Review of Akshaya Mukul’s Writer. Rebel. Soldier. Lover — The Many Lives of Agyeya: A complicated icon

Akshaya Mukul studies Hindi poet Agyeya, whose life is a microcosm of 20th century cultural history with its hopes, anxieties and desperations

Updated - July 29, 2022 01:07 pm IST

Published - July 29, 2022 11:45 am IST

Due to his innovations and provocations, Agyeya left an inedible mark on Hindi poetry, fiction, criticism and travelogue, earning a host of bouquets and brickbats en route. 

Due to his innovations and provocations, Agyeya left an inedible mark on Hindi poetry, fiction, criticism and travelogue, earning a host of bouquets and brickbats en route. 

Agyeya (1911-1987), a towering figure in modern Hindi literature, was a multi-faceted personality. Born Sachchidananda, he got his moniker from Premchand who published his story while the author was in jail for his involvement in revolutionary activities. His life was characterised by a nomadic, but deeply reflective exploration of physical spaces, abstract ideas, emotions and creative themes. He rightly wondered ‘how many boats he had boarded and how many times’ (Kitni Navon Mein Kitni Baar — the title of his Jnanpith-awarded poetry collection). He lived many lives and experienced many loves. An underground revolutionary and prisoner, Congress member, active supporter of M.N. Roy, briefly active in the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), he moved closer to right-wing cultural politics in later years, not due to some minority-bashing ultra ‘nationalism’, but with genuine concerns for the nature of culture, religion and ‘Indianness’.

Despite his growing interest in Hindu myth and ritual, Agyeya was still “caustic about those who wielded these for power”, remarks Akshaya Mukul in his biography, Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover, citing the poem, ‘Pandijji’: “Brother, the Sage has shut his book/ The Sage has taken off his glasses/ The Sage has closed his eyes/ The Sage has slid into silence.”

Professionally too, his career was variegated — teacher, radio professional, editor of leading literary and political journals, captain in the British Indian army. Due to his innovations and provocations, Agyeya left an inedible mark on Hindi poetry, fiction, criticism and travelogue, earning a host of bouquets and brickbats en route.

His life presents a microcosm of hopes, anxieties and desperations of the 20th century Indian literati. Born in a typically middle class family, he came to be praised and criticised for breaking free of most of the middle class norms and execrations.

Aptly titled, Mukul underlines a biographer’s challenge, when he writes, “making a life out of inert material in boxes and searching for the truth of a person’s life without imagining facts can be an arduous exercise. Agyeya’s silences, especially in matters of love, only made it more difficult. As Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, wrote, ‘a constant struggle is waged between a biographer and his subject, a struggle between the concealed self and revealed self, the public self and the private’.”

Creative milestones

Mukul comes out of this struggle with flying colours. The reader comes to know about Agyeya’s personal and literary life, family, loves and friendships in rich (sometimes tedious) detail. The creative milestones (some of which like the novel, Shekhar: Ek Jeevani, became landmarks in modern Indian literature) and their personal and political contexts have been handled with empathy and understanding. Describing the controversies and debates, rifts and bridge-buildings with friends, Mukul is neither elusive nor partisan to his ‘subject’. Detailing Agyeya’s relationship with his first wife Santosh, the biographer’s sympathy is with her, not with him, as she was the helpless victim of her celebrity husband’s elusive withdrawals and insensitive silences.

Not only of Santosh, Mukul’s treatment of other women in Agyeya’s life — Indumati, Kripa, Kapila and Ila — is equally sensitive and nuanced, but being in the continued thrall of ‘Shekhar...’ since my adolescence, I was left wondering, was Agyeya not obsessively in search of validation from women? Was this search not connected with the apparent ‘absence’ of his mother in his emotional universe (duly noted by Mukul)? This aspect deserved a closer scrutiny.

Mukul has assessed in a balanced way Agyeya’s “short, intense and eventful relationship” with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, rightly noting, “while Agyeya’s critics tend to disregard the international political milieu of the time, discarding the host of Indian writers, politicians, artists and journalists who benefited from the CCF, his supporters and biographers have tended to paper over this period.”

The biographer is also quite sensitive to the nuances of the literary debates. In 1937, Agyeya defended veteran Hindi poet Maithilisharan Gupt (who was sharply criticised by Shivdan Singh Chauhan, the Marxist critic, in a provocative but thoughtful assessment of literary trends), and described him as a ‘voice of faith’ in ‘an age of denial’. As a matter of fact, this could be an apt description of Agyeya’s own oeuvre. Commenting on this debate, Mukul perceptibly notes, “Yet many of his (Chauhan’s) observations were not far off from the direction in which Agyeya’s own thinking was headed.”

Nuanced and educative

What makes this fascinating biography uniquely educative (yes, educative) for those not well versed with the cultural contours of the freedom movement is its exploration of the relationship between intellectuals and the political leadership. Jainendra Kumar, another towering figure, was personally close to Gandhi and other top leaders of the Congress; yet in an interview, Jainendra “declared that there was no place for patriotic nationalism in literature, and that ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Inquilab zindabad’ could be used disingenuously.’” Mukul’s comment on this is telling, “Jainendra would likely have miffed India’s present day nationalists.” When Nehru ‘apologising for the delay’ finally sent his foreword to Prison Days and Other Poems, a collection of Agyeya’s English poems, “it was worth the wait,” being a sensitive reflection of the poems not an ideological pontification.

Mukul concludes with these words, “With his eclectic talents and wide interest, his cosmopolitanism and his rootedness, his closeness to power and his rejection of it, Agyeya is a complicated icon. By shining a light into the corners of his individual history, I hope the India of his time, and ours may appear a little less monolithic as well.” Quoting Agyeya’s poem ‘Kal Ki Gada’ ( Time’s Hammer), he adds, “Agyeya would no doubt fatalistically dismiss concerns about his continued legacy, ‘Time’s hammer/ Will fall on me one day/ I shall not like the hammer/ But will Time relish/ The too small sound/ Of its falling?”

Surely, this unputdownable biography shines a light not only into the corners of Agyeya’s individual history but also on various aspects of the cultural history of 20th century India.

Writer. Rebel. Soldier. Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya; Akshaya Mukul, Vintage Books, ₹999.

The reviewer is a leading critic, writer, public intellectual and scholar of Kabir, Hinduism, the Mahabharata and Nehru.

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