Shabd aur Smriti by Nirmal Verma. (Courtesy: Wkimedia Commons)
By Way of Introduction: Thoughts on World Literature and Nirmal Verma
‘It’s often said that great art is universal, above
and beyond the limits of any country or society. I
find this idea as unsatisfactory as the idea of
finding the eternal in art.’
— Nirmal Verma
‘. . . literature is inimicable to all
— John Berger
World literature. It is a weighty little term that has evolved with the times, outgrowing old meanings and acquiring new, contentious ones. When the German writer Goethe coined it in the seventeenth century, he had a utopian ideal in mind, of literature as a universal enterprise that subverted national boundaries. ‘National literature is now a rather unmeaning term,’ Goethe said in 1827. ‘The epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.’ He had recently read a Chinese novel in translation—most likely the anonymously published Haoqiu zhuan—and it was this experience of engaging with, and identifying with, the foreign (‘the Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us . . .’) that made Goethe think about literature in global terms.
Notice how odd that word ‘global’ sounds in this ancient, and literary, context. Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur is similarly out of place in contemporary parlance. Today, the term ‘world literature’ carries a political as well as a generic meaning—serving as a social representation category on the one hand (a literary vehicle for ethnic diversity), while, on the other hand, it has become a publishing genre, with books labelled as ‘world lit’ and a select set of writers marketed as its emissaries. There are well-known strategies and formulae for writing this kind of made-to-order world literature: keep the prose plain and readable, the imagery simple and translatable, the setting metropolitan and identifiable . . . It shouldn’t be hard to find authors who fit this mould: they are mostly novelists, and they are greatly invested in the ethos of globalisation.
It is an ethos that makes us think of the literary space as a marketplace with the author at its centre, in search of the reader- consumer. And this was where Goethe’s conception of world literature was fundamentally different: it was reader-centric. It had to do with literary transactions between cultures—carried out by the readers of the world, who were beginning to look at literature not merely as a mirror reflecting their own lives but also as a window into other realities. They were facilitated in this by the translators, of course, but then, the act of translating a text is only a more socially useful form of reading. (I am inspired here by George Steiner’s radical idea that every time we are interpreting language—by listening or reading—we are essentially moving it from the domain of text to the domain of meaning and are thereby ‘translating’ it.)
The reason this now-discredited model of world literature appeals to me is that it was predicated on the concept of cultural difference (in contrast to the facile humanism, the imposed uniformity, of globalisation). So when Goethe said that he could identify with the characters in that Chinese novel he had read, he wasn’t so much acting out the Socratic ‘I am the citizen of the world’ fantasy, as making an imaginative journey from nineteenth-century Germany to seventeenth-century China, and bridging the gulf between these two very dissimilar social and literary contexts through the act of immersive, empathetic reading.
The new world literature has no room for such journeys, as it has no room for differences. Or, rather, it advances a narrow, ethnological notion of difference, as the scholar Emily Apter points out in her polemic Against World Literature. In her book, Apter’s central argument is focused on what she interprets as ‘tendencies in World Literature toward reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability’. And what she aims to reaffirm is the value of the untranslatable in literature—the specificities of life and language that not only get lost in translation but are deemed worthless in our globalised age.
Apter traces the beginnings of World Literature—she tellingly capitalises the first letters—to the mid-’90s, when the West began to set serious store by simplistic ideas having to do with the free market, the flattening of the world and the end of history. So in many respects, world literature was a genre of its time, conducive to quick transactions across borders and concerned with themes on the planetary scale.
Whether world literature is of any value has been a matter of much debate among critics and scholars. A readable riposte to Apter’s denunciation of world literature is The Global Novel by the American critic Adam Kirsch. In his analysis of a handful of novels—by Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante, among others—Kirsch finds that the detractors of world literature (with the global novel being its principal form) have been blind to the fruitful energies of this mode of writing, in which, he tells us, ‘the local and the global exist in a relationship, not of opposition, but of dialectical tension’.
It is an interesting argument, and both sides—for and against world literature—have something to teach us about how literature engages, or ought to engage, with the world. Yet there is a lacuna to be filled on both sides of the divide, and it has to do with literary history. Both Apter and Kirsch seem, in their respective analyses, to begin with the premise that literature became a truly international force only recently, when the world suddenly opened up, sometime in the ’90s (Kirsch, too, chooses for his study, writers who came of age in that decade). The problem with this view is that it disregards the fact that most national and local literatures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a Goethean internationalism built into them.
This world literature avant la lettre thrived on readerly connections made across cultures—connections that sometimes led to literary projects. One can cite any number of examples, from Pushkin’s admiration for Byron (which resulted in Eugene Onegin), to Baudelaire’s sustained engagement with Edgar Allan Poe, to Goethe’s own enthusiasm for the poetry of Hafiz (which he translated), and so on. It is a pity that we have relegated the memories of those eclectically cosmopolitan and unclassifiable traditions to research papers and library shelves. We are too busy arguing over the question ‘What is world literature?’ when we should be asking an altogether different question: ‘What has happened to world literature?’
If we look at the various strains of vernacular literatures in India—and it is unfair to equate the term ‘vernacular’ with ‘provincial’ as most people today would tend to do—we find that we are routinely exposed to what the writer Amit Chaudhuri has called their ‘many-sided cosmopolitanism’. This is particularly true of Hindi literature, which lacks a classical tradition—a fact that forced many of its conservative exponents in the nineteenth century to retreat to Sanskrit in search of some sort of canonical validation.
It is an essentially modern literature, not least because the language itself, in its written form, is not more than 200 years old. And multiculturalism has been inherent to this tradition ever since its beginning. Bharatendu Harishchandra, one of the pioneers of Hindi writing, translated, among other texts, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice into Hindi.
Premchand brought all sorts of influences—from Tagore to Ruskin—into his writing. The Chhayavaad poets were indebted, in both direct and subliminal ways, to the British Romantics. This is to say that the ethos of give-and-take—crucial to all paradigms of modern thought—is the sine qua non of the Hindi tradition. Yet most would hesitate to call it world literature.
It was in the English language that I was initiated into the literary life—through my school and college, and later through my half-hearted peregrinations into reading and writing. I went at the English language with the objective of mastering it—with a purist’s regard for grammar and syntax. And for some reason or the other, I came to the conclusion that in order to do so, I needed nothing short of a mental rewiring. I was convinced that knowing the language wasn’t enough; I had to somehow absorb it; I had to start thinking in English, inasmuch as it is possible to think in languages.
Thus began my marriage with English, in my early twenties. That was when I resolved to subject myself to a language detox, with a view to purging my mind of the influence of my mother tongue. I stopped speaking in Hindi, resorting to it only when it was absolutely necessary (and also when I was with my parents). When friends said something to me in Hindi, I would respond in English, and often have whole conversations in this bilingual mode, like some babu in colonial India. (For the record, my wife and I still talk to each other in this way, across languages—she in Hindi and I in English.)
One mind, one language. Such was the dictatorial model of monolingualism that I aspired to. Because I wanted to be a writer, and in that time, in that particular culture where I was growing up, the language of writing was, for a variety of historical and bureaucratic reasons, English.
Naturally, then, I felt—and still feel—like an outsider in Hindi. I say this not without a sense of irony, since I was born into Hindi and formed the first verbal connections with the world through this language. Indeed, there are certain linguistic theories of innatism that give me, as it were, ownership of Hindi, telling me that I carry this language inside me, somewhere in the genetic mix.
And yet, my distance from Hindi had been well established when I, hesitantly, began my journey of rediscovering it—but this time with full awareness of being an outsider in this language. And as it turned out, it was with a work of literature that this journey began. The book, picked up at a roadside stall in Delhi, was Nirmal Verma’s Shabd Aur Smriti, a collection of essays on literature—rather, on world literature, in that now-forgotten sense of the term. As I slowly made my way through it, astonished by how quickly I had fallen under the spell of Verma’s dreamy, lucid, long-sentenced prose, I realised that I was at a point that marked a momentous turn in my reading life. Such moments are experienced by most serious readers. John Keats compared it to the excitement of ‘some watcher of the skies / when a new planet swims into his ken’. It’s the moment of discovering something new—a form, a writer, a tradition—that we know we are going to spend the rest of our life with. During that encounter with Verma, I was, of course, discovering Hindi, as though for the first time ever. But there was another discovery being made, and it had to do with a particular kind of literary imagination that was at home in the world.
Shabd Aur Smriti is the slimmest of Verma’s books, but its size is no indication of the impact it had on its readers at the time of its publication, to say nothing of the impact it has had on me. My experience of reading it was rather strange—and strangeness, as the critic Harold Bloom tells us, is the hallmark of the work of literary genius. I was fascinated, impressed, confused and disoriented, all at the same time. For starters, Verma was addressing the ‘Big Questions’ of life and literature. ‘The Crisis of Communication’, ‘The Decline of Prose’, ‘Creative Process and Value Judgement’—the chapter titles would have been enough to put off the casual reader, especially one trained in the stoutly empirical, somewhat anti-intellectual Anglo-American literary tradition. I had been taught to scoff at such grandstanding. Yet, here was a writer who seemed to be saying, against the spirit of the age, that ideas matter.
Verma’s unembarrassed commitment to the life of the mind was as much a gift he’d received through his immersion in European culture—the book’s epigraph is by the French philosopher Simone Weil—as it was a part of his legacy as a Hindi writer, as I was to later understand. But it took me no time to understand that Verma was opening two separate routes for me—one towards Hindi and another towards a Europe whose memories have long vanished, supplanted by the progressive dreams of a globalised, commercialised, Americanised Europe.
Verma’s own discovery of Europe—in the eventful ’60s— had been a turning point in his writing career. It freed him from the intellectual monopoly of the anglophone West (there are political overtones here as well; Verma was a colonial child, born in the British summer capital, Shimla). And Europe brought him into contact with a variety of literary traditions that were contiguous yet dissimilar, provincial yet international at the same time. Europe and India were similar in this respect. But to only notice similarities, as Nabokov reminded us, is the sign of an inferior mind. So Verma was equally, if not more so, interested in grasping the differences between India and Europe, differences that he would explore and expound time and again over the course of his career.
I believe that Europe’s appeal for Verma had much to do with the undefinability of European culture. ‘Europe’ is a meaningless term inasmuch as it aims to define a set of shared affinities and lineages. It isn’t so much a tradition as a concept, an idea. And it is in this context that Borges’s identification with the ‘whole of Europe’ begins to make sense to us; as does John Berger’s aspiration to one day ‘become a European writer’. These writers were not talking about Europe as an inheritance; for them, Europe was equally an invention—it was a utopia that denoted openness, cultural convergence, modernity and individuality.
Traces of the Europe Verma invented can be found in all his books. But it was with Shabd Aur Smriti that I first encountered this imaginary continent, and suddenly a whole new world seemed accessible to me: the world of European thought. Strangely enough, connecting me to it was the Hindi language, making me feel like Verma’s early readers must have felt, when they read the Hindi translations of Czech fiction that he had been doing in the ’60s, or the countless indirect translations he did of passages by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Proust and Pasternak. It wasn’t just a matter of discovering these writers through Verma—I had read, or read about, many of them before coming to him. Rather, I was learning to look at them in a new way, to connect them in a new way, despite the obvious incompatibilities. And I was learning how a writer could create a literary tradition through writing. The names mentioned above were as central to Verma’s imagination as those of his forebears and contemporaries writing in Hindi. They were all part of the same tradition—and it was this tradition that I always find myself conversing with when I am reading Verma.
The poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is fond of quoting a passage from an interview with Arun Kolatkar. It is nothing but a litany of names, offered in response to the rather unanswerable question writers are often asked: Who is your favourite? Who has influenced you?
‘You want me to give you a list?’ Kolatkar asked the interviewer, and proceeded to rattle off the names, one after the other:
Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kaf ka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Han Shan, Ramjoshi, Honaji, Mandelshtam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg, Barth, Duras, Joseph Heller … John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji, Morgenstern, Chakradhar, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Balwantbuva, Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, Bahinabai Chaudhari, Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, Jon Lee Hooker, Leiber and Stoller, Larry Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Andre Vajda, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy.
These are not all the names Kolatkar cited in that interview, but they give us an idea of the range at which his imagination operated. The response must have baffled his interviewer. What could a writer learn from the songs of Muddy Waters and from Kurosawa’s films, such that they become influences to be cited at interviews? The answer is not easy, which is precisely the point Kolatkar was trying to drive home.
Unsurprisingly, Verma too was often asked this question by interviewers. He tried in his own way to dodge it or to come up with an interesting response that could shed light on the nature of literary influence rather than, as such namechecking is supposed to do, merely on authorial reputations. But what Verma never offered, at interviews or elsewhere, was a list of names, which I think is a pity.
I often wonder if Verma were to prepare his own Kolatkar- inspired list—his haphazard map of influences—how long it would run and which names would figure on it. Indeed, I often find myself preparing such a list on Verma’s behalf. On the blank pages at the back of his books, I keep scribbling the names—of writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians—that I have encountered in their pages. Borges, Balzac, Gandhi, Henry James, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Proust, Lévi-Strauss, Tarkovsky, Premchand, Nietzsche, Kabir, Camus, Renu, Brecht, Mozart, Van Gogh, Marx, T.S. Eliot, Anna Akhmatova, Karl Kraus, Bergman, Matisse, Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Malayaj . . . This, of course, covers only a few strands of Verma’s intellectual DNA, but we can note and appreciate its world-spanning spirit.
In one of his lectures, Borges said that all that he had read in his life was much more important to him than all that he had written. It was the reader in him that set his imagination in the writerly mould. It’s difficult to find many writers saying this in our time, when writing has become this elevated, sought-after pursuit—every prime minister wants to moonlight as a poet—whereas reading is widely regarded as a waste of time, and particularly by writers. Borges surely would have stood out as an anomaly if he were alive today. So would Verma, who, in my view, was a reader before he was a writer. (I extend the verb reading to the worlds of visual art, music and cinema, as Barthes had done with the word ‘text’; so we can ‘read’ a film or a painting as much as a novel.)
This is a book about reading, written from the standpoint of a reader. It is also mostly focused on the life of a reader. I say ‘mostly’ because the focus shifts every once in a while—to others whom Verma had been reading; to those who have read Verma more discerningly than I ever can; and, sometimes to my own life as an amateur reader. I am not writing from any position of authority, and it is certainly not my intention to create the illusion of objectivity for the reader.
I have little interest in the facts of Verma’s life. I don’t know what colour his eyes were or what distinguishing mark he specified in his passport form. I have tried to keep my gaze away, as much as possible, from his personal life—his two marriages and all their attendant complexities, his relationship with his daughter, and his seven brothers and sisters—I don’t wish to subject any of this to a voyeuristic enquiry, the staple of conventional biographies. Nor am I willing to establish simplistic links between the raw matter of his life and the finished, self-contained world of his work. I don’t know to what extent I have succeeded in doing that. I don’t know whether I have been able to ignore Verma’s own statement to an interviewer, ‘My work is my autobiography.’ I might have lapsed in my resolve to keep clear of the formulae of life-writing. But these lapses should not be confused for any real intent on my part to wear the biographer’s hat.
If this book must be labelled a ‘literary biography’—meaningless like most genre terms, as if there is such a thing as a ‘non-literary biography’—I would want to place the emphasis on the term literary. The writing life is what I have attempted to keep in the foreground, though not in that generic sense popularised over the years by magazines like The Paris Review, whose interviewers make it a point to get the craft of writing down to the nitty-gritty of how many words a writer does in a day, how many drafts, and so on. I haven’t quite looked into the pens Verma used for writing and the kind of paper he preferred for his first drafts. (Purely with the intention of getting this out of the way once and for all, I should mention here that he wrote on ruled notebooks—a detail I chanced upon in a short essay by Krishna Sobti.)
My principal aim here has been to provide a brief account of how a writer is formed. Yes, through labour, commitment, perseverance, grit and all those things that we keep hearing about. But also through the workings of a particular kind of sensibility. It is this writerly sensibility that I wish to find glimpses of in Verma’s life, however tenuously it may be connected to his work. And I aim to establish that on the level of the sensibility, the personal (the biographical) and the literary become inseparable. I have looked at the scattered elements of Verma’s life as nothing more than ingredients that went into the making of his sensibility. The places he had lived in, the people he had known, the books he had read—all playing a teleological role in the writer’s mind and all reflected, often namelessly, in his stories and novels. This is the flawed logic of my study, but it has simplified my task and kept me, I hope, shielded from the anecdotal and the gossipy.
And maybe that’s why I feel the need to reiterate here: this is not a biography.
This is an excerpt from Here and Hereafter, which will be published by Penguin Random House in India in September 2022.
Vineet Gill works as a senior copy editor at Penguin Random House India. Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature, is his first book.