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.