Nagarjun 1911-1998

The legendary Hindi writer Nagarjun (born Vaidyanath Mishra, 1911) who died in November, 1998 was indeed a 'people's poet'. His long eventful life during which he travelled extensively, lived and studied at different Buddhist monasteries in Sri lanka and Tibet, participated actively in the struggles of the poor and landless peasantry and also led anti-system movements of the radical sections of the north Indian petty bourgeoisie was perpetually inspired and guided by the revolutionary philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.

Born in a lower middle class Brahmin family of Tarauni village in Darbhanga district of Bihar, Nagarjun lost his mother when he was barely three years old. His father lived as a vagabond and hedonist. So as a child Nagarjun had to depend upon compassionate relatives and some generous landlords for financial assistance for his education. He showed excellence in the learning of the ancient Indian languages like Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit first at the rural centres and later in the cities of Varanasi and Calcutta where, alongside his higher studies he also worked for his livelihood. Though, Nagarjun's academic expenses could be met by the scholarships which he won as a bright student, he always bore the fact on his mind that he had also to support his father who could barely earn any money by himself.

After the years of learning and semi-employment in Calcutta, Nagarjun moved to Saharanpur (U.P.) where he got a full time teaching job. Apparently Nagarjun had moved to a better paying job but in fact his unsatiable urge to delve deep and yet deeper into the traditional wisdom of India — particularly the Sanskrit treatises and philosophical discourses, Buddhist scriptures and handwritten manuscripts of sorts — put him on the path of an unstable nomadic existence.

This pursuit took him to Sri Lanka where in the Buddhist monastery of Kelania he had to adopt Buddhism in order to have free access to the well guarded manuscripts which were inaccessible to the outside world. (This had a precedent. Nagarjun's mentor Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan had to pass through the same experience).

It was in 1935 that Nagarjun became a Buddhist monk. As an imperative he had to change his name. That is how, Vaidyanath Mishra who had also taken the pen name YATRI and published many poems under this name, became Nagarjun. There had been three other Nagarjun's in the past — all equally illustrious in their respective fields. Vaidyanath Mishra Yatri was much influenced by one of them who was a Buddhist philosopher. Hence his choice of this name for himself.

Apart from Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan, Nagarjun had established contact with many other intellectual giants by then, like the renowned historian Kashi Prasad Jaisawal, the great fiction writer Munshi Premchand, the classicist poet, playwright and fiction writer Jaishankar Prasad etc. Nagarjun was well accepted and admired among them as a creative writer, scholar and an avid pursuer of knowledge.

In the monastery of Kelania Nagarjun got acquainted with the ideology of scientific socialism through a couple of revolutionaries from Calcutta who had taken shelter in the monastery in order to avoid arrest by the colonial British police.

Nagarjun stayed at the monastery as a monk for three years and during this period he read the writings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. This was, perhaps, the most decisive period of his life when his sense of commitment to the suffering and exploited humanity took a definite shape under the revolutionary teachings of Marxism-Leninism. In 1938, when Nagarjun left Sri Lanka and returned to India, it was this commitment that brought him to the eminent peasant leader Swami Sahajanand of Kisan Sabha fame. Nagarjun joined the 'Summer School of Politics' organised by the Swami where many stalwarts from among communists, socialists and congressmen came to lecture. After a month long interaction and discourses with them Nagarjun was sent to join the peasants of Bettiah (Bihar) in their struggle against the feudal landlords. Here was the beginning of the tempering of his soul's steel.

Since then Nagarjun got transformed into someone whose first priority remained his physical and intellectual oneness with the exploited and oppressed and their fight against the perpetrators of injustice. Nagarjun's mentor Rahul had already emerged as a brave peasant leader. In Rahul India witnessed, perhaps the first time, a unique blend of scholarship and militant social action. Rahul, too, moved with the spontaneous social uprisings, organised movements of the Kisan Sabha, zealously he participated in the politics of the Indian National Congress and finally joined the Communist Party of India. Thus, one can see that Nagarjun was faithfully emulating Rahul in every possible manner. Nagarjun, despite his own meandering life, also acted as a companion and friend to Rahul in some of his most difficult journeys and shared the organisational burden which Rahul would take upon himself as a political activist. At the time when Rahul went to Village Amwari in District Siwan, Bihar and was beaten by the goons of a local landlord, after his formal arrest by the police, Nagarjun was present as a trusted comrade who shared each moment of his mentor's struggles. This relationship between the two of them continued until Rahul breathed his last.

After a long practical training in organising and radicalising the working class in Bihar Nagarjun began to play different roles intermittently. He was a communist writer and agitator and at the same time he was the sole provider for his wife and young children. Though a strong-willed woman Nagarjun's wife Aparajita Devi often found herself alone to bear the familial burden with their five children. Nagarjun took his wife to some places and planned a life of togetherness in the early part of their married life but in the later years, Aparajita Devi preferred to stay at Tarauni — Nagarjun's ancestral village, as she would find the setting familiar and ambience congenial. Tarauni certainly gave her a sense of security which was not easy to have elsewhere with an unpredictable wanderer like Nagarjun. Aparajita, throughout her life, lived as a financially troubled matriarch. She had to fit in this role as it was forced upon her by the strangeness of her husband's character and life style.

Though after the Communist Party of India's virtual surrender of Telangana's valiant armed struggle to the Nehru government Nagarjun lost his interest in practical politics and to a great extent his previous zeal for participation in prolonged movement, marches and demonstrations waned, yet his dedication to the Marxist-Leninist world view persisted in his creative writing and in his approach to the contemporary issues of culture and society.

It was indeed the vacillation and wavering in the policies and programmes of the CPI vis à vis Jawaharlal Nehru's bourgeois democratic rule made Nagarjun maintain a distance with the leadership but his regular lively contact with the common activists and sympathisers remained intact. He would engage in lengthy discussions and occasional quarrels with them, yet he would remain their very own Baba (Grandpa, or an elderly saintly figure). Actually Nagarjun's casual attire (badly crumpled and mostly not exactly clean), his overgrown beard and moustache and faqir-like mannerism had made him an universal Baba. Even the poets of his own age (like Shamsher Bahadur Singh and Trilochan Shastri) called him 'Baba' and wrote poems on his Babahood.

Like many other disenchanted and frustrated communists, Nagarjun's spirit was rekindled in the wake of the armed revolt by the peasants of Naxalbari (West Bengal). Nagarjun welcomed this outburst of revolutionary rage and the ensuing formation of the CPI (ML). The revolutionary war cry initiated by the peasants of Naxalbari echoed far and wide. Apart from the worst oppressed peasants, tribals and working sections, in different parts of India, it also inspired and electrified the idealist petty - bourgeois intelligentsia — mainly students and writers. Nagarjun felt that it was a rebirth of the lost dream of the Indian revolution. Nagarjun, with his mighty pen, rose in complete unison with the 'Naxalites'. Some of his most memorable poems are based on the places and personalities associated with the CPI (ML).

Nevertheless more than once in his interviews Nagarjun called himself 'an independent communist'. Being a voracious multilingual reader and abundantly rich in experience Nagarjun pointed out the lapses and shortcomings on the part of the Indian revolutionaries in different time periods.

Because of his formal dissociation from the communist parties Nagarjun took some very impulsive decisions at times reflecting them in his poetry and later regretted them too. A couple of such significant moves on his part were witnessed in his vitriolic attack on the Chinese communist leaders at the time of India's border war with China in 1962 and later on, in his passionate involvement in the massive anti-government stir in Bihar under the leadership of Jai Prakash Narayan in 1974. During the stir he was arrested and languished in prison for eleven months. After his release from the prison Nagarjun opined, 'I left the company of harlots and pimps'.

Such contradictions in Nagarjun emanated from his populist tendencies which never got resolved in his creative or personal life. His vehement poetic attacks on the autocratic moorings of Indira Gandhi endeared him to the masses but he also received an award from Mrs. Gandhi's hands which evoked sharp criticism among his admirers and contemporary leftist writers.

Despite such anomalies he was the only Indian writer who chronicled his times in his creative writing which always had an enormous appeal. His novels like Balchanma, Ratinath Ki Chachi, Baba Batesarnath and Varun Ke Bete are milestones in Hindi fiction as they depict the rural reality in an inimitable manner. In more than a dozen anthologies of poetry, including the Maithili and Bengali collections Nagarjun showed an amazing range of experiences which remains unsurpassed. Nagarjun's incisive and courageous depiction of socio-political realities, his defiant spirit and apathy towards the hegemonic power structures make his influence on Hindi's literary tradition absolutely indestructible and forms a bedrock in the genre of realism.

Pankaj Singh

Two Poems






Patnaik Nagbhusan

Translated from the Hindi by Savita Singh and Pankaj Singh.

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