Hindi novel as a space for creative social dialogue has come a long way since its early practitioner Premchand and his successors like Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Yashpal and others who mostly adhered to the narrative structure set by him. Jainendra and Ajneya brought novelty to the existing narrative techniques. Jainendra’s Tyagpatra and Kalyani and Ajneya’s Shekhar: Ek Jeevani and Nadi ke Dweep are fine experiments in form and are visibly influenced by western theories of psychology. Phanishwar Nath Renu’s Maila Anchal resounds with poeticality with elements from local folk culture.
A visible change manifests in the Hindi novel after the 1990s when India first opened its eyes to the market oriented globalized world. Now the novel truly expanded its canvas to accommodate the new aspirations of a hitherto closed culture. It also turned into a mouthpiece for the voices of the subaltern. Along with issues of power and corruption, women, Dalit and tribal issues found their way into the novel. Surendra Varma’s Mujhe Chand Chahiye, Virendra Jain’s Doob may be cited as examples.
In the current scenario, contemporary Hindi novel has further widened its horizon. The world here is definitely a global world with urbanization and migration that led to depletion of resources. Hence, a restlessness has crept into the very fabric of the novel.
A look at recent novels of contemporary the Hindi writers Anamika, Alka Saraogi, Avinash Mishra and Akhilesh reveals individual, social and cultural concerns that these modern Hindi writers are engaged with.
Anamika is a highly acclaimed English academic, critic, Hindi poet, and novelist. Though better known as a poet with poetry collections like Galat Pate ki Chitthi, Anushtup, Doob Dhaan, Khurdari Hatheliyan, Anamika has also authored novels like Das Dware ka Pinjra, Billu Shakespeare-Post Bastar, Tinka Tinke Paas.
Anamika’s latest novel Aainasaz is about Sufism, love, man woman relationships and women’s subjugation. Written in two parts, the first is located in thirteenth century Delhi with Amir Khusro as the central character and is a saga of his life as a sufi, husband and father as well as a courtier in medieval Delhi. The second part, about a young woman Sapna’s life in modern Delhi, echoes the first in its depiction of the issues of ideal love, poetry, language and freedom of expression under authoritative regimes.
Anamika creates a frame in a frame to depict multiple voices within her novel. Hence, Amir Khusro’s life is enfolded in the life of modern day scholar Sapna who is conducting her research on Khusro at the University of Delhi. The novel juxtaposes the spiritual, literary, cultural and political life in medieval and contemporary Delhi through a new historicist account of Sufism that flourished in medieval Delhi under the mentorship of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia.
The narrative is lyrical in tone. The reader, like the Sufis in the Khankah of Aulia Sahab, is exposed to an intoxicating flow of allegories, parables, poems, Shayaris, kissas, kavvalis and Zikrs of Khusro written during his sojourns at Iran, Multan, Delhi, Avadh etc. Khusro served as a court poet under many powerful kings and ironically power sometimes changed hands so quickly that often he had to write in praise of those who were hitherto enemies.
The issues of freedom of expression and of women’s rights are later depicted in the second part of the novel through episodes from the life of the Santhali writer Saroj Kindo who is gang raped. This incident is also an echo of the first part of the novel where Amir’s daughter Kayanaat and her friend Shahid are abducted, Shahid is murdered and it is suggested that Kayanat is sexually molested by the custodians of morality.
Sapna also relates the lives of other women in her narrative like her University Professor Lalita, and her Mausi (aunt) from the village who are caught up in marriages where women are still victims of oppression. In all, and Aainasaz contains several hues of existence articulated through Anamika’s deft handling of form and language.
Alka Saraogi’s novel Janakidas Tejpal Mansion is set in post-Independence Calcutta and revolves around the life of a US returned engineer who has a deep attachment to his parental home. Alka Saraogi states in the beginning of her novel, ‘Aadmi duniya mein khaye bina rah sakta hai, pehchaan ke bina nahin’ (In this world, a person can live without eating but not without an identity.). Place of birth, caste, family name, education, wealth, social status —these are the dynamics that shape an identity. Alka Saraogi builds these factors into the narrative structure of Janakidas Tejpal Mansion.
Saraogi painstakingly weaves the character of her protagonist, Jaigovind/Jaideep as a combination of strange fluidity and fixity. In a self reflexive narrative mode, Saraogi uses a box in a box technique where the protagonist Jaigovind writes his fictional autobiography and gives himself a name that he likes—Jaideep. He spends his childhood in central Calcutta’s shared residence Janakidas Tejpal Mansion in which his father was given a preferred place due to his loyal services to Seth Janakidas. The appellation ‘Mansion’ certainly is a misnomer for a place that inhabits two or more families on each floor and where bathrooms and toilets are common for the entire building. In spite of the hardships that accompany living in this place, Jaideep/Jaigovind harbours a lifelong attachment to it which becomes a symbol of his roots.When Jaideep returns from America, he decides to live in the ‘Mansion’ with his sympathetic and loving wife Deepa till the end of their lives. However, work on the underground Metro in ‘Barabazar’ damages the foundations of the mansion turning it into a dangerous place to live. Contractors and building companies use all tactics including local goons and local politicians to threaten the inhabitants who refuse to move out. Jaideep pursues a legal battle to keep the ‘Mansion’ for its original inhabitants but finally he gives up the cause as he is left utterly alone in his mission. One by one everyone leaves the ‘Mansion’.
Within this frame of ownership, identity, habitat, occupation and displacement, Janakidas Tejpal Mansion takes up other realities of modern life. One major issue is the difference of cultures, American and Indian. Saraogi handles this issue in an interesting non-partisan manner by delineating the pros and cons of each culture through Jaideep’s stories about people who came back from US and also of those who stayed back. Jaideep’s comments on our behaviour towards any kind of power also echo sentiments of any rational and well educated young Indian: ‘He feels suffocated in Advocate Babu’s presence and feels razed to the ground in front of Birla ji also. Do those who go to see Rockfeller or Henry Ford in America feel similarly small? Here some kind of caste-system is at work constantly—one is bigger in age, other in wealth or in position. Just keep on being courteous to everyone. Never reveal even for a minute that you know your subject more than they do’(Saraogi: 2015: 114)(trans. mine).
Avinash Mishra’s protagonist Shekhar in his Naye Shekhar ki Jeevani struggles to establish his identity as an idealist in a world that is harsh and pragmatic. The title of Mishra’s novel and the manner of presenting the subject echoes Ajneya’s Shekhar: Ek Jeevani. Avinash Mishra’s novel documents the interior landscape of his protagonist, the new Shekhar in the form of an autobiography as he moves through various zones of time and space in a non-linear time frame. In depicting this journey, the writer allegorically delineates urban as well as the regional landscape of India’s cities and villages including Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Shekhar’s poetic sensibilities set him apart from other common educated men from the same background. Avinash Mishra’s Shekhar who is primarily a poet is often described as mad. ‘Shekhar pagal thoda nahin hai, arthat bahut hai’ (Shekhar is not a little mad which means he is quite mad) resounds like a refrain in the novel. Shekhar does not know anything but honesty. He is forthright in his criticism of intellectuals, writers, poets and so on.
Akhilesh is a well known short story writer and novelist who also edits the journal Tadbhav from Lucknow. ‘Yakshgana’, ‘Oosar’, ‘Bio-data’, ‘Grahan’ and ‘Chitthi’ are amongst some of his famous short stories. Akhilesh’s first novel is Anveshan (1990) and his second novel Nirvasan (2014) which has been recently published in a fabulous English translation titled Exile by Rajesh Kumar. Exile, is primarily about physical and emotional dislocation that the characters in the novel experience The narrative unfolds on a large canvas which paints a vivid picture of contemporary India with its corrupt models of development, glorious historical past used by fanatics for their political agendas, sense of alienation/loneliness that an individual feels when separated from loved ones, relationships motivated by self-promotion and the pain inflicted by our strict caste system. Suryakant, the protagonist of the novel, is frustrated at his workplace more due to his new melodramatic octangenarian chairman Sampoornanada Brihaspati than by the nature of work itself. Unable to bear with this the paan-chewing, absurdly overwhelming Hindutva representative, Suryakant leaves his government job in the Tourism Directorate. In desperation to find some work to sustain his family, he takes up the task of finding the family roots of NRI Ramajor Pandey. During his journey to find Ramajor’s ancestral history and his blood relatives, Suryakant finds his own relatives after a long separation. Though he goes to his family with deep love that he always harboured for them, he gets disillusioned by their utterly selfish attitude towards him.
Exile is not just about dislocation from one’s roots as even the people who spend their lifetime in their birthplace, like Surayakant’s uncle, who feel alienated and exiled in their own space. With the story of Ramajor Pandey, we find a counter-narrative about Suryakant’s brother Shibbu and his brother-in-law Tendulkar who are keen to migrate to the US even by using fake documents to look for material success. These two narratives become an allegory for our times.
Akhilesh’s voluminous work captures the nerve of 21st century India through an authentic delineation of a range of characters. In the story of Baghelu Pandey alias Kumhar, Ramjor’s grandfather, we get a glimpse into Girmitiya Mazdoor immigration in pre-Independence India. However, the novel is set in the first decade of 21 century Lucknow and while much has changed since Independence, much remains the same. Suryakant’s life in the city of Lucknow is juxtaposed with the small town life of his parents and the rest of his family in Sultanpur.
All these novels may be deemed postmodernist narratives which cannot do away with self-reflexivity. The consciousness of the writer as an agency is constantly present even if there is a semblance of stream of consciousness flowing from the protagonist/narrator/writer. These three often merge at points when the allusion to language or to the act of writing is made within the text. One consequence of such a technique is that time is not linear in these narratives. This in turn assigns complexity to the texts and makes these narratives more stimulating.
Avinash Mishra’s novel abounds in metaphors. In Akhilesh’s novel Nirvasan the characters appear on many occasions to speak about themselves and dispel the ignorance, inability, unworthiness and inadequacy of the author’s narrative.
Besides these, other Hindi novels published in recent years have carried experiments with form in their own ways. Geetanjali Shri’s Ret Samadhi, for instance, is remarkable for breaking moulds in use of self-referentiality. Another book that does not fit into the conventional genres of story telling is Surendra Manan’s Ahmad Al-Hello, Kahan Ho?. This book moves through Europe, Asia and Africa and brings together the sufferings of illegal Indian immigrants who risk their lives to reach the first world in search of opportunities. Surendra Manan depicts the inhuman conditions in which these communities live, work and sustain themselves in the European cities of Vienna and London. Manan’s long experience as a filmmaker and a photographer is is seen at work in his creative fiction as well.
The novels discussed above are very different from one another in terms of content, narrative style and technique, yet all of them inscribe and examine multiple shades of Indian consciousness.
Anamika, Aainasaz. New Delhi: Rajkamal Publications.2019
Alka Saraogi, Janakidas Tejpal Mansion. New Delhi: Rajkamal. 2015.
Avinash Mishra, Naye Shekhar ki Jeevani. New Delhi: Vani Prakashan 2018.
Akhilesh, Exile (trans. by Rajesh Kumar from Hindi Nirvasan). New Delhi: Harper Perennial. 2018.
Geetanjali Shree, Ret Samadhi. New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan.2018.
Surendra Manan, Ahmad-al Hello, Kahan Ho? Hapur,UP: Sambhavana Prakashan. 2019.
Alka Tyagi is an academic, translator and a bilingual poet. Three collections of her poetry, Whispers at the Ganga Ghat and Other Poems (English), Sun ri Sakhi and Amaltas (Hindi) have been published. Her recent book Reconstructing Devotion Through Narada Bhakti Sutra (2019) has been published by DK Printworld.