Tag Archives: Hindi Literature

Review of Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli

Review of Matsyagandha by Narendra KohliI don’t exactly remember how I ended up ordering Matsyagandha by Narendra Kohli. One of these days I was trying to find something from Maithili Sharan Gupt and ended up ordering Matsyagandha and Baton-Baton Mein – on Flipkart they have listed Bato-Baton Mein by Maithili Sharan Gupt but when I got it I discovered that it is actually written by Manohar Shyam Joshi of the Hum Log fame.

Anyway, there are two Hindi writers I can read any given day: Narendra Kohli and Amritlal Nagar – I have written about both these writers on this blog previously on this link. Narendra Kohli turns the stories of Indian epics into real-world stories. For example, he has written two volumes of Abhyuday; it’s Ramayana written in such a manner that there are no miracles involved. All the people in the story are normal human beings achieving normal feats and dealing with extraordinary circumstances as human beings rather than divine beings. So he actually explains how Hanuman, a very learned and physically strong individual, crosses the sea from that part of the Indian Ocean that is not very deep and reaches Sri Lanka without drowning. Similarly, Ravan, his army and his brothers are not demons, they are just people who have turned so materialistic due to prosperity that the only objective of their lives is to consume and indulge.

Matsyagandha was found floating in a jute basket, in the river Ganges, by a group of fishermen. Since she couldn’t be sold as fish, the men handed the infant girl to the village head, Dasraj. When she was found she was wrapped in very expensive garments. She was extraordinarily beautiful so both Dasraj and his wife assumed that she must had been a princess and due to some circumstances, she ended up floating in the river. The childless couple started raising her as their own daughter hoping that one day they would be able to return her to her family and get rewarded for keeping her alive. Just like other village folks, she went to fishing expeditions and she spent so much time among fish that she started smelling like fish and hence came to be known as Matsyagandha (matsya in Sanskrit means fish and gandha means smell)

The story begins with the Prince of Hastinapur and the son of Shantanu, Devavrat, coming to Dasraj and asking her daughter’s hand for his father who is smitten by her extraordinary beauty and cannot get a single moment of peace. Moved by the pain the longing was causing his father, Devavrat decides that no matter what, he is going to fulfil his father’s desire.

Dasraj knows that had Devavrat wanted he could have simply kidnapped Satyawati (Matsyagandha’s real name) but due to his Dharma (a strong sense of right and wrong and an undying desire to follow the age-old conducts of his long and illustrious lineage of Kuru ancestors) he wouldn’t do so. He asks the Prince, “Would you still be so cordial and friendly if I refused the hand? Wouldn’t you simply kidnap her? After all what can I do? I am simply a fisherman and I don’t have the sort of mighty army you have.”

Devavrat assures Dasraj that under no circumstances he is going to kidnap Satyawati because a woman is kidnapped only if her household can put up an equal fight.

Dasraj then raises the question of Shantanu’s age. There was big age gap between Satyawati and Shantanu, and what will happen when Shantanu dies? Won’t Satyawati then be reduced to a mere minion and her children the children of a minion?

“What do you want then?” asks Devavrat.

“Well, like any farther, I want my daughter to remain the queen for as long as she lives, and I want her children to become the heirs to the throne, and you being so mighty and strong, how is it possible? You are as capable of being the heir to the throne of Hastinapur as a human can be without being a god, how is it even possible that my daughter will remain the queen and one of her sons will be the king of Hastinapur? I want the eldest son of Satyawati to become the King of Hastinapur,” says Dasraj.

“This is not an issue,” says Devavrat casually and instantly. “I give you my word that I will forsake my claim to the throne and one of the sons of Satyawati will be the king of Hastinapur.”

Dasraj isn’t content with what Devavrat promises, so he goes further, “But is it fair to give your word when your son isn’t even born? How can you make a promise on his behalf? What if, when he grows up, he refuses to accept your word and rightfully claims the throne? And being the rightful descendant, the army and your people will be on your son’s side and the fate of my daughter and her sons will be sealed forever.”

“The sun, the earth and the air be my witnesses, I take the pledge to remain celibate for the rest of my life. I shall never marry, I shall never have my own wife and I shall never have my own children,” declares Devavrat and there is all-round panic among the ministers and the army accompanying him.

Henceforth, Devavrat, due to his Bheeshma (extraordinary) pledge, comes to be known by the name of Bheeshma.

But the story is about Satyawati, Matsyagandha.

Before becoming the attraction of King Shantanu Satyawati falls in love with an ascetic but highly renowned Sage Parashar. They have a son out of wedlock but Dasraj manages to convince Satyawati that she is meant to spend her life in the palaces, not in the modest surroundings of a hermitage. She hands the infant son to Sage Parashar and decides to lead the path of materialistic pursuits shown by her father. The rest of the story follows.

Satyawati becomes the queen but she hasn’t been brought up as a princess so Shantanu is quite uncomfortable living with her. But then he reconciles that when he desired her, he desired her for her body and not for her wisdom, upbringing and intellect. On the very first night when Shantanu satisfies his lust with her, she comes to understand that she wields total control over him and hence the downfall of the Kuru clan begins.

Satyawati can never understand how someone like Devavrat who commands so much power and respect can suddenly give up everything just so that his father can get the woman he wants for his bed? Why would he let her eldest son get the throne of one of the mightiest empires in the world? There must be some catch. He must be scheming something. He must want her downfall. Someday, he would slaughter her and her children when Shantanu would be no more. She constantly conspires against Devavrat. “Consider Devavrat your biggest enemy,” had counselled Dasraj when she was leaving and she constantly thinks that he is her biggest enemy.

Her own conceit, her own doubts and her own sense of insecurity bring her to the precipice of ruin. Totally detached, Bheeshma is there, but only as a caretaker and a protector until a worthy king emerges out of Satyawati’s lineage. He is tied with his woe. Satyawati, due to her character flaws, fails to raise sons who can defend themselves as well as their empire.

Matsyagandha is a tragic story although it is not even the beginning of the Mahabharata that we are familiar with, yet. She sows the seeds of the destruction that is wrought upon the Kuru clan by always mollycoddling her sons and grandsons, totally undermining the age-old traditions of righteousness, values, hard work and principles. She thinks that being a king or a prince means constantly living in the lap of luxury and abundance, weakening her progeny physically and mentally in the process.

She is Matsyagandha – the one who smells of fish and the smell of fish always makes the surroundings difficult to bear. The smell of fish is like the rotting flesh. True to her name, she brings a rot that can never be reversed.

But to be fair, she is not solely responsible for the destruction described in the Mahabharata. If she is the rot, who introduces the rot to the family? Shantanu. Just because he cannot control his impulses.

Matsyagandha is a very well written book by Narendra Kohli. Without being preachy or righteous he imparts the ancient values of Dharma in a manner you can easily fall in love with. Reading a good writer is like listening to classical music, as I often comment in my various writings. The words, the language, the sentences, they sound like music, so beautifully they are written. It’s a book to be read in one sitting, as I did. Do read it. In order to fully enjoy it, your command over Hindi must be good, though.

Book Review: Nachyo Bahut Gopal by Amritlal Nagar

So far I have read 3 books by Amritlal Nagar and Nachyo Bahut Gopal has perhaps been the most impressive among them. It is very hard-hitting, nonjudgemental and of course, well-written.

As I have previously written there are many Hindi writers who are undeservedly underrated simply because there is a glaring lack of a good readership. The writers and publishers are also to be blamed because they didn’t try very hard to cultivate this market, but that’s different issue.

Nachyo Bahut Gopal

Nachyo Bahut Gopal

Nachyo Bahut Gopal begins in the first person. You can call it a textual documentary. The narrator of the story is a journalist who is doing a study of the lives of the Bhangi community. The narrator writes during the emergency times (1975 and around) but the backdrop of the story in the 1930s, in the form of various verbal and written recollections.

Although India is divided among various castes and subcastes, Bhangis are not a caste, but a community. Historically they used to clean latrines of the higher class people in India. There was no flush system and the Bhangis used to manually collect the excreta from individual houses. It is one of the most degrading jobs in the world and consequently the Bhangi community came to be known as the lowest of the low.

In the pre-Islamic invasion times there is little reference to this community in the ancient texts because India had an established, water-based excreta disposal system. When Turks and Muslims invaded India they used to humiliate royal families and the communities they defeated by forcing them to carry the excreta of the conquerors. Thence, the tradition was born. That is why the lineages of many Bhangi families go back to royal and other noble families.

But Nachyo Bahut Gopal is not primarily a study of the Bhangi community, it is the story of a woman called Nirguniya who was once known as “Nirgun”. It is the story of the complete transformation of a high-class Brahmin woman into a Bhangi woman. It is the story of a woman who comes from a family where people have to not only bathe completely, but also get their clothes properly washed even if by accident they touch the door of the lavatory and then one day how she’s forced to go from door to door collecting people’s excreta.

While doing his research the narrator meets an influential 75-year-old Bhangi woman who has done stellar work in her community trying to educate people and encouraging them to take up other occupations like playing musical instruments. Though her language and manners hinge upon the boundaries of crassness, there are some strange traces of erudition and mannerism the narrator finds quite intriguing. For instance she knows Vedic mantras, her abode is clean and she doesn’t loath the traditional Hindu religious ceremonies the way most Bhangis do. The narrator’s wife suggests that originally she must be a Brahmin who could have been kidnapped by a decoit, or she must have eloped with a Bhangi when she were young. The narrator finds out that actually she is not Bhangi.

As the story unfolds the narrator finds out that Nirgun belonged to a Brahmin family of the highest category steeped in tradition and higher moral values. Her mother died when she was a baby and since her mother had married a man of a comparatively lower class who was also a “kept” of another Brahmin woman, she was raised by her maternal grandparents. In an unfortunate turn of events, both her grandparents died almost at the same time and her father had no choice but to take her with him. Since he lived with a rich Brahmin woman he had no place of his own and so he carried his daughter to that house and submitted her to the whims and fancies of the woman who’s kept he was. That family was practically a sexual harem. Everybody was having sex with everybody who could. Even at a tender age of 11-12 Nirgun was exposed to such prurient sensations and experiences that by the time she grew into a young woman her sexual appetite was insatiable. Sometimes she even enjoyed being ravaged.

The Brahmin woman (whose kept Nirgun’s father was) used to allure young men into the house to satisfy her sexual needs. Pretending that she would provide good education for Nirgun she hired a very attractive tutor who had to spend less time teaching Nirgun and more time in the bedroom of the woman. Although Nirgun was in love with the woman’s youngest son who had gotten her pregnant (abortion arranged quickly) she started growing tender feelings for the tutor, who also reciprocated. This infuriated the Brahmin woman and she married off Nirgun to a 70-year-old man who was impotent.

Nirgun was 20-21, sexually hyperactive and she totally detested her husband who couldn’t have sex with her. On top of that he always kept her locked up. Even when he went out, he used to lock up every door and window of the house.

Her only friend was a woman sweeper, a Bhangan (female Bhangi), who used to come everyday to clean the toilet. She was her only contact with the outside world. Once the sweeper had to take a leave and by chance her 19-year-old son, Mohan, was visiting her from another town. Desperate to satisfy her infernal sexual urges, Nirgun threw all caution to the wind and ended up seducing the boy by suddenly appearing naked in front of him, although the boy, well aware of the class divide and because of an inherent dislike for the upper castes, spurned her advances initially.

Seen the light once, she didn’t want to go back into her dark, sexless cavern and even the thought of the boy going away made her feel as if she were not going to survive. She convinced him to elope with her and once they did, her entire life changed.

From then onwards began her journey from being a high-class Brahmin woman to a complete Bhangi woman. From a woman who isn’t allowed to touch the door of a lavatory without going through a purification process after that, she transforms into someone who has to manually collect excreta from door to door.

It is the most ruthless and objective book I have ever read. Amritlal Nagar doesn’t mince words. He shows that it’s not just the upper castes who commit unspeakable cruelties upon their fellow human beings, given a chance, even the lowest of the low don’t miss the opportunity. He shows that the Bhangis are not just full of self-loathing and jingoistic pride they also take relish in bringing the others to their level. Nirgun is constantly tortured both physically as well as mentally to force her into the occupation of the boy’s family. Once when she expresses repulsion for the lifestyle, Mohan almost strangulates her and taunts, “It was not repulsive to you to satisfy your physical needs with a Bhangi, but now that you have to adopt his way of life, you find it repulsive.”

Mohan doesn’t live with his mother, he lives with his maternal uncle and aunt and the aunt is very possessive of the boy and totally hates the newcomer, and the fact that she is a Brahmin woman. She makes it a mission of her life to turn that Brahmin “whore” into an out and out Bhangan. Mohan totally agrees with his aunt. Once Nirgun is so fed up with constant physical and mental torture that she complains to Mohan that if it doesn’t stop, she’s going to hang herself. This sends Mohan into a rage and he actually hangs her and almost kills her, while she constantly pleads for mercy. Just in the nick of time he undoes the knot and whispers to her, “If you were courageous enough to die, you would have died by now so stop this bullshit or the next time I will kill you, for real.”

Sometimes you feel you don’t understand the characters and Amritlal Nagar it seems doesn’t want you to spend any effort understanding them. People are the way they are. Mohan tortures her in the most inhuman manner. He burns her with a cigarette butt and bites her while making love and thinks that she deserves the sort of treatment she gets from his aunt. He celebrates when his aunt eventually succeeds in forcing Nirgun into picking her (the aunt’s) excrement and carrying it outside of the house. He hates her for being a Brahmin and constantly mocks her for that. Still, she loves him and she says till the end of the book that he loved her. Circumstances are the way they are. Mohan is psychopathic and rapes young and old women right left and center, like a maniac, when he turns into a decoit, but still he is not only revered by his community but even Nirgun (who turns into Nirguniya) is deeply in love with him and is proud of the fact that people are scared of him despite the fact that in his absence she associates herself with the progressive Aryasamaj activities and opens a small school in the house where she lives. She herself is always scared of him and sometimes she cannot understand whether she loves him or sticks around simply because he would kill her if she went away. Often she feels attracted towards other men (since Mohan turns into “Mohana daakoo” and can only meet her once or twice a year) but by now, either because of fear or by resolve she doesn’t give in.

The writer has borrowed the title of the book from a famous poem by Surdas… ab hun nachyo bahut Gopal … which basically means I have seen so much struggle in my life and now I’m totally tired.

Definitely read this book if you can get hold of it.

The word Bhangi actually comes from the state of “bhang”, severing or the cutting-off.

Rediscovering Hindi literature

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.