Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha’s life was as fascinating as the stories he created.

Among the many masterpieces by Vijaydan Detha, one short story titled ‘Kalpana ka ant’ (The End of Imagination) written in 1994 hints at something very personal. This literary gem offers a peek into deeper facets of a writer known more for his fabulous retelling of folk tales: The story penetrates into the consciousness of a writer as an artist and peels layer after layer of some popular characters — Devdas and Paro from Sarat Chandra’s classic — while invoking great literary figures like Chekov, Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay — all writers he was hugely inspired by. The story at one point talks about the writer not being recognised fully in his lifetime. Was it something he felt? Or was it a literary device the writer used to infuse his story with something akin to a nagging thought? We might never know.

Vijaydan Detha — the fabulist, folklorist, writer — popularly and fondly known as Bijji, passed away on November 10, 2013. He once said, “An autobiography is nothing but fiction. At best it remains a handpicked sequence of events and feelings and is as coloured by imagination.” We do however know that his life — as recounted by him, his friends and family — was as fascinating as the stories he created. He had the curiosity and innocence of a child even in his 80s when he sat in his study re-reading his own creations and unable to write anymore. When I met him last year, he chuckled as he told me about his childhood and the naughty pranks he was often reprimanded for in school. He also spoke excitedly of his love for books, stories and language.

Negotiating the promiscuous relationship of language and literature, he wrote much to be read, told and cherished for generations, quite in the spirit of what he believed stories are meant for. He chose to write in Rajasthani, after having established himself as a writer in Hindi — quite a brave step, given the status of Rajasthani: yet to be Constitutionally recognised as a language.

In 1974, however, the Sahitya Akademi recognised his contribution by awarding him: a first for a Rajasthani writer. This gave an impetus to the language largely and inaccurately considered a dialect of Hindi. Thereafter he got recognition nationally by being awarded some of the most prestigious awards — the Padma Shri, the Sahitya Akademi fellowship, and the Katha Chudamani award, among many other accolades.

His 14-volume Batan ri Phulwari (A Garden of Stories) is an unparalleled work compiling folklore from the desert state that he adapted with his inimitable style and decorated with commentary, often also citing the source of most of these stories. It is perhaps the only one of its kind available in India.

A storyteller mastering the short story form, his style, in his own words, was fashioned by his surroundings, his rural environment and the inherited lyric of his forefathers — a family of charans or courtly poets — excelling in their art of metric poetry. Of dust-laden bookshelves and thirsty throats on a summer afternoon in the small quaint village called Borunda, where he had been living for half a century, he collected stories, re-telling them and inhabiting a cosmos both fantastic and rustic. His stories almost always bubbled with a socio-political undercurrent. A political writer, he insisted on not wearing his politics on his sleeve but enjoyed the layering of it in the folds of his stark stories which deal head-on with social ills, The leitmotif in his stories being a rebelling against the caste-based feudal system symbolised and perpetrated by powerful Brahmins and Thakurs (mostly landlords), the systemic hold of power and its inherent nature of exploitation.

He shied away from notions of ownership and copyright and always insisted on his role being that of a storyteller as opposed to a story writer. A raconteur of sorts. “Literature, like language, belongs to everyone.” Stories are a collective wealth that the writer, according to Bijji, sifts through, adds to and mirrors to society. Well illustrated in the fact that he used to pay daily wage to women in the village who came and told him stories that they shared with each other in angans, or behind closed doors in their veiled and secluded lives as men were out either ploughing fields or amassing wealth in nearby towns. His stories then have a sharp sensibility attributed mostly to the feminine, the music of a whirling sandstorm or as he put it — “the stories of the desert, like its sand, fine and transparent.” His freedom to create, he used to say, came from bondage — the bondage of society, the bondage of languages foreign, the bondage of a caste-ridden feudal existence.

He was being considered for the Nobel Prize in 2011. His stories have been adapted for the stage and cinema, particularly Duvidha, which was adapted twice — by Mani Kaul in the 1970s and by Amol Palekar (Paheli) roughly a decade ago and Charandas Chor, which was adapted brilliantly to the stage by Habib Tanvir and more recently Dastan-e-chouboli by the talented duo Mahmood Farooqi and Danish Hussain of Dastangoi. Yet a large part of the English speaking literary world, arguably the more dominant one in India, has not engaged enough with the master storyteller and his amazing body of work. Not that it ever deterred or bothered Bijji. He loved stories: collecting them, retelling them, writing them. His relationship with language is beautifully summed up in a poem by his own son — also a poet and a translator of a lot of his works into Hindi — Kailash Kabeer. Written as part of an introduction to a volume of Bijji’s stories, the poem ends with: Words, they unite Jeesa (father) with the universe./Words, they break Jeesa from himself, from the world./Words, they are power. Words, they limit./Words surround Jeesa like the air hugs the earth.

Bijji’s stories, his words, the wonderful characters, the shape-shifting animals, the ghosts that populate his stories will always offer us the surprise, the excitement, the sense of wonder that kindle the fire of the human imagination.

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