In terms of literary sensibility and temperament, Rajkamal Chaudhary comes closest to Sa’dat Hasan Manto

He was truly the enfant terrible of Hindi literature. When Ramkamal Chaudhary died on June 19, 1967, he was less than 38. Yet, he had acquired the status of an icon, a veritable cult figure, an awe-inspiring presence in the literary world. There were stories galore of his bohemian, no-holds-barred, utterly unconventional lifestyle, his uncontrolled forays into the world of seamless intoxication aì la Allen Ginsberg, his numerous and varied sexual liaisons, and his insatiable lust for writing in almost every literary genre with explosive creativity. Some of these fables were of his own creation to build a mystique around himself, but most others were true. Little wonder that by the time he bade goodbye to the world, he had penned 143 short stories, a dozen novels, 850 poems, five plays and more than six dozen essays. He had also translated two novels from Bangla besides translating dozens of poems from Bangla, Punjabi and English. He wrote in his mother tongue Maithili as well as in Hindi and emerged as a formidable writer in both the languages. His output was dazzling both in terms of its quantity as well as quality.

In terms of literary sensibility and temperament, Rajkamal Chaudhary comes closest to the great Urdu short story writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto. While in the art of storytelling he may not have reached the peaks touched by Manto but he certainly had a better understanding of how the modern world of capitalism functioned with all the charms and deceit of the bourgeoisie. His short novel “Machhli Mari Huee” (A Dead Fish) is the best example of this. When it appeared in 1966, it took the literary world by storm as it had explicitly dealt with lesbian relationships as well as the capitalist power discourse that poisoned and deformed inter-personal relations and interactions.

It came as a hugely pleasant surprise when Publications Division of the Government of India organised a literary discussion this past week on the occasion of releasing a book on Rajkamal Chaudhary. The book has been written by Deoshankar Naveen who has also edited Chaudhary’s collected works. Introducing the book, Naveen drew the audience’s attention to the fact that despite Rajkamal Chaudhary’s prolific output and iconic writings like the long poem “Mukti Prasang” and novel “Machhli Mari Huee”, the Hindi literary world was involved in a conspiracy of silence about him because he did not fit into the accepted moulds, chose to not belong to any literary movement of his time, and shunned all kinds of labels. He earnestly hoped that now, when almost all his writings had been put together in the form of Collected Works, critics would pay attention to this much-neglected and much-maligned writer and make a genuine evaluation of his literary contribution. Naveen also drew attention to the fact that as Chaudhary was critically ill during the last two-and-a-half years of his life, he wrote for only 15 years, of which only 10 could be devoted to really serious writing.

The organisers had invited three panellists to discuss the modern sensibility in Hindi literature in the context of Rajkamal Chaudhary’s writings. Initiating the discussion, Om Thanvi, editor of Hindi daily Jansatta underlined the fact that Ramjakamal Chaudhrary did not embrace any explicit ideology or organisation or movement. He recalled that Chaudhary had written a letter to top Hindi writer Agyeya and received a warm and thoughtful reply from him. It showed that Chaudhary had made an impact on the veteran writer who was known for his refined tastes in literature and life.

Well-known poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi reminded the audience that Hindi as a language was itself an example of plurality. Therefore, it was natural that it had multiple traditions as well as multiple versions of modernity. If there was a modernity that looked up to the West, there was also its counterpart that showed its back to the West. There was a kind of rough and difficult modernity and there was also a rationalist modernity. However, the dominant trend in all these versions of modernity was to engage the Establishment in an adversarial relationship.

Veteran Marxist critic Namwar Singh recalled that those days when the Publications Division and its monthly journal “Aajkal” used to be very active in organising literary meets and publishing literary works. He complimented it for reviving this tradition and taking the initiative to publish a well-researched book on Rajkamal Chaudhary. Singh recalled his meetings with Chaudhary in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where he was in close contact with Bangla poets of the so-called Hungry Generation. He termed Chaudhary’s life and sensibility as “anarchic” and admired his ability to write so prolifically despite suffering from many serious diseases.