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Was Hindi writer Nirmal Verma the Hindutva proponent he was accused of being? New book answers

Nirmal Verma (1929-2005) | Wikimedia Commons

Europe was a stepping stone for the Indian writer in the making. The history, the literary legacy of Europe had to be reckoned with if one wished to become an Indian writer.

Nirmal Verma’s writings belong to no fixed tradition, and it is in this sense that they are both authentically Indian and authentically European.

To be fair, Verma never quite became the Hindutva proponent he was sometimes accused of being. In several of his published interviews, he was invited to defend his fixation with Hinduism, and he invariably went out of his way to dispel the charge that was routinely levelled against him—of betraying secular principles. In one such interview, he went on to cite the Hindi poet Nirala and asked whether it would be fair to categorize the latter’s ‘Tulsidas’ and ‘Ram Ki Shakti Puja’ as merely Hindu poems: ‘Can we reject them by calling them sectarian poems?’

Whenever he was confronted on these or similar grounds, he assumed the role of a polemicist, not only taking on his detractors but also challenging their very understanding of secularism. Theirs was a kind of faux secularism, Verma maintained, that fostered a culture of political correctness and had a stultifying effect on arts and politics. In Europe, secularism had a centuries-old legacy. The church and state served as two separate centres of society. But to foist this model on India was unwise, not to say impractical. For, as Verma once said, ‘in India, our religious and worldly lives have never been separate’.

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Today, these ideas may seem to chime well with the egregious nonsense propagated by the saffron brigade, but only if we choose to forget that Verma wasn’t trying to paint what he thought of as Indian secularism in religious colours; rather, the opposite— his attempt was to secularize the religious, by claiming religion’s kinship with art. When it came to ‘practical’ religion—for want of a better term—he mostly remained indifferent to it and was quite openly averse to all kinds of fundamentalism.

Even when he wrote or spoke against modern India’s understanding of secularism, his intention was to strike a cautionary note against religious fundamentalism. By mimicking a European model of secularism and banishing religion from our public space, we had effectively paved the way for the worst kinds of communal elements looking to make a ‘back-door entry’ into Indian politics. Verma was making this case in the ’90s. Far from welcoming the rise of the right, he was blaming its successes on the failures of the left—an idea that has gained currency around the world over the last decade.

One can also surmise that Verma’s ‘soft Hindutva’ was assumed, in part, as an oppositional attitude towards his old comrades on the left. The discovery of his Hindu roots and his disillusionment with Marxism were coterminous. After his return from Czechoslovakia, Verma believed he could see through the Marxist one-size-fits-all gospel of progress and deemed it harmful in the Indian context. (Marx’s misplaced faith in British imperialism as an inadvertent force for good in India was also a factor here.)

Similarly, he railed against the left’s secularism and saw it as a form of received wisdom that could hurt Indian democracy. This ‘official’ secularist ideology had led to the overturning of the rule of law in the Shah Bano case, and to the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in India (a ban that’s still in effect). This, too, was the ideology that failed to differentiate between what Verma saw as ‘Indian’ ethos and the precepts of Hindutva, a basic misapprehension from which the right-wing forces have reaped great political dividend over the last few decades.

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Why did Indianness—as an idea, as a way of living and thinking—become such an abiding preoccupation for Verma? Was it an attempt to compensate for his Eurocentric upbringing as a writer? Or was it a form of atonement for his communist past? U.R. Ananthamurthy has written that whenever a liberal gets bored he becomes a conservative. There are countless examples in literary history of bored liberals making the left-to- right ideological leap. The provocative stance of the conservative maverick has its appeal, especially in an era of liberal complacency. The American art critic Harold Rosenberg was expressing similar disillusionment with the consensus view, the political posturing, of his time when he derided the New York intellectuals as ‘a herd of independent minds’.

In 1970s India, there were plenty of such herds that a writer, looking for an ideology or a movement to subscribe to, could join. And this was particularly true for a Hindi writer. ‘The history of Hindi literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a history of movements,’ writes the scholar and translator Daisy Rockwell in her book about the writer Upendranath Ashk. She identifies this politically charged ‘movementist aesthetic’ as the engine that has driven Hindi literature onwards for over a century.

This excerpt from ‘Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature’ by Vineet Gill has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Source: The Print

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