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Thursday, March 22, 2007
Maila Anchal by Phanishwar Nath Renu (Review)
Renu's Maila Anchal is one of the finest novels ever written in Hindi. The landscape of Bihar, the caste divide, Indian independence and changes in its aftermath, Maithali folklores and poems and multiple love stories painted on a canvas with highly perceptive descriptions of village life make it one of the most important novels written in and about rural India.
The novel was first published in early 1950s, in the post Prem Chand era, at a time when young, independent India was trying to redefine its identity as a Nation. The novel is set in Bihar, and incorporates the regional contexts and references into its theme, making it into a perfect example of Anchalik Upanyaas (Regional Novel).
A short synopsis of the story reads as follows (I won't serve you the details or the surprises for I wish you will read the story and enjoy the unfurling of events): Tehsildaar babu, by the virtue of his position in local administration, has acquired large tracts of land, and turned into a Zamindaar (landlord) himself. His daughter Kamla suffers from some disease that results in fits. Doctor babu (Dagdar babu) has left his city-life to work in these hinterlands. This is the realm where Malaria, Kalazar and numerous such epidemics run havoc, where people trust tantriks and pandits (witches and priests) more than they trust Western medicine, where poverty itself is the biggest disease affecting people, and besides the lack of basic amenities, people lack education and faith in government as well as in the doctor himself. The character of Doctor Babu is based on the life-story of Dr Alakh Niranjan, who was alive (and 100 years old) in 2003. The doctor babu makes special effort to fight disease as well as lack of belief in medicine, he battles both the ailments and the superstitions of people around him. Kamla, who is one of his patients, perhaps the only rich patient, falls in love with him.
Lakshmi lives at a Matth (a kind of monastery), serves an old Mahanth (a priest) (they have a scandalous relationship, for the Mahanth is supposed to stay away from all pleasures). The Mahanth has a servant, who bears all the insults from his master, and eventhough he is of low birth, is admitted into the Matth, as he is adept at playing the Khanjira (a musical instrument). A freedom fighter, S (I forget his name), comes in contact with Lakshmi, and is attracted to her. After Mahanth's death, the servant assumes office with help of Lakshmi, and because of her scandalous position, several people's lust after her, till she gives up her position in Matth.
The novel describes a whole bunch of characters who get involved in caste-based politics. Apart from S, who is a strict Gandhian (and makes speeches in pure Hindi, that most villagers admire, but never understand), there is a dwarf, who has had correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi himself. After Mahatma's death, the dwarf wanes away like a candle, celebrated in the darkest hours, flickers away unnoticed, once the power supply is restored. The village hooligans are lured by the Communist party, and the hooligans care about neither social justice nor communism. The novel describes division s between different castes and groups, the divisions become harsher as politics promises power and money. If you wonder about the genesis and the consequences of caste-based politics, Maila Aanchal has a perfect script that will assist you in tracing its roots. Renu in a manner of great story tellers lets the events speak for themselves: the episodes in the novel shed light on how Gandhi was revered in even these remotest villages and how his death was mourned by most who had no inkling of what difference becoming "free" would to make to them. For them the simile of being like a free bird meant nothing, for they were like wingless birds who knew not what wonders a flight entails, what sceneries lie beyond the horizons. The events reveal how Gandhians and idealists lost hope and direction after Independent India thrust itself into games of corruption and caste-based politics. The events prescribe the socio-economic condition of the villagers, the unequal sharing of crops, the inherited hierarchy of caste and money, and the family values or lack thereof.
Be it gossip or folklores, songs of tribals or cures by the Doctor; be it drama (nautanki) enacted on stage or the Akhara fights (the wrestling matches); be it dresses and ornaments of womenfolk or the idealism and corruption of men; be it the bhajans (hymns) in Matth or the lust of men who sought Lakshmi; be it the harvesting season or description of monsoon rain; Renu presents a masterpiece where each description comes with a perspective and perception as keen and humane as of Tolstoy and Chekov, as astute as of Maugham and Lawrence, as rich in local flavor as no English novel written by any Indian has ever managed to be.
If Renu were an author in any other language, in other country or tongue, he would have managed to be read and celebrated a million times better than he is by us Hindi speaking Indians. He shares this fate with Prem Chand, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Dharamveer Bharati, Ageya, Yash Pal, and Jaishankar Prasad, to name a few. His story Maare Gaye Gulfaam was made into a movie Teesri Kasam, though Maila Aanchal seemed to have been ignored by our Bollywood (they are most obsessed with copying Hollywood, and often ignore literature written in India).
If I were to suggest a series of books to any Indian about his country, I would, apart from epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, go on and hand this list (Hindi/Urdu): Anand Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Gora, Geetanjali and Ghaira Bhare by Rabindranath Tagore, Godan, Gaban and short stories by Prem Chand, Maila Anchal by Renu, Short Stories in Hindi by Yashpal, Ageya and Renu, Short Stories in Urdu by Manto, Panchatantra, everything by Kalidasa (Hindi versions are not too hard to find), and Gunaahon ka Devta by Dharamveer Bharati. (The titles missing from this list (except for English fiction and Sarat Chandra) are a measure of my own ignorance, and hence I'll be delighted to get any recommendations.)
Language flourishes when people speaking it celebrate its richness, honor its bards, recognize the need for its evolution and admire scholarship. Hindi as a language needs more authors like Renu. But more important than that is the reader who can savor the delights offered by our language. Maila Aanchal, apart from its numerous merits in being descriptive and its range and depth of narrative, is a celebration of spoken Hindi language, the khari boli. The language as we hear and live it is brought to the page by Renu. While he talks about social change, and issues closer at heart to reformists in undertones, he also springs at us a well written marvel of the language, freely indulging, romancing as if, with local words and variations, and at times, openly mocking the bookish Hindi, that is the bane of our classrooms, certain newspapers, and self-styled authors. By the emphasis placed on the use of highly Sanskritized, defunct words, and due to importance of English as language of knowledge and erudition, Hindi literature and language have suffered enormously. Perhaps those among you who read the Russian authors or even the classical British novelists, perhaps you will notice how our approach to Hindi (or our Indian languages) is similar to Russians or Brits had for their mother-tongues in comparison to French. Perhaps likewise, an array of brilliant writers, a free dose of nationalism inspired by a new Napolean, is what we need for our language to flourish as it must. While Renu waits for you to admire his contribution, I urge you to pick Maila Aanchal, and enter his world and characters from not so long ago, from our own land, our own country. Maybe, like always, you will learn something new about yourselves, about us. Read it and you will find Doctor babu, Kamla, Lakshmi, S, Mahant, Tehsildaar, Socialists, the dwarf, the Panditji and other characters will live etched in your memory reminding you of one and many you have known.