Through his novels, Vaidyanath Yatri presented a serious indictment of those regressive traditions and counter-productive modern tendencies that proved to be a disaster for the downtrodden
He wrote as Baba Nagarjun in Hindi but is revered as Vaidyanath Mishra ‘Yatri’ in Maithili. Much has been written about the poetic contribution by this veteran bilingual writer. The truth, however, is that he was not only a poet par excellence but also a distinguished novelist who did a great deal to democratise Maithili language and, particularly, its literature through his creative works. Yatri is often referred to as a people’s poet. Accordingly, he chose to write in a language spoken by the ordinary people and took his subject matter from the life and experiences of those common men and women whom authors before him largely ignored.
His first collection of poems called Chitra, published in 1949, has been read, understood and interpreted as a path-breaking work in Maithili literature. It manifests a definite kind of rupture with the way in which poetry was written by preceding poets, who employed ornate poetic diction and focussed on various kinds of myths and conventions for their poetic practices. Yatri preferred to chart a different trajectory altogether. So, he parted ways from his predecessors in no uncertain terms and went ahead to refine and elevate colloquial idioms of the Mithila region by writing highly entertaining, engaging and socio-politically transformative kind of poetry. Equipped with enormously useful literary tools and techniques, such as irony, wit, humour and sarcasm, Yatri inaugurated what is usually termed as the radical and modernist trend in Maithili literature. However, he never forgot to present a stringent critique of the ill-effects of the idea of modernity itself.
A poem, Param Satya, of this collection unequivocally highlights the tenets of what are called progressive thoughts. It is seen as an indicator of the fact that Yatri did not have inhibitions to exhibit his indebtedness to Marxist ideas, which supposedly had tremendous influence on the formation of his creative consciousness. Such influences, indeed commitments to an ideological persuasion for certain kinds of socio-political transformation, are both enabling and disabling for a wonderfully gifted and insightful author of his stature. These enabled him to openly repudiate both in terms of language and content stereotypical conventions perpetuated by the apparently privileged previous poets. It is also disabling in the sense that ideologically-oriented poetry tends to lose sight of the fact about literature, primarily meant to maintain an autonomous status and avoid overtly occupying political space, which inevitably turns out to be selective, rather exclusive in its approach and reach.
His second collection of poems namely, Patrahina Nagna Gaachha, was published in 1967 and it brought the prestigious Sahitya Academy Award for Yatri the following year. This collection consists of 43 poems. They narrate the misery and misfortune, insult and humiliation, trial and tribulation of the people from the periphery because of the aggressive and unbridled onslaught of the processes of industrial modernisation. It subtly indicates the consistent decline and decadence of villages, migration of villagers to the urban centres, and distasteful indulgence of city-dwellers that caused innumerable problems to the disadvantaged. It indeed embodies the disturbing menace which the so-called idea of progress has generated in the name of industrial development. The very title of the poem reminds us that the notion of industrial growth is inherently antithetical to the health and happiness of trees and in turn to the sustenance of our environment. Yatri was critical of the bandwagon of modernity that went horribly wrong despite its vociferous claims to be a harbinger of progress and prosperity all around.
However, in no way was he willing to either romanticise or glorify traditional rural structures. In fact, he was extremely critical of some of the prevailing systems of pre-modern set-up. Being a keen observer of the existing realities and a highly discerning mind to make sense to their contemporary relevance, Yatri walked a tightrope, aiming to bring out the kind of changes required for a harmonious and peaceful co-existence between nature and human beings. Yatri wrote as many as 12 novels of which three were written in Maithili. Drawing upon the tradition of novel-writing by Harimohan Jha, he decided to delve much deeper into the issue of incompatibility in marriage with all the subsequent catastrophic consequences in the first two novels, such as Paro and Navaturia. The first one unfolds the entire story in the first-person narrative by protagonist Birju, who narrates the unimaginable sort of suffering and pathos of his cousin, Paro. Through his narration, he brought to fore the inexplicably inhuman practice of child marriage prevalent in the then Mithila region. Older men with riches and wherewithal used to get married with young girls with consent and complicity of their fathers who, because of their abject poverty, could not resist the temptation of monetary gains out of such murky marital deals.
To ensure the successful completion of those material transactions, a person called ghatak was always available. This person would arrange meetings between the two parties belonging to the bride and the bride groom respectively. And he made sure that marriage took place according to the set terms and conditions. The unfortunate fact was that most of such marriages were destined to get doomed as was that of Paro. Emotionless, aged husbands, who were actually agents of cruelty, tortured young brides. They knew nothing about expressing love and affection, generated not only anger, bitterness, disappointment and frustration, but also downright hatred for them and hostility for the very institution of marriage. Yatri appeared to ruthlessly expose the brutalities committed against young girls in an unequal relationship that mark such incompatible marriages.
Moreover, the novel mentions the mutual attraction, sacrosanct love and a fine understanding between two cousins. Paro very categorically acknowledges her wish that marriage between brothers and sisters would be extremely wonderful. Both Birju and Paro nurture beautiful wishes for each other but remain alert to the limitations and restrictions that the social code of conduct imposes upon them. This novel rightly raised many eyebrows. A number of readers and critics disliked what they thought to be the theme of incest. This part caused such furore that it was discussed much more for the controversy it generated than for the social problem it so successfully raised.
Nonetheless, it was an innovative attempt to deal with the issue of incompatibility in marriage. With tremendous poise and poignance, Yatri unfolded the reprehensible behaviour of utterly insensitive, irresponsible and indeed absolutely cruel men against their own wives, who due to irresistible kinds of social pressures, were compelled to make many compromises to unsuccessfully save the failed marriages.
His second novel, Navaturia, built upon the same theme of incompatibility so pervasive in the then marital relationships of the region. He was keen on demonstrating that young and energetic minds need to come together to sensitise society, sometimes even resorting to tough measures if persuasive means fail to deliver that. The way youngsters come forward and prevent an ugly marriage between a 60-year-old man and a young girl, Visesari, who finally got married with a young boy with a progressive outlook, shows the pre-occupation of the novelist with making a significant statement about the indispensability of a concerted activism for the resolution of the problem of incompatibility in marriage. Besides, Yatri also tried to re-awaken the collective consciousness of the young generation that can effectively protest against the unjust practices of the older generation in order to free young women from the shackles of an entirely suffocating system of marriage.
His third and last novel in Maithili, Balchanma, was about a dynamic hero who came from the socio-politically backward caste. Yatri’s engagement with democratising Maithili literature was explicit and at its peak in this novel, which focussed on the enterprising character of people from the periphery. It also emphasised on the need for a mass movement along democratic socialist lines to sharpen the sense of camaraderie among the poor and exploited for the sake of encouraging them to participate in the decisive, democratic struggle for a just socio-political order devoid of poverty, exploitation and oppression of any kind.
By and large, his oeuvre evidently presented a serious kind of indictment of those regressive traditions and counter-productive modern tendencies which proved to be a disaster for the downtrodden as was pretty much evident from his scathing critiques of not just obscure socio-cultural practices but also emergent modernity which ended up creating numerous problems for the masses. His creative endeavours were mainly governed by the democratic principles dealing as they do with the fundamental question of justice, aiming equality in human relations and the establishment of an egalitarian society in our country.
(The writer is Assistant professor of English at Rajdhani College, Delhi)