This is not a book for the casual reader or those with weak wrists. With notes, references and acknowledgments, it is 800 voluminous and densely written pages. That said, it should be noted that this is the way to approach the biographies of eminent personalities. Mukul, well known for his earlier book on the Gita Press and the creation of Hindu India, has been widely praised for his documentation (as opposed to an anti-fascist discourse) of this important publishing house and its socio-cultural and , later, political impact.
Mukul’s work on Agyeya is cast in the same mold. His research is amazing, as is his relentless pursuit of material, both here and abroad. At its heart are some 200 paper trunks meticulously maintained by Agyeya himself. Not a word written by Mukul is based (as shoddy biographies often are) on gossip and hearsay. It is an admirable feat of scholarship and one eagerly awaits the biography of JP which he is currently working on.
Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan was nicknamed “Agyeya” by Premchand himself – an apt description of his restless, searching spirit. Several contemporaries considered him a maverick, a gadfly who constantly oscillated between politics, literary writing, and a long list of sexual and emotional involvements; the truth is that Agyeya was essentially someone no one, not even himself, fully fathomed. His literary output spans poetry, drama, novels, political pamphlets, public lectures and broadcasts, but the ones that matter most to those who wish to savor him are two autobiographical novels: “Nadike Dveep” and “Shekhar: Ek Jivani”. Locked in these books are a host of personal doubts and relationships that made him a writer, a rebel, a soldier and a lover.
Agyeya was nothing if not honest and while some may cringe at his treatment of the women in his life, it must also be appreciated that he did not dwell on dead relationships, either in head or heart. .
The book begins with Agyeya’s birth in Kushinagar, near Gorakhpur, where his father, the scholar-archaeologist Hiranand Shastri, was excavating an important Buddhist burial site. This leads to the discovery of Agyeya’s complex love-hate relationship with her father. As was common in those days, his mother had to take care of the large family without Hiranand’s emotional support. Agyeya’s lifelong interest in the psychological novel and his own literary work stems from relationships with his siblings and father after the death of his mother, alone and unrecognized. Equally important is the life he chose to follow, often to defy his father’s overwhelming presence because he held the purse strings. As a study of the extended Hindu family, it offers an interesting perspective on the repressed desires and sexual deviations mostly hidden in public view in these kinship ties.
Just as ‘Shekhar: Ek Jivani’ explores the making and struggles of a rebel, Mukul then gives us a detailed account of Agyeya’s days as an underground revolutionary that landed him in prison as a marked man. His reflections on the deep philosophical questions and ideological doubts that haunt many of these young men form a vital core in this historical novel. Agyeya, often hailed as introducing the psychological dimension to the Hindi novel, was a character worthy of Freudian study in its own right. At times, one would have liked Mukul to have kept control over the details, but given the huge canvas he was working on, that would have weakened the tale of an extraordinary life.
Literary experts often say that critical theory, central to a Marxist worldview, is absent from Hindi literature. I would encourage them to read the story of the early rise of progressive writing and the fledgling publishing houses run on shoestring budgets in the first decades of the last century. Benaras and Allahabad were then the places of residence of the most liberal and brilliant writers. Names that disappeared in the mists of time: Yashpal, Jainendra Kumar, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Chandragupt Vidyalankar, Banarsidas Chaturvedi, Sumitranandan Pant, Nirala, Mahadevi Verma… the list is endless. Between them are the rise and fall of the romantic movement and Nayi Kahani. To write about this and Agyeya’s later experiences with the Rashtrabhasha Project and All India Radio, the Sahitya Akademi and his public lectures and writings without ignoring any part of this polymath is an achievement I can only salute.
As a chronicle of the life and times of a Dean, this book has few equals.