On the eighty-eighth birth anniversary of the Jnanpith Award-winning author Nirmal Verma, Priyanka Dubey writes about his impact on two lives, one of which is her own.
My tryst with Nirmal Verma began right after he passed away, in October 2005. I was a first-year undergraduate student of journalism in Bhopal, when a friend gifted me his novel Ve Din—“Those Days.” Set in Prague of the early sixties, Ve Din is a love story—between the protagonist, an Indian man whose name remains unknown through the book, and an Austrian woman. It was the first novel that he wrote and the first work of his that I read. The book, which began with a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, belonged to my friend before it was gifted to me. It had the imprints of use: a few sentences were underlined in pencil, and small stars were drawn some of the conversations between the characters, perhaps to indicate how striking the reader had found them. Ve Din was magnetic, magical—reading it was one of the most delicate experiences of my life. More than a decade later, it remains the most intoxicating book I have ever read. Sitting by Upper Lake in Bhopal in 2005, soaking in the book, I had no idea that this writer’s work was going to alter my life.
Since then, reading Nirmal Verma has been a habit that borders on obsession. Very soon after finishing Ve Din, I bought all his works from a book fair in the city. Next in line was Ek Chithda Sukh (“A Rag of Happiness”), a novel about the members of a Delhi-based theater group. It was written from the eyes of an adolescent boy, who, through the duration of the book, suffers from a light fever. Then, one after another, I read all of Nirmal’s novels, his short stories, his travelogues, his essays and diaries. All his work dealt with interpersonal relationships, with solitude and waiting, and with melancholy in modern humans—it became easy to understand why he was referred to as the “poet of loneliness.”
By the time I graduated from college, I was in deep love with Nirmal’s work. I read in his published dairies that he had lived in Bhopal for two years during the early 1980s. In these diaries, he wrote a section titled “Do Taal”—two lakes—about his time in the town. I read the section multiple times. I found out where he used to live—a leafy road near the lower lake in Bhopal—and marked out the routes he took for evening walks. And then, like any quintessential bereaved lover, I went to those places, walked the same routes, and circled around his former residence.
Nirmal was born on 3 April 1929, in a house named Herbert Villa situated in the Kaithu locality of Shimla. He was the seventh of eight children. His father was a high-ranking bureaucrat in the defense department of the British Raj, and one of his elder siblings, Ram Kumar, later became one of India’s best-known painters. Nirmal grew up in Shimla at a time when it functioned as the summer capital of British India. As a child, he saw residents leaving Shimla in droves before winter, when the capital shifted to Delhi. He was, it appears, haunted by the memories of the empty, ghostly winter town—its impressions would later be spread all over his writings. He studied at St Stephen’s College in Delhi, the city where he lived for most of his life. Creatively, the most important decade of his life was perhaps the 1960s, most of which he spent in Prague. In 1959, the Czech Institute of Oriental Studies invited him to initiate a programme aimed at translating Czech novels to Hindi. Nirmal travelled extensively across Europe during his time in what was then Czechoslovakia—in addition to translating Czech writing, he read widely, and sent many reported dispatches to several Indian newspapers.
Due to the global exposure that he received during his formative years as a writer, many in Hindi literary circles in India saw Nirmal as an outsider. “Whenever Nirmal’s conception of Indian-ness was attacked, he would laugh,” the author’s wife, Gagan Gill, a writer herself, said in a speech she gave at an event organised by the Sahitya Akademi in 2006. His Indian-ness aside, that Nirmal’s gaze is one of an outsider is both a valid and an invalid critique—while in his writings he looked intimately at everything, including himself, he maintained a sense of detachment from even his own emotions. In the long monologues typical to his writing, he dissects his emotional self with the precision and dispassion of a seasoned surgeon. To me, his work is a constant reminder of the importance of that dispassion in any creative process. In Dhund Se Uthti Dhun—“Tunes Rising From The Fog,” a collection of extracts from his diaries, he writes:
I learned reading from Nirmal. His diaries are flooded with references to writers such as Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, André Gide, and Virginia Woolf, along with his interpretations of the works of philosophers such as Simone Weil and Kierkegaard, among others. These names were leads for me—nurturing me in directions I would otherwise not encounter in the small town I lived in. He often reflected on the works of these writers, which helped me look critically at what I read. (In one entry, he noted, for instance: “One writer from whose oeuvre nature and animals have been absent from the start is Dostoevsky.”) The diaries were also windows to his writing processes—the pressures, fears and apprehensions that he used to feel as an author.
Nirmal was one of the few Indian writers I could turn to in order to contemplate loneliness—a product of the rapidly urbanising twenty-first century, I found kinship in his ruminations on the fate of modern man. Very soon, his travelogues and memoirs became integral to my travel kits. While traveling to report stories, I would compulsorily keep a book of his in my travel bag, like a mountaineer keeps pills to treat nausea. During international travels, his Hindi books in my hands attracted curious glances of fellow passengers, and sometimes, questions on him too.
Not long after entering the world of Indian journalism, I figured out that the scope of Nirmal’s writings was very different from that of my work. My reporting was an attempt to understand the different narratives of violence in India, against women, against oppressed castes and the poor—a far cry from his long, monologue-filled stories. But if anything, this brought me closer to the sky of Nirmal’s creativity. Reporters—especially those who travel to the as-good-as-forgotten hinterlands of India—can testify that witnessing unspeakable amounts of hopelessness, deprivation, hunger, and utter injustice leaves you feeling scattered. I regularly reached out to Nirmal during these times, seeking stability. I felt calmed by his soliloquys, which I read often, sitting by myself in a park or on a train. In a short story titled “Dhoop ka Tukda”—a patch of sunlight—the protagonist, incidentally sitting on a park bench, says to himself:
It could be said that Nirmal, whose personality and work is clouded with a consistent streak of gloominess, cannot console anyone. Then why do I reach out to him again and again? It is because Nirmal helps me move an inch forward towards understanding my pain and then accepting it. His writing does to me what good literature should do to its readers: it helps me understand my own life, and tolerate my own existence.
On 29 March 2017, I travelled over 45 kilometers from my home to meet Gagan, Nirmal’s wife, at their home. She lives in a distant suburb of Delhi, in a ground-floor apartment of a housing complex, surrounded by potted plants and colourful Tibetan flags. It was early evening when I reached, both nervous and excited.
Gagan opened the conversation by serving me samosas. “If Nirmal was around, then too you would have had to eat samosas before an interview,” she said. “He was so fond of spicy food like chaat-samose that he would not let any chance to eat them slip by,” she added, laughing.
Gagan was not even 20-years-old when she first met Nirmal, who had just crossed 50 then. They courted for ten years, before getting married in 1989. Since his death in 2005, Gagan has been instrumental in preserving Nirmal’s legacy—every year, for instance, she organises “Nirmal Smriti,” an event in his honour, in addition to giving speeches and writing about him. Our conversation was filled with her anecdotes from the time they spent together. She spoke with long pauses, and sudden silences followed her short laughs. Her big deep eyes looked sad and graceful—like a story by Nirmal.
Gagan remembers Nirmal as a “very elegantly dressed man who could be easily identified on a crowded street.” “There was something very boyish about him,” she said, and blushed.
Their love grew upon their shared passion for cinema and theater. “We would be watching a play at Meghdoot in NSD”—the National School of Drama—“knowing that after two hours, we will cross two streets and take the DTC bus back home from Sikandra road,” she told me. Delhi was different during their courtship. “Bus stops were silent and buses were not crowded at all,” she said.
I asked her if she considered marrying the much-older Nirmal—especially in a conservative society—a courageous decision. After all, they both must have known that Gagan likely had a longer life ahead of her than Nirmal. “It was a gradual process. We had already been seeing each other for ten years and one day we decided that we should get married,” she told me. She added: “Leaving Nirmal would have been a courageous decision, not living with him.”
Gagan told me that she and Nirmal had different ideas about getting married. She wanted to hold the ceremony in an Arya Samaj temple, but Nirmal wanted to go to a gurdwara. “It was the phase after Operation Blue Star. So he would tell me that I don’t know how bad Brahmins are, and I would tell him that the Sikhs will not spare him if they saw him in the gurdwara. And we had a series of fights,” she recounted. Nirmal suggested they get married in court. “I would start crying, saying that this marriage is not a mere piece of paper for me,” she said. Eventually, Gagan acquiesced. Nirmal agreed to perform a small hawan at home for Gagan’s peace of mind. (A reader can’t be blamed for imagining that Nirmal was a non-believer, but this was not entirely true. In the speech she gave at the Sahitya Akademi event, Gagan said that the two of them often went on pilgrimages together. “Ishwar ke baare mein Nirmal chup rehte the”—Nirmal stayed quiet on the subject of god, she said. “I think he was religious from the beginning, but faith developed in him after his internal tragedy.”)
Soon after they got married, Gagan was awarded the year-long Neiman fellowship for journalists, at Harvard University. Nirmal accompanied her to America—she told me that his expenses for travel and lodging were covered by her fellowship. Gagan remembered watching a lot of world cinema with him during that year, and travelling across the country. “We would go to morning shows because they were cheap and sometimes Nirmal would get a senior-citizen discount as well,” she told me. “Our colleagues were amazed at our energy.” Gagan remembered being irritated by Nirmal’s expenditure on cigarettes. To save money, she said, she “began getting him cheap ladies’ cigarettes, which were thin, long, and almost half the price of a regular one.” “Other colleagues would often jokingly ask him, ‘So Nirmal, how do you do this? Do you have to get into a bikini or something to smoke ladies’ cigarettes?’” She laughed. “That was a very happy year for us, we lived a lot that year.”
Gagan used to proof and design Nirmal’s books, but was cautious. “I had to avoid being his fan in order to preserve and protect myself,” she said. Her favorite short story of Nirmal’s is “Doosri Duniya”—“another world”—a story about a man’s conversation with a child, which takes place in a park. “That is a typical Nirmal story,” she said.
Gagan remembers Nirmal as a hard-working writer. “He used to work for over 13 hours each day till the end,” she said. “I have seen him waiting for hours at his desk for words to arrive.” She said that Nirmal edited his work mercilessly, and often spent more time cutting words than writing them. “And he was such an exhaustive reader,” she added. “He would read 4–5 books at one time. When he was tired with one, he would pick another.” She continued: “He lived very frugally, within very limited means. And he did believe that his frugal lifestyle was his independence as a writer.”
The most important lesson that Gagan took from Nirmal’s life was that, for a writer, “Jeene mein aur lekhan me koi farak nahi honi chahiye”—there should be no difference between living and writing. “Nirmal taught me that if you want to write, you must devote yourself to it completely,” she said. “You have to live the language everyday, every moment.”
In a quiet moment, I hesitatingly asked Gagan if Nirmal was worried for her future during the final years of his life, after he began keeping sick. After a long pause, she slowly said yes. “I had asked him for his advice on what I should do. He said that life will itself show me the right way,” she told me. “But he did give one advice to me. He said, ‘kabhi apne akelepan ko maila mat hone dena’”—never allow your loneliness to get polluted.