In the past couple of years I have read five Hindi books and considering I may have read 10-15 Hindi books in my entire life, this can easily be termed as an impressive number. I am not counting the scores of pocketbooks (remember those detective novels you would get on platforms and but stands?) that I read in my early teens.
I remember we were browsing through a bookshelf in Om Book Shop in NOIDA and just like that we went to the Hindi section. We bought three books that day, all recommended by my wife. One was Karvat (turning over – literally, a change happening over a period of time) by Amritlal Nagar and two additions of Abhyudaya by Narendra Kohli. In Abhyudaya Kohli has rewritten the Ramayana epic from a human perspective – there is no magic and there are no miracles and everything that happens is humanly possible.
Up till now I had read writers like Munshi Premchand and Mahashweta Devi and had also toyed with Agyeya, but I wasn’t much impressed. These writers are basically the vestiges of the socialist era writings in which you are either continuously ranting about poverty, hunger and superstition, or romanticizing these afflictions. There was no sense of pride. A perpetual gloom is always hanging over your head when you are reading these books. Recently I purchased Premchand Ki Hasya Kathain (Satirical Stories by Premchand) from Flipkart and even in that book he cannot shake off the judgmental tone that these writers had. But I must quickly add that Premchand is far better than all those writers constantly peddling India’s poverty and backwardness while writing in English. At least he means what he says. He actually feels the anguish of the rural India. Agreed that more than 60% of Indians languish in poverty and illiteracy, it doesn’t mean that it represents the length and breadth of the country.
This is where writers like Narendra Kohli and Amritlal Nagar differ. I’m not as well-read a person as many people I know, but I can easily say that Amritlal Nagar can be easily compared to the best international writers, both classical and modern. Of course poverty and superstition is a dominant aspect of the Indian society, but they coexist with other aspects. For instance, in various Amritlal Nagar novels his characters go through a multitude of existential qualms with poverty and superstition in the background. They have love affairs, they have fights, they have feelings of jealousy, they are both faithful and disloyal, entrepreneurial and passive and healthy and ill. They are not constantly dealing with their poverty and being hounded by the upper castes and the powerful, although I’m not saying that these things don’t take place. They’re just not at the center of the novel. Karvat, the first ever Amritlal Nagar that I read, is about this young man who leaves home will leave his house to make a life. This story spans multiple generations starting in 1957 and ending in 1947. The other novel, the story of Goswami Tulsidas, is an exceptional book that gives you a clear glimpse of those times. Even the current one that I’m reading – Nachyo Bahut Gopal – is about a Brahmin woman, who in the heat of passion elopes with a younger boy who is the lowest among the lower classes (people who cleaned latrines) and how she deals with the repercussions of what she has done. He has written that even among the poor and the lower castes, given a chance, they can be as cruel and oppressive as the upper castes. These stories I’ve totally changed my view on Hindi, and other indigenous literature. These days I’m constantly seeking new Hindi books to read.