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Nirala's portraits of rage and love

Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ pushed language against the limits of decorum, using his writing to call out unfairness

It is impossible to miss Nirala’s rage against the capitalist machine or his empathy for the wretched.(iStockphoto)

By Somak Ghoshal

LAST PUBLISHED 13.04.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

The name of Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala" is familiar to readers of Hindi mostly for his pioneering poetry. As the writer himself once implied to M.K. Gandhi, he was to Hindi what Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengali. But, for the rest of the world, his mythical reputation, especially his larger-than-life personality and unconventional antics, often precedes his literary genius.

A leading light of the modernist Chhayavad (shadowism) trend in Hindi poetry that followed the trails of English romanticism, Nirala was a singular figure by any measure. Born in 1896 in Midnapur in West Bengal, he grew up speaking Bengali as his first language, and was educated in Sanskrit, over which he gained mastery. Later in life, on the insistence of his wife Manohara Devi, he decided to learn Hindi properly—the rest is history.

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Like Joseph Conrad, who learned English as an adult only to become one of the greatest stylists of the language, Nirala became a peerless writer in Hindi, pushing the language against the limits of decorum and wringing a deeply sensuous flavour out of it. If his experiments with language remain a source of scholarly interest and readers’ delight, it also poses a challenge to translators, especially the wicked puns and idioms he played with so often.

Scholar and writer Gautam Choubey’s A Portrait Of Love: Six Stories, One Novella is the latest attempt to take the works of the iconic writer to a wider audience.

In the recent past, there has been a revival of translations of Nirala, with Satti Khanna bringing to life his controversial memoir, Kullibhat, in English as A Life Misspent in 2016. Scholar and writer Gautam Choubey’s A Portrait Of Love: Six Stories, One Novella is the latest attempt to take the works of the iconic writer to a wider audience.

Choubey, who translated Pandey Kapil’s Bhojpuri novel Phoolsunghi in2020, has picked some of Nirala’s most celebrated works: the stories Sukul’s Wife, Jyotirmayee, Portrait Of A Lady-Love, What I Saw, Chaturi Chamar and Devi, with the novella Billesur Bakriha coming in as the grand finale. The volume also has an introduction, a rarity for translations that come out from trade publishers in India, which puts Nirala’s chequered life and writings in perspective.

Indeed, there’s much to be made of the autobiographical streak that runs through Nirala’s vast oeuvre. As Choubey writes, “So compelling are the similarities between his life and works that one may attempt an intellectual biography of Nirala by just following his writings and the order of their appearance. We see him not just doing literature, but, in fact, living it."

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Apocryphal stories abound about Nirala’s rebellion against the status quo, all of which made their way into his stories and poems. His un-Brahminical lapse into non-vegetarianism, fury at exploitative editors and publishers, and utter disregard for caste and religious purity when it came to friendships, are a part of his lore. So are his notoriously poor financial skills.

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In the autumn of his life, when Nirala was awarded a pension, through Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention, it was paid to his friend, fellow writer Mahadevi Verma, who managed it on Nirala’s behalf. Left to himself, the author would likely have squandered it in a matter of days, given his boundless generosity towards friends and strangers alike.

All these themes find resonance in the stories. But overwhelmingly, the reader is struck by the women characters: clever, canny, beguiling, uninhibited and ever ready with a trick up their sleeves to get what they want out of the men around them. From Sukul’s wily “wife" to the unseen admirer in Portrait Of A Lady-Love, each woman in Nirala’s stories uses tact or plain deception to get to their aim, very often to teach a lesson to an errant man or to flout a bigoted norm.

In spite of the streak of (often savage) humour that runs through Nirala’s text, it is impossible to miss his rage against the capitalist machine or empathy for the wretched of the earth. In the story Devi, the character of Pagli stands in for everything that’s wrong with the modern world. A young woman, who is mentally ill, is forced to eke out a living on the streets for herself and her baby, while the rest of humanity goes about their business as usual. Nirala’s rage, mixed with helpless sadness, gives the story a particularly haunting quality, a feeling often evoked by the acerbic sketches of Sadaat Hasan Manto.

Yet, there is in Nirala a uniqueness, true to his chosen moniker, that makes it difficult to give his style a structured appreciation, as one would, for instance, with a story by Manto. Driven by a chaotic force, made even more wobbly by his unreliable characters, Nirala’s prose strikes the consciousness at a visceral level, not so much for its craft or exquisite turns of phrase as its dramatic leaps and bounds, and unpredictable conclusions.

While Choubey succeeds in giving us a flavour of the topsy-turvy world that Nirala made his own, there are moments he is trumped by the limitations of English. The word “sister-in-law" at the end of Portrait Of A Lady-Love, for instance, is but a shadow of the Hindi original saali, with its rather specific connotation of filial relationships. Then there are words like shanti, which come trailing their English meanings, but lagga or angochcha are left for the reader to decode. In some instances, the urge to over-translate turns dal into “lentil soup" or leads to insertion of unnecessary, and unwieldy, phrases like “switching from the pronoun of endearment to one considered offensive in Hindi". The shift in tone, in the latter instance, is easily discernible from the drift of the conversation, even if we don’t know anything about the lapse from tum to tu form of address in Hindi.

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The point of drawing attention to these occasional infelicities in an otherwise steady and clean English text is not merely to critique the choices made by the translator but also to point out the difficulty of culturally translating a writer like Nirala, whose creative energy derived from an intimate understanding of the specific traditions of his time, and the systemic prejudices perpetuated by vile practices followed by rural and urban India.

A writer much ahead of his time, Nirala not only shook his contemporaries by paying little heed to norm or form, he also left us, people who are reading him decades after his death, a lens to look at the India we have inherited, a nation where caste and religious purity stick stubbornly to this day. English, with its clipped prissiness, seems like an inadequate tool to communicate the audaciousness of Nirala’s subversive vision.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.