[Balraj Sahni writes to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi. In November 1965. HUG translates from Pahal 93. Our gratitude to Gyanranjan for granting permission to do so and to Udayashankar for presenting these letters in Pahal in the first place. Dwivediji’s reply will follow in the forthcoming installment.]
We have known each other for more than 25 years now. One result of such intimate knowledge, passing through such a large swathe of time, has been that we can speak to each other in free, straightforward terms and with a certain kind of honesty. Your up-front candidness will also prove profitable to me and other readers. It is with such a hope that I have accepted the Nayi Kahaniya ‘Question & Answer’ invitation. May I put forth my first question with the hope that you will reflect on my respectful appeal?
You had seen me for the first time in Santiniketan in July 1937. I had come from Calcutta with your name and a reference from my good friend S. H. Vatsyayan. At that time you were waiting for the completion of the construction of Hindi Bhavan and were staying in another residence. I do not fully remember that dwelling, but it was possibly quite close to Kshiti da’s place—please tell me if I am mistaken. If I can recall and identify the topography and the correct place, I may also be able to bring to mind other important things.
When I was given the job, the financial situation of Santiniketan was quite wobbly. I am certain that my appointment, primarily owing to Gurudev’s munificence and your backing, must have had created some stir and occasioned resistance from the managers there. Was there really such an opposition? How did you combat that? Within three or four days of my appointment the Hindi Sabha of Bolpur had organized a Tulsi Samagam and you had made me the sabhapati—the chair—and had sent me there. By then you had realized that my association with Hindi literature, and particularly with Tulsi scholarship, was next to nothing. Did it not occur to you even once that by thus parading my deficiency, I would embarrass Santiniketan and the Hindi Bibhag alike? Why did you have to dispatch me? Why not Chadolaji, who would have been the right person for such an occasion?
In those days you were quite well aware that, other than English, I was unable to even speak fluently in any other language, not even my mother tongue Punjabi. Had you had given me some capsule classes, I could still have come across as a reasonably ‘all right’ teacher. But you had assigned to me the BA final year classes that dealt with Hindi novels. Did you think that I would soon realize my shortcomings, learn a lesson and depart from Santiniketan in some haste? Or is it that you thought I would get into the job quicker, correcting my non-competencies?
You will recall that when I used to take those classes, you would watch my pain and misery from the windows of Vidya Bhavan. What were you thinking, Panditji?
It is my good fortune that your and Bhagavati Prasad Chandolaji’s indulgence had somehow seen me through that particular stretch of time. Still, you must have noticed how my formative, greenhorn years had been shaped and supported wholly by the English literary world. Hindi was no match anyway. I did not even think much of Bangla and Gurudev’s own work. You must have also marked the fact that I considered Urdu literature to be richer than Hindi. Did all this not incense you? If such things did actually infuriate you, why did you not express it?
Perhaps this last question would be difficult for you to answer, but don’t you worry; if you can even score 25 percent marks, I shall give you a passing grade (keeping in mind the kind of decorum you had maintained with me in those days).
You will remember that a certain progressive movement was beginning to foment during 1937-38. You had no sympathies for that movement. I did not quite understand the reasons for your stance. Perhaps now I can comprehend the basis of your position with a bit more clarity and depth. Actually, the progressive temperament would consider itself validated by cutting itself off from the ancient routes of our cultural trajectories. To be able to do this is often the litmus test of being a progressive. These people would imitate the latest tricks and experiments from the English literary world, but the abject conditions of our country were an obstacle to accepting and proclaiming this fact openly in public. In order to hide this unconscious longing, many who would otherwise call themselves progressives turned to Marxism, though their everyday ways and methods—kriyakalap—were hardly in keeping with any form of Marxism. There was no inclination to boldly and imaginatively depict the lives and misfortunes of the workers and peasants of India, and especially their powerful role in the freedom struggle, on the part of those who sloganeered to strengthen the metaphors of class-difference and class-struggle. No, nothing of that sort happened. In fact, under the guise of Marxism, the grimy, sullied world of our lower classes was ridiculed in the most ugly and perverted ways!
Premchand’s story Kafan, some would say written under such progressive motivations, was being hailed a lot during those days. I remember that you did not show any liking for the story and were not at all inclined to consider this tale as the objective manifestation of whatever Premchand stood for.
After all these years, I consider it my obligation to declare publicly that you were correct in your evaluation. Kafan is indeed one of Premchand’s minor stories in which he had presented his own countrymen in such a manner that attested to the ways and statements of such India baiters as Ms Mayo and her empire-supporting ilk in England, America and many other Western nations. Here I am also thinking about myself—and my old English laden literary viewpoint. We ourselves got involved in the progressive strain way too quickly and with as much pliability. I can now appreciate the reasons much better from a distance.
Such callow recklessness would also reflect in the personal lives of many progressives.
A lifetime has passed since. But I still know many so called progressives who have not yet been able to disentangle and free themselves of such old superstitious ways. They have used the movement as a platform and their irrelevance becomes apparent as we can make out how poor their realizations and judgments have been in matters literary and artistic.
But there is another breed that has actually tested and retested its own literary evaluations with courage and truthfulness and has traversed in the direction of crafting superior and fresh literary thoughts and images. Not unlike Nehru did that breed realize that real Marxism does not ask you to sever your ties with the traditions of your own world, but rather implores you to connect the culturally best and trenchant with whatever is political. Marxism is not an enemy to our philosophical traditions but a new philosophy that is being born from its womb and which reserves within it the power to tell us boldly and imaginatively the truths of our times. Marxist ideology is always the enemy of the orthodox ways of certain sects. Orthodoxy and Marxism has no connection whatsoever.
To be with literature, tirelessly—is akin to a being on a continuing pilgrimage. We must rise above individual ressentiment and try to relate our radical impulses with whatever we might consider to be satya, shiva and sundar. If one is unable to rise above the pettiness of ressentiment one harms oneself as much as others. And I take the liberty as an old friend to say that we did actually harm ourselves by creating this or that lobby and have simultaneously drifted away from what was actually a common goal. I want to ask you: how do you now view the progressives? Do you still harbour the same indifference to the progressive cause? Do you consider that in the domain of Hindi literature mutual distrust and coterie formations can actually be overcome? I believe that if we are able to rise above such factionalism, surely Hindi literature can match the best in literary thought that comes to us from far and wide. I also take the liberty of suggesting that for such a thing to happen people like you, Agyeya, Pantji and Yashpalji who have a lifetime of experience, and also power, can play a stellar role. You all can stop fresh hands from committing similar errors.
I have myself been away from the literary-artistic world for a long time now. It would be honest to say that both Marxism and the training of Gurudev Tagore have brought me back to my mother-tongue Punjabi. But my old flame—Hindi literature, is someone with whom I am still surreptitiously and deeply involved, and would love to see it develop and grow in stature. That is the reason that I ask you all these difficult and unsavoury questions. I hope you will forgive me for the length and prefacing of my questions and will provide me with some response in your characteristically deep and patient ways.