Interview: Akshaya Mukul, author of Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya

How did this lengthy literary biography about Sachchidan and Hirananda Vatsyayan (also known as Agyeya) come about? What attracted you to his work and his life as a researcher?

I have always been fascinated by Agyeya’s life and work. I first read it during my middle school years in Ranchi. In 2011, I wrote a long article about him in Cretea sister publication of India time. I found it fascinating that there is not a single complete biography of Agyeya. There is one in Hindi written during Agyeya’s lifetime. But it has its limits. The idea to write his biography came from the scholar Vasudha Dalmia. One evening we were having coffee at the International India Center discussing Agyeya and his times. I casually asked why there was no biography of Agyeya. Vasudha challenged me. Things fell into place quickly. Late in the evening, she made sure I had access to Agyeya’s huge private papers. Journalist Om Thanvi then took over and helped me get custody of Agyeya’s papers in many trunks. If not for this meeting with Vasudha, I was fully invested in writing a book on Hindu nationalism.

How would you describe the research process for this book? Was it different from your previous or future projects?

The research process first involved going through Agyeya’s private documents. It took almost a year. His articles are comprehensive, but to get the big picture I had to do a lot of interviews and go through the private articles of Premchand, Nemichandra Jain, Shivdan Singh Chauhan, Jainendra Kumar and a few others. A striking thing in Agyeya’s life is the creation of myths, both by his detractors and his lovers. His revolutionary years, his time in the military, and his alleged connection to the CIA are shrouded in many layers of myth. Unraveling it was difficult, but I found the archival documents in the Delhi State Archives, the National Archives, the Congress for Cultural Liberty documents at the University of Chicago, the Hoover documents Institution at Stanford University and the Rockefeller Archives in New York. It was immensely exciting. Agyeya’s own diaries kept throwing me new facts about, for example, his secret lover Kripa Sen and his deep relationship with Balraj Sahni.

My previous book was a biography of Gita Press, a religious publishing house, at the center of which stood two remarkable personalities, Hanuman Prasad Poddar and Jaydayal Goyandka. The basic research tools do not change. I rely only on archival documents and secondary sources.

808pp, ₹999; penguin

You mentioned that you drew from diaries, dream journals, and many letters for the book. Is there a particular letter or journal entry that you came across in your research that stuck with you and still remember vividly?

I benefited from Agyeya’s meticulousness. He kept almost everything. His diaries contain a graphic account of his dreams in prison. They were written on the back of the court documents and minutes after his dream. The dreams ranged from sweet, bitter and graphic to grotesque and outrageous. They talked about family, sex, fellow inmates and his own desperation to get out of prison.

There are a lot of things that stood out that I will remember. Since you asked to name a particular letter, I will talk about Kripa Sen’s letters to Agyeya full of phrases of shameless love and intense desire. She was an extraordinary woman, ahead of her time.

What part of the writer’s life made you want to research and write the most?

There is never a dull moment in Agyeya’s life, ever since she was a child. What excited me the most were his university years in Lahore, his fascination with physics, the revolutionary and prison years, the process of writing his classic Shekhar: Ek Jeevani and his brief but significant association with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. His complex relationship with women was a revelation.

You have also called it “the literary history of Hindi from colonial times to Nehruvian India and beyond”. Can you elaborate on this subject?

Agyeya was born in 1911 and came to prominence in the 1930s, when Premchand first published his short story Amar Vallari in Jagran. With the publication of the first part of Shekhar: Ek Jeevani in the early 1940s, he established himself as the father of modernism in Hindi. This novel also brought him into the crosshairs of the Hindi literary establishment, who considered him an outsider. The publication of Saptak Tarthe first anthology of modern hindi poetry announcing nayi kavita, in the first half of the 1940s, brought him to a new confrontation with the dominant Hindi group. From the 1940s until his death, Agyeya was at the center of almost all feuds and factionalism in the Hindi world. Left progressives never liked him. This period encompasses much of colonial and Nehruvian India. Agyeya’s life is therefore also the literary history of Hindi.

The book’s introduction also mentions that Agyeya’s relationship with women “tended to be extractive”. Please explain.

Agyeya has led an extraordinary life when it comes to women. Unlike the majority of his peers who came from mofussil towns and kept their relationships secret or relegated their wives within the four walls of the house, Agyeya was open about his relationships. But what he did in those relationships tended to be extractive. Almost all the women he was in love with ended up being miserable. They were very successful women with a spirit of their own who took care of it, gave up their careers and made it all work. Yet Agyeya left them. Two of them, her lover Kripa Sen and his second wife Kapila Vatsyayan, could never recover from the rejection. It was as if he was searching for something elusive. Some scholars believe that Agyeya was looking for a mother figure since he was never close to his mother. Either way, I have great empathy for the women in his life.

What other Indian literary figures from the past do you think have not yet been written down in such detail? What steps should be taken to further encourage such writing projects?

There are so many Indian literary personalities that I would love to read about. In Hindi alone, the list is long. Why don’t we have full biography of writers/poets like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Malyaj, Dharamvir Bharati, Upendra Nath Ashk and many more? Muktibodh, the most emblematic poet, can be an ideal subject. There are so many nuances in him and he continues to appear in the private papers of his contemporaries, but we have no archival work on his life. There is a better tradition of biographies in other Indian languages, but they are not available in Hindi or English. Lately biographies of Hindi writers have started to appear, but I think most of them are filled with reminiscences of the biographer on his subject. Also, in India, we tend not to speak ill of the dead and focus only on the good qualities. There is too much deification which makes biographies boring.

Which of Agyeya’s poems was among your favorites when you started writing this book? Has that changed in light of the works you may have come across during the writing process?

There are too many of his poems that I like. It will be impossible to name one. During the writing process, I got closer to Agyeya’s poems.

The publication of the book was fraught with uncertainty given that it was originally a Westland title. How was the move to another publishing house for you as a writer and has it shaped the current form of the book?

One fine morning, Amazon shut down Westland. The book was ready to go to press. My friends Karthika and Ajitha were heavily invested in Agyeya and did everything for the book. I am eternally indebted to them. In the uncertainty that followed, I had to make the painful decision to move it to Penguin. Milee Aishwarya, Elizabeth Kuruvilla and Vineet Gill welcomed Agyeya with much love and care. This book has many manufacturers.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on a biography of Jayaprakash Narayan.

Simar Bhasin is a freelance journalist.