A great Indian writer and his forgotten connection to Czechoslovakia

Ashutosh Bhardwaj

The Indian writer, investigative journalist and translator Ashutosh Bhardwaj is known internationally for his work on the tribal people in Central India caught between Maoist insurgents and the police. But it was something very different that recently brought him to Prague. He is writing a book about the influential Hindi writer, Nirmal Varma, who has been all but forgotten here, even though he spent the best part of a decade in post-war Czechoslovakia. David Vaughan met Ashutosh Bhardwaj to talk about this fascinating literary link. But their conversation began with Franz Kafka, who was born 140 years ago in the same house just off the Old Town Square where Bhardwaj was staying on the invitation of Prague’s City Library.

Franz Kafka was the first writer whom I translated into Hindi. I began my life as a translator with his short story “A Hunger Artist” or “A Fasting Artist” into Hindi. It still remains one of my favourite pieces of short fiction.

Kafka is a writer who is very open to interpretation. Did that make translating the Hunger Artist, which can be interpreted at many levels, more difficult? Did you have to choose an interpretation, or did you try to keep the irreducible quality of his prose?

He is open to multiple interpretations – "A Fasting Artist" for instance can be interpreted as the struggle of an artist or that of an ordinary worker, or as a philosophical or metaphysical quest. But I took it as the quest of an artist/thinker-philosopher. So I looked at the story from that perspective. Kafka is a writer of multiple and conflicting and bewildering identities. A Jew, a German Jew living in Prague in a different country, and a person carrying multiple guilts and traumas and horrors, which makes his work all the more complex.

You say he was living in a different country, but he was in his own country, perceived as an outsider…

If you’re being perceived as an outsider, then your claim over your land becomes shaky, even to yourself, even if you hold a passport of the country. If you look at today’s times,  people who are legitimate passport holders of a particular country find their claim being constantly denied, challenged. Kafka had anticipated the situation over a century ago.

Could you tell us a bit about the world that you grew up in – your family and the place where you grew up?

I grew up in small towns in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is a Hindi-speaking area. I grew up in a traditional middle-class family, and I had education both in Hindi and English – two languages – but the language which we spoke at home and in the neighbourhood, that was Hindi. The language that we spoke in the schools and colleges, that was English. As I grew up, English increasingly became the language of my professional world. As it happened, in my job as a journalist, I began working in an English newspaper – the great newspaper The Indian Express – and continued to work in English. But, but, but! Somehow the idea of two languages was wired within me. Even though I joined an English newspaper, I continued to write in Hindi, and I continued to find both these languages necessary – imperative for my expression.

Do you find that you can move easily between the two languages and that they mean the same to you as you write, or is it a slightly schizophrenic process, or a matter of saying different things in different languages?

Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

I decided to write in both languages because I had realised much earlier the deep conversation that takes place between these two languages within your creative self. No monolingual person, a person who creates and writes in a single language, can ever be able to recognise it – the joy, the beauty of the conversation when two or more languages are in a constant conversation, confrontation, contestation over certain emotions. There are certain emotions that are aptly expressed in English or in Hindi. And then these two languages are in a tug of war. It constantly happens with me.

It strikes me that we’re living in a time when people often make the mistake of rather simplistically equating a language with a nation. It is not like that at all. Language doesn’t belong to anyone.

I couldn’t agree with you more. Perhaps it is the sad legacy of a time when Europe was being defined in terms of national states – one nation one language. Perhaps that has carried forward. Coming back to Kafka. He was a Jew – a German-speaking Jew, living in Prague. Which was his language? He had already transcended the Czech linguistic barrier. He was working in a different language. But we do not see such bilingual, such multilingual writers anymore… unfortunately. It's a tragedy of our world.

You’re here in Prague for a very specific reason – you’re doing research for a biography of an Indian writer, who spent nearly ten years in Czechoslovakia.

We are now talking about Nirmal Varma He had an elite English background, but he chose Hindi as the language of his creative writing. In 1959, he came to Czechoslovakia to learn Czech and translate Czech literature into Hindi. You will be surprised to know – more surprised because hardly anybody here in the Czech Republic knows about him today – that he translated writers like Kundera and Čapek into Hindi long before they were available in English. He introduced Czech writers to the Hindi world, before they had moved to England or France or westwards in Europe. He also wrote several important works, located in Czechoslovakia, including his first novel, which was based in Prague.

Tell us more about the novel.

It’s his first novel. Its title in Hindi is “Ve Din", translated into English as “Days of Longing”. It’s now available in Czech translation as well. On the surface the novel is about a short-lived romance between an Indian student who is studying in Prague and a woman from Vienna, who is a decade or maybe fifteen years older than him.  The brief romance lasts for three or four days. But if you scratch below the surface it’s about the post-war trauma which Europe, particularly this part of Europe, central Europe, was reeling under at that time. You come across Raina, the woman protagonist, who had been in a labour camp. There are several other protagonists who have their own horror stories and they are unable to come out of it. I only now learned in the last fortnight since I am here in Prague that Nirmal’s writings about Prague are incredibly authentic. Czech people tell me how he gets the emotions right. How could he write that? "It’s so Czech, it’s so authentic," they tell me.

He was writing for a readership back home in India. He decided to steep his novel in the everyday world of central Europe. Did he think this was interesting and relevant to an Indian readership?

Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

I would like to answer this question in a different way. A great writer is not concerned or worried about his readership. He merely wants to record his experiences. Here is a young writer, who arrives in Prague, in Czechoslovakia when he is just thirty, and he is exposed to a different world altogether. He comes from a country that has only recently become independent, and he comes to the socialist bloc, which then had a vibrant and strong relationship with India. He’s now exposed to the idealism of communism, at the same time the different tyrannies of the socialist bloc, and the continuing memories of the war. He had to record it, not necessarily for his readers back home but for himself as a writer. The readers were stunned by such an authentic documentation. They had no exposure to such life. Great literature tells us about certain experiences, about human existence which we were unaware of. Nirmal brought us certain stories which seemingly belonged to a distant world, but nevertheless were so genuine, and which could have been ours as well.

After the Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary, he quickly became disillusioned and lost any faith he might have had in real communism at the time.

Yes. The Soviet invasion of Hungary took place in 1956. At that time, he was a card-holding member of the Communist Party back in India. But in protest against the intervention he resigned, and then, three years later, he comes to Czechoslovakia, which is behind the Iron Curtain, part of the same socialist bloc. And over the years he is exposed to that bleak reality as you said, and then he witnesses the 1968 Soviet intervention here. After that there was no looking back for him.

And he left the country.

Incidentally, he left Prague for London, if I recall correctly, just a few days before the tanks rolled in, without knowing about the impending action. It was just a routine visit. But after that it became difficult for him to return – people at the Oriental Institute in Prague tell me that he was informally declared persona non grata by the new regime, and his records were systematically removed.

He wrote more that was set in Czechoslovakia, didn’t he?

Besides this novel, some of his short stories are located in Czechoslovakia and he has written a powerful memoir as well about your country. I know of only one person, Dagmar Markova, who has translated four or five of his works into Czech.

You’re here for two months so you have some time not just to absorb the atmosphere of the places he’s writing about, but also to do some research. How is that going?

It is thoroughly engrossing, fulfilling. It’s a great city. People are friendly and warm. I have already been able to get hold of some of the archival papers relating to Nirmal Varma, about his years here, I hope that I will be able to get hold of some secret files of the KGB or the secret police here, what were their observations about him.

You’re also absorbing the atmosphere of a city that has changed vastly in the half century since he was here. How, in your mind, do you travel in time?

I try to visit those places that frequently occur in his works and then I try to correlate. For instance, just a couple of days before, someone very kindly took me to an address where Nirmal stayed from 1964 to 1966. We just tried to imagine: this is the building – we know it is the address – he might have stayed here, this is how it has changed. These are all creative guesses that you would like to have. You correlate, you try to piece together the puzzle, the city of Prague that appears in his work. And you try to give some sense, some coherence to your present.

And besides living in Czechoslovakia for a decade and writing about this country, he was also highly influential in the history of writing in Hindi.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

Nirmal is among the most influential writers in Hindi literature. He also had a deep interest in Indian literature of other languages. He is a pan-Indian phenomenon. People across languages have read him. He has been translated into various other languages. He also had an early exposure to the West. He begins with communism, then he comes to the west – he lives in a country that is part of the socialist bloc, then he faces the reality and goes back to India and then after several years his anti-communist stand starts getting even further hardened and then he goes back in search of his Indian tradition, his Indian roots, before he takes to the other end of the spectrum. So it’s a long and fascinating and complicated and challenging journey that he has taken.