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The English Adversary

Vijaydan Detha shot into the media limelight when his short story, Duvidha inspired Paheli. But he was already a legend in Rajasthan. Chitra Padmanabhan sketches out the folk rebel who won the Katha Chudamani Award

Genetically Gifted: Detha for whom “writing was so easy, like singing is for the koel, or dancing for the peacock”
Photo Lakshman Anand
Detha got beatings for his poor English and developed an “intense hatred” for the language. But he has read everything from Chekov to Marquez to Cervantes
It is tempting to think, what if celebrated Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha had not hated English in his childhood? Would he have given himself up to writing in a language which, nevertheless, dominates 99 percent of his reading? One doesn’t know. And, truth to tell, it is now difficult to tell Vijaydan Detha apart from the magic of the Rajasthani language, the manner in which he weaves the seed of the folktale with contemporary issues, or the incomparable cultural institution, Rupayan Sansthan, that he started in his ancestral village Borunda, with the help of late Komal Kothari.

Detha, who was in Delhi last week to receive the Katha Chudamani award for lifetime literary achievement, confided, “I’ve never given an interview to a paper. All this began after the release of Paheli.” (The film was based on his story Duvidha.) “In solitude, my art has become better. If I’d got diverted to thinking about publicity, my creative powers would’ve weakened,” he says.

At 81, Detha looks a sprightly 65. This has something to do with the satisfaction of a life well lived, though he’s had his share of grief. “When I was four, my father and two of his brothers died in a land feud. I used to graze goats. My father had 200 goats,” he says. He ascribes his creativity to his genes. “We come from the community of charans, who professionally sang praises of their feudal lords and sometimes criticised them,” he explains. His grandfather Jugtidan Detha was known in the entire Marwar region. “My father Sabaldan Detha, too, was a good poet. When he and his brothers died, the creativity entered into me,” he reasons. In his writing, he has mocked the so-called bravery of Rajputs who were not brave. “Had they known they would have murdered me,” Detha says with a smile.

At six, he left the village with his elder brother Sumerdan Detha, who worked the civil court at Jayataran, 25 kms from Borunda. Detha studied there till Class IV, got beatings for his poor English and developed an “intense hatred” for the language. When his brother was transferred to Barmer, Detha shifted school. There the entire class laughed at his inept pronunciation while reading anEnglish lesson. “I wanted the earth to swallow me up,” he remembers. Though there is nothing from Cervantes to Chekov to Marquez that he has not read in English translations, “If I have to send a telegram, I ask my son Mahendra to do it,” Detha says.

Barmer saw a literay rivalry between Detha and student Narsinghraj Purohit. That’s when he felt he would be a writer. At the Durbar School in Jodhpur, where his brother shifted permanently, from a naughty boy involved in gangs, Detha started reading books given on hire by one Sumerlalmal Mehta. By Class IX he had read all of Premchand, Mahadevi Verma, Umitranandan Pant, Jaishankar Prasad and airivanshrai Bachchan. In college, he was drawn to Sarat Chandra, who became his first guru. “I would keep wiping my tears and continue to read him. However many times I read a Sarat Chandra story, it would seem like brand new,” says Detha, who has two other gurus: Chekov (“No one has been able to take the short story forward from where he left it”) and Tagore (after a long period of criticism of Tagore, he was bowled over by Gurudev’s Stripatra in 1984).

In 1944, Detha joined college. By then he had made a name in poetry. A cousin too had had a hand in his popularity. “Kuberdan Detha was the son of one of my chachas, involved in the feud in which my father died. My uncle had been beaten badly and my cousin left studies after Class X. He used to write poetry which I would pass off as my own in school and get demands for encores. That made me think of getting recognition for my writing,” the veteran remembers with a chuckle.

One of his first books to create a storm was Bapu Ke Teen Hatyare, a book of criticism financed by his cousin. It passionately critiqued the works of Harivanshai Bachchan, Sumitra Nandan Pant and Narendra Sharma, who brought out books on Gandhi within two months of his death. “I wrote that Nathuram Godse may have killed Gandhi physically, but these three writers killed his soul,” Detha says.

If it were not for his cousin, he says he would have committed suicide over college debts: paan ki dukaan, cinema, kitab. Kuberdan saw in Detha the ability he had lost, the writer says.

In 1950-52, Detha read and was inspired by the great literature of 19th century Russia. “I thought if I didn’t return to my village and write in Rajasthani, I would remain a mediocre writer,” he recalls. By then he had already written 1300 poems and 300 stories, apart from criticism, in Hindi! In 1959 Detha returned to Borunda and was inspired to “garland the age-old Rajasthani folklore with storywriting skills”.

Detha started a hand composing press, and called in experts from Ajmer to prepare 17 villagers in the art of printing and binding. The stories published in the periodical Lok Sanskriti, started by Detha and Komal Kothari, were compiled into a book at the end of the year, Batari Phulwari (Garden of Stories). After three volumes, the state education minister ordered 1000 copies of every volume in school libraries. A total of 21 volumes were compiled.

“Writing was so easy for me, like singing is for the koel, or dancing for the peacock. It is only after people started liking my stories that I became conscious of my writing,” Detha says. His son Kailash Kab translated two books – Duvidha and Uljhan – into Hindi. His popularity grew. In 1974, the Sahitya Aka demi officially recognized Rajasthani language, and Detha got the first award. He has written more than 800 short stories in Rajasthani. “My main themes are against god, religion and dhan,” says the writer acknowledging his values based on Marxism.

Detha speaks of the influence of Communist leaders on him in senior school. “I used to get goose bumps listening to SK Vyas. Radhamohan Tat, tall and hefty like Spartacus, with a khaddar dhoti, khaddar top, desi joote, used to pull a cart for a living, was fluent in English and in Indian and Western philosophy,” reminisces Detha. Laid up in hospital for six months Detha devoured Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin et al in English. “In places Das Kapital is dry but where he got a chance, Marx left poetry behind,” believes the writer.
Even today, he says his values are based on Marxism, “though my mind says authoritarianism has found roots here too. During the time of the czar there was a Lenin. But in a Communist regime a Lenin cannot be born. So rigid they are,” he feels. He feels the cpm is okay. Look at Somnath Chaterji,” he says.

As for his language, he acknowledges his debt to the villagers of Borunda. Till college, Rajasthani was never in the course. “When I returned to the village, I realised language is made not by professors of linguistics but by the illiterate rustic folk. I learnt the art of language from them. I’m still paying guru dakshina. Whether they accept or not is their wish.” And Vijaydan Detha readies for his next creative flight — his next guru dakshina.

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Jan 21, 2006

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