Agyeya, the writer and lover who led an inner life

What do we expect when we pick up a biography to read, especially one not of an unknown Indian, but of an unknowable Indian, especially if it happens to be a famous writer who became a legend even during his lifetime?

Why do we want to peek into the deep, dark recesses of his private life and listen to his intimate conversations? Does it help us to better understand his writings?

WB Yeats had posed this question about the dance, asking if we could know the dancer from his dance. And as TS Elliot explained the process of creative writing as the result of the dissolution of personality, it seems almost impossible. Therefore, it becomes imperative to situate the writings of a writer in his life situations to understand everything that contributed to the realization of this work, although not all literary writings are necessarily autobiographical.

Writing a biography is a difficult literary project because it forces the author to have an empathetic and objective attitude towards the subject; a kind of parkaya-pravesh (to enter the body and soul of another individual).

Akshaya Mukul, whose first book, Gita Press and the making of Hindu India, firmly established his credentials as a thorough and conscientious researcher and lucid writer, successfully played the role of a first-rate biographer in writing Writer, rebel, soldier, lover: the many lives of Agyeya, his voluminous study of the multi-faceted life of Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan, known to the Hindi literary world as ‘Agyeya’ (Unknowable).

Those who become legends in their lifetime have an indefinable mystique and aura that separates them from everyone else and puts them in a category of their own. Until his death on April 4, 1987, Agyeya dominated the literary scene. Loved and admired by his fans, he faced scathing criticism from those who disliked his literary stance. However, he could not be ignored and his presence loomed large over the Hindi literary world.

Writer, rebel, soldier, lover: the many lives of Agyeya by Akshaya Mukul, Penguin Random House India, 2022.

Although the title of Mukul’s book puts last place in “The Lover”, Agyeya’s main literary identity was that of a vagrant lover, as the experiences he accumulated during his various relationships have permeated most of his writing, especially his first two novels – the two-part Shekhar: Ek Jeevani (Shekhar: a biography) and Nadi Ke Dwip (River Islands). They have also given rise to speculation in the Hindi world about the identities of the female characters in his novels.

Mukul made a great discovery in this regard. For the first time, the Hindi world discovered Kripa Sen, with whom Agyeya had a passionate relationship. And suddenly, with this awareness, we begin to feel its presence in Nadi Ke Dwip who also, like Shechar, an autobiographical tone.

Interestingly, the famous Urdu writer Krishan Chander was a jealous rival to Agyeya as he was hopelessly in love with Sen who, as Mukul informs us, “called herself a ‘gypsy’, equally at ease in cosmopolitan circles than mufussil.” Like Agyeya, she too was trying to get out of a failed marriage.

Mukul aptly describes her as follows: “Beautiful in her simple cotton saris, traveler and talkative, Kripa was everything Agyeya was not: possessive, passionate, impulsive and courageous.” Like all of his women, she too first felt the pangs of love while Agyeya played her distant self for some time.

It is thanks to the author’s discovery of Sen that we now know who ‘Rekha’ in Nadi Ke Dwip was modeled. It was always clear that ‘Gaura’ was based on Kapila Malik, who later rose to fame as Agyeya’s second wife, Kapila Vatsyayan.

As Mukul said at the book launch in August, all of Agyeya’s women were unhappy in the end. He hinted that his bossy behavior and aloof attitude were the two main reasons for his lovers’ displeasure. After reading the book, one feels that his strained relationship with his control freak archaeologist father Hirananda Sastri and his not too happy relationship with his mother may have helped shape his personality in this way.

The Hindi world was intimidated by Agyeya’s inscrutability, aloofness and silences and attributed them to her belonging to a Westernized “elitist” layer of society. And these are the very attributes that helped create his larger-than-life image and added to his mystique, both as a man and as a writer.

His revolutionary past and his time in prison – Shekhar was written while incarcerated – made his character even more mysterious and appealing. In the introduction to her book, Mukul quotes Agyeya who, as a 34-year-old best-selling novelist, wrote to a fellow writer: “All my life is conducted within and never expresses itself. The other life, which takes place on the surface, is almost impersonal. If the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde fits anyone, it’s me.

He also insisted that contrary to what others thought of him, he was neither “stony” nor “abrasive”. A prolific writer, he also ironically remarked that “silence has become my nature.”

The difference between two prolific writers is perfectly illustrated by what the great literary critic and Marxist philosopher, György Lukács, used to say: “I am lucky not to have an inner life”. Was it because different intellectual processes were at work behind their creations? While one dealt with the life experiences and emotional pressures that drove the writing of novels, short stories, and poems, the other’s stock was made up of philosophical ideas and arguments.

It seems that Agyeya has always had a sense of incompleteness in all of his creative endeavors as well as in his relationships, which could explain his wandering nature (yaayavari). He was a two-way rebel – a revolutionary who stood up against colonial rule and a rebel who broke social norms. His love affair and eventual relationship with Ila Dalmia, more than three decades younger than him, is a good example of this.

Mukul meticulously documented and analyzed all major events in Agyeya’s life. His literary success eclipsed his contribution to Hindi journalism. In addition to working as an editor for such popular and reputable publications as Sainik and Vishal Bharathe created weekly news in Hindi Dinman which combined reporting and analysis of current political events with reporting on developments in the fields of literature, art, cinema, music and dance.

As Shekhar was the first modern/modernist novel, Dinman was the first modern/modernist news weekly. It was through the magnetism of his personality that he was able to gather a team of famous Hindi writers such as Raghuvir Sahay, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, Srikant Verma, Prayag Shukla and others. It was Shukla and Netra Singh Rawat who initiated serious art and film criticism respectively and created the critical language required for it.

Later, Vinod Bharadwaj also joined them and continued this tradition. As editor, Agyeya broke the molds of Hindi journalism and freed it from the domain of the pedestrian.

The author also shed light on Agyeya’s short association with the Progressive Writers’ Association and his anti-fascist fervor that led him to join the British Army despite intense emotional pleas and protests from Sen, who attempted to dissuade him. Like many others, he too got angry with the communists and broke with them to turn to, like Nirmal Verma, an indefinable “Indianness” that borders on cultural nationalism, better known as “hindutva”.

While Mukul only talks about the novel Nadi Ke Dwip, Agyeya had also written a poem of the same title, celebrating the greatness of an individual’s loneliness and estrangement from society. Progressives viewed the poem through the binary of individual versus society as a sort of literary manifesto against collective struggles. His subsequent association with the Congress for Cultural Liberty, which would be sponsored by the CIA, reinforced their suspicions.

Mukul gave a detailed insight into this era and the role played by Agyeya. The biographer brushed nothing under the rug.

Suffice it to say that with this definitive biography of Agyeya, which even his fervent critics like Namwar Singh and Ashok Vajpeyi began to admire after his passing, Mukul has set the bar so high that it will not be easy to touching it or stepping over it. We only wish that these biographies were also written in Hindi.

Kuldeep Kumar is a seasoned journalist who writes about politics and culture.