Nirala was born in 1896 in Mahishadal in Bengal. Although Nirala’s family originally was from Baiswara, due to his father’s job, they had to move base to Bengal. By the time he turned 12, he was married to a girl a year younger but they started living together only when he turned 16. His wife was the one who introduced him to the Khari Boli of Dilli.
In a lifetime, there are only a few people who leave their mark upon us. And if that “us” is a renowned artist of his time, it becomes an intriguing question, who are those “few people”. A Life Misspent by Suryakant Tripathi Nirala is the author’s dedication to one such man, who despite being a nobody compared to the artist, held such a place in his life that Nirala couldn’t let go off writing an autobiography with that person at the core. The person, to whom Nirala’s work accolades are Kulli Bhaat, the strange man whom he meets when he visits his in-laws’ place for the first time ever.
When visiting one’s in-laws for the first time, what does one expect? Not hostility for sure. Nirala was subjected to a rueful mother-in-law when he visits her home in Dalmau to take his wife back to his place. Reason? Because he traveled from station to her home in the trap which Kulli owned. Also, Nirala refused to reject the offer of sightseeing made by Kulli for the next day, further triggering both his mother-in-law’s and wife’s irritability. Unknown to Nirala, Kulli harbored desires for him, the same ones which Nirala had for his wife. When Nirala became aware of this fact on his third meeting with Kulli, he left agitatedly, not only from Kulli’s place but from Dalmau itself, to move to Calcutta for further studies.
The book spans over several years, narrating events and incidents from Nirala’s life, his childhood, his stubbornness in front of his father and the village when they bash him for keeping in touch with the illegitimate children of a man, the influenza epidemic that claims almost all the adult members of his family including his wife, his steady growth as a writer of substance, his reconciliation with Kulli years later when he takes a Muslim wife on Nirala’s agreement, their conversations related to Kulli’s social work for the untouchables and the changed thinking of people regarding the once dicey Kulli. The book starts with Kulli and ends with his death.
Though I feel I am incapable of reviewing the writings of such great artists, I still give it a try, not in terms of reviewing their writings, but my own understanding of what they wrote.
When writing is translated into another language, a lot depends on the translator and his capability to bring forth the original magic. With this particular book, I wouldn’t say the translator had a choice. The effect which this book would have had if read in Hindi doesn’t have when reading in English, the charm is lost. In fact, I was thinking of giving up after a few pages, the English translation felt comical. Nevertheless, I continued and hoped for it to get better, which eventually it did.
The story told in this book is not a proper autobiography, it is mostly a collection of incidents from the author’s life, most of them bearing relation to and centering on Kulli whom Nirala considered a man of quality. The chapters are abrupt, there is no continuity in the story barring the presence of Kulli from beginning to end. Nirala flits between the time a lot, now he is in the present, next he is talking about his past. A lot is left to the imagination, Kulli’s sexuality, Nirala’s attitude towards earning money, and his grief at losing his family members due to the epidemic.
A topic that brings across Nirala’s fondness for Kulli is his death. When Nirala’s family had perished, he had shown almost no emotion towards it, but when news of Kulli’s passing away reached him, he says, “I was in the sitting room when I heard Kulli was dead. I was in the sitting room when I was told his corpse had arrived in Dalmau. I was in the sitting room when the funeral procession set out and returned. I was seated as before. That evening I ate my dinner as usual. Kulli’s wife sobbed and cried. I heard her and did nothing.” the stillness of Nirala in these lines ripple enough to show his state on the death of his hero.
Nirala, from his writings in this book could be considered a radical, one who disregards Gandhi and Nehru, as if predicting the views of the masses almost a century later. Not only this, Nirala’s perception of the society then holds true even now, his opinion on inter-caste marriages, untouchability (though he prides himself in being a Brahmin almost all throughout the story), Kulli’s sexuality and peoples’ hypocrisy at large is so apt! Nirala, though he lived in the pre-independence India, was much more independent than a lot of people today with his forward views and awareness.
Though I didn’t find closure in this story, I was left with wonder at how times change and still don’t. Was it Nirala’s life misspent or Kulli’s?
I would recommend it to those who can stand satire, dark humor, and admire what is shown when one holds a mirror to them.