Nirmal Verma: Remembrance of Things Past

in Overview
Published on: 27 June 2018


इसलिए माँ ने यह नोटबुक मुझे दी थी. कहती थीं, देखते हुए हम जो भी भूल जाते हैं, लिखते हुए वह एक बार फिर याद आ जाता है; लेकिन 'याद करना' देखना नहीं है; […]यह एक तरह का सौदा है...देखने, मारने और याद करने के बीच. हम स्मृति में उसे पकड़ते हैं, जो मृत और मुर्दा हैं; जब वह जीवित थी, हम उसे ओझल कर देते हैं, हाथ से निकल जाने देते हैं, भूल जातेs हैं | (Nirmal Verma, Ek Chithrha Sukh, 79-80)


That is probably why Mother gave me a notebook. She said when we sit down to write we remember again what we had seen but forgotten all about before long. But this remembering is not seeing—it is setting apart. […]This is a kind of compromise one strikes between seeing, dying and remembering. We hold on to, in our memory, what is no more, is dead, a cold corpse. (Nirmal Verma, A Rag Called Happiness, 54).


If I had to state the theme(s) Nirmal Verma engages with, I might say alienation, a sense of homelessness, the struggle to create human relationships. But this will no doubt be limiting—as is my project to create a module on Nirmal Verma. His writings are difficult to distil into a definitive resource but reading his stories inevitably brings one into the world of innumerable silences that surround our everyday, pleading for attention as we choose to defer confronting our own vulnerabilities. His writings are an attempt to bring forth such experiences. A man looks at his old mother, frail and alone, and imagines the countless sufferings she must have endured throughout her life; a retired bureaucrat looks back at his life and does not see his earnings but others’ sufferings caused by his actions; a mother stands in the dark watching her son sleep, wanting to perhaps ask him to stay back in Delhi but remains silent.


It has been 58 years since his first publication, Parinde, a collection of short stories. He went on to win the Jnanpith and the Sahitya Akademi awards for his contribution to Indian literature, but there still exists a gap between the impact he had in Hindi literary and intellectual spheres, and the recognition of Nirmal Verma as an exceptional writer in ‘world literature’ and academia at large. While this module cannot do justice to his oeuvre, what I hope to provide is a glimpse into the thoughts and writings of one of the most prominent writers and thinkers of post-Independence Hindi literary traditions.


Early life and education


Nirmal Verma was born on the April 3, 1929, in Shimla to an officer in the British Indian Government. One of his elder siblings, Ram Kumar, is a prominent artist who was associated with the Progressive Artists’ group. While Verma believed that the author must become invisible through their writings, one can see the impact Shimla has left on him as a person. The empty towns during winter migration are vividly described in Lal Tin ki Chath (The Red Tin Roof) (1974). He completed his Masters of Arts in History from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and lived there for most of his life as a writer.


However, what stands out about Verma’s life is his decade-long stay in Prague from 1959, where he worked at the Czech Institute of Oriental Studies and translated several Czech writers such as Karel Capek and Milan Kundera into Hindi. A former member of the Communist Party of India, he resigned after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. His first publication was Parinde (Birds) in 1959 and his first novel Ve Din (Days of Longing) was published in 1964, which was also the first Hindi novel to have Europe as its setting. The acclaimed Parallel Cinema work Maya Darpan (1972) is based on Verma’s short story by the same name. Throughout his career, Verma received several prestigious awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award (1985), the Bharatiya Jnanpith Award (1999), and the Padma Bhushan (2002).


The mountains, Europe and Delhi have repeatedly been locations of his works, even though the settings are not necessarily the focus of his writings. However, it is also important to understand that the way these spaces are perceived and the manner in which these perceptions give rise to heightened emotions, provides a fresh insight into how to view public spaces through a narrative missing in political manifestos and newspaper articles. For example, Prague winter in Ve Din is depicted with beauty, but what stands out the most are the empty streets during Christmas when the natives celebrate their holidays elsewhere, leaving the lonely migrants to occupy this space, unable to make bonds and eventually finding refuge in alcohol. Similarly, Ek Chithra Sukh (A Rag Called Happiness) (1979) depicts the uniqueness of Delhi in the 1960s, but alter the lens and one can see a burgeoning city where people are physically closer to one another but isolated in their own worlds—a city where communicating becomes a challenge.


Critical reception


Despite the positive reception of his works, Nirmal Verma was critiqued on broadly four accounts: (1) His writings were about the middle-class and therefore a major shift from writings on the peasants, the working class and Dalit population of India; (2) his preference for a more psychological account of the inner subjectivities resulted in losing faith with social realism, which was championed by the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA); (3) later in his life, his interpretation of tradition was considered as a conservative position, which appeared against progressive values and; (4) his writing style was considered as a European sensibility that could not really capture the problems of India (Montaut 2012:9).


While Nirmal Verma was considered as a prominent writer, who was a formative figure during the Nayi Kahani movement, and was praised for the new sensibility he brought to the literary field, his writings were a radical shift from how the AIPWA perceived literature. This is important to mention because showing the significant transition from social realism based on a Marxist ethos to a substantial reworking of form and content post-Independence allows for a richer understanding of Verma’s ingenuity and a more nuanced perspective on the socio-political consciousness of (urban) India during its formative independent years.


The manifesto adopted by the first AIPWA meeting carried a passage which gives an account of how literature was perceived by the association. A small passage from the text is provided below:


We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today - the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjugation. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction and unreason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organise ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive. (Ali 1978:93-94)


Reality in the first AIPWA meeting, was opposed to spiritualism and Premchand articulated a similar position when he states in Sahitya Ka Uddeshya (The Purpose of Literature) that the writer is writing the biographies of the characters as accurately as possible as men depicted in ‘reality’ is different from one shaped by their ‘imagination’ (Anjaria 2011:188).


Another aspect to consider of the progressive writers is the need to discourage revivalism which will oppose the progressive aims of the AIPWA. Revivalism gets associated with three aspects as Rajendra Yadav explains: passivity, inaction and unreason. For Yadav, the novelist needs to offend and not conform and hence make the readers react to the social injustice in their surroundings. In other words, it is to force the readers to face the environment and make social inequalities explicit through literature (Yadav 1975:155-160).  It can well be argued that two of the three terms—passivity and inaction—in many ways describe Verma’s fiction. The same terms that Yadav uses as a sign of non-progressive tendencies, are terms that Verma considers an instrument for a deeply meditative exploration of one’s life.


Toral Gajarawala acknowledges the success of Premchand (and perhaps social realism as well) in the (1) de-universalisation of historical time, (2) shift of the novelist’s worldview from the elite to the peasant, prostitute and labourer, (3) shift in subject matter and (4) a challenge to pre-existing notions of beauty that heavily relied on formalism (Gajarawala 2013:5). Since reason is considered to be a distinct human function and modernity as a celebration of this faculty, social realism also creates a potential for the use of reason to emancipate and create a language of resistance against oppressive institutions (Ibid:12). Therefore, justice becomes a significant theme in social realism—and one which is not the focus of attention in Verma’s texts necessarily.


Because of the aforementioned reasons and the need to represent the external world as accurately as possible, social realism lends itself to political movements (Ibid: 18). This is of particular importance because even in the most explicitly political novel of Verma—Raat Ka Reporter—it becomes extremely difficult for any political movement to appropriate it for their cause. Nevertheless, one cannot claim that Raat ka Reporter is not engaging with the question of the authoritarian state during the Emergency (1975-77). On the contrary, it opens new avenues into how the theme of totalitarianism can be depicted differently.


However, with modernism, a shift in perception occurs, Gajarawala describes (referring to Neil Lazarus) how modernism sought to ‘say no to integration, resolution, consolation, comfort, protest and criticise’ (keeping in mind the problems with generalising modernism to different cultural contexts) (Ibid:79). Aamir Mufti brings more clarity to modernism in India when he describes it as a ‘kaleidoscopic perception of fragmented reality’ and how this modernity is a ‘fallen condition’ (Mufti 2007:17). However, he goes on to describe modernism as the possibility of recovering tradition. Therefore, to place the debate around Verma’s experimental writing and his frequently held position of uncertainty and partial truths, opens up a possibility of re-imagining individuals as more than just citizens.  


 Post-Independence positions and pitfalls


To trace Verma’s journey as a writer it is important to chart the trajectory of Hindi literature and give a brief glimpse of the direction in which Hindi literature—stylistics and major themes—developed until the advent of the Nayi Kahani generation. The eventual development of the Nayi Kahani movement and Verma’s writing style and concerns were strongly tied with how post-Independence perception of India changed.


While the struggle for freedom from the British Empire created an imagination of an ideal nation—whether it be a Gandhian or Marxist strand, post-Independence disillusionment began permeating across different literary spheres. For many Independence appeared, as Utsa Patnaik states, a negotiated transfer of power rather than a successful revolution (Patnaik 2016). The reactions to this disillusionment were different.The AIPWA, post-Independence, began subscribing to the idea that Independence in India was an illusion—that the state in essence was imperialist. This was primarily because of events such as the Nizam’s declaration of Independence, leading to the Indian army entering and annexing the region. There was a larger belief that independent India needs to have a revolution in order to achieve the vision Marxist writers aimed at, which eventually meant challenging the authority of the new nation-state.


The AIPWA envisioned the writer to have knowledge about their subject matter with the agenda of identifying with the masses. Realism needed to have a ‘close proximity’ to the masses (Ahmed, 2009, p. 160). On the contrary, Verma’s shift away from social realism, as defined by the AIPWA, comes from the position of being a detached writer. Identifying with the masses is a problematic position since it works on the assumption of totalising a community based on an identity.


What sets Verma apart is how he places different characters within the same space, in a dialogue, but highlighting the differences that refused to be reduced to ‘the masses’. This is an important aspect of how Verma understands the role or function of art. For Verma, one common theme among all the major conflicts—the two World Wars, Partition violence, Stalinism, etc.—is the absolute certainty in the belief that one’s ideological position is the only truth. As a result, art should be function as a counter-thesis to this narrative. It should always be breaking totalities and highlighting limits of understanding. As Verma himself put it in his essay Dhund se Uthati Dhun (translation), ‘…for a writer to desire spiritual security is as fatal as an aspiration to material pleasure. For a writer, every place of refuge is a pitfall; you fall once, and the clear sky of creativity is lost forever.’




Ahmed, Talat. 2009. Literature and politics in the age of nationalism: the progressive writers' movement in South Asia, 1932-56. New Delhi: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group,.


Ali, Ahmed. 1977-1978. ‘The Progressive Writers’s Movement in its Historical Perspective’. Journal of South Asian Literature 13.1/4: 91-97. Jstor.


Anjaria, Ulka. 2011. ‘Staging Realism and the Ambivalence of Nationalism.’ Duke University Press 44.2: 186-207.


Gajarawala, Toral Jatin. 2013. Untouchable fictions: literary realism and the crisis of caste. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.


Kohli, Suresh, Rajendra Yadav, and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. 1975. Aspects of Indian literature. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.


Montaut, Annie. 2006. ‘The poetics of Nirmal Verma and his stylistics: from the grammar of indefiniteness to the subversion of gender oppositions’, Voices from South Asia, Language in South Asian Literature. Zagreb: Biblioteca Orientalika.


Mufti, Aamir. 2007. Enlightenment in the colony: the Jewish question and the crisis of postcolonial culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Patnaik, Utsa. 2016. ‘Development as Azadi.’. Online at… (viewed on November 3, 2017).


Verma, Nirmal. 2013. Days of longing. Translated by Krishna Baldev Vaid. Delhi: Penguin.


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