Set in Bihar that vast hinterland of India the diversity of the stories in this collection represents the work of Phanishwar Nath Renu (1921-77) one of Hindi’s foremost writers.
Renu’s world is rural Bihar a world of poverty ignorance helplessness superstition and exploration. The character in his stories are the landless the disenfranchised and the marginalized. He writes of passion spent hurts unresolved dreams unfulfilled in the context of a changing world and a crumbling social order. But his work is anything but bleak. Its universities and the energy comes form Renu’s ability to rise above the human condition and look deep within into the human heart.
Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation brings to the reader a writer and storyteller in supreme control of his craft.
Phanishwar Nath Renu (1921-77) born in a modest farmers home in village Aurahi Hingan then in Purnea district of Bihar but now part of Araria district id regarded as one of the foremost Hindi writers of his time Renu as he was popularly known is the only Hindi writer after Premchand who reached across to a national audience one that was larger and more pluralistic that his core readership within the Hindi speaking cow belt. Like Premchand he too wrote of class caste and gender prejudices in rural often marginalized and disenfranchised societies but there are no stock character in Renu’s Stories no rhetorical exaggeration sand certainly none of he hyperbolic speeches and sermonizing on social evils that see jarring to the modern reader. Instead there is a far more sophisticated social commentary speech that is completely natural and grounded in the local dialect and a ruthlessly realistic portray of society and of his characters. What is more there arte large dollops of wit Humour and satiate along with oodles of folksongs and snatches of poetry thrown in for good measure.
Dogged by ill health and ill luck Renu never quite reached the heights that contemporaries such as Agyeya Yashpal and Jainendra did. May be because he chose causes that were close or his heart but politically ill advised such as the underground freedom struggle in Nepal and the till then fledging Nazalite movements in various tribal pockets in the Mayurbahnj area of Orissa. Regardless of our sympathy or the lack of it for the ideology that drove him it is difficult to ignore the compelling honesty in his writing. It is equally difficult to miss the sheer humaneness that pervades Remix worldview and permeates very single one of his characters making them seem like one of us even though they are located in a milieu very far removed form anything we mighty have ever known. Because of the amazing ability to look deep into the human heart and the human predicament, Renu’s writing rises above the small and the immediate. He writes of passions spent hurts unresolved and dreams unfulfilled in the context of a rapidly changing social fabric and a crumbling social order.
With Maila Anchal published in 1954 Renu became a force to be reckoned with in the Nayi Kahani (New story) movement. This reputation was shored up with a slew of short stories published during the 1950s and 1960s most notably Maare Gaye Gulfam, which was picturised as Tessri Kassam with Raj kapoor and Waheeds Rehman in Lead roles and Iftekahr and Asit sen in final etched memorable cameos. Dusted by Basu Bhattacharya and produced by the film lyricist Shailendra in 1966 it catapulted Renu to national fame. It showed hoe a love story set in rural Bihar of Hiraman, a bullock cart driver and Hirabai a dance in a traveling Dave company – could capture the national imagination. It also helped underscore the point that in branding Renu as the pioneer of the aanchalik upanyas the literary critics were not only doing Renu a grave disservice by virtually painting him into a box but were also guilty of circulating an oxymoron a contradiction in terms. While admittedly based in rural Bihar Renu stories were not parochial far from it in fact!
Having read an odd story he or there what drew mw to Renu and led me to explore his vast oeuvre was precisely this qualify of universality that seemed so alluring. The ability to transcended the here and now and speak of universal concerns always the hallmark of a great writer seems especially unusual coming as it does from someone who has been to my mind wrongly branded a regional writer. My first experience of Renu was through the film whose haunting lyrics and strong screenplay were etched indelibly upon my mind. Then came the TV adaptation of Panchlight which spurred me to scout for more such stories of rural India that could speak to me entirely city bred though I was with vividness and clarity.
Years ago I translated Aatm-Sakshi (literally meaning Self testimony, which has been included here as simply the testimony). I recall the thrill of discovering something that was at once so inexplicable real and hence so Immediate despite being grounded in a milieu that was completely alien to me. That thrill had endured it has stayed with me as I chanced upon story after story that had on the one hand character and locations steeped in Bihar (a state which incidentally), I have never visited and am therefore not familiar with at first hand) yet beckoned me first as a reader and later as a translator to look for the known and the familiar. The more I read the more this duality grew till in a strange way it resolved itself, as I slowly realized that for a good writer character plot and narration are mere props the real thing is the story and in the telling of it if the writer can perchance touch the reader at some level be it emotional or intellectual then the remoteness of its setting or the strangeness of its characters is of little consequence.
This collection of ten stories is an share the sense of wonder that Renu has unfailingly evoked in me. Increasingly, I began to feel that Renu has the almost uncanny power to hold his reader by the hand and take him/her into a world that is hidden deep within the vast hinterland of India a dark world of abject poverty ignorance helplessness exploitation and superstition but one that is also lot form within by translucent beams of life. The will to love the zeal to carry on with dignity and grace the inherent desire in human beings no matter how lowly or brought low by fate and circumstance to rise above the human condition permeates these seemingly dark stories of lives that could have been wretched but are actually and inexplicably not so in the least.
Renu was a prolific writer he wrote five short story collection six novels five books of reportage three memories and several biographical sketches and essays. In to write something about myself the image GBS (George Bernard Shaw) appears before me with irony in his eyes and a meaningful smile behind his beard. And my pen stops. It is impossible to write accurately about oneself – No one can do it Maybe that is why he never wrote his autobiography Renu held the truth above all else and the bulk of his artifice no attempt to make reality subservient to politics or political correctness or to twist and turn situations to suit an ideology.
Renu actively participated in the freedom struggle went to jail on several occasions and after independence supported peasants movements and the popular land reforms movement for Sampurma Kranti (Total Revolution) launched by Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan. Such was his commitment to the people’s movement and such too was the extent of his frustration with the government’s apathy towards it the he chose to return the Padma Shree conferred upon him by the central governments in 1970. HE participated in street processions toured the remotest of villages bore the brunt of a lathi charges and tear gas shells and kept up a ceaseless vigil against corruption and injustice. He participated in massive scores of peasants rally in Patna on 25 November 1949 along with scores of peasants from Purnea district. Mush of what he saw and experienced at close quarters found its way into his stories and reportage. Similarly the great famine of 1966 and the floods of 1975 compelled him to write bone chillingly authentic stories.
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