This is how the Hindi Literary world perceives Upendranath Ashk. In this powerful biography, Daisy Rockwell presents the many faces of the writer and his tumultuous life and times, unfolding in the process, the period, the literary history of Hindi and the Hindi-Urdu divide. She also traces the development of Modern Standard Hindi, Participants in its evolution and Ashk's role in it.
Daisy Rockwell is the Vice Chair at the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1998. She writes on South Asian literature and films.
In January 1996 Upendranath Ashk, the well known and controversial Hindi author, passed away at the age of eighty six. Ashk left behind him a phenomenally large oeuvre, comprising over a hundred volumes of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism and translation. The career of-this prolific writer had begun in the early thirties and spanned a momentous sixty year period, which not only saw tremendous social and political change in India, but profoundly important cultural and artistic change as well. Ashk's work distinguished itself not just for its abundance but for its originality and difference from the work of his contemporaries and the Hindi tradition in which he had chosen to write.
To Ashk, the work which took precedence over all his other writing, and which he considered to be his greatest contribution to literature, was the seven volume novel, Girti Divaren (Falling Walls, 1947-96),1 which he nearly, but not quite, completed in his lifetime. The entire novel spans five years in the life of its semi-autobiographical protagonist, Chetan, in encyclopaedic detail. The time of the novel is the mid thirties, and the place is primarily Jalandhar (the city of Ashk's birth), Lahore and Shimla. Among the novel's highly unusual features in the literary historical context is its disregard for conventional emplotment and sequencing of events. The Girti Divaren series cannot be read for plot in the usual sense, as the events that take place occur at a pace meant to capture the rhythm of everyday life. In this case, it is the rhythm of the life of a young man from a lower middle class Punjabi family, who must contend with the frustrations of bare subsistence and stifling social mores. At the same time he seeks privately to become an artist and find a suitable artistic form through which to express himself.
Ashk tells his story in terms of Chetan's everyday movements, which are wedded to the topography of his environment through small sequences, or memory stories, occurring at regulated intervals throughout the narrative. As Chetan walks through the city, on his way to work, or on some errand, the places and the people he sees capture his attention and imagination. This causes him to remember stories about them and reflect on the web of interconnected lives in the city, and their larger meaning in terms of the fabric of the society in which they live.
Much to Ashk's lifelong consternation, his Girti Divaren series was less and less well received as new volumes were published over the years. By the end of his life, though the initial volume, Divaren, was still well regarded by some, the overall series was mostly considered nothing more than a waste of time. If we were to read only the criticism of Ashk's work in reviews and articles, or only to look for its place in literary histories of Hindi, the impression received would be that the Girti Divaren series is an overtly long and repetitive work of an egocentric and self-promoting author. The only notable work in which this is not the case is Peter Gaeffke's Hindi Literature in the Twentieth Century, a literary history from outside the Hindi milieu. Contrary to the depictions of Ashk's Girti Divaren series in criticism and histories from within the Hindi world, Gaeffke's analysis places Ashk's novel at the centre of the twentieth century Hindi canon, and uses the series as a framework to analyze all the other works produced during the same period. Such an enormous contrast presents a confusing situation: Why would a European scholar consider Ashk's Girti Divaren series as the most important novel written in Hindi in the twentieth century, while Ashk's own milieu would first criticize him in scathing reviews and later all but omit him from literary histories? I was already aware of some of these issues when I began to read the Girti Divaren series, and as my research progressed, I became more aware of Ashk's poor standing in older as well as freshly minted canons of Hindi literature. At the same time, my own experience of the Girti Divaren series was more similar to Gaeffke's, in that I found it a profoundly interesting and complex work, one by which I was surprised and impressed at every turn. The sheer length of the series and the quantity of detail create a rich universe that envelops the readers and carries them through the streets of Jalandhar and Lahore and along the hill paths of Shimla, by Chetan's side. The readers' intimate acquaintance with the minutest details of Chetan's life pulls them strenuously into his moods of joy and pathos, humour and sorrow. Ashk's language shows a wonderfully authoritative mix of vocabularies from high Hindi (Modern Standard Hindi; MSH) and Urdu to everyday words of Khadi Boli and Punjabi. The text is beautifully interlaced with original and quoted poetry and songs from both the Urdu and Punjabi poetic traditions.
Why then does such a noticeable ambivalence exist towards Ashk in his own literary milieu? The complex answer to this question forms the heart of this work. But contingent on my study of why Ashk has not been well received is my own belief in the importance and greatness of his work. Thus, this study comprises both a series of analyses of what made Ashk and his work unacceptable in the Hindi world, and critical readings of Ashk's work which bring out what I see as the fascinating and important nature of his writing.
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