Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On two recent Hindi novels - Morwal’s ‘Halala’, and Vyas’s ‘Banaras talkies’

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Recently I got a chance to attend a literary meet in Patna, Bihar where Bhagwandas Morwal, a Hindi novelist I admire was in conversation with an interlocutor over his latest offering ‘Halala’. But before I begin to talk about the novel, I wish to dwell on a part of Q&A at the end of the session with the audience that struck me as very significant. A woman reader got up and suggested that Morwal should perhaps go lighter on the use of dialogues with Mewati touch as she found them tough to wade through or at times even comprehend – Morwal hails from Mewat, where most of his narratives are staged. An area next-door to Delhi, it is the most backward region economically in Haryana but also culturally and linguistically quite distinct. What Morwal had to say in response, instantly struck a chord in me. He recounted the experiences of trying to read the great novelist Phaneeshawrnath Renu from Bihar, known for his epic work ‘Maila Anchal’, probably the best known Hindi novel after Premchand’s ‘Godan’. Heavily laden with local idioms and vocabulary, Morwal had a tough time ploughing through the book as a youth. His daughter went through a similar experience more recently. The lady from Patna obviously took it for granted that her regional dialects would be accessible to all. 

This exchange brought to the fore an aspect of Hindi that is likely to crop up more frequently in the days to come as more and more writers begin to draw on the tongues of their regions. After all it does not seem a god idea to insist on an entirely leveled up form of Hindi, cleansed of all the local character. Great literature must carry the flavor of the locale even as it aims at universality. I suppose other Indian languages like Marathi, Bangla and the south Indian languages also share the predicament to various extents. Come to think of it, bereft of the local lingo, wouldn’t the characters of ‘Halala’ sound like aliens to a reader from Mewat who will see in it as a synthetic product, a sort of a second hand or ersatz Mewat? Judiciously used, the local lingo can sound very inviting and most important, it adds to the general expressive capability of mainstream Hindi. But this is not the only reason I wish to discuss the book. In fact I could go on to discuss several aspects of the novel if I were to write a long critical piece. But I will focus on just four points that seem of immediate relevance to me.

First, ‘Halala’ breaks the cliché of only Muslim authors writing about Muslims. Morwal however is not driven by an urge to make an exception. The fact is that in Mewat for historical reasons, Hindus and Muslim lives are so closely intertwined, that Muslim practices and norms very much a part of Hindu lives and also vice versa. So Morwal is not feigning familiarity or arriving at it through the academic route of anthropological research. As a writer, Morwal is however more than familiar with the Mevs of Mewat – as a writer with wide exposure to the world outside Mewat, he has the ability to see and highlight what the locals may take for granted. He may thus have insights that perhaps even insiders may not be able to offer. I am thinking of the child Morwal scurrying in and out of neighbouring households and not just the fully formed adult writer studiously examining his own social backdrop.

Second, there is nothing abstruse about ‘Halala’. The quality of the narrative lies in its transparent simplicity as events and the many layers of the characters unfold before you. It is a novel about the simple folk of Mewat rarely given to convoluted meditations and philosophical introspection sounding like the ventriloquized versions of the author’s voice. Although there are many who claim to write about the common folk in Hindi, making an ideology and official policy out of it, they mostly end up treating their characters as unconvincing puppets. I emphasize simplicity not because complexity is intellectually challenging but only because hyper-sophisticated writings rather too often mask shallowness of vision in literature. In brief, to use an emphatic tautology, Morwal’s Mewat is really Mewat!

Third, ‘Halala’ never bores you. I am aware that great literature is often if not always disturbing as it unsettles your moorings, a sensation that not everyone may appreciate. But it does so effortlessly and certainly not by transforming the reading experience itself into a torment. This is probably the only thing common between a good thriller and a great literary novel – they don’t leave you alone for a minute. Classics like Premchand’s ‘Godan’, Shrilala Shukla’s ‘Rag Darbari’, Prabha Khaitan’s ‘Pili Andhi’, and Abdul Bismilla’s ‘Jhini Bini Re Chadariya’ to name a few have this trait in common. ‘Halala’, the novel revolves around an impulsive divorce in a family that cannot be undone in a hurry because of interventions from a spoilsport Maulvi. This leads to endless tragic-comic complications that make the stuff of the novel.

Well-wishers of Hindi literature who have for long worried about the shrinking readership often end up blaming the English invasion and the communication technologies. Hindi publishers do not reveal their data except to mask the ground reality. So we all we have are anecdotal estimates and frustrated groans from the writers by way of evidence. But this anxiety has led to a crop of young authors for whom the general readability and popularity is all. Among the recent lot of Hindi ‘bestsellers’, I found at least one remarkable novel that shows a great promise – ‘Banaras Talkies’ by a young writer Satya Vyas, not unlike Morwal’s work talks and feels like its locale, namely Banaras, and even more specifically the BHU. In fact being a campus story, it brings out the life in Banaras Hindu University [BHU] or for that matter any university campus in ways never attempted before to my knowledge. The novel’s compass – daily life in the hostels and the departments is a very good example of how Hindi literature has neglected significant areas of experience which may be the chief reason why it attracts fewer readers. It is of course difficult for a writer to admit that readers may be turning away from him because they fail to relate to his stories.  

In his attempt to give an extra edge to a very good work however, Vyas, the novelist injects into it an alien component that spoils the overall charm – a side plot based on the explosions at the famous Sankat Mochan temple some years ago. Despite the distraction, the novel belongs to a rare category in Hindi – a popular novel rich with literary flavor and a strong character. Maybe the novelist will soon get over his surplus anxieties on account of the popularity issues and get down to writing as such. Good literature is never boring but it needn’t be racy or packed with thrills either.

To those who may wonder why I bring up the two rather disparate novels together I can only say these are the two recent Hindi novels that I find outstanding and enjoyed them the most. As many of my younger friends who are avid readers admit to me that that is rather rare in Hindi. One hopes we see more novels in Hindi that grab the reader and leave a strong impact on him, instead of leaving him confused and frustrated or driven to a sullen pretense of appreciation in the absence of any real liking. I recommend both these novels to you, of course! Let me also be explicit about why I recommend them and what I find common to the two novels that stand worlds apart otherwise – belonging to two different eras and generations, they both reveal universes yet unseen, tell stories yet untold and do all that in a language yet unheard.

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