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Master storyteller

AKSHAY PATHAK
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Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha’slife was as fascinating as the stories he created. AKSHAY PATHAK

Among the many masterpieces by Vijaydan Detha, one short story titled ‘Kalpana ka Ant’ (The End of Imagination) hints at something personal. The complex story offers a peek into something deeper about a writer known more for his fabulous retelling of folk tales: it 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 Chekhov, Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay — all writers he was hugely inspired by. At one point, it 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 that ‘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.

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, quite bravely, to write in Rajasthani, after having established himself as a writer in Hindi.

It was only in 1974, however, that the Sahitya Akademi recognised his contribution with an award: a first for a Rajasthani writer. This gave an impetus to the language largely and inaccurately considered a dialect of Hindi. Thereafter he got national recognition with some of the most prestigious awards — the Padma Shri, the Sahitya Akademi fellowship, and the Katha Chudamani award, among many other accolades.

His fourteen-volume  Batan ri Phulwari  (A Garden of Stories) is an unparalleled work compiling folklore from the desert State, which he adapted with his inimitable style and decorated with commentary, often also citing the source of most of these stories.

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. 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, collecting stories, re-telling them, he inhabited 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.

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. 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 human imagination.


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