For the uninitiated, Nirmal Verma is among the most significant names in contemporary Hindi literature. He shot to prominence with his first collection of short stories, Parinde (“Birds,” 1959), which gave a major boost to the Nayi Kahani (New Story) movement in Hindi literature. He reinterpreted and reshaped the short story in Hindi , India ’s national language. His “art powerfully communicates the elusiveness and complexities of emotions and sensibilities in a way that no narrative can,” it noted. Verma has several short stories collections, novels, essays, and travelogues to his credit.
Nirmal Verma was born on April 3, 1929 in Shimla into an educated family, and the young boy studied in prestigious schools in the hill stations established by the Raj, and in Delhi . He did his Masters in history from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi . Early on, his mother and sister had initiated him to the world of literature, and Verma developed an introversive demeanor, and proved to be a voracious reader. He was influenced by European literature.
Verma began publishing his stories in the early fifties. With Parinde, he became an important voice in the new short story movement in Hindi literature. In the words of Vishnu Khare, noted journalist and writer, “Soon Verma became one of the spearheads of the Nayi Kahani movement in Hindi and created a niche for himself within the movement with his altogether new protagonists and locales, a mysteriously haunting, tenderly throbbing language and an evocative style which marked him out from the rest.”
Influenced by Marxist beliefs in college, Verma’s convictions underwent a change after Soviet Union ‘s invasion of Hungary in 1956. Three years later, the Oriental Institute in Prague , Czechoslovakia invited him to translate modern Czech writers such as Milan Kundera, Karel Capel, and Jiri Fried among others, into Hindi. He traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe and read writers like Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, and Anton Chekov. All these authors influenced Verma’s sensibilities and opened up a new world of experience for him.
Verma’s stories are about urban society and angst. His settings can be cities, hill stations, or even foreign locales. His themes range from love, separation, alienation, and nostalgia to psychological problems that educated, middle-class people face. For example, he explored the theme of interpersonal relations in his novel Raat Ka Reporter (“The Night Shift Reporter”, 1989). Similarly, his Maya Darpan (“The Illusory Mirror”) dealt with psycho-sociological themes in which a young unmarried girl copes with the tensions of living with a widower father, a widowed aunt, and her secret longing for her lover. Indian auteur Kumar Sahani later made this novel into an experimental film in 1972. Verma’s style is lyrical and it resonates with a tone of melancholy, which probably has seeped in from his personal life.
Verma’s literary canvas reflects his concerns for the common man who grapples unflinchingly with life’s issues. Verma, jointly with Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh, was honored with the 35th Jnanpith Award for 1999. The country’s highest literary award has only twice before been shared by two authors – in 1967 and 1973. It was a tribute to Verma’s literary output in Hindi, and Singh’s in Punjabi.
November 13, 2005
Zafar Anjum is the founder editor of Kitaab.org.