Nirmal Verma: Extraordinary Writer of the Ordinary


Nirmal Verma: Extraordinary Writer of the Ordinary

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

The obscurity of Shimla’s Kaithu area can be adjudged from the fact that it was most recently in the news for a leopard’s nonchalant stroll down a walkway in broad daylight, of which, the area receives a modest supply. Kaithu sits in the shadow of Shimla’s central hill, Elysium, below the main road, at a comfortable distance from both casual approach and coincidence. I was, I think 22, when I discovered that novelist Nirmal Verma was born and brought up in a little home on the second floor of a Raj-era house in Kaithu.

A couple of days later, when I tried to look for his books in the only two bookstores in town, I couldn’t find any. Not one. Anonymity had consumed Verma in his place of birth, completely at odds with the stature he had earned in Indian literature. In death, Verma had become one of his own people: Somewhere and nowhere at the same time, feet dragging in a quest for the self, a lingering sense of un-belonging. I say people and not character because that is what Verma wrote – people.

His eight short story collections, five novels, numerous essays and critical writings often deal with internal spaces, the little space between thought and action. But most intriguing to me were the personal anxieties of those who regularly appeared in Verma’s works, who embody the continual probing of place and time from a position of relative comfort. Some left behind, some forgotten either in person, or by the fulminating, magnetic narratives of the city.

Whether it is Kaya from The Red Tin Roof, Mehra Sahib from The Last Wilderness or Bitty from Days of Longing, Verma’s characters are usually non-characters. Unremarkable people, who though not necessarily on the margins of circumstance, are often on the margins of their own self – wrought, displaced, homeless but not houseless, barely living and barely dying. The kind of lives that look good when they are read, and not lived. As Verma wrote of tragedy in Days of Longing.

Verma was perhaps braver than he was authentic in writing these lives into his works. To understand his work is also to find him in it.

Catastrophies have their own soul. This I have seen. I have seen, I say right, because even the things around become aware of their smell and get up from their place to circle around you… And you look at them with dumbfounded eyes as if you had never seen them before

For Verma, contemplation is almost a condition. Far from the cities, or the rapidly expanding townships that are perforating with employable youth, there is a hollow silence, a sequestered, almost sedate life. These are the rooms filled with parents of children who have moved away, retirees who have been given the send-off, or children who are too young to become part of the soup. These are lives that though safe in a mathematical sense are un-adventerous to the point of being considered irrelevant, at times by people closest or responsible for them. A rustle of leaves outside the window, the ill health of a neighbour, a rare letter from a loved one are the only blips of life on a radar that either contemplates death or its relativity with time, age, and eventually place. A radar I now notice each time I return home, to aunts who share with me photographs of their children leading city lives, to grown men who take lonely walks on deserted roads.

Verma was perhaps braver than he was authentic in writing these lives into his works. To understand his work is also to find him in it.

Last year I met Verma’s childhood friend Rajesh Mehra. Apart from his elder brother, the artist Ram Kumar, Verma grew up in the company of artists, including Mehra and the late Jagdish Swaminathan. Their influence is evident in his works as he contemplates the earnestness of art in A Raag Called Happiness and the influence of architecture and place in Days of Longing. “You couldn’t move him if he started reading,” Mehra told me. “Not even by giving him an award right there and then. He always wanted space, and went to great extents to have it.”

Both Mehra and Verma loved the mountains, but about these mountains what Verma loved most were the stories that no one was willing to write. “He could do ordinary, like no one else, because he looked where no one else would,” Mehra told me. He points to the ordinariness of both The Red Tin Roof and The Last Wilderness, in which people do nothing more than ask questions of each other or the self, whether it is about a sound in the attic, the sight of a neighbour’s guest, or a misplaced object.

As Verma grew older, he loosened his grip on the steering wheel and retreated entirely to the back seat of the vehicle of narrative, writing about mortality and self-worth. In the short story A Day’s Guest Verma writes about the purposelessness of a woman after she sees her reflection in a television screen. That woman could be your mother or mine.

She was crying; absolutely alone, with no connection to either past people or future hope. Tears — which come not for any one reason, but when the stone is entirely removed from one’s heart — flowing like a drain on some sloping life; again and again the woman brushed them away.

Through Verma’s works, I have sought to pilfer a little bit of myself. I see his people around me. My grandparents who often spend months alone in an obscure village in Himachal Pradesh, my father who has been changing towns and cities for years alone, my mother who seeks to establish balance in all of this, and of course me. At one point in, I envied those who stayed away from the death-knell that is the economy of busied lives. But Verma helped me realise that though theirs are struggles not as vast or immediate as ours, they live in a state of suspension that neither relieves them from living, nor condemns to death at once. And memory only compounds the purposelessness: Less refuge, more abyss.

To read Verma you just need the will to look into the remarkable challenges that unremarkable people face. Because for them, like my grandmother in the words of Verma, even expressing their little battles is a challenge:

स्त्री की कांपती हुई आवाज ऊपर उठी, जिसके पीछे जाने कितनी लडाइयों की पीडा, कितने नरकों का पानी भरा था, जो बांध टूटते ही उसके पास आने लगा, एक एक इंच आगे बढता हुआ

The woman’s voice rose higher, quivering, filled with the pain of who knew how many fights, with the water of how many hells, which approached him as soon as the dam broke, advancing inch by inch.