Culture, Space and Art in Nirmal Verma’s Writings

in Article
Published on: 27 June 2018

Akhil P. Veetil

Akhil P. Veetil has a Masters in English from the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal. He wrote his MA thesis on Nirmal Verma's fiction.


How is it that the feeling of ‘estrangement’ is experienced by societies and individuals who enjoy a relatively stable existence and who have never suffered the misfortune of being displaced from their familiar surroundings? How can one explain the spiritual homelessness of a man who has never left his home?

--Nirmal Verma, “The Self as a Stranger” (2000)


During the festive Les Belles Etrangeres in 2002, the prominent Hindi scholar Alok Rai posed a stark difference between Premchand and Nirmal Verma. While Premchand was ‘naturally rooted in the traditions of India’ and yet wrote in a ‘progressive’ manner adopted from European social realism, Nirmal Verma always felt uprooted and attempted to invent roots his entire life (Montaut 2012:9). Perhaps this is inevitable. Verma’s life questions being rooted in India. While there were other writers who travelled across India during their formative years as young adults, there were very few who actually lived in Europe for a substantial amount of time (another being Bhisham Sahni in the Soviet Union).


Verma studied in Shimla and Delhi. His ‘home’ cannot be classified as rural India and hence could never be associated with rootedness in the way that the anchalik writers could be, who wrote about different regions within India; a prime example being Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’. He completed his graduate studies in History at Delhi University and received scholarship at the Oriental Institute in Prague to translate contemporary Czech writings to Hindi. He remained in Europe until 1970. When Alok Rai refers to Verma’s rootlessness it is also because a decade in Europe changes a person to the extent that returning ‘home’ might still carry a sense of being alienated. It is in this context that we must keep Verma’s deeply meditative account of alienation, migration and the sense of loneliness in mind.


Nirmal Verma and Europe


Before proceeding further, I must provide more clarification. This section, while dealing with the theme of alienation, does not engage with the question of the refugee. Exile here refers to voluntary migration for economic reasons. However, as I will explain later in the article, for the purpose of a historical context, the post-Partition violence and the resulting refugee crisis must be addressed.


Furthermore, the larger attempt in this article will be to prevent exile and displacement from being reduced to a spatial argument. Although the feeling of displacement is associated with a particular location, there are other aspects of it to explore—cognitive, experiential and within the field of literature, the form as well. These different angles to the same question will provide new insights for which vernacular literatures need to be explored—the question of exile is still articulated through only a few languages within Postcolonial literature such as English, French and Spanish. Exile and alienation do not constitute a homogenous category and my attempt in this article will be to represent the new perspectives that emerges from Verma’s fiction.


Ve Din (1964) revolves around a brief encounter between the unnamed protagonist (first-person narrative) and Raina, an Austrian tourist visiting Prague a few days before Christmas. The protagonist is an Indian student who does not leave Prague for the holidays, choosing instead to be Raina’s translator as a part-time profession. Verma explores the passionate relationship between the two, which although brief, carries rich insight into the theme of loss and exile. The work is significant because it is Verma's only novel and the first novel in Hindi that is completely set in Europe. There are short stories set in European cities, however, short stories do not allow for a development of plot and characters to extent that the novel permits.


The protagonist is only described as an Indian student in Prague. Repeatedly seen in all of Verma’s works, there is a conscious disinvestment in the past of the characters (recurring in his short stories as well). India is never described—as if the protagonist has never been there. The protagonist is as much an Indian as his friend T.T. is Burmese and Raina is Austrian. The first person voice allows the reader to have access to his thoughts, but those thoughts never lead to a detailed or vivid image of India. It is as if the entire project in this novel is to provide glimpses of his Indian identity and to not create a lens where every experience, thought and action is viewed through the category of an Indian. The only account of a family and a past in India is accessible through a letter he receives from his sister.


मैंने जेब से चिट्ठियाँ निकाली। स्थानीय पत्र यूनिवर्सिटी लाइब्रेरी का कार्ड था। उस पर उन किताबों के नाम लिखे थे जो पिछ्ले पाँच महीनों से मेरे पास पड़ी थीं। जुर्माने की रक़म भी दर्ज की गई थी। उसमें मेरी विशेष दिलचस्पी नहीं थी। मैंने उसे केतली के नीचे गैस में डाल दिया। फिर दूसरा पत्र...लिफ़ाफ़ा पर चौड़ा सुराख पड़ा था जहाँ सेंट पीटर ने कैंची से टिकट काटा था। स सुराख के नीचे से पन्ने पर मेरी बहन द्वारा लिखे गए कुछ शब्द बाहर झाँक रहे थे। मैंने उन्हें पढ़ा और वे मुझे कुछ अजीब से लगे-- (Verma 2015:25)


I took out the letters. The local letter was just a card from the library reminding me of the overdue books and the fine I had incurred. I turned to the other letter. It had a big slit where St Peter [the hostel’s gatekeeper] had clipped the stamps. A few of my sister’s words were peeping out. I read them and was amused. (Verma 2013:21)


Rather than creating a detailed account of his home and family, Verma uses vivid poetic language and shifts the locus of description from a realistic depiction of home spatially and temporally, to the raw emotions that alienation evokes.


To understand Verma’s commitment to articulating certain cosmopolitan concerns vis-à-vis India and Europe, it is important to refer to European history. While the novel does not refer to any particular year, Ve Din can be assumed to be set within the first few decades after the Second World War since Raina refers to her ex-husband as a Holocaust survivor. Kamleshwar, in the context of the Partition, refers to the people who survived Partition violence and negotiated the changes caused by it. He refers to this ‘psychological refugee’ as one, who has an experience that emerges from loss of faith and values that had culminated over centuries (Kamleshwar 2015:65). While the nature and context of the Holocaust and Partition violence are different, Verma appears to be showing similarities in the shared experience despite the protagonist not having actually lived through the experience of the war. Both characters appear to be at unease while attempting to understand the other. However, there also seems to be a recognition that they both share similar experiences of the loss of values that defined the period after the mass-scale violence.


A similar articulation can be seen in his travelogue essays ‘Brecht aur ek Udas Nagar’ (Brecht and a Sad Town) ‘Liditse: Ek Sansmaran’(Liditse: A Reminiscence). In the former, Verma expresses his difficulty in making sense of the destruction in Berlin caused during the Second World War. Similarly, in the latter, Verma describes a trip to Liditse, a Czech village which was completely burned down and all its inhabitants either executed or sent to concentration camps under the Nazi regime on the suspicion of hiding the assassins of a German officer. Standing in front of large stretches of green fields covering what was once a vibrant village, Verma reflects on his position as an outsider attempting to understand the trauma particular to a region. However, he finds solace in the hope that the universal aspect of human existence comes when every human being, irrespective of their cultural differences, can be a witness to the atrocities of their times. Whether it be the Holocaust, Stalinism or Partition violence, Verma’s concerns are with the failure to communicate the difficulty in understanding the world after such large-scale violence.


The role of tradition and politics in art


Verma articulates a similar position vis-à-vis his engagement with tradition and modernity. For example, in Jalti Jhadi (The Burning Bush), as Alok Bhalla puts it, Verma ‘recognises that his own sensibility is so intricately textured by the practices of modernity that he will never again be able to participate empathetically [in the Kumbh Mela], and without the ache of critical judgements’ leading him to feel like a ‘deserter from his urban home and an exile from the sacred’ (Verma 2000:x). However, not all hope is lost as Verma believes in the existence of a weak connecting thread that allows for a faint sense of belonging to a common tradition, allowing him to negotiate the world around him.


He bases his critical essays on art and aesthetics taking into account the role tradition plays in understanding art—reflecting a hint of similarity with T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. In his essay ‘The Concept of Truth in Art’, Verma argues that the fundamental issue with modernity in art is the lack of connection between the artist and the readers or audience. For him, this is primarily due to the conversion of ‘communities’ into ‘mass societies’—a product of modernity itself (Verma 2000:108). Art, previously considered as a means of connecting with the unfathomable, occupied the realm of homelessness, which for Verma is the reason why modern 20th century art is an expression of the alienation of artists (ibid, 108). Nevertheless, art has intrinsic value which for Verma does not rely on a progressive, utilitarian or 'realistic’ representation of the world. He argues for art to be seen as a resistance to any totalising tendencies and therefore for finding value in uncertainty. Art refuses to be reduced to a single truth; revealing fresh perspectives with every new reading (ibid, 110).


Perhaps the best example of this position is his novel Raat ka Reporter (1989). While he has several short stories and another novel, Ek Chithra Sukh, set in Delhi, Raat ka Reporter can be considered his most explicitly political novel. The novel is set during the Emergency (1975-77) and addresses the theme of totalitarianism. While the sudden suspension of democratic rights made the Emergency a rich subject for literary works (some other major works on the Emergency are Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) and R.K. Narayan’s The Painter of Signs (1976)), Raat ka Reporter is peculiar in bringing together an account of oppression and violence that marked those 21 months with the stylistics and thematic concerns of Verma . The reader is not given any accounts of detailed physical torture, mass relocation, sterilisation or police shootings in this novel, yet the tone and mood captures the paranoia that pervaded the city. Even his approach to the emotional and psychological states under a totalitarian rule does not easily get reduced to just the fear of the State but to a more psychological analysis of fear itself.


Raat ka Reporter is about Rishi, a journalist having recently returned from Bastar, who is in the process of editing his writings for a news piece. He is warned by a stranger about government surveillance and the possibility of his arrest at any time leading to a life of ceaseless anxiety. With this sudden realisation of impending arrest and torture begins a deeply meditative and fear-stricken chapter of his life.


Perpetual fear and the resultant self-reflexivity brings Rishi to a crucial juncture, where he is forced to interrogate the very reason for continuing to write. Journalism often faces a crisis of credibility because of contesting theories of truth. In other words, what should a reporter write and how do they arrive at that decision? While the question of censorship is not new to journalism, the Emergency heightened the question to the extent that journalism was at the risk of losing all credibility. Amidst this crisis, Verma asks more fundamental questions such as the purpose of ‘recording’ news. These questions raised the distinction between reportage and autobiography:


"यह तुमहारा रिपोर्ताज है या आत्मकथा?’ उन्होंने जो बात अपनी सिनिकल हँसी में कही थी, वह शायद हर अखबारी रिपोर्टर का स्वप्न रहती होगी...एक जर्नलिस्ट की प्राइवेट आकांशा कि वह अपने व्यक्तिगत जीवन में होनेवाली घटनाओं का सम्बन्ध अखबार में छपी घटनाओं के बीच ढूँढ सके(Verma 2015:27)

तुमने देखा नहीं, जिन देशों में सेंसरशिप है, वहाँ के लेखकों ने सबसे बढ़िया आत्मकथाएँ लिखी हैं...क्योंकि आत्म’ पर कोई पाबन्दी नहीं लगा सकता। (Ibid, 47)


Verma uses moments of crisis in art to make a larger claim on the responsibility of art in the modern world. An artwork can shed light on the moments where the very act of self-awareness becomes a critique of the dominant notions of right and wrong (and what is considered as the norm) in particular points of time in history (Verma 2000:114). This becomes evident in a moment when Rishi moves into a monologue, which begins with a desperate attempt to tell his boss about the risk to his life. At the same time, he knows how modern-day surveillance of phones could change him from a ‘suspect’ to an enemy of the state. In this state of paranoia, Rishi does not know who to trust and therefore struggles to find peace.


But here Verma makes another interesting addition. Rather than merely describing surveillance, he questions the relationship between crisis and revelation. Verma proposes (but never defends the proposition) that questions of truth and happiness might only emerge during moments of crisis. This shifts yet again with the focus now on Rishi’s mother. Verma’s larger agenda in this novel can be seen when later in the novel, he seamlessly moves from engaging with the State to questions of truth and finally bringing in the perspective of a son and the concern for his mother.


Gandhi, modernity and tradition


In this last section, I intend to touch upon Gandhi’s influence on Verma, especially his critique of modernity and re-interpretation of tradition. Modernity is defined with a distinct set of characteristics which are as follows: ‘rise of capitalist industrial economy, growth of modern state institutions and the resultant transformation of social power, the emergence of democracy, the decline of the community and the rise of strong individualistic social conduct, the decline of religion and secularisation of ethics (Kaviraj 2010:15).’ Akeel Bilgrami states the fundamental question that Gandhi asks vis-à-vis modernity: When and how did we change the concept of (1) nature to natural resources, (2) human beings to citizens, and (3) people to populations (Bilgrami 2016:218). While Bilgrami goes on to show the risks Gandhi predicted from the early modern period in Europe, one can find an almost identical concern in Verma’s writings, with the only difference being that Gandhi feared for the future of India and Verma writes from the position of being engulfed in Gandhi’s fear:


As I look at my world in the eighties, I am struck by the remarkable resemblance it bears to the world during the last decades of the 19th century. Dull and depressing weather, with faint echoes of thunder; a widespread feeling of prosperity and optimism, accompanied by unidentifiable sense of horror, a spectre of a madman wandering with a burning lantern in broad daylight. (Verma, 1987, p. 163)


In fact, Verma ends this essay by posing the question of whether we will continue to ‘fail’ Gandhi in the following decades by identifying with the fragmented reality of life as opposed to the wholeness to life that tradition offers (Ibid, 173). Verma’s detached commitment to the topic of modernity brings a deeper perspective into the issue. Unlike the revivalists, Verma does not argue for a return to the past. He is aware of dangers of defining ‘Indianess’ in opposition to the West, which carries the risk of justifying even caste violence on the lines of cultural heritage. He values the insight that individualism brought into Indian social systems and believes in the ability for knowledge from one culture to shed light on the limitations of knowledge in other cultures.


In many ways, Verma’s writings have raised questions which are relevant in contemporary times. His experiences in Europe helped articulate a cosmopolitan sensibility through a regional language and therefore questioning the existing distinctions between a regionalism and cosmopolitanism. Similarly, he questions the limits of dialogue between cultures, vis-à-vis the theme of modernity, and between individuals, often reflecting on the role of silence in communication and alienation. Further exploration will provide a more nuanced understanding of a writer whose intellectual contributions are of immense value to modern literary scholarship.




Bilgrami, Akeel. 2016. Beyond the Secular West. New York: Columbia University Press.


Kamaleshwar. 2015. Nayi Kahani ki Bhumika. New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan.


Kaviraj, Sudipta. 2010. The Trajectories of the Indian State. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.


Verma, Nirmal. 1987. "Twilight of an Era." India International Centre Quarterly 14.3: 163-73.


------. 2000. “The Concept of Truth in Art”, India and Europe: selected essays. Edited by

Alok Bhalla. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.


------. 2000. “The Self as a Stranger”, India and Europe: selected essays. Edited by Alok Bhalla. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.


------. 2013. Days of longing. Translated by Krishna Baldev Vaid. Delhi: Penguin.


------. 2014. A Rag Called Happiness. Translated by Kuldeep Singh. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.


------. 2015. Ek Chithra Sukh. New Delhi: Bharatiya Jnanpith.


------. 2015. Raat Ka Reporter. New Delhi: Bharatiya Jnanpith.


------. 2015. Ve Din. New Delhi: Bharatiya Jnanpith