How incendiary revolutionary Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan Sastri became writer Agyeya

Less than a month after his arrest, Vatsyayan had started writing. He wrote throughout his incarceration, despite the inhuman conditions of imprisonment and occasional solitary confinement. He wrote about anything he could get his hands on, pouring poetry, diary entries, stories, essays, and translations into school notebooks and the backs of discarded court documents.

Vatsyayan was also able to explore a new passion for pastel pencils, often drawing self-portraits with evocative titles like “His First Offence”. Slowly he began to smuggle his writings with the help of a co-defendant on bail or a visitor. And books and newspapers were smuggled in.

During the second year of his imprisonment, a door to the literary world opened for him in the form of Jainendra Kumar, a writer often credited with introducing psychological insight into the modern Hindi novel. Six years older than Vatsyayan, Jainendra was an established writer and Gandhian, and was close to Premchand – the so-called “Upanyas Samrat” (emperor of novelists) of modern Hindustani literature – and had already served prison time for his efforts in the independence movement. as a member of the Congress party. Jainendra was also friends with the well-connected Vimal Prasad Jain, Vatsyayan’s co-defendant who was known to boycott court proceedings.

At the end of 1932, one of Vatsyayan’s stories reached Jainendra through Vimal Prasad or his brother. The former scribbled his review – “It’s good, very good” – on the torn margin of a newspaper. Soon he was inundated with Vatsyayan’s writings, and they began regular correspondence in a mixture of Hindi and English. Jainendra, who lived in Delhi, attended an audience, where he saw Vatsyayan, chained, for the first time. They managed to have a long conversation in the courtroom and Jainendra was impressed with the young man’s “cultured, soft-spoken and educated” demeanor.

He was the young revolutionary’s window on the Hindi world. The two discussed literature, literary gossip, splits in the literary world and life in general. They were candid about each other’s work. Intensely hungry for feedback, Vatsyayan sent every story and essay he wrote to Jainendra for comment. Even a slightly delayed response made him agitated; “I don’t want to believe my own opinion,” he once wrote.

Sometime in 1932, Jainendra brought two of Vatsyayan’s stories to Premchand, the leader of progressive literature and eventually president of the Progressive Writers’ Association, in Kashi. At the time, Premchand edited his monthly, Hansand had recently resumed Jagran, among the first generation of Hindi weeklies, which was still trying to establish itself. Both journals were known for their intellectual clout and were sometimes hit with short-term publication bans when one story or the other passed through the colonial scanner. Financially, however, Jagran and Hans caused constant grief for Premchand and a long line of creditors.

Two of Vatsyayan’s stories passed the strict standard that Premchand set for Jagran. One was highly political, and Premchand joked that Jainendra would have to arrange Rs 5,000 to meet the imposition of a government fine or even a temporary ban if he wanted it published. He was ready to print the other.

But there was a problem. The story did not bear the name of its author. When asked, Jainendra said the writer was “agyeya”, unknowable. Premchand felt it was a fitting signing.

‘Amar Vallari’ (Immortal Vine) was published under this new pen name in the October 5, 1932, issue of Jagran, which had on its cover a photo of Paul von Hindenberg, the German president who preceded Hitler. The second episode of the story appeared the following week. A remarkable debut, “Amar Vallari” was a tale of the life of a sacred tree that watched hopeful devotees worship it through the seasons.

After his success, Premchand requested more stories from Agyeya through Jainendra. “The view here is Agyeya’s story is very good,” he wrote to Jainendra. ‘As for his poems, the opinion is that emotion is superior but he lacks skill. People say his stories and his prose poems are better than his poems.

When the cut of Jagran reached Agyeya, he was disappointed with the nickname but couldn’t say much about the decision, coming from the great Premchand.4 When Jainendra told him he had suggested the name, Agyeya said he had already a nickname – Srivatsa, which meant ‘elephant’, among others. “If you look at me, you’ll realize how fitting that name is,” he said.

In hindsight, the name “Agyeya” was fortuitously appropriate. Much of his life has consisted of walking the gray zone between absolute positions; much remained unknown about the writer throughout his life, and this is still true. Born with the boring name Sachchidan and Hirananda Vatsyayan Sastri, he went from Sachcha the student to Vatsyayan the revolutionary, and now added Agyeya the writer to his identities.

The name added an air of mystery, fueling conversations about her among the literary set. Agyeya’s circle was growing and he also began to correspond with other writers. Soon his fellow inmates discovered that Agyeya was their own Vatsyayan, much to their delight. Dhanwantri in particular contributed to Agyeya’s success, by sending his writings, such as the essay “Vargwad Ke Siddhant” (Class Principles), to people for comment.408

Both Jainendra and Miriam Benade were instrumental in developing Agyeya’s literary tastes. The Benades had lent him books and copies of Harper’s reviewed in Lahore. Agyeya was also well fed with access to Indian journals and formed strong likes and dislikes. He thought the quality of Sarasvati had suffered lately, and read the monthly Vishal Bharatbut fired Jagranalthough it was first published in its pages.

Agyeya could also harbor a grudge – for example, against the iconic newspaper madhuri, who accepted but never published four of his stories. He received no response to his restitution request. His blacklist included frontline Hindi journals such as Vena, Sudha and chand.

Agyeya was insatiably curious about the influences and readings of authors. Jainendra was often the target of his endless questions. What works by Anatole France, John Galsworthy and Thomas Hardy had he read? What was his favorite foreign fiction? Were the last two stories of Vatayan (Stories collected by Jainendra) written in prison, and when?

He also offered a disarming confession: “I stole the title of one of your stories – ‘Apne, Apne Bhagya’ [Everyone Has Their Own Fate] – and started a story with the same name. Perhaps he was referring to his story “Purush ka Bhagya” (The Destiny of Man), published in 1940.

The two supported each other creatively, sharing book recommendations. Agyeya’s suggestions were eclectic, shaped by his home schooling and his father’s library. At the top of his list was that of Alexander Kuprin Yama: the pit, the controversial story of a woman owner of a brothel. Although the story deals with bhrast (corrupt) subject matter, Agyeya felt that it was realistic, unlike the works of Emile Zola and other French writers who explored similar conventionally “reprehensible” themes.

Agyeya contrasted Kuprin’s treatment of the brothel with Hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma’s “pornographic” book “Ugra” – likely a reference to Dilli ka Dalal (Delhi Pimp). If only Ugra had read Kuprin, Agyeya argued, Hindi literature might have been saved from some afflictions when it came to depicting such subjects. Agyeya urged Jainendra to get the Kuprin Yama translated into Hindi. (A few years later, Jainendra published Tyagpatrahis own widely acclaimed novel about a “fallen woman”, which has been compared to the French writer André Gide The Narrow Gate.)

Agyeya also recommended red lily by Anatole France, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize San Luis Rey Bridge by Thornton Wilder, in which a witness investigates the lives of five men killed in a rope bridge collapse in Peru. Agyeya was impressed with Wilder’s narrative style, finding Hindi novels lacking in comparison. After reading it, he felt that the Indians did not have a “serious, scientific and experimental attitude”.

John Galsworthy was also among his favorite authors. Agyeya admired Galsworthy’s critique of bourgeois life, written without a trace of radicalism. A bourgeois himself, Galsworthy painted an objective view of his class: “They are real life even through very limited, non-permanent, non-universal life,” Agyeya noted. He argued that no one could become progressive by reading Galsworthy, but that every progressive should read it.

As for Russian literature, he thought that Trotsky Literature and Revolution – a revelation for him – should be read alongside modern Russian works, such as that of Leonid Andreyev The red laughby Alexander Block Twelveby Boris Pilnyak Volga Falls in the Caspian Sea and Vladimir Mayakovsky Mystery-Puff. These books were available in English translation in the Hardinge Library series or in Masterpieces of Russian Drama edited by George Rapall Noyes.

While drawing inspiration from European titles, Agyeya pursued his own experiments in translation, though not necessarily literary translation. He was keen to publish a Hindi version of the Russian book ABC of trade unionism for the colonies, but proposed deleting or modifying a problematic chapter on the management of illegal trade union movements under repressive regimes. He also claimed to have translated other subversive texts for pamphlets, sometimes toning them down to avoid police attention. There was a book about the history of the revolution, but between an institute in Hitler’s Germany holding the translation rights, a communist publisher in the Soviet Union and a translator sitting in an Indian prison, the project never took off. .

Excerpted with permission from Writer, Rebel, Soldier Lover: The Many Lives of AgyeyaAkshaya Mukul, Vintage.

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