Visions in the Yamuna: Nirmal Verma

Via the mighty Complete Review (and Uma, The Elegant Variation, and others), I hear of the death of the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma at age 76. Verma was a genuine Indian original -- a St. Stephen's graduate who decided to commit himself to Hindi (not English), and who spent the 1960s in Prague, studying Czech literature and translating it into Hindi. He returned to India, and wrote productively in Delhi for three more decades. (Though his stuff has never been widely available in the U.S., a decent sampling can be acquired in the U.S. through Amazon).

Verma embraced modernism, and created a distinctly Indian variant of the French Nouveau Roman in Hindi, the Nai Kahani ("New Story" -- essentially a direct translation of "Nouveau Roman"). Here is Amit Chaudhuri on Verma's method and literary evolution:

The stories seem to be realist enough in their mode, and, occasionally, their particulars are rendered with great beauty; but the aura of the real is an illusion; the features of their world are no more definite or recognizable than the mysterious daubs of colour that form certain Cubist paintings. Just as those daubs of colour congeal, and are translated, into a scene only once we know the name of the painting -- say, 'Night Fishing At Antibes' -- so the features of the world of these stories hang suspended in the locus of the name, 'Nirmal Verma,' and the language, Hindi, and its traditions. In his more mature years, Verma has moved to apparently less symbolist and more recognizable territory. But he has also proved, ironically, that it is possible to map, on the suburban capital city, private and nebulous quests; he writes, a publisher's note informs us, 'from a rooftop that appears in some of his stories.'

(Is it too self-indulgent to say that I would also like a rooftop of my own? My own private observation deck?) Here Chaudhuri hints that the latter Verma is softer around the edges, and somewhat forgiving of the reader's need for plot. Not an unfamiliar turn; the challenge, of course, is to grow old while still remaining visionary.

And so it appears Verma did. Another story readers might be able to readily access is 'Terminal' (1992), which shows up in Amit Chaudhuri's anthology, The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature. Here's a snip from the ending of that story:

When the train reached the other terminal, he gave the conductor his ticket which still carried the warmth of her hand. After he got off the tram, he slowly walked towards the bridge which he used to cross every evening on his way back hom after dropping her at her hostel. It was an ancient bridge and the red light of the setting sun was sparkling over the river that ran under it. . . . He started walking again, but stopped when he reached the end of the bridge. He watched the river, which was now partly lit by the setting sun and partly covered by the evening shadows, flowing peacefully under the bridge. Then, suddenly, in the confusion of light and shadow, he saw a face floating on the surface of the water, staring at him, gazing up at the place he was standing, and he couldn't decide if it was the face of the Empress who had drowned at the same spot under the bridge three hundred years ago or of the woman he had seen in the candlelight three hours past who had saved them from drowning.

This could be a vision from a bridge at the Seine or the Vitava. But I think it is the Yamuna, which is dense and haunted the way all rivers running through cities tend to be. It's exactly the place to stand with one's hand in one's pocket, clutching a cooling ticket to an opera one is no longer going to see.

A translation of a Verma story called "The Lost Stream" is available online at the Little Magazine (link via Uma again):

Bodhrajji is long gone — the light from the lamppost illuminates his signboard that has his name in bold letters and of course the... Philosopher, Guide and Friend. She looks at the board for a while and then is startled by something. Someone is standing near the shop, whispering. She bends to look closely and sees two men on a motorcycle… they don’t seem very grown up, more like college boys — impulsive and worldly unwise, perhaps a little scared, but happy. As if they’ve found heaven beside the wall near the shop. They’ve come here, away from all curious eyes, not knowing that they are being watched.

She can’t see them too well. One boy is standing, the other sitting on the motorcycle. The one sitting takes something out of a bag from somewhere behind his legs. She sees the glass in the other boy’s hand… She realises what they are doing here. Shopkeepers come here after closing shop, to consume in fast gulps stuff they can’t touch at home, and then disappear into the darkness. But these boys? They seem untouched by the shopkeepers’ hypocrisy. They whisper and then laugh, and hide their glasses at the slightest noise. They don’t seem to be from here. Neither from the world around her… What is it that makes them stand out? Is it their laughter? Their whispers? Their happiness? The happiness that comes from drinking?

Is this the way to happiness? A dark alley?

I hope you'll consider it worth your time to read the rest of the story (I haven't spoiled anything by quoting from the ending. Remember: modernism!). What Verma offers in "The Lost Stream" is a series of small, nuanced observations, and a self-reflexive take on the strange feeling of isolation that comes with giving oneself over to observing the world, rather than attempting to act in it. No matter how removed the artist is from the people she (in this case) watches, she is still always in some sense involved in their experience. She scrutinizes the boys drinking in an alley for some kind of clue to her own condition.

(It should go without saying that Verma's is a very different kind of Indian writing from the overblown, fantastic, chutnified, and "exotic" style associated with certain practitioners of Indian English postmodernism. Verma as Antidote to Rushdie-itis?)

And of course one has to mention that these are only translations, that reading in the original Hindi would be something else entirely. For those who can, Uma links to a story in Hindi here (you need to download a font -- damn).

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Two further notices of Verma's passing:

Hindustan Times

And three Verma links:
South Asian Writers Literary Recordings Project (a U.S. Government project -- you can hear/download MP3s of him reading)

Lettre Ulysses Award

Interview in the Tribune