Krishna Baldev Vaid: Remembering his restless pen

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on February 15, 2020

In pursuit of his passion: Krishna Baldev Vaid was influenced by playwright Samuel Beckett and translated the latter’s plays ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Endgame’ into Hindi   -  Image courtesy: Penguin random house

Krishna Baldev Vaid, famous for ‘breaking rules and not winning awards’, was a towering figure in Hindi literature’s modernist movement

One of the strange things about writing in the post-Internet era is that Proustian riffs about memory don’t quite land with the same impact as they used to. How could they, when digital memory has so thoroughly overhauled its human counterpart?

An exception to this was Krishna Baldev Vaid (1927-2020), the New York-based Hindi and English writer who passed away last week. During his long and distinguished career, Vaid wrote 40-odd books, which included 10 novels and over a dozen short story collections in Hindi. Alongside his friend Nirmal Verma, and other writers such as Mannu Bhandari, Kamleshwar and Mohan Rakesh, he was part of Hindi literature’s modernist ‘Nayi Kahani’ movement.

One of his abiding strengths (and great subjects) as a writer was separating the hope and the hopelessness of memory. Consider this passage from The Soul of Darkness, a story from The Sculptor in Exile (2014), where the unnamed protagonist is in “the dungeon cluttered with all sorts of junk” (a metaphor for his memories) and flailing about arbitrarily, looking for something.

“(...) I started prodding the darkness with my cane in a manner that would suggest I was provoking a corpse or a demon or a serpent into life. Soon I was dancing in furious ecstasy in that narrow overcrowded space even as I beat that darkness and that junk I’d saved all my life and forgotten. I made fancy fencing passes with my cane, parodying an imagined master swordsman. For a while nothing happened. Then suddenly an invisible hand snatched my cane and started giving me a thrashing the like of which I never got even in my naughty childhood. (...) I’m lying now in a nursing home, recovering slowly from those blows, experiencing them again and again in my imagination with perverse pleasure.”

In that last line, Vaid delivers a stunning conclusion to the narrator’s abortive memory-flirtations. Why do we keep bringing up age-old aches inside of our heads? As Vaid knew, the answer is, “Because it hurts, and because we convince ourselves that this suffering is somehow more meaningful than a lot of pleasures.”

In the 1974 experimental Hindi novel Bimal Urf Jayen To Jayen Kahan (translated into English later as Bimal in the Bog), several monologues almost scold the reader for taking his claptrap at face value. This wasn’t an unreliable narrator so much as a narrator who could reliably defer his redemption in the reader’s eyes. In any case, Vaid had little patience with the formulaic application of such devices, on the part of both writers and critics. His very first publication was an English-language book, Technique in the Tales of Henry James (1964, Harvard University Press) — essentially his PhD dissertation.

The true objects of his ire were the then-dominant New Critics, who relied on strictly textual micro-analyses, short-selling or ignoring both historical context and individual experience. They were led by the likes of TS Eliot, whose essay Tradition and the Individual Tradition made the sweeping claim that all truly mature poems were impersonal. Vaid’s own stories (or, for that matter, those by Verma or Bhandari), on the other hand, emphasised the primacy of individual experiences. To that end, Vaid was also a wickedly funny diarist — in one of his published memoir-diaries Abr Kya Cheez Hai? Hawaa Kya Hai, there are innumerable casually acidic observations such as: “Safaltaa ka ashleeltam namoona: Amitabh Bachchan (The most obscene example of success — Amitabh Bachchan)”.

According to Vaid himself (in a 2017 interview on the official Penguin blog), he was “not a professional and prolific translator into English or Hindi”. But he did translate Hindi novels by his friends Verma and Shrikant Verma into English; plus the Samuel Beckett plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame into Hindi. Beckett was Vaid’s favourite writer in his youth, embodying the kind of modernity and creative risk-taking he wanted to bring to his own work.

The last decade of his life was an eventful one. In 2010, the Delhi government (under then chief minister Sheila Dikshit) removed his name from the state-sponsored Shalaka Samman awardees’ list — a full year after initially announcing the honour. A Congress politician had objected to certain ‘obscene’ passages from Bimal Urf Jayen to Jayen Kahan, leading to the removal. This was reported widely and it triggered an award-wapsi by many of Vaid’s fellow awardees, including Gagan Gill and Kedarnath Singh.

Then in 2014, a few of Vaid’s translated works (two of them self-translated) were published — the collection The Sculptor in Exile, the novellas None Other (Dusra Na Koi) and Here I Am If I Am , as well as a pair of bildungsromans, Steps in Darkness and Broken Mirror. Even his relatively minor works were, at the very least, interesting failures. As his hero Beckett once said, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In the same vein, Vaid’s author bio in the 2008 issue of the annual literary journal Pratilipi referred to himself as “Infamous for breaking every rule in Hindi and famous for not winning prizes”. Of course, that last bit isn’t true, for there’s plenty else he’s famous for and, besides, narrators have been known to be occasionally thrifty with the truth.

Published on February 14, 2020

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