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Mainstream, VOL LX No 8, New Delhi, Febuary 12, 2022

Political and Literary World of Phanishwarnath Renu | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 12 February 2022, by Arup Kumar Sen


2021 was the birth centenary year of Phanishwarnath Renu, who enriched Hindi literature by his unique style and language of writings. He was born in the village of Aurahi Hingana in Purnea district of Bihar in 1921. He led an active political life and got himself involved in several peasant movements as a member of the Socialist Party. He also played an active role in the revolt against the monarchy in Nepal. Renu was a close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan, and was arrested in 1975 for his opposition to government abuses under the Indira Gandhi regime. Broken health in the prison led to his tragic death in 1977. (See Indira Junghare’s Introduction in The Soiled Border (Maila Anchal), novel of Phanishwarnath Renu translated by her, Chanakya Publications, Delhi, 1991)

In spite of his active political life, Phanishwarnath Renu’s literary journey was not vitiated by any narrow pollical vision: “Although Renu reveals in his writings the contemporary political life of India and the effects of mismanaged democracy, politics and literature were for him, nevertheless, separate spheres. Renu rarely, if ever, overtly advocated a particular political position in his fiction”. (ibid.)

Renu’s literary journey started with the publication of his short story, ‘Batbaba’ in 1946. However, publication of his first and most famous novel, ‘Maila Anchal’ in 1954 brought him recognition as a major Hindi writer. The distinctiveness of the plot of ‘Maila Anchal’ lies in the fact that it differed from the prevailing paradigm of the novel: “Maila Anchal is not the story of one person or family, but rather the story of a village and all its residents. Therefore, there is no single sustaining plot to the novel but instead a series of sub-plots...The action takes place on many levels romantic, political, religious, social. (ibid.)

The ’literary form’ and ‘linguistic features’ of Maila Anchal also carried Renu’s own signature. To put it in the words of Indira Junghare: “Another aspect of Renu’s characters is that they are humorous. The humor is conveyed through their manners of speech, their perceptions of the world, and relationships with others. This humor not only makes for more enjoyable reading but serves to create empathy for the character...Maila Anchal is difficult to understand even for native speakers of Hindi because of its linguistic complexity. The languages used in the novel range from standard and colloquial Hindi to regional dialects such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Nepali, and Bengali and the tribal language Santhali. This complexity in part reflects the complexity of the linguistic area of Northeastern Bihar and Purnea district...Renu, himself a native of rural Northern Bihar, is particularly skilled in portraying the linguistic diversity of this region and the patterns of village speech.” (ibid.)

To sum up Phanishwarnath Renu’s contributions to Hindi literature, Kathryn Hansen, who did her Ph.D. on the literary journey of Renu, argued:

...Renu’s fascinating experiments with language and the originality of his use of oral genres within the modern novel are apparent even to a Hindi reader unfamiliar with literary criticism...Renu has developed a style of Hindi based on rural speech. This language...differs primarily from standard literary language in the degree to which it brings the linguistic patterns of uneducated speakers of Hindi onto the written page. (Kathryn Hansen, ‘Renu’s Regionalism: Language and Form’, The Journal of Asian Studies, February, 1981)

We are now living in a globalized world, miles apart from the political and literary worlds of Phanishwarnath Renu, and Indian writing in English occupies a hegemonic position in our literary world. Our urban modernity has colonized  our rural world. In such a scenario, Renu’s literary journey offers valuable insights about the ‘art of the novel’, which have the potential of enriching our literary imagination about the complexities of village life in contemporary India.

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