Many years ago, the anthropologist Triloki Nath Pandey told me a story featuring Jawaharlal Nehru and the poet Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’. The Prime Minister had just returned from a visit to the People’s Republic of China. He was addressing a public meeting in his home town, Allahabad, where Nirala then lived and where Triloki Pandey then studied. The poet sat in the front row, bare-bodied, his chest rubbed up with oil—for he, a passionate wrestler, had come straight from a session at the akhara. He cut a striking figure, the shining torso contrasting with the white beard and shock of white hair.
Nehru accepted a garland or two from his admirers, before launching into his speech. ‘I have come from China’, he began, ‘and heard there a story of a great king who had two sons. One was wise, the other stupid. When the boys reached adulthood, the king told the stupid one that he could have his throne, for he was fit only to be a ruler. But the wise one, he said, was destined for far greater things—he would be a poet’. With these words, Nehru took the garland off his head and flung it as an offering at Nirala’s feet.
This is a wonderful story, which sounds better (and rings truer) in the original Hindi. Recently, I came across some documentary proof that Nehru did, indeed, have both affection and admiration for Nirala. This is tucked away in an appendix to Five Decades, D. S. Rao’s history of the Sahitya Akademi. The Akademi was formally inaugurated on the 12th of March 1954, at a function held in the Central Hall of Parliament. The next day, the Prime Minister wrote a letter about Nirala to the Akademi’s newly appointed Secretary, Krishna Kripalani. Nirala, said Nehru, had ‘done good work in the past and even now sometimes writes well in his lucid moments.’ His books were still popular, and widely read and used as textbooks. But, ‘in his folly or extremity’, Nirala had ‘sold all those books for a song to various publishers getting just 25 or 30 or 50 rupees. The whole copyright was supposed to be sold’. Thus ‘publishers have made large sums of money and continue to make it’, while Nirala ‘gets nothing from it and practically starves’.
This, commented Nehru, was ‘a scandalous case of a publisher exploiting a writer shamelessly’. He urged the Akademy to work on an amendment of the copyright law so that Indian writers would be better protected in future. Then he continued: ‘Meanwhile, Nirala deserves some financial help. It is no good giving the help to him directly because he gives it away to others immediately. In fact, he gives away his clothes, his last shirt and everything’. At the moment, it was his fellow poet Mahadevi Varma ‘and some others in Allahabad of a Literary Association’ who ‘try to look after [Nirala] and give him some money too’. The Prime Minister suggested that the Akademi sanction a montly allowance of a hundred rupees to help Nirala, and that this money be given to Mahadevi Varma to use on his behalf.
On the 16th of March the Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi wrote back to the Prime Minister. He had spoken to his Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who ‘has agreed that a sum of Rs. 100/ a month should be sanctioned for [Nirala] and paid to Srimati Mahadevi Varma’. This was lightning speed so far as government decision-making went—three days from conception to execution.
That a Prime Minister would find time to write a letter suggesting a stipend for an indigent poet—and direct also how best this stipend could be adminstered—this is the kind of thing nearly inconceivable in the India we now live in. But it was, I think, of a piece of the India of Nehru and Azad. Nor was such a tendency then restricted to the ruling Congress party. For D. S. Rao’s book also quotes some very learned letters on the functioning of the Akademi in its early years, written by the Communist M. P. Hiren Mukherjee and the then out-of-work statesman C. Rajagopalachari.
Among Nirala’s contemporary admirers are Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Vikram Seth, English poets with a developed understanding of Hindi literature. We get some sense of how great a poet he was in David Rubin’s Selected Poems of Nirala, though, as always, some of the greatness is lost in translation. Rubin says that in terms of genre and theme, ‘the range of Nirala’s poetry is far greater than that of any other twentieth-century Hindi poet’. His own selection contains poems on nature, politics, poverty, myth, language and love. These lines, from a poet titled (in English) ‘Wild Jasmine’, may serve as a ironic if unintended commentary on the subject of this column:
‘Then I began to muse some more along that line:
If I had been some prince’s son
I wouldn’t suffer these disgraces.
Just think how many scholars would be my hangers-on,
heads bowed and hands stretched out for my largesse.
I’d give a little—and take much more.
And all the papers—unanimously!—would chant my praises.’