pratik and Naya Pratik (Symbol and New Symbol). He was thus, so to say, not only the T.S. Eliot of Hindi but also its Ezra Pound-and perhaps its Harriet Monroe and its Harriet Shaw Weaver besides! He was not only the prime modernist writer in Hindi himself but he was also the cause of modernity in numerous others.
Similarly, in fiction, Ajneya's first and greatest novel! Shekhar: Ek fivani (2 Vols., 1941 & 1944; Shekhar: A Life), though published only a very few years after Premchand's classic Gochin (1936), inaugurated a whole new mode of writing fiction, again unmistakably modernist in its intense psychologizing of character, its play with chronology, its ellipses and episodic fragmentariness, its lyrical prose and, above all, the centrality it accorded to subjectivity and interiority. In this poetry as well as his fiction, Ajneya engaged dialogically and creatively with some major contemporary writers of the West, notably T.S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. With him, Hindi literature caught up with English literature, it came abreast of it to stand right beside it, and henceforth, it was to be in part swayed and shaped by the same winds and currents and movements as shaped the literature of the West.
It is only appropriate, then, that Ajneya should prove to be a suitable subject of study not only for Indian scholars but also for scholars from the West. The author of the present book, which is the first full-length study of Ajneya to be published in English, happens to be exceptionally well qualified for the project. The Reverend Dr. Roger Hooker belongs to a vocation, that of Chris-tian priesthood, which has through the last two hundred years -ever since William Carey of the Serampore Mission and the Fort William College and right through J.N. Farquhar, C.F. Andrews and Edward Thompson, among others-made a.singu-lar contribution to a systematic exploration and mapping of the various Indian languages, literatures and culture. Dr. Hooker himself came to India early in his career, in 1965. He spent seven years in Bareilly and Allahabad learning Hindi and then another six years learning Sanskrit in Benares. Such formidable learning, exceptional even for a modern Indian, shows in this work in various ways. On the one hand, Dr. Hooker can cite not only the Brihadaranyaka or the Chhandogya or the Taittiriya upanishads but also the relatively less known Maitri and Mahanarayana; on the other hand, in explaining common Hindi words such as astha and snigdha and uddeshya and swastha (44, 89, 125, 166), his erudite procedure often is to cite first the etymological Sanskrit meaning (frequently from that classic authority, the dictionary of Sir Monier Monier-Williams) and only then to go on to the common Hindi usage which is sometimes widely variant.
Back in England, Dr. Hooker has chosen to live and work in a multi-ethnic parish in Smethwick in the West Midlands, near Birmingham, where a substantial proportion of the population is of South Asian origin; in fact, the very next-door neighbour of Dr. Hooker in his 'semi-detached' house is a South Asian. Along-side his clerical work-and he is now Adviser on Inter-faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham-Dr. Hooker has also cultivated an extensive acquaintance with works of modern Hindi literature. (His personal library of Hindi books must be among the more impressive in England; I recall borrowing from him some works of Yashpal during my own sojourn at the University of Birmingham a decade ago.)
Dr. Hooker has already published a book which was the first fruit of his rich and varied background and interests, Themes in Hinduism and Christianity: A Comparative Study (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1989). In this work, he took up successively the seven concepts of myth, time, evil purity, images/idols, renunciation, and woman as they are to be found expressed in both Hinduism and Christianity, and compared them with a degree of erudition which readers in both traditions will find truly impressive. But the outstanding feature of the book was the scrupulous even-handedness with which he treated both Hindu-ism and Christianity. Both religions were to him equal, except that at some points he seemed to be bending over backwards to be fair to Hinduism, so that in the event Hinduism ended up as somewhat more equal than Christianity. His whole attitude was summed up (perhaps unwittingly and therefore perhaps even more authentically) in a statement in his 'Introduction' where he said that he had 'tried to be as fair and objective about Christi-anity as I have about Hinduism'-not, we may note, as fair about Hinduism as about Christianity but in fact the other way round!
In the same 'Introduction' Dr. Hooker also incidentally mentioned 'my own fascination with language', which goes to explain his constant interest in literature. From discussing theological issues in his first book, it has been a natural step for him to move on to discuss literary texts from a theological point of view. The textuality of the Bible, which is of course the Book, has always been a vital aspect of the Christian faith, and especially in English because of the stylistic beauty of the Authorized Version. Correspondingly, many of the early classics of Hindi literature, such as the works of Kabir, Sur Das, Tulsi Das and Meera, are nothing if not (semi-)scriptural at the same time. An apprehension of religion through literature, and an understanding of literature through religion, have thus been familiar practices in both Hinduism and Christianity though what is here new, and perhaps startlingly so, is the move by Dr. Hooker to adopt a religious and theological approach to a writer so avowedly modern and modernist as ajney. His present work may be one of the first PhD these written in the United kingdom on nay individual Hindi writer, it almost certainly is the first thesis on modern Hindi writer undertaken in a British faculty of theology.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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