Reading Phanishwar Nath Renu
By Akash Bharadwaj
Every time I come home, I look for something of my interest in my father’s bookshelf. These are mostly novels and short stories from Hindi writers and books on History. Since my school days, I have come across writers from Manto to Maupassant on these bookshelves and read them, sometimes even without understanding what they meant. We also have a fairly good collection of World literature – from Solokohov to Doestovesky to Mao. These are red-coloured hard-bound copies translated and published in Hindi from Popular Prakashan. My brother recently told me he enjoyed reading them, but once, on my Uncle’s insistence – that these were forbidden books and could make us land in jail – he set fire to many of them. This was about 8-9 years back. My father still recalls the incident and regrets the loss. Though he never strictly recommended us to read anything, we somehow sneaked in pages of books that were around. This practice gave us the liberty to choose what we wanted to read and, therefore, the liberty for a lot of other things.
Last year, while at home, I took out Phanishwar Nath Renu’s short story collection from a row of books that lay in the shelf. I don’t remember what specially drew me to him. Till then, I had known of Renu as a famous Hindi writer; somebody who came from the same region as I. On the way to my paternal village, every time we approached Forbesganj (a small industrial town in the Araria District of Bihar), someone would point to the big letters embossed on the entry gate of a village that said Renu Gram. On some occasions, I could also hear a passing comment that established Renu as a great ‘aanchalik kathakar’ (regional storyteller). One of my cousins, who obtained a PhD in Hindi, also had a great regard for the writer. However, since I doubted his intentions as a reader, I doubted the intentions of the writer he had a high regard for.
This was also the time when I had more fascination for Camus’ existential crisis and Kafka’s surrealism than Renu’s ‘village’, which happened to be close to my own. I hesitated to read him because to my mind reading Renu was akin to going back to my village. My social and political imaginations were more in sync with revolutions in some distant land in Vietnam or Chile. The amnesia about my immediate surrounding loomed large over me. I considered Renu as a writer from the past who wrote about people from a small province in Bihar. About me, I felt, I have moved on. I did not share the affinity or belongingness many people have with the place they come from.
With these thoughts and apprehensions, I turned the pages of the book that lay in my hand. The title of the story was “Kalakaar” (The Artist). In the story, Sharad is a tall, thin, and shabbily-dressed young man who lives off designing cheap bangles and borders of saris. He is known among neighbours by different identities – some think of him as a poet and forlorn lover and some a spy. When he roams the city, it is as if he is looking for someone; every evening, he passes by dead bodies burning at Manikarnika Ghat. He gets bothered by how the university girls imitate style just because they have seen someone famous wearing the same thing. If time and routine permit, he sneaks into the library to read an essay on art and later pities the intelligence of the writer. Amidst all this, one day, he encounters an old friend from college, Madhav, who is accompanied by his wife, Madhu. Sharad insists and makes Madhu buy the bangle sets and saris he wished to buy himself. On being probed by Madhav about his whereabouts, he says, “bas Banaras mein hoon, achha lagta hai” (Been in Banaras for quite some time, I feel good here). Madhav is sad to see his friend, an artist, who was appreciated by all in college, roaming aimless in the streets of Banaras. He and Madhu grieve for him, while the same night Sharad thinks of small beautiful children playing in Victoria Park where he could go the next day. He is so happy that he starts singing Bihag. His neighbours are startled to hear a raaga they have never heard before.
Before going on to the next story, I was still thinking about the power and discontent that drive an artist. As I continued reading, I saw much more in Renu: his rare ability to reveal to his readers the many layers, name the many desires, aspirations or circumstances, which pull society in different directions. His characters at once speak of love, alienation, and grief that people experience in their lives. The protagonists in his stories are not just cogs in the wheels; they carry with them a vision which is not constricted by narrow discriminatory boundaries of caste and religion. I felt closer to him when I understood the worldview he espoused. Reading him, I realised, is akin to giving a different meaning to the place I come from. Though it has been said many times that Renu was a writer rooted in a specific culture and milieu, it is also true that his characters spoke of a feeling of uprootedness that characterised the same culture.
In another story, “Khandahar”, published in 1948, Gopal, a rebel writer, refuses to side with the elites of post-independent India and struggles to eke out a living. Facing slander from his parents, brother and wife, shut in his room, Gopal writes: “poonjivaad samaj ne madhyawarg, visheshtaya nimnmadhyawarg aur sarvhara warg ke dainik jeevan mein jaisi vikritiyan paida ki hain, unka chitran teevr anubhuti ke madhyam se ho. Ye vikritiyan jeevan ke har ek pehlu mein vartmaan hain – paarivarik, samajik, sanskritik aur manovaigyanik. Sampoorna bhaavsatta vikrit ho gayi hai. Kya wah stri- purush ka prem ho, santan-prem ho aadi-aadi. Saara jeevan vishrankhal hai – vyakti ka har bhag vighatit hai. Vyakti ka vishleshan kijiye, Patna chalega ki ve kitne ‘distorted’, ‘abnormal’, ‘neurotic’ ho gaye hain. Lekin in sabke baavjood samaj mein vidrohatmkata jeevit hai, wahi asha ka kendra hai…” (The anomalies that the capitalist society has produced among the middle class, lower middle class, and especially the working class need to be sketched strongly. These anomalies exist in all spheres of life: familial, social, cultural, and psychological. The whole sphere of feeling has become distorted. Whether it is relationship between a man and a woman or love for one’s progeny. Life is shred in fragments; each part is decaying. You analyse a person and you would realise how ‘distorted’, ‘abnormal’ and ‘neurotic’ they have become. Despite all this, rebelliousness still lives and beckons hope for us.)
Rebelliousness forms the core of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s writings and politics. Most of his stories were published in small Hindi magazines such as Saptahik Hindustan, Vishwamitra and Jyotsana. His language bore no unnecessary pride; it spoke in the same tongue as a commoner’s. It was a unique voice in the Nayi Kahani Movement which didn’t believe in a separation between politics and culture. In fact, he started his career as a political activist and later even stood for election in state assembly polls from Forbesganj. Many young writers and activists from all over the country joined him in the campaign…(keh do gaon gaon mein, abki baar is chunao mein, vote denge naaon mein). Though he lost the election, on Jayprakash Narayan’s call he returned his Padma Shri and joined the 1974 Revolution. His story “Party Ka Bhoot”, published two years before Independence, still appears relevant today. It exposes the insincerity and hollowness that led to the formation of endless political parties, especially of the socialist-communist kind. The young narrator in the story is unable to come out of the maze these political parties have created for him. Every party considers him a member and thinks he knows the secrets of the opposite party. He belongs to all parties and none: “main bhi maanta hoon ki mujhe party ka Bhoot sata raha hai. Bhoot-pret ko nahi maanne Walon se meri prarthana hai ki we kam se kam in bhoot par avashya vishwash karein…” (Now even I consider that I am being pestered by the Party’s Ghost. I have a request for those who don’t usually believe in ghosts. Please reconsider your decision.)
Another story, “Aatmsakshi” (Self-testimony), written in 1965, some twenty years after “Party Ka Bhoot”, shows internal rifts in the communist party and the unwillingness of its members to handle the caste-class relations in Indian society. Committed to the ideals of the communist party, Ganpat Singh becomes Comrade Ganpat. He can kiss a lower caste woman, Parbatiya, but is not allowed to marry her. Boycotted by the family and community, as he approaches the Arya Samaj temple for marriage, Parbatiya and her father are forced to leave the village. The communist party surrenders to the diktats of Brahmins and Pandits. Ganpat, a relentless struggler against oppressive forces, stands defeated in his own ground. In the story, Renu touches a chord that has been a fundamental question for Indian politics and communist parties for many decades.
Bengali writer Satinath Bhaduri was a huge influence on the young Phanishwar Nath Renu. Locked in Bhagalpur Central Jail during the nationalist movement of 1942-43, Bhaduri had heard a poem from Renu and had suggested that he write prose. They both spent two-three years together in jail. While in one cell Bhaduri was writing his acclaimed Bengali novel, Jaagari, in another Renu was going through an experience that would later catapult him to write Maila Aanchal. Remembering Renu, Baba Nagarjun, another revolutionary Hindi writer, wrote, “I have a strong faith that if the brilliant Renu was to born in a metropolis like Calcutta and if he were to have access to the cultural and technical achievements of the city, then in addition to being a great storyteller that he was, he would also have made a great filmmaker like Satyajit Ray.”
Despite the acclaim from fellow writers and love from his readers, Renu’s approach was never didactic. Instead of discussing himself, he had a strong faith in his work. In the year 1977, he was diagnosed with peptic ulcer. Lying unconscious for twenty days, he finally passed away on 11th April at the Patna Medical College Hospital. It is a co-incidence that in some of his stories, written in early phase of his writing career, the young protagonist is in a similar condition in the hospital and shares the same concerns as he shared as a writer. In his story, “Rekhayein: Vritchakra”, the young narrator, lying on the bed of the PMCH in a semiconscious state, searches for life’s meaning: “I can trust this now, this is a dream. And, I cannot get rid of this dream! What would this renunciation lead to anyway! Better, walking on the banks of Ganga and adore my reflection in the water, I pray for my beautiful face…lifetime, in everything and everyone, I keep searching for the reflection of self and getting lost in it…narcissism? Nonsense? I want to sing in my dream once…till where does my voice reach. On the other side of the Ganga…beyond the white sand, flying above the green fields…like a siren buzzing under deep water, going deep in the vast water, to be lost…” In a sharp criticism to his critics, who declared him an uncommitted-romantic writer, Renu once said, “main apni kahaniyon mein apne aap ko hi dhoondata phirta hoon; apne aap ko arthat aadmi ko…” (In my stories, I search for myself; myself meaning the entire humanity.)
Reading Renu has been quite a journey for me. Sometimes I would take a pause and look for someone to share my feelings about how he wrote a character or a place. Small joys in life, little moments of fits, knots of malice and love, touch-smell-beauty and his ability to see through them is what makes him special. While reading him makes one aware of the literary public sphere of that time, it also conveys the enormous responsibility a writer carries for himself and the society. Having been both a part of independence struggle and struggles after independence, Renu indicates that the oppressive structure of Indian society has not yet fundamentally changed. He dispels the notion of the writer as the all-knowing one. He said time and again that writing for him is a medium to know his own place in the world. I learn from him an important lesson: to search for one’s place in the world and yet have a place to voice your concern from are not necessarily contradictory to each other. It’s rather the condition a writer very often finds himself in.
Akash Bharadwaj studies Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
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