His new book on Hindi literary giant Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan promises to be a page-turner
The loss of journalism is the gain of scholarship. Akshaya Mukul, who has worked for some of the major English dailies in Delhi for more than two decades, made his literary debut as a scholar-researcher with Gita Press and the award-winning Making of Hindu India (2015). non-fiction majors in India upon its release, including Crossword Book Award, Ramnath Goenka Award, Tata Literature Live Award, Atta-Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Prize and Shakti Bhatt Award. Mukul is a recipient of Homi Bhabha, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and New India Foundation scholarships. He has contributed essays to Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century, edited by Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald deSouza, and A Functioning Anarchy?: Essays for Ramachandra Guha, edited by Srinath Raghavan and Nandini Sundar.
Mukul’s new book is about Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan, or ‘Agyeya’ as he was popularly known, and is called Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya, published by Penguin Random House India in July under the ‘Vintage imprint and is currently available on all major e-commerce sites for pre-order. Its Hindi translation, scheduled for 2023, will be published under the Hind Pocket Books imprint.
The book dives deep into Agyeya’s journey from young revolutionary to patron saint of Hindi literature. This story covers landscapes ranging from prisons in Britain, an intellectually robust Allahabad, and modern Delhi to monasteries in Europe, the homes of Agyeya’s friends in the Himalayas, and universities in the United States. wknd. spoke with Mukul about his upcoming book.
How did you come to research Agyeya and how was it different from your first book?
Agyeya has been a part of my reading life since my middle university years at Ranchi. The friend who introduced me to Agyeya’s Shekhar: Ek Jiwani could recite passages from her memory. So, I heard Shekhar…before I read the two-part novel. Since the mid-1980s, I keep coming back to Agyeya, his novels, poems, essays, travelogues and diaries. At Delhi University, my fondness for Agyeya waned a bit because I was mostly addicted to poets like Muktibodh, the poet of the dark alleys of the heart, and Raghuvir Sahay, probably the best chronicler of distortions of democracy. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to poets. I have a lot of favorites and generally avoid literary “who’s the best” games. I never fell in love with the Agyeya versus Muktibodh pastime of the Hindi world. I kept going back to Agyeya.
The idea of writing Agyeya’s biography came one evening over coffee at the India International Center in Delhi. I met Vasudha Dalmia, one of the most eminent Indian specialists in Hindi literature. The conversation generally veered towards Agyeya and his biography and why a full account of his life and literature was lacking. “Why don’t you write? she asked me. I agreed and within hours she had spoken to writer Ashok Vajpeyi and editor-writer Om Thanvi to help me access Agyeya’s huge private documents. Vajpeyi and Thanvi were more than willing and over the next few months I was granted custody of the meticulously kept papers. It had everything a solid archive should have, but there were still gaps and questions. In research, it is important to fill these gaps. Often, the exercise of joining the dots is difficult. In Agyeya’s case, I had to consult the archives of the Congress for Cultural Liberty in Chicago, the papers of his acquaintance James Burnham at Stanford and the Rockefeller archives in New York. I traveled and took the help of research assistants. Even in India, the colonial records of his life as a revolutionary were shrouded in multiple myths. I found thousands of pages in National Archives and Delhi State Archives. Above all, Agyeya’s own papers are a treasure trove of new facts about his public, private and secret life. Her secret lover Kripa Sen being one of them.
What is the most captivating part of his biography?
Well, I’ll be uncomfortable giving it away before the book comes out. Agyeya’s diaries in prison and his recording of dreams, the writing and rewriting of Shekhar: Ek Jiwani, his relationships with women, especially Kripa Sen and his friends like Balraj Sahni. There’s also plenty about Agyeya’s years in the Indian Army, his connections with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, and his transformation into a messiah of Hindi literature.
What kind of cooperation did you get from his ex-wife Kapila Vatsyayan?
Kapila Vatsyayan was Agyeya’s second wife and the niece of his first wife Santosh. The marriage had caused a scandal but the two survived it and lived well for a few years. But they had a bitter separation. Agyeya was extractive in his dealings with women and left them in a miserable state. He had left the marriage and they never officially divorced. I had known her for many years. But when I approached her for help in 2016, she overheard me and asked me to read her “cognitive biography.” But Agyeya is barely there. I kept trying. At one point, she almost agreed but her health deteriorated. In February 2020, I met her for the last time. She refused. “You don’t understand love. It doesn’t end with a man walking out of the house,” she told me. I must point out that the dozen times that I met her to convince her, Kapilaji was dignified and wished me good luck. Fortunately, Agyeya’s papers have something to recreate the joy and tension of their relationship.
How was the transition from your original publisher Westland to Penguin Random House India?
Like Agyeya, this biography had an itinerant existence. Everything was ready to come out of Westland, an Amazon-owned publishing house. V. Karthika and Ajitha GS, two of my favorite editors, were heavily invested in the book and went out of their way. But days before it was sent to the press, Amazon shut down Westland. In the ensuing uncertainty, Penguin Random House India expressed interest and acquired the book. Agyeya has found a new home, and Penguin Randon House has given the book all the love and attention it deserves. Luckily Westland also survived and at some point I will be working with Ajitha on a book we discussed a few months ago.
What’s the next project?
For the past two years I have been working on a full biography of Jayaprakash Narayan. It is part of the India Lives series which will be edited by Ramachandra Guha.