Contemplative Cosmopolitan, Hindi fiction writer and essayist Nirmal Verma just received a French honour in the arts and letters. Harish Trivedi surveys the oeuvre of one of India’s leading literary figures and finds in it a unique cosmopolitanism: The French government recently made the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres. This rare international honour may serve to highlight for non-Hindi readers the significance of Nirmal Verma, who has long been acclaimed as the foremost novelist and short story writer in Hindi, and has already been awarded the Sahitya Akademi prize, the Jnanpith prize and the Padma Bhushan. The Indian Express Monday, August 01, 2005
Nirmal Verma is the kind of writer who would be rare in any literature and is even rarer in Indian literature. He has his own utterly distinctive style, which strikes the Hindi reader as shockingly and deliciously new even now. It is not only highly sensitive, nuanced, tremulous and luminous, but it also adapts into Hindi many striking turns of phrase and syntax from English with natural ease. But what is more, he is a writer with a vision of his own, a world-view which embraces equally the (lower) middle-class life which is the staple of Hindi fiction, and a truly cosmopolitan sensibility such as few Indian writers possess, including those who write in English. He offers probably the profoundest blend of Indian tradition and Western modernity that any Indian writer has achieved, and in this regard, he stands with Bankim, Tagore and U.R. Ananthamurthy.
Raat ka Reporter (1989; Dark Dispatches) is a narrative of ominous, oppressive times as experienced by a man so apprehensive as to feel utterly bewildered. This artistic indirection is rather like that in Normal Mailer’s novel Why Are We in Vietnam? which offers a thoroughgoing critique of American machismo without once mentioning the word Vietnam.
Nirmal Verma’s latest novel Antim Aranya (2000; The Last Wilderness) is about old people and their sense of what they have done with their lives and what remains. This was only his fifth novel in four decades of writing, but these novels are supplemented if not a little overshadowed by the eight collections of his short stories which explore again the quintessentially Indian themes of family relationships and the degrees of engagement or disengagement with this world. One of these, Maya Darpan, was made into a National Award-winning film by Kumar Shahani, while several others have been turned into stage plays and TV adaptations.
Nirmal Verma spent three years in England, where he observed at first hand that country in its seedy postcolonial decline and the beginnings of its still deeply problematic multiracial social composition. His deeply searching experience of Europe, both Eastern (Communist) and Western (liberal), also informs his seminal essay India and Europe. The many volumes of essays by Nirmal Verma display not only well informed intellection but deep contemplation and meditation, on subjects ranging from the Kumbh Mela to a steel plant. There is no excuse even for our alienated Anglophiles not to read him, and to discover a world elsewhere. The writer is Professor of English at the University of Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org