Mannu Bhandari is a fiction writer whose writings captivate you because of their transparent simplicity, not because of their dazzling brilliance. In her short stories, plays and novels, she does not lay bare rare or exotic experiences, but portrays life with a common sense that is rare. As we read her, we become even more acutely aware of the truth of Voltaire’s dictum that “common sense is not so common”. And, it is also not so common to find a celebrity writer who keeps a low profile and is so self-effacing. All these qualities can also be attributed to her writings.
In the ‘Explanation’ that she has written in lieu of a Foreword to her autobiographical book “Ek Kahani Yah Bhi” (This too is a Story), she says that whatever she has written, she has done so with a “passionless neutrality”. In fact, this is the leitmotif of her entire oeuvre, imbuing it with an uncommonly objective artistic observation, analysis and creative portrayal of day-to-day experiences that, despite looking mundane, shape our lives.
Born on April 3, 1931 in Bhanpura village in Madhya Pradesh in an educated Marwari family, Mannu Bhandari’s early education took place in Ajmer where her father Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari had shifted from Indore after incurring heavy losses in his flourishing business. Although a Jain by birth, he was influenced by the teachings of Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his Arya Samaj movement that had social reforms and women’s education as one of its core components. He was a complex character whose treatment of his daughters instilled a sense of inferiority in the young Mannu because of her dark complexion. However, despite being a docile girl, Mannu started showing special characteristics of her character as she erupted into a spirited speech at a public meeting held in support of the Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose. Later, she did her M. A. from Calcutta University and taught Hindi at Delhi University’s Miranda House for several decades.
While still in Ajmer, she wrote her first short story “Main Haar Gayee” (I have been Defeated) and its acceptance by the prestigious literary journal “Kahani”, edited by Bhairav Prasad Gupta, gave her confidence and boosted her morale. There was no looking back after its publication in 1956.
Hindi writer couple
Soon, she and Rajendra Yadav, who had by this time made his name as an emerging talent, fell in love and got married. This was perhaps the first writer couple in the Hindi literary world and created a sensation. When both announced that they would write an experimental novel Ek Inch Muskan (One-inch Smile), they took the literary world by storm. However, as Bhandari explains in her autobiographical work Ek Kahani Yah Bhi, her marital life came under stress pretty soon and while Yadav encouraged her in every possible way in her literary endeavours by way of making suggestions and shoring up her confidence, he left much to be desired as a husband who truly loved and cared for his wife. As a consequence, Yadav spent the last two decades of his life living separately from her although they never divorced. Yet, her autobiography is full of praise for many positive traits in Yadav – the man and the writer.
Literary critics have noted that Mannu Bhandari is not overtly conscious about “form” or “structure” or “craft” in her short stories and there is a certain kind of “shilpaheenata” (formlessness). While in a lesser writer this could have made her writings pedestrian, in Bhandari’s case it turned out to be a virtue. What she wants to tell by way of the story –‘content’ in the critic’s lexicon – finds its own form seemingly effortlessly because, instead of experimenting with the so-called ‘form’ and looking for novel structural compositions, Bhandari concentrates on telling her story the way it ought to be told. This results in a rare unity of form and content, something that is not easily available to even those Hindi writers who enjoy a higher celebrity status than her.
Her first novel “Aapka Bunty” (Your Bunty), published in 1971, firmly established her as a novelist as it very sensitively depicted the tragedy of a child whose parents have divorced and are trying to find new ways of relating to each other and to him.
Her novel “Mahabhoj” (The Great Feast), published in 1979, was a creative writer’s response to the anti-Dalit massacre that took place in Belchhi and it brought out in sharp relief the corruption, hypocrisy and criminalisation of politics in post-1947 India. It was later turned into a play and has been performed — and, continues to be performed hundreds of times all over the country. The novel itself has run into 31 editions so far which is quite a record. The year 1974 saw the release of hugely popular film Rajnigandha , a film directed by Basu Chatterjee and based on her short story “Yahi Sach Hai” (Only this is the Truth).
Mannu Bhandari has been the Chair of Premchand Srijanpith in Vikramshila University, Ujjain and her autobiography fetched her K. K. Birla Foundation’s prestigious Vyas Samman.
Her collections of short stories include Ek Plate Sailab, Main Haar Gayee, Teen Nigahon Ki Ek Tasveer, Yahi Sach Hai, Trishanku and Sampoorna Kahaniyan. Besides Mahabhoj , her play Bina Deevaron Ke Ghar has also been quite popular. Radhakrishna Prakashan has published nearly all her books.
The writer is a seasoned literary critic