Friday, October 26, 2012

Reminiscences of Nirala
Shivapujan Sahay

Translated by
Mangal Murty

Nirala is acknowledged as the greatest Hindi poet of the modern age. An excellent biography of the great poet written by Dr Ramvila Sharma, in truth his Boswell, was published in 1969. Dr Sharma dedicated that biography to Shivapujan Sahay, one of the closest friends of Nirala, and acknowledged the valuable help he got from Shivji (as he was popularly known) through personal interviews and research in Shivji’s correspondence with Nirala.

Shivji and Nirala came close to each other when they were living together in Calcutta wayback in the early 1920s. Shivji had resigned his government school teaching job at Ara (Bihar) in the wake of Gandhi’s first non-cooperation movement in1920, and come to Calcutta to seek a career in journalism. He began by editing a monthly journal ‘Marwari Sudhar’ which was being printed at the Balkrishne Press in Calcutta, owned by Mahadev Prasad Seth of Mirzapur in U.P. Later he was invited by Sethji to live with him in the same building where he came into intimate contact with Nirala who was already living in that building on an upper floor. Shivapujan Sahay reminisces in his memoirs about those early years of the turbulent twenties.

The hurricane of the first Non-cooperation movement had risen only a couple of years after the end of the First World War. The nationalist fervor started countering the onslaught of  state violence with great gusto. I was then a Hindi teacher in the Arrah Town School. As an act of my non-cooperation, I left that school and joined a local national school. I had taken to writing in 1910 itself, but by 1921, I also became an editor of the monthly journal ‘Marwari Sudhar’. Soon I bid farewell to the national school also and reached Calcutta. I stayed with Shri Durga Prasad Poddar who had his business in Calcutta and lived in Harrison Road. Pt Ishwari Prasad Sharma, my teacher and literary mentor, fixed up the Balkrishna Press for the printing of ‘Marwari Sudhar’. It was through him that I came to be introduced to Babu Mahadev Prasad Seth, the owner of the press, and his companion, Munshi Navajadiklal Shrivastava.

The day I took the edited press copy of my journal to the press, both Sethji and Munshiji spoke very encouragingly about my work. Though at first they found it hard to believe that the editing of the articles had been done by me, and Munshiji particularly thought it all to be done by Sharmaji, as I was his true disciple any way. He had specially blessed me by publishing my early articles in his favourite literary monthly ‘Manoranjan’ (1910-12). Even my handwriting closely resembled his, which strengthened the suspicion. Sethji requested me to live in his press, and Munshiji also  gave some positive allurements, but Poddarji would have none of it. Ultimately, however, the duo prevailed over my friend Poddarji; though it took me about three-four months to shift from Harrison Road to this press. Soon I got very close to these two gentlemen. And meanwhile I also had an opportunity of meeting Niralaji there.

The Balkrishna press was located in an open space behind the Vidyasagar College at 23, Shankar Ghosh Lane. On the ground floor of the building was the press, and monks of Ram Krishna Mission lived on the upper floor, with whom the poet Niralaji lived.

The learned monk Swami Madhavanandji of the Vivekanand Society in Calcutta had, with deep reverence, brought Niralaji as editor of the Society’s  monthly journal ‘Samanwaya’ on the special recommendation of Acharya Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi. It was thus that the serendipitous assemblage happened there of these four literary figures – Mahadev Prasad Seth, Navajadik Lal, Shivapujan Sahay and Nirala –which resulted in the publication of ‘Matwala’, a revolutionary weekly styled after the famous British weekly ‘Punch’. The first number of ‘Matwala’ came out on 26 August, 1923, and soon the Balkrishna Press of 23, Shankar Ghosh Lane became the headquarters of ‘Matwala-Mandal’ and the main  centre of a literary congregation in Calcutta.

It is said that Nirala assumed this pen-name in rhyme with ‘Matwala’  when he started publishing his earliest poems and his prose pieces in that weekly. Besides publishing his poems he also wrote a satirical column ‘Chabuk’ (whip) or ‘Matawale ka Chabuk’ in which he commented on the articles published in the contemporary literary journals, particularly the linguistic solecisms in them.
Shivapujan Sahay and Nirala both left ‘Matawala’ after a year or so, but their close affinity went on deepening across the later decades as evidenced by their intimate correspondence which is now published in the ‘Samagra’ writings of Shivapujan Sahay. Shivji also wrote a series of memoir articles during the last couple of years in his life  which present an extremely fascinating and sensitive portrayal of the great poet’s personal human qualities. A selection of some glimpses of Nirala’s overly humanistic and compassionate nature, as depicted in Shivji’s memoirs, is presented in the following extracts.

When the Vivekanand Society in Calcutta decided to bring out a Hindi monthly magazine ‘Samanwaya’, its learned monk, Swami Madhavanand, went straight to Acharya Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi looking for a good editor for its journal. It was Dwivediji who had selected Niralaji for the job.

It is said that Mahatma Gandhi had chosen a jewel like Nehru. Great men indeed have the ability to make such unmistakable historical choices. Dwivediji also discovered this jewel for Hindi. Who would not just wonder at his perceptive choice? The Society had indeed found a rare gem in Nirala, and soon as the incomparable talent of Nirala unfurled before the Swami, he started taking all care of the priceless jewel that had fallen into his hands.
The Society was housed in the same building as the ‘Matawala-Mandal’. I had myself seen how much care the Swamiji took of Niralaji’s comforts, always being at the latter’s beck and call. Sethji, the ‘Matawala’-editor, was verily sold out to Niralaji eversince he met him. There has never been a greater devotee of Niralaji.

All the monks of the Society showed great respect to Niralaji. They were all Bengalis, and Niralaji spoke Bangla like his mother tongue. In the philosophical discussions with them, Niralaji always had an upper hand. Even in discussions on Bangla literature, Niralaji always proved weightier. Amazed at his analytical prowess, Swami Vireshwaranand had once exclaimed – Eimen ki manaver medha (Could this be human grey matter)? But Niralaji’s analyticality never crossed the bounds of reasoning. His prodigious memory power and razor-sharp rationality always left others totally convinced.

Shivapujan Sahay then sketches a portrait of the poet in those days, done as it were in pastel colours.

God had been bounteous in his gifts to Nirala. An attractive, tall and well-built healthy body chiselled by regular exercise, astounding intellect, mellifluous voice, kind-hearted, contemplative mind, a prolific creativity – God had showered him generously with his boons. Big captivating eyes, brilliant, shining teeth, black curly tresses adorning his head, small mouth with thin lips, long, slender artistic fingers, broad heavy chest – the Creator had embellished his statuesque figure with great love and care….
Nirala was also a wrestler in his youth. Even at the ‘Matawala’-office he would smear his body with earth in the traditional way as he exercised. Munshiji would bring soft Ganga clay for him, from his native place near Balia in U.P, to rub on his body. 

Nirala had long black tresses and Sethji would bring expensive perfumed hair oils like Jawakusum and Kesh Ranjan for him. He would even polish his shoes every day. When he went out, Sethji would put money in his pocket. But he would always return empty-handed with nothing left in the pocket. The beggars were familiar with his habits. He would put whatever came out of his pocket on any begging palm spread before him and then nonchalantly move forward. It was impossible to fathom his strong wilfulness. Munshiji would often caution him to be frugal and save something for the future. But one who didn’t care for the present, how would he bother for the future? Instead, he would rather be quite exultant as he looked at his broad chest and strong biceps while exercising. Nirala was a poet of glorious manhood. Why would he worry about his old age? Both in his mind and body he was always full of the virility of manliness. When his first book of poems Anamika was published, and he started reciting its poems to us with his characteristic verve, he looked a perfect embodiment of manliness.

He was also gifted with excellent histrionic talent. The Raja of Mahishadal (Bengal) was so enamoured of his acting talent that he loved him like a prince. But Nirala was not to be tempted by such adoration. When he went from Gokul to Mathura, he would never look back to Gokul again. He fully enjoyed his luxurious life style. Like Bharatenduji, he would pour out perfumes on his palm and rub them all over his clothes. But often he would also go out bare-bodied or in dirty, shabby clothes, bare-footed, to the market, rubbing surti (tobacco) on his palms. He just didn’t bother what someone - who may have seen him only the other day clothed in fashionable spotless dhoti-kurta - would say, seeing him in such shabby clothes today. Nirala never cared for what others would say of him….

A session of the All India Hindi Sahitya Sammelan was held in the Senate Hall of the Calcutta University. The great poet ‘Ratnakarji’ was presiding. Nirala came out of the hall and stood in the park nearby at Wellingdon Square, took off his kurta, expanded his chest and started flexing and displaying his muscles. His long tresses swung round his face. At once a small crowd of onlookers gathered there. That divine repository of physical strength and beauty was only Nirala, and none other than him.

Shivji, in these memoirs, fondly recounts many stories of Nirala’s incredible munificence. He says that these acts of Nirala’s generosity were such daily occurences that he could even have maintained a diary of them.

There are countless stories of his generosities. A whole diary could be written about them. ‘Matwala’ was published every Saturday. Early morning every Saturday several Bengali young graduates would arrive with their bicycles. They would sell the magazine and collect their commission amount on a weekly basis. ‘Matwala’ was a hot-selling item, and poor students used to earn enough money through its sale. One day Niralaji started talking to a very poor, shabbily dressed young student and learnt that he used to sell the magazine on a bicycle  which he took on rent. Nirala was so moved seeing his poor, dirty clothes that he not only bought him a bicycle worth 150 rupees, but also got a two-piece suit stitched for him. Then advised him always to be self-reliant, and never hesitate to ask him for money for buying any books that he might need. When Sethji, the ‘Matwala’-editor, asked him where did he get that big amount of around 250 rupees for it, Nirala only dismissed it with a smile. Later it transpired that for this he had taken an advance amount from Shri Mahadev Prasad Jhunjhunwala, a publisher of the 
Badtalla locality for writing a book.

There are other stories of his boundless munificence. The watchman of the ‘Matwala’ office was a handsome young lad who came from the Gorakhpur area. He used to call Niralaji as ‘Guruji’. When his marriage was fixed, he requested Niralaji to attend the ceremony. But just on that occasion Niralaji’s nephew fell ill. Even so he gave him, without anyone’s knowledge, a silk sari with a velvet blouse, a pair of gold earrings, some cosmetics, plus ten rupees as his marriage gift. But Niralaji would never talk about his secret deeds of charity.

Nirala used to earn by writing books for publishers and also from writing for the magazines, but whatever he earned vanished into thin air in almost no time. The ‘Matwala’-editor, Mahadev Prasad Seth was always eager to cater to his smallest needs. When Sethji went out with him and bought sweets or fruits exclusively for him, Nirala on his way back would keep giving away to the beggars all that he carried in his own hands, and when he had finished with his own things, he would take the things from Sethji’s hands and give all that away, too. And Sethji adored him so much that he would never resist and just look endearingly at him. Often, a little upset, he would ask Nirala to carry everything himself if it was all only to be given away to the beggars. Munshiji who also invariably went with Sethji would often chide him for buying all those delicacies, if everything was only to be given away by Niralaji, and they had only to return empty-handed. But Sethji would do all this out of respect for Niralaji’s sentiments. For him, his money had no value if it so pleased the poet. Munshiji would often say jokingly that Sethji was only being over-indulgent towards Niralaji. But even such comments had absolutely no effect on Nirala.

Nirala was – just as his pen-name signified – truly ‘unique’. He would often give a bunch of grapes or a packet of Muscat dates to a beggar and smilingly ask him to taste them and then tell him how he liked them. When Munshiji would say – Niralaji, why don’t you give him some money instead so that he could buy some cheap eatables to fill his tummy, he would just give the beggar, in addition, a couple of oranges of the finest Nagpur or Sylhet variety. One day he gave a red shining apple to a beggar saying – if you eat this, your face also would look as redolent. The grinning poor fellow replied -  Sir, if I eat this apple today through your noble kindness, will that fill this shrunken body of mine with enough blood! Hearing this, Nirala asked Sethji to give the beggar two rupees more so that he could buy more apples and Sethji dutifully complied. And when Munshiji said with a loud laugh that even those two rupees would not buy him enough apples to bring that much blood to his weak body, Nirala gave him another rupee. And when Sethji saw more beggars flocking towards them, he hastily pulled Nirala away from there. 

Munshi Navajadik Lal, besides being an old friend of Mahadev Prasad Seth, was also the manager in a factory of cosmetic products, owned by Seth Kishorilal Chaudhary of Patna City. Once when Nirala went to that factory, Munshiji presented him its products as gift, but before he reached ‘Matawala-Mandal’ Niralaji had given away all the bottles, except one, of the famed ‘Bhootnath’ perfumed oil, and had distributed all the soap cakes among the beggars - who by now had known him too well - for washing their dirty clothes. He just stopped near the dirtiest of them and ask if he gave him a soap cake would he wash his dirty clothes with it? And who would not avail of this free gift? Several pairs of hands spread before Nirala and instantly each needy palm had a soap cake on it. And the next moment, each beggarly, licey crown would have expensive perfumed oil soaking it. Even the emptied bottle was given away to one of them. Had one such bottle not been safe in my pocket,  that also would have been sacrificed to his munificence. And just then a vendor selling  tilkuts (square-shaped candies made of sesame) arrived on the scene and Nirala bought and freely distributed the candies among those beggars. When all the candies thus disappeared, he even promised the beggars that he would give them a  similar feast of pyaji pakoris (fried onion veggies), thus earning evermore blessings from them.

Such profound philanthropic trait was inherent in Nirala’s character…

In the Belur Math (Calcutta) of Paramhansa Shri Ramakrishna, there used to be formal mass feasts for the poor to mark the birth and death anniversaries of Paramahansaji and Swami Vivekanand. Niralaji, as the ‘Samanwaya’-editor, would always go there on these occasions with the sanyasins of the Vivekanand Society which was a branch of the Mission. During the various programmes  in those momentous events, Nirala would only busy himself in distributing the food items to the daridranarayan (the poor folk). His intense interest in feeding the beggars would earn the admiration of all. Generally on these occasions, only the Bengali bhadralok (gentry) would assemble there, and Nirala, who spoke Bangla as his mother tongue, would thus win the hearts of the assembled gentry. He would mix like sugar-in-milk with that crowd. Even the most learned of the Bengalis could not excel him in his depth of knowledge in Bangla literature. His recitations of the songs of Rabindranath would fill even the most ardent of Bengalis with wonder and satiety.

But Nirala’s generosities were not limited to humans only. Even animals came well within his ambit of lovingkindness…

The ‘Matwala’ office was first located at 23, Shankar Ghosh Lane. Behind it lay the Vidyasagar College. Once we were going to attend a public meeting there. A dog lay whining in pain on the footpath of Cornwallis Street, just in front of the Arya Samaj Temple. There was a big suppurating wound on its back. Nirala suddenly sat there beside it. We were getting late for the public meeting, but he ran to the medicine shop across the street and came back with a tube of ointment, wiped the wound with his handkerchief and threw it off, then spread the entire contents of the tube on its wound. It was only after completing this task and washing his hands at the nearby public hydrant that he accompanied us to the meeting. While returning Munshiji jokingly said – ‘Please also give the poor thing something to eat’ – and Niralaji immediately bought some pakoris from the vendor there and put it before the beast in agony, and burst into laughter when the poor thing started gobbling the pakoris hurriedly.

Nirala always lived in a world of deep thought, entirely lost to the mundane world – in a kind of transcendental existence. Shivji recounts another incident of Nirala’s utter non-materialistic behaviour…

At a flower show one day Sethji bought and presented Nirala a  beautiful flower bouquet for Rs five. But when we came back to our office, it was discovered that he had left it somewhere in the flower show itself. Immediately, Sethji went back there by tram with Niralaji, but the latter couldn’t remember where exactly the bouquet had been left. When winter came, Sethji got an expensive light quilt made for him. He bought the finest Dhaka mulmul cloth for it, got it done in gaudy colours, even the inner cotton was coloured red and green - all then sprinkled with mica dust, and adorned with broad satin borders, and finally enveloped in a specially sewn cover. Nirala then wrapped it around himself and beamed a smile, but only a couple of weeks later gave it away to a beggar. It was bitter cold when that beggar in his bare body had appeared before him. At once Nirala took his quilt off and lovingly wrapped it around that poor being with his own hands. When by chance I saw this, I rushed to the press to call Sethji and Munshiji. But even before they could  reach there, that crafty poseur had just vanished! Sethji ran to look for him but all in vain. And Niralaji burst into a loud laughter, saying – Why are you so bothered? Poor fellow will have a comfortable time in this biting winter! Even Sethji then smiled and said – You are truly great, Niralaji!

Nirala had very strong views about economic inequalities in society, almost verging on the communist ideology, very much in the air in those days…

Often in the ‘Matawala-Mandal’ when discussions took place on the problem of poverty, or news or articles appeared on the subject in the newspapers, Nirala would forcefully present his arguments against it. While criticizing the rampant economic inequalities in the country he would seem to be an aggressive Communist. Although he lacked sympathy for able-bodied beggars, yet for the sad plight of the infirm or  the disabled among them he would bitterly criticize society and the administration. Only the lame or the blind, or the totally deprived and the leprous among them would  catch his attention, and then he would be totally oblivious of his own circumstances. In a big city like Calcutta he would always be looking for these most unfortunate beggars on the pavements; much of his time would be spent in the world of these wretched beings only. On these pavements in the nights, besides these beggars, many shelterless labourers and vendors also would be found sleeping. There was none else in that megapolis of the rich except Nirala who would buy and distribute biris, fried corn or gram or peanuts among them all. Numberless business magnates would pass by these pavements in the night, and may be a few of them threw a coin or two among these beggars, but there would be none like Nirala to share their sorrow with heartfelt sympathy. Calcutta was the City of Joy, and Nirala had no dearth of money for enjoyment, but his sole source of entertainment was the succour he could provide to the poor.

Nirala was so detached from worldly affairs that he remained a recluse throughout his life. Never had he any trunk with lock and key in which to keep his things, nor any care for clothes or money. How many clothes were tailored for him or were sent to the washerman, he would never remember. He had absolute trust in his tailor or his washerman. Nor would he ever bother about the upkeep of his clothes. Always engrossed in his own self, he had no care for these mundane things. Any accounts of his expenses also, he would never keep. Hundred rupee notes would lie under his pillow, but no one knew how long would they stay there? It would be lucky for any currency note to stay with him for more than twentyfour hours! What came in the morning went by evening, and that which came in the evening would disappear before next morning. He had no bad habits, no indulgences of any kind. But his cronies would come to know about these cash arrivals, and he was ever ready to meet their demands.

Even when he left Calcutta and lived in Lucknow or Prayag (Allahabad), he continued to live like a monk or a recluse. Wherever he lived, he would shower his munificence on the shopkeepers catering to his needs with exorbitant payments. Even the ekka-tongawllahs (hackney-drivers) would bask in his indulgence, and would refuse other passengers in order to serve him. The beggars of the neighbourhood would start blessing him the moment they saw him around.
Nirala would generally give away his new clothes to the poor and use his old clothes instead. In the winters also he would give away his new quilt to the poor making do with his old blanket. People of such philanthropic nature were scarcely to be seen in his literary fraternity.

 In Shivji’s memoirs of Nirala, there is also a very amusing anecdote of great literary interest, when Nirala was still in Calcutta with ‘Matwala’…

‘Matwala’ published Nirala’s poems as well as his critical pieces, but Nirala wrote his critical notes on material published in other literary magazines under a pseudonym – ‘Gargaj Singh Varma’. Once under this column he wrote a series of critical notes on articles published in Saraswati, the famous literary journal edited by Acharya Mahavir Prasad Dwiwedi. But Dwiwediji did not know that those critical notes were written by Nirala. When he could bear it no more, Dwiwediji edited all those issues of ‘Matwala’ in which the said critical notes were published and sent them back to ‘Matwala’ office by registered post. He had mercilessly edited all those issues from cover to cover with a red pen and written in his letter that those who try to find fault in others should first look into their own shoddy work. When Nirala got that packet of ‘Matwala’ issues with Dwiwediji’s letter, his loud bursts of laughter would not cease till he went totally out of breath. After that day he stopped criticizing ‘Saraswati’ for good. He also requested that all the pages corrected by Dwiwediji’s pencil should be published by ‘Matwala’ but Mahadev Prasad Seth, the ‘Matwala’-editor, locked all those brutally edited issues of his magazine in his iron chest never to be seen by anyone. If those pages could be seen today, they would appear to be priceless literary material….

But Nirala was ever reverent towards his seniors, as he was conscious of his own self-respect. He would give all respect to a venerable person and yet would expect similar approbation from him. Once when he went to a literary meet in Calcutta, the president of the meet did not stand up to welcome him. Nirala went up the dias, but the very next moment descended from it. The president even then failed to take the hint. By the time, Mahadev Prasad Seth, the ‘Matwala’ editor, knowing Nirala’s quick temper, went to stop him, he had already gone out and left on a taxi.

On another occasion, in a poet’s meet, when the list of poets was being announced, his name came at the very end; perhaps, to make the audience stay till the last. But when Nirala did not hear his name at the top of the list he at once left the place. When we wanted to stop him, he said – ‘I wouldn’t mind reciting my poem at the end, but why was my name given last without even asking me?’ And he just went away.

One day Niralaji went  with Munshiji to meet Pandit Narayan Prasad ‘Betab’  [the famous dramatist of the Parasi theatre]. ‘Betabji’ later arranged a drama-meet at his residence and invited Niralaji also. But he did not agree to go there in spite of all our pleadings. He said – ‘I was the first to go to his place to see him, but he did not come to my place any time thereafter. If he doesn’t have the time for it, I, too, don’t have the time today’.

There are innumerable such instances of Nirala’s elevated sense of self-respect which touch the very summit of self-pride.

One such anecdote of later years (1960) when Shivji had gone to see Nirala in his last days of ill-health is equally remarkable…

I went to see Niralaji on 24 November, 1960. While bathing at the Triveni confluence, before meeting him, I saw a glittering bus carrying film starlets arrive there with the famous star Rajkapoor. There was a great crowd surrounding them. Some scenes for the film ‘Ganga-Jamuna’ [‘Jis Desh Me Ganga Bahati Hai’] were to be shot. When I met Niralaji I started  describing the scene to him. Then he said ruefully – ‘Rajkapoor’s father Prithviraj, whenever he came to Prayag, would always come to see me, but Rajkapoor hasn’t come yet!’ Niralaji was always very conscious about these things.

Shivapujan Sahay had left ‘Matwala’ in 1924 and gone to Lucknow only to return a year later to Calcutta, but not to ‘Matwala’, doing odd editorial jobs elsewhere, though still contributing frequently to ‘Matwala’. By 1926, he had finally moved to Kashi. Nirala, too, who had disassociated himself from ‘Matwala’ a couple of years later, had arrived in Kashi around this time…

Niralaji had lived in Kashi for some time, when I, too, lived there. Literary sittings at ‘Prasadji’s’ were a daily affair. Poetry recitations would also take place on boats in the mid-Ganga river. Once Nirala sang that bhajan by Tulsidas – ‘Shri Ramchandra kripalu bhaju man’ playing on a harmonium. Later ‘Prasadji’, in Nirala’s absence, had lavished praise on him. He had been extremely impressed by his equal virtuosity in both literature and music. ‘Prasadji’ was a man free from feelings of envy or approbation. After weighing his talent, Prasadji had prophesied at that time that Nirala was God’s gift to Hindi. On seeing Nirala’s passionate rendering of his poem ‘Panchwati’ Munshi Navjadik Lal would say that at such times Nirala reminded him of the brilliant actors of the Bengali stage. Those who had ever seen Nirala’s dramatic talents on the stage could never forget his memorable histrionics.

Nirala spent his last days at Daraganj, Prayag. On hearing of his ill-health Shivji went to see him in November, 1960…

Last November (1960) I got a leaflet regarding his ill health from Prayag (Allahabad), and I went there on the 23rd to meet him. After putting my luggage at the house of Pandit Vachaspati Pathak, the manager of Bharati Bhandar in the Leader Press, I went straight to Niralaji’s house in Daraganj. My eldest son, Anand Murty, and my five-year old grandson, Lallu, were also with me. When he saw me standing before him, he was overjoyed. After the usual exchange of greetings and solicitations about my welfare, he said – It’s late evening, and after a long journey you must be tired. Please go and have rest and come early tomorrow so that we may have a full day’s chit-chat; and please also have your lunch with me here. I noticed some swelling in his legs. His only son, Pandit Ramkrishna Tripathi, was there to nurse him. I was told that earlier the then C.M. of U.P., Dr Sampurnannd, and the Education Minister, Pt Kamalapati Tripathi, had both come to see Niralaji and by a special order Ramkrishnaji had been transferred from Jhansi, where he was a music teacher, to Prayag, to look after his ailing father, though the latter’s family was still at Jhansi. He wanted to rent a house in Daraganj to bring his family there and help in nursing his father. But I was surprised to learn that Niralaji was absolutely reluctant about any change of place. He was not even ready to go to a hospital as the Ministers and the doctors had advised. I, too, implored him for it but he flatly said that he would not hurt the feelings of the inmates who had been serving him for years and give credit for nursing him to others in this last stage of his life. Even later he didn’t agree to move to a hospital. But this was nothing new. What he would once decide, he would stick to it in spite of all persuasions. He wasn’t stubborn by nature, but would only go by what his over-sensitive heart told him.

Next morning after a bath at the triveni-sangam (the holy confluence of three rivers at Prayag), I went again to Niralaji’s place. I had wrapped myself with a double andi (warm shawl), but he insistently covered me with his own hands with a lihaf (quilt). Then he called the house-keeping lady to cook moong-urad lentils, rice and puris, green vegetables and fried badis (salted cakes) of urad and gram – indeed, he dictated to her a whole menu of rich dishes for me. He also invited Pandit Ganesh Pandey, the old wizened proprietor of Chhatra Hitkari Pustakmala, for the lunch. He always liked to eat in company, as he said. He took my grandson in his lap and kept cuddlinge him. When a gentleman came to take a photograph, he made me sit on his bed by his side. We kept talking about the present and the past affairs till late in the afternoon. He even said that my visit has cured him of half his ailments. Encouraged by his statement, with folded hands, I implored him to take all necessary precautions about his delicate health, and put a restraint on his tendency to speak continuously. But, instead, he took up a copy of Abhigyan Shakuntalam and started reciting selected shlokas from it as also explicating the subtle nuances of their meaning. The more I avoided making him speak, the more he would go on speaking. He would sometimes start reading from Tagore’s verses and then switch over to reciting lines from memory from Shelley’s and Milton’s poems. I couldn’t even get up to leave.

 He then started asking about Munshiji’s family. [Munshiji had died in 1939, leaving his widow and small children in very indigent circumstances.] He wanted to know about the sum of 2,100 rupees which he had received as a literary award and given away to be sent to Munshiji’s family [through Mahadevi Varma]. He also talked about Professor Nand Dulare Vajpeyi, Dr Ram Vilas Sharma and Pandit Vinod Shankar Vyas. He kept on talking in spite of my keeping totally mum. All my pleadings to stop him went in vain. And no sooner had I returned to Leader Press after making further entreaties with him about proper care and rest for himself, he came there on a rickshaw accompanied by the house lady. Vachaspati Pathak was sitting there, besides Pandit Vishwambhar Nath Jijja (Sub-editor, Bharat) and Shri Bhagawati Charan Varma. All of them expressed their deep anguish and surprise and said that he shouldn’t have come like that, and he could get well only by following his doctor’s advice. But possessing an intellect of the highest order and being a poet-philosopher with a highly self-willed temperament, he would listen to everybody, but do only what he willed. And it was this unbridled wilfulness that proved so perilous for his failing health. Who, indeed, could argue with him about the mortality of the physical body and the transience of life!

Concluding his series of reminiscences of Nirala, Shivji speaks of Nirala’s deep anguish for Hindi which he shared with Shivji during their last meeting at Prayag in November, 1960…

Nirala had expected that after independence the supremacy of Hindi as Rashrtabhasha will be established, but that hope was belied, which made him very sad. When Sanehiji, a fellow poet, went to see him, he said to him feelingly – Look, I want to die now, but people just wouldn’t let me. For whom should I live now?  Language and literature have become political weapons, and the humiliation that Hindi is being subjected to has now become unbearable. English has now become beloved of all – whether or not people understand anything of it.
 (c) Dr B.S.M.Murty

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reminiscences of ‘Prasad’
Shivapujan Sahay

Translated by
Mangal Murty

 Shivapujan Sahay wrote hundreds of memoirs and literary reminiscences which were edited and compiled by me in two volumes – Mera Jeevan and Smriti-Shesh, both finally incorporated in volume-2 of his Collected Writings Samagra. His memoirs of Nirala pertained mainly to the early twenties of the last century when both of them lived in Calcutta in the ‘Matwala Mandal’. His memoirs of Premchandji reminisce about their days spent together in Kashi and Lucknow in the late twenties and early thirties. After a short early stint in the Banaras District court as Hindi clerk, Shivapujan Sahay lived in Kashi from about1926 to 1935. It was during this decade-long period that he came into close contact with both Premchand and Prasad, the two great creative geniuses of their time, besides all the great literary luminaries of those days like Acharya Shyamsundar Das, Jagannath Das Ratnakar, Ramchandra Varma, Lala Bhagawan Deen, et al. Shivapujan Sahay came closest to Prasadji when he was editing the literary fortnightly Jagaran, published by Vinod Shankar Vyas under the tutelage of Prasadji in 1932. It was then that Shivapujan Sahay became an intimate member of the ‘Prasad Mandali’. Sahayji’s correspondence published in the last three volumes of Samagra throws revealing light on many of the unknown literary facts of those days. Vinod Shankar Vyas, a boon companion of Prasadji and Sahayji, writes about the latter in one of his own memoirs -  “Shivaji had a special place of honour in our group. He would be responsible for the editing and publication of all our writings - Prasadji’s as well as mine. He always had the last word in these matters. Whenever Prasadji would write anything, he wouldn’t feel satisfied till Shivji had heard it”.

Shivji begins his reminiscences of Prasad with a verse from one of his poems.

An opening line of an exquisite poem by the great poet ‘Prasad’ runs thus –

‘Wey kuchh din kitne sundar thhe’…
Those few days, oh, how beautiful they were!...

And the very remembrance of that line of verse prompts the thought – ‘Te hi no diwasa gatah’ – neither those days, nor those people will ever come back!
When memory brightens up of those days, those places and those close-knit circles of friends, one remembers these verses of the poet ‘Alam’ as he sings –

Where once one basked in myriad pleasures
He now sits and scrabbles around tiny pebbles
The tongue that twaddled and wagged tirelessly
Now sings the praise of those splendid heroes
The arbours where ‘Alam’ spent his days in dalliance
There he pulls his hair now in utter despair
And of those who filled his eyes forever
His ears now only hear their bygone tales.

After doing my Matriculation in 1913 , I got my first job as a Hindi clerk at the District court at Benares. I had studied Urdu and Persian till my Entrance class and my neat handwriting helped me get selected for the job. Later, of course, I had switched over to Sanskrit and Hindi. But I was equally ‘khushkhat’  (proficient) in Urdu and Persian script. I was attached to an Additional Munsif whose assistant, Radhakrishnaji, used to live in Govardhan Sarai, the locality where poet Prasadji lived. Fond of reading, I often visited the Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha. The hackney fare from the Court to the Sabha or to Benia Park, only next to Govardhan Sarai, was only about 6 paise in those days. I was a mere young stripling lad totally unknown to any literary person there, but would roam about the Sabha area or the Govardhan Sarai area, where I would occasionally see Babu Shyamsundar Das or even Prasadji. But how could I introduce myself to them?

I had already seen issues of Indu in the Sabha library which had started publication around 1910.  In those early days it was the most renowned Hindi journal. I felt a strong urge to visit the Indu office. Radhakrishnaji had already shown me Prasadji’s house. At that time Pt Roopnarayan Pandey also used to live in Prasadji’s house and edited the monthly Nigamagam Chandrika, an organ of the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal….

Shri Jayashankar ‘Prasad’ occupies a special place among the modern great poets of Rashtrabhasha Hindi. Besides being a poet, he was also a dramatist, fiction writer and critic of the highest order. One gets a glowing glimpse of the richness and significance of the Indian culture in all his creative work. He is such a great artist in the realm of letters that even his prose is imbued with the splendour of poetry. In prose and poetry both his language has a preponderance of Sanskrit words. But, unfortunately, one like him who made such invaluable contributions to Hindi literature in his rather short lifetime was always disparaged and maligned by the so-called champions of Hindi.

But Prasadji was very much more than merely a great man of letters. He was a connoisseur par excellence in many arts and had a phenomenal memory. He was also an authority on all the specialities of Kashi. He possessed a vast lexicon of the technical terms of the various trades and professions there. His knowledge of Vedic literature and ancient Indian history was profound and extensive. He was also a past master in his own ancestral profession [of tobacco products]. But to his intellectual pursuits he was so devoted that his studies would start only late at night when the whole world would have gone to sleep.

His century-and-quarter old ancestral shop of zarda-surti (perfumed tobacco) is located facing the mosque in the  nariyari bazari (coconut market), just behind the Banaras kotwali (Police Outpost). [That famous tobacco shop of Prasadji’s ancestor ‘Sunghani Sahu’ can still be found there.] Just facing his shop, he would sit there every evening, on a broad stone slab spread over with a white sheet, till late in the evening. [That legendary stone slab also is still intact.] There beside that stone slab would also sit a pan (betel leaf)-seller with his small basket. Rounds of his beedas (folded betel leaves ready to be chewed) with the accompaniment of the special (saffron-soaked) zafarani zarda would go on till 10 or 11 in the night. All the great renowned giants of Hindi literature – Premchand, the poet ‘Ratnakar’, the famous art connoisseur Rai Krishnadas, professor Lala Bhagawan Deen,, Acharya Ramchandra Shukla would often come and sit there on that stone slab and discuss  various intricate issues of classical literature. As Rai Saheb would expound on Indian art and craft and sculpture, Lalaji would explicate nirukti and vyutpatti (morphology and etymology) of words. Similarly, Ratnakarji would expatiate on the subtleties of Brajbhasha, while Shuklaji would dwell on the various dimensions of Sanskrit literature, and Premchandji on the psychological intricacies of fiction. One would then be completely astounded by the wide-ranging scholarship which Prasadji would demonstrate with his characteristic verve.

He would often quote from memory verses from the Vedas and strings of sentences from the Upanishads. Besides, he could also explicate with full citations the subtle shades of meanings of words used in specific contexts by the greatest of the Sanskrit poets with equal ease. One would be amazed at his encyclopedic knowledge when he started expounding on specific aspects of shalihotra and ayurveda ( the Hindu sciences of animal and human medicine). He would verily appear to be a professional vaidyaraj (medical expert) when he would quote chapter and verse from ayurveda classics on medicinal herbs and plants.  To hear him talk about the minutest signs and characteristics of elephants, horses, cows, etc, and their salutary effects or otherwise, on their masters would be quite a stunning, staggering experience. Similarly his learned exposition of the good or ill effects of diamonds, pearls, corals, and other precious stones, which he made with copious classical citations was simply astonishing.

Prasadji was a halwai vaishya (maker/seller of sweets) by caste. He was himself a cook par excellence. If there is to be a feast for a hundred guests, he would in no time dictate verbatim the exact amount and measure of how much of mewa (dry fruits) and mawa (caked milk), or how much of sugar,  kesar  (saffron) and ilaychi (cardamom) would be needed for making so much of almond and pistachio burfis or all other kinds of sweets. When wandering Bhotani traders would come vending shilajeet (an ayurvedic substance), mountain honey or kasturi (musk), no one could vouch for their purity better than him. Bhang-booti (balls of cannabis paste), he would always prepare and serve with his own hands to his friends. For his special customers, he would get zarda, kimam (tobacco products) and itra (essence) prepared under his personal care. His regular customers were mostly big zamindars and kings and princes from the native states. He would present samples of these specially prepared kimams and itras in tiny vials to his close friends. Just a touch of his mushk-ambar (musk-perfume) on one’s quilt even in the severest winter would make its power felt by creating perspiration. And similarly a tiny touch of his special kimam on a pan-beeda (folded betel leaves) would draw beads of perspiration and force one to take off one’s woollens, even on a winter night.

He would often open his pandora’s box of riveting stories about the old raises (aristocrats), pundits, dancers, rogues, female singers, vagabonds and lawani-(folk) singers of Banaras, -  interesting stories that would also reveal how unbelievably generous and devoted  were those gifted and skilled people of yore. A whole range of  stories of genuine benevolence of the rich, great accomplishment of the artists, high moral stature of the learned, rich heritage of folklore artists, -  all that dazzling brilliance of those bygone days flashed vividly before the listener’s eyes. He had got many such pieces published in the ‘Kashi’ number of Hans (Premchand’s literary journal). Among his closest friends, Rai Krishnadasji also had a treasure trove of such reminiscences, and when [later, in the ’40s] I was editing Himalaya, I had published a series of Prasadji’s memoirs written by Rai Krishnadasji. Unfortunately, after I left Himalaya, the series remained incomplete.

Prasadji had a stout, mascular physique.  In his youth, he had also been a good wrestler and had vast knowledge about the art of wrestling. He also had a large fund of interesting stories about wrestlers, and could expound on the various intricacies of the wrestler’s art. He would also explain the various slang and code words used in various trades and professions, and analyse their special connotations in great detail. He could decipher the secret code words of the goldsmith’s or boatman’s jargon. I now regret not to have kept notes of all these precious nuggets of information as invaluable literary material. But unfortunately his fame became the cause of great envy, and his unrivalled creativity became the butt of the bitterest kind of criticism even in his lifetime; though he remained totally indifferent to all that. He was a pure artist writing swantah sukhaya (for his own pleasure) without any wish for fame or money.

This ungrateful world always failed to recognize the greatness of the geniuses like Premchand, Nirala and Prasad. The disregard and apathy shown towards Prasad during his lifetime is well-known. Though we now glorify ourselves with the possession of his poetry, fiction, drama and criticism as a rich legacy of modern Hindi literature. It is most unfortunate that the true genius of such great creative artists of their age is recognized only after they are gone. Alas, that is the way of the world!

Prasadji never went to any kavi-sammelan (poets’ meet) in public; he used to recite quite a few of his favourite poems tunefully, though only in an intimate circle of friends; often on a bajra (a canopied boat) midstream in Ganga. Once the All India Hindi Sahitya Sammelan was to be held at Gorakhpur under the presidentship of Shri Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, editor of  Pratap. A telegram came inviting Prasadji to preside over the ‘Kavi Sammelan’ there. The telegram bore the names of the president-elect Vidyarthiji and Rajarshi Tandanji. But Prasadji just put it away casually and continued talking. Pandit Vinod Shankar Vyas, one of his closest friends and a famous Hindi short-story writer, was also sitting there. Vyasji implored Prasadji to accept the proposal so that he and the other friends could also accompany him to Gorakhpur, but Prasadji laughingly dismissed the idea. It was only once in a lifetime – in the ‘Koshotsava Samaroha’ of the Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha - that he had to recite his poems tunefully in public. It was an occasion when the editors of the ‘Hindi Shabda Sagar’ were to be felicitated and the ‘Kavi Sammelan’ was to be presided over by Prasadji’s  ‘Guru’ (literary mentor), Mahamahopadhyay Deviprasad Shukla ‘Kavichakravarti’. Prasadji had politely declined even the request of Acharya Shyamsundar Das, but had to recite his poems tunefully when his ‘Guru’ asked him to do so as the president of the poet’s meet.  His melodious rendering of the poems then cast a magic spell on the audience. While singing his poems Prasadji fell into a rapture.

Kashi in those days was the centre of the great literary giants of Hindi. Once Premchandji had commented on Prasadji’s historical plays in his journal Hans that Prasadji only ‘disinterred historical corpses’ ( gadey murdey ukhada karte hain) in his plays. But even when this had been published, Premchandji was sitting with Prasadji, cool and composed as usual, engaged in their literary discourse. There never was even an iota of rancour or ill-will between the two great literary figures. Prasadji would habitually show all respect and courtesy even to those who were his bitterest critics. He bore no particular fondness, or no acrimony towards anyone. Many institutions were entreated for honouring Prasadji, but he never agreed to go anywhere out of Kashi for it. He spent his whole life in a rather sequestered and dedicated pursuit of literary creativity.

Prasadji  was the product of the ‘Chhayavada’ and the ‘Rahasyavada’ era in modern Hindi poetry and wrote his poems in ‘Khadi Boli’ (standard) Hindi. But he was also a true connoisseur of the old Brajabhasha poetry. He was an avid admirer and votary of Brajabhasha literature and remembered a great deal of such old poetry. Besides being a profound scholar of Sanskrit literature, Prasadji also made an extensive study of history books in English. Once, having read some of the well-researched historical essays of Prasadji, published in the Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha’s journal, Dr Kashi Prasad Jaiswal, the famous historian and scholar, had warmly felicitated him at the residence of Rai Krishnadasji.  

In Kashi, they celebrate the great festival of ‘Budhawa Mangal’ (old men’s merriment) on the first Tuesday after ‘Holi’, on boats in the river Ganga. Memorable performances of dance and singing would take place midstream on big bajaras, under huge shamianas (canopies), in the silvery moonlit nights of the Chait (April) month. The main bajaras  would be surrounded by boats crammed with listeners and spectators. Prasadji’s friends would sit with him on his boat and enjoy the music and the dance. When the famous female singers of Kashi would start singing the devotional verses of  Surdas and Tulsidas, Prasadji would be deeply moved. Once when Vidyadhari sang Surdas’s song Ab maen nachyo bahut gopal on the bajra of the ‘Kashi Naresh’ (King of Kashi), tears would not cease flowing from Prasadji’s eyes.

There is a Shiva temple just in front of his house where the annual ‘Falguni Maha-Shivaratri’ festival was held. It has been an old tradition in the family, and there used to be generally a gathering of literary persons on that occasion. It used to be a musical event in which some famous female singer of Kashi would come to render pure classical music. There would be no dance performance, only pure literary songs. The festival would be held with all solemnity and grace. All such festivals –Holi, Dashahara, Deewali - would be observed in strict accordance with his old family traditions.

On the ‘Rakshabandhan’ day he would sit with a large heap of all kinds of silver and bronze coins. Most Brahmins would get their fixed ‘dakshina’ (sacred gift). Prasadji’s family was one of the most respected in Kashi and was known widely among all its beneficiaries as a ‘Durbar’ (princely court). Whenever people saw Prasadji they would always lift their joined palms and greet him loudly saying ‘Har Har Mahadev’- a gesture of honour only shown to the Kashi Naresh. But Prasadji, though born in a family of wealth and affluence, always maintained an unblemished character to deserve such unique honour.