By coincidence, I happened to be having breakfast with Anantha -- U. R. Ananthamurthy -- in his hotel room in Pune when I switched on my cell-phone to make a call home.
Nirmal, Anantha, and I made a journey together in the spring of 1980 that was memorable for all three of us. Nirmal was the oldest among us, followed by Anantha; I came last.
Nirmal wrote fiction and essays in Hindi, Anantha wrote fiction, poetry, and essays in Kannada. I wrote poetry in Marathi and English; but did much else besides, that was outside the limits of literature.
Chronological seniority apart, we were like the Hindu triumvirate of deities. Nirmal was Brahma, the creator of the universe; Anantha, true to his name, was the preserver, and I was Shiva--the destroyer? I prefer to think of Shiva as the sam of a musical cycle, the beginning and end of all rhythm, Shankara, the quieting one. This was a private joke among us.
It was Nirmal who was asked, by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (a cultural extension of the Ministry of External Affairs), to choose two other contemporary Indian writers and form a delegation of writers to visit the then Soviet Union, the then Hungarian Peoples’ Republic, the then West Germany, and France to explore the possibilities of literary translation as cultural exchange between India and the nation-states we were to visit. It was Nirmal who chose Anantha and me as his accomplices in this adventurous mission. All three of us had peripatetic pasts and our paths had crossed more than once for about a decade earlier.
Anantha and I boarded an Air India Boeing flight to Moscow via Delhi in Mumbai on (I think it was) March 31, 1980. Nirmal was to join us in Delhi.
From Delhi we were to fly non-stop to Moscow and land exactly on All Fools’ Day, Inshaa’Allah!
In the larger world that we shared, it was the beginning of a historic sea change that would have seemed unbelievable to most people.
The Soviet Union had just launched its own Vietnam in Afghanistan. In fact, both Anantha and I had contemplated declining the invitation to visit to the Soviet Union at such a time, in protest. But Nirmal persuaded both of us not to make that kind of stupid gesture. Nirmal argued that precisely because of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, our meetings with fellow-writers and publishers, and Indologists and scholars, would become a significant opportunity for a dialogue with them. There was wisdom in Nirmal’s advice. Both Anantha and I felt a little foolish; and we readily dropped our proposed ‘protest’. The forbidden world behind the Iron Curtain beckoned us. We could barely contain our fluttering anticipation.
I said fluttering anticipation. But the phrase does not convey the complex state of mind as I vividly recall it. External journeys often turn into internal voyages in my case and I am sure something similar must be in Nirmal’s and Anantha’s case as well. There was a steadily escalating premonition, an almost occult awakening of faculties kept in check, a rising subliminal awareness of a universe larger than all our individual egos and routine mundane concerns.
We were all born in India and in three different mother tongue cultures that made us siblings of sorts. Nirmal arrived in 1929, almost on schedule to coincide with the ominous rise of the Third Reich in Central Europe and in India, the launch of Mahatma Gandhi’s momentous Non-cooperation Movement. Anantha joined the world in 1932, just three years later. I came in 1938, the year in which Europe was plunged deep into pre-World War crisis; the Munich pact was signed; Germany demanded the annexation of the Sudetan borderland of Czechoslovakia. World War II commenced when I was barely one year old.
We were all destined to carry, individually, these historic terrestrial burdens that would shape our worldviews as writers and artists and globally define a generation and its world-image. We were contemporaries within the compass of a decade. Reporting Nirmal’s death one newspaper headline says, "End of an Era". It’s a cliché to put it that way. It would be more appropriate to say, quoting Daniel Weissbort’s response to the news of Nirmal’s death in an e-mail to me:
"Very sad to hear about Nirmal. I was sure I would never see him again. At least I got to see him, once more, after Iowa, when he told me-- I think it was a party, or something like that, in The Mayflower: Danny, there’s nothing that depresses me so much as a celebration! I also remember fondly, if freezingly, an evening with him in Delhi, on his roof, as we sat sipping and I believe finishing a bottle of not the very best whiskey. A wonderful writer, a deep thinker, and rare individual. Can you send me Gagan’s e-mail address--I’d like to send her my condolences? We are getting fewer."
Bereaved--and bereft of Nirmal, I am bewildered, almost like a philosopher facing the obvious. A part of me is frozen forever; as has always happened when I have lost a loved one whose lonely trajectory ran parallel to my own for an illuminating while.
After receiving the SMS from Delhi, I could not help calling Manzoor Ehetesham, the Hindi fiction writer close to both Nirmal and me, and I urged him to write a memoir focussing on Nirmal’s sojourn in the Nirala Srijanpeeth in Bhopal--an address we both inherited from Nirmal--and a space that was a camping site in our respective creative writing careers. Nirmal in Delhi, Nirmal in Iowa City, Nirmal in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Germany, France and in different cities and with, what the American poet Paul Engels called, the community of imagination…
Thank you, Nirmal, for making me an intimate witness. Now I will recall even my quarrels with you with a tinge of wistfulness.
Dilip Chitre is Honorary Editor of New Quest---a quarterly journal of participative inquiry into society and culture--and this piece is slated to appear in the coming issue, number 162