Gordon Roadarmel and Modern Hindi Literature

One of the key critics in looking at modernism in Hindi literature in particular is the American critic and translator, Gordon Roadarmel. Today Roadarmel is probably better known as a translator (i.e., of Godaan) than as a critic, mainly because we have several excellent published translations from him, while his 1969 dissertation from UC-Berkeley was never formally published. (In terms of translations, Roadarmel also did a collection of stories called "A Death in Delhi," and a translation of Agyeya's novel Apne Apne Anjani [To Each His Stranger].) The fact that such seminal research went unpublished is hard for me to fathom, though it may be that the critic's premature death in 1971 may have had more than a little to do with it.

Luckily, I was able to track down a copy of Roadarmel's dissertation in bound form at Penn, and have been reading it this week. Here I wanted to offer a few helpful quotes from him as regards the 'modernist' (or experimental) turn in modern Hindi fiction, which is sometimes described as the "Nayi Kahani" (or New Story).

Here is Roadarmel's account of the emergence of that movement in the late 1950s:

[T]he popularity of the [short] story seems to have been first noted in print by a writer calling himself Chakradhar, in the April 1954 issue of Kalpana an important literary journal. He says: "After a long time, short stories have again begun to attract readers." A change in the nature of the stories was noted by the son of Premchand, Shripat Ray, writing in the New Year issue of Kahani in 1956:

I began to wonder whether I might be behind the pace of the times and therefore was not noting the progress in the Hindi story which ought to be expected... The form of the story was changing and perhaps I, because of my old traditions, was asking of the story what today was not characteristic of it.

The naming of the new group is credited to Namwar Singh, probably in an article published in Kahani just a year after Shripat's comments. Namwar wrote: 'In thinking about the story today, the first thing that comes to my mind is the question as to whether, like 'nayi kavita,' there is also such a thing as 'nayi kahani.'

In 1957 the term Nayi Kahani became generally applied to the new writing, though debate has never stopped as to the appropriateness of the term. By 1957, Hindi literary circles generally had hailed the material appearing in that issue of Kahani early in 1956. A year before, in 1955, eighty percent of the stories in the special issue of the periodical were by older writers. In this 1956 issue, eighty percent were by the newer writers; and "in the Hindi world there was such wide discussion of this issue and such a warm welcome that the foundation of the revival of the story was established."

In subsequent pages, Roadarmel goes on to talk about the initial divergence in the Nayi Kahani movement between authors who were more interested in 'rural' fiction and those who were more thematically 'urban'. One text mentioned as aligned with the rural-ist Nahi Kahani is Phanishwer Nath Renu's 1954 Maili Anchal (The Soiled Border). But this debate died down relatively quickly, and over time, the urban sensibility came to predominate.

By the late 1960s, the time of Roadarmel's research, the fashion for the Nayi Kahani itself was in decline, though luckily for the critic many of the authors were still very much active and available -- as were the journals (Kahani, Nayi Kahanian, Dharmayug, etc.) in which the stories were first being printed, and where debates over style and ideology were also unfolding.

* * *

Nayi Kahani (1950s) vs. Premchand and Jainendra Kumar (1930s)

It's helpful to see how Roadarmel characterizes Premchand and Jainendra Kumar, as perhaps epitomizing the 'social realist' aesthetic the later movement would define itself against:

In contrast to [Jayashankar] Prasad, Premchand's focus was on the evils of contemporary society. He was also an idealist, but one whose stories were more clearly located in the world of reality, about which he wrote with a strong sense of mission. 'The society of his time was the background for most of his stories, where he struck with force against social wrongs and pointed to a road forward.' [footnote to Ashk] When Premchand selected romantic or historical figures for his stories, it was usually for the sake of expressing some social or moral vision directed at the society of his time.

In nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectual circles, British pressures had helped to create a mood of self-awareness that brought a reexamination of religious, social and political patterns. As in the reformist Arya Samaj movement, and later in the Gandhian movement, Premchand's fiction expresses a strong awareness of weaknesses in contemporary Indian culture and society but also a strong faith in traditional patterns and virtues which had somehow gone astray. So the world of Premchand's stories centers around such problems as mixed marriage, the prohibition of widow remarriage, prostitution, alcoholism, the breakup of the joint family, capitalist oppression, economic inequality, the moneylending system, the zamindari system, and the decline of social sense, patriotism and moral strength.

Most commonly, Premchand's stories show one character basically faultless who has either gone astray or is being crushed by some aspect of society. Where he has gone astray, he is likely to have a sudden change of heart and then to right the wrongs. Where society is at fault, some solution may be presented or the protagonist may be left in a kind of heroic suffering as trouble after trouble pours down on him. In Premchand's earlier stories, circumstances often seem the chief reason for the problem; in his later stories, the social system is more likely to be the chief culprit.

Usefulness was Premchand's yardstick for literature, and for him the literary consciousness was entirely dependent on society and should function in the social context. What was right for society was sure to be right for the individual. Moralizing was at times heavy-handed. in some of Premchand's later stories, however, a problem situation appears with no solution. In "Kafan" (The Shroud) and "Pus ki Raat," one finds broken people unaware that they have lost a sense of duty. A reader might still infer an underlying criticism of the society which allowed such circumstances, but the author's direct attack is gone.

Roadarmel's point that Premchand's own stories move away from over moralizing or political propaganda towards an approach in which a "problem situation appears with no solution" rings true for me -- especially in "Kafan" (Shroud), a story about a father-son pair of Chamar leather workers who end up shirking their duty to bury the son's wife, who dies in childbirth. One way of thinking about this might be to say that Premchand himself was moving away from an unsophisticated kind of social realism, and introducing greater psychological complexity and ambiguity by the 1930s.

It makes sense to me that the Nayi Kahani would define themselves in some ways against Premchand, but one of the aspects of the Nayi Kahani's self-definition that makes less sense to me is Roadarmel's claim that they aligned Premchand with Jainendra Kumar. Of Jainendra's work, I've only read "The Resignation" (Tyaga Patra, 1937), but even that one novella seemed to self-reflexive and condensed that it could not be more different from Premchand's nearly contemporaneous Godaan.

Though the "Nayi Kahani" might appear to represent "modernism," while the writers of the 1930s and 40s -- Premchand, Jainendra, and Agyeya -- might be thought to represent progressivism and "realism," in practice they are much closer together than we might expect. In my work in progress, my aspiration is to argue that, despite how large the differences amongst these various writers appeared at the time, they are part of a single movement: a Hindi modernism that ran from the mid-1930s through to about 1970.

As a final note, this afternoon I've been reading through the stories in "A Death in Delhi," and I've been bowled over -- Roadarmel's translation is truly inspired. I've been especially impressed by Kamleshwar's "A Death in Delhi," Nirmal Verma's "A Difference," and Krishna Baldev Vaid's "My Enemy." Luckily, the library at Penn seems to have the Hindi originals for these and other stories in Roadarmel's collection, and I'll be consulting those as well in the near future.