What to forget ? What to remember ?

At least three generations of Hindi movie buffs are well-acquainted with the name of Amitabh Bachchan, the so-called ‘Star of the Millennium’ who became the first Indian actor to be immortalized in the form of a wax statue in Madame Tussaud’s Museum at London. If the people from today’s young generation are asked what they know about Harivansh Rai Bachchan, most of them will reply – ‘the father of Amitabh Bachchan’. However will that be a proper and complete introduction of Harivansh Rai Bachchan ? No ! The eminent Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan was a very big celebrity decades prior to his son Amitabh’s ascendance to success. His long poem – Madhushala was echoing in the nooks and corners of India like anything during the 1930s. He is one of the most prominent signatures of the Hindi poetry emerged in that period which was highly emotional, highly passionate and free from the bounds of traditional poetry.

Harivansh Rai Bachchan wrote his autobiography also. This epic autobiography is divided in four parts – 1. Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon, 2. Need Ka Nirmaan Phir, 3. Basere Se Door, 4. Dashdwaar Se Sopaan Tak. Today I am reviewing the first part of this quadrology which, in my view, is the most passionately written among the foursome, i.e., Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon (what’s there for me to forget, what’s there for me to remember). It was first published in 1969 and since then its many editions have been published. It covers the birth, the family conditions, the childhood, the adolescence and the youth of Harivansh Rai Bachchan. It ends with the incident of the demise of his very young first wife – Shyama which was a heartbreaking event of his life.kya-bhuloon-kya-yaad-kroonThe autobiography of Harivansh Rai Bachchan is considered as one of the most emphatic autobiographies ever written simply because from every nook and corner of it, it renders an air of candidness (though by referring to the preface of the autobiography of a great French author, he has admitted that he had to take care of public decency also while penning his life experiences with this candidness). And it’s this candidness (mainly about himself and his life) only that makes it so special and much more readable when compared to many other autobiographies. It’s boring at no place and highly interesting and appealing at all the places. In this review, I am covering only the first part of it which lasts upto his age of 29 years when his beloved wife Shyama left for her heavenly abode after a long terminal illness that she had inherited from her ailing mother while relentlessly taking care of her for long in the final phase of her life.

In addition to the candidness, the thing that has amazed me about Harivansh Rai Bachchan is his astounding episodic memory. I sometimes pat my own back for my sharp episodic memory and ability to recall things even decades after the time when they had taken place with accuracy of date and time. However before the memory of the legendary poet, I feel like a dust particle staring at a mountain. This book is a gigantic storehouse of his memories beginning from his early childhood and containing those things also that had happened prior to his birth and he must have come to know about them through the repetitive talks regarding them in his house and neighbourhood.

Talking about his forefathers and the different residences (and cities) where themselves and later himself alongwith the family, had lived; Harivansh Rai Bachchan has fondly remembered his great-grandmother (sister of his great-grandfather) – Raadha. An adventure of hers alongwith another lady – Mahanginiya Kaachhin from Allahabaad to Lalitpur when they achieved a great escape from the talon of a deadly bandit and his family through their sheer courage and wit is the most interesting episode narrated in the context of her personality. Bachchan has discussed many other ladies of his household and reproduced their talks in their own dialect (Avadhi). He has elaborated the financial hardships faced by his family in different time periods and how they were faced and tackled by himself and others in a very authentic and impressive manner. He has moved while narrating the things taken place from generation to generation in chronological order and maintained the flow just like that of a river moving peacefully at her own pace towards the ultimate destination. His wonderful narration allows the reader to travel through his experiences and visualize everything (and every referred person) in vivid form.

Perhaps the authors and poets find the company of the opposite sex (that is, the females) more compatible as compared to the company of their own sex (that is, the males). The same seems to have taken place with Bachchan also. While moving through adolescence, he had had a passionate relationship with Champa, the wife of his closest friend – Karkal who was a Brahmin (Bachchan was a Kaayastha). The relationship of Harivansh and Champa was a very peculiar one and could not be defined properly (exactly the way the relationship of the mythological Krishna and Radha cannot be defined by any means). But the irony of the social set-up is that the society around the individuals wants every male-female relationship to be defined in specific terms and to tag it with a name. Karkal’s untimely demise gave a new turn to the relationship of Harivansh and Champa, leading to Champa’s getting pregnant and her ultimate sacrifice for Harivansh which went a long way in developing the poet in him.

raj040_front209x263Harivansh’s father was a very understanding person for his son. An astrologer had told him that his son was an extra-ordinary one, born to swim against the tide and therefore, nothing should be imposed on him against his will. And hence despite knowing odd things about his relationship with Karkal’s wife Champa, he (as well as his wife, Harivansh’s mother – Sursati) never discussed anything with Harivansh in this regard. However he was able to see the broken mental condition of his son very well as a result of Champa’s tragic death. He wanted Harivansh to marry a suitable girl and let his broken heart be repaired that way. However nothing was imposed on Harivansh and by God’s grace, his true well-wisher Shreemohan arranged his matrimonial alliance with Shyama, a fourteen years old teenager who proved herself to be much more mature as compared to her tender years. Shreemohan had understood the personality and psyche of Harivansh very well and thus he had properly sensed what kind of a girl could be the perfect life-partner for him. And Shreemohan’s wisdom proved right. Shyama, in fact, proved to be the perfect match for Harivansh and groomed the poet in him through her interaction with him during her life and more so through her death. Being a true poet, Harivansh did not know any other way to express himself than through his poetry. He wrote his melancholy-soaked great poetic works viz. Nisha-Nimantran (invitation of night), Ekaant Sangeet (music of solitude) and Aakul Antar (restless inner-self) in Shyama’s memory only.

Though Bachchan has very correctly underscored the significance of sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife, he has clarified that the love between himself and Shyama was much above sex (I have inferred from the book that due to Shyama’s perennial sickness, perhaps the sexual intimacy between them was either not at all or very very less). It was simply divine love. He has elucidated his point through the episode of Shyama’s coming to his house through the custom of Gauna (earlier, when males and females were married in very young age of themselves, the bride remained for a few years with her parents only and when she was finally sent off by her parents to her husband to start her conjugal life in the practical sense, it was called her Gauna). When Shyama came to her in-laws’ home through Gauna three years after her marriage with Harivansh, she was very sick and the ladies in the house were not allowing her to be with Harivansh at night because they were thinking that Harivansh would exercise his husbandly right to have sex with her during the night hours. However Harivansh became adamant on this point that Shyama would be with him only at night. The other members of the household could not understand that completely lonely Harivansh was simply craving for the proximity of Shyama. He only wanted to talk to her in privacy and feel her touch (without sexual intercourse). It was Shyama only who understood her husband’s feelings in the true sense. Bachchan writes that she was also willing to be with him only in privacy. It was a perfect understanding between them without any exchange of words. Something scarcely found ! Something invaluable !

At no place has Bachchan tried to defend himself or justify whatever he had done while narrating the events of his life, the twists and turns of his life and his interactions with others. He has presented the things as they were and left it to the readers to judge the people involved (including the author) in their light according to their own wisdom. Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon is like a spellbinding soap-opera in which Bachchan has inserted pieces of his poetry at appropriate places (because they were born from his experiences only).

In his candidness, Bachchan has asserted a couple of things about women which may pinch the feminists. However I request the female readers to read them without a prejudice because he has expressed only what he has perceived in his life-experiences. When a person has spent a major part of his life (Bachchan wrote this book when he was 62 years of age) and undergone a variety of experiences, he finds common threads when revisiting them in retrospect. Bachchan’s assertions about women are only the epitome of what he has seen, felt and understood. Hence the female readers need to understand his point of view in the light of this fact only.

Since I have already reviewed the epic novel of Yashpal – ‘Jhootha Sach’ (false truth), it won’t be inappropriate to mention here that the relationship of Yashpal’s betrothed (and later wife) – Prakasho and another friend of Bachchan – Shreekrishna is also a part of this work. Shreekrishna had a fatal attraction towards Prakasho despite knowing that she was just like something put under his trust by her beau Yashpal who was in jail because of his involvement in the armed anti-British activities (he was a close associate of great revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Aazaad). And destiny brought Prakasho as close to Bachchan also. Her real identity and name was kept hidden by Bachchan from his other family members and she was called Raani when living with Bachchan’s family for some time. Bachchan has portrayed Prakasho aka Rani as a woman of substance and strength whereas Shreekrishna as a mentally weak person who could not shoulder responsibilities with vigour and confidence. However their relationship as well as the relationship of Harivansh with both of them (jointly as well as separately) was quite unique. By narrating them, the author has done nothing but strengthened my ages old belief in the dictum – ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’.

Bachchan was fortunate to have come into contact with several great people – not only great litterateurs but also great leaders like Tilak and Gandhi. A complaint was lodged with Gandhi against his most popular epic poem – Madhushala that it glamorizes alcoholism. However by reciting certain couplets of Madhushala (which were selected very carefully by him for this purpose) to him, he was able to convince the great leader that his work did not glamorize drinking or alcoholism in any way and it was to be understood in its subtle philosophical sense.

Though Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon covers only 1/4 of the total autobiography of the great poet, it is perhaps the most significant of the four parts because it covers the evolution of what he eventually became. It elucidates the making of a great poet. I have always felt and this book has again made me feel that women play a very significant part in the lives of great men. Their unconditional love and deep understanding may take a seemingly ordinary male to the heights of greatness. Non-understanding and nagging women play quite a contrary role in the lives of the highly talented people following the same principle and prevent them from becoming what they could have become. Bachchan was fortunate to have passionately loving ladies like Champa and Shyama in the initial part of his life that evolved a great poet in him and later on he got the association of a very strong and practical woman- Teji (the mother of Amitabh Bachchan) who could amass the scattered pieces of his life and enable him to gain material success in the materialistic world. Very few people can consider themselves as so fortunate.

Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon is the second book which has impressed me so much and churned me from within like anything (the first one is ‘Jhootha Sach). Prior to writing this review, I have read it thrice. I recommend this extra-ordinary book to all the lovers of Hindi literature. Let myself be candid enough to declare that its quality beats even the much more famous poetic works of Harivansh Rai Bachchan.

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About Jitendra Mathur

A Chartered Accountant with literary passion and a fondness for fine arts
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4 Responses to What to forget ? What to remember ?

  1. rationalraj2000 says:

    Thank you for an interesting review.

  2. Rekha Sahay says:

    I read this autobiography years back when my mother was doing her PhD on Harivansh Rai Bachchan and his work/ Hindi poetry.
    Thanks for sharing this great and interesting review.

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