O P Bhatnagar – The Critic With a Big Heart – Book Review

O P Bhatnagar – The Critic With a Big Heart – Book Review

I.K. Sharma. O.P. Bhatnagar: The Ccritic With A Big Heart. ( Jaipur : Rachana Prakashan, 2006). Pages xviii +164, Price Rs.325/-. ISBN 81-89228-13-7

I had known O.P. Bhatnagar for years as a poet with vision, seeking reality, discovering truth, suggesting new roads. He was always keen to regenerate man and humanity, demolishing fossil values, and looking for a substitute for the illusions of light. His creative and critical writings appeared to me as a spur to collective action.

But when I read his last collection of poems, Cooling Flames of Darkness (2001), I was surprised to find him unusually negative, dejected, and hopeless; perhaps, over-possessed by “fossilized summing up of life.” Yet, he sounded true when he opined: “We have a history and many are the knots/Before an Indian poet in English/Like an Eskimo trapped in desert” (Cooling Flames, p.61). Some of these knots he had earlier reflected in essays like ‘East-West Encounter in Indian Poetry in English’, ‘New Indian English Poetry Today’, and ‘Death and the Poetry of Sarojini Naidu.’

Bhatnagar was genuinely concerned with the strength and future of Indian English poetry and was indeed its critic with a big heart, as I.K. Sharma would like to call him. O. P. Bhatnagtar: The Critic with a Big Heart is Sharma’s tribute to the genius of O.P. Bhatnagar, whose literary vision, focused on many a new poet, fictioneer and dramatist with promise, accorded authenticity and power to post-Ezekiel Indian English writing. (cf. ‘New Indian English Poetry Today’). O.P. Bhatnagar also explored post-independence authors and critics to highlight their contributions in perspective.

Though it is sad that the “established” set of poets and critics denied recognition to O.P. Bhatnagar for promoting the cause of marginalized voices, I.K. Sharma, evoking fond memories of his contacts with O.P. Bhatnagar, demonstrates the late poet-critic’s inner strength “to nourish the common grass” without denigrating anyone (p.xvii).

As an empathetic reader, and critic, Sharma collects ten earlier published critical articles by O.P. Bhatnagar to make this book. His introductory touches “the deepest chords in our emotional being,” as Prema Nandakumar, to whom he dedicates the book, observes.

I fully agree with what I.K. Sharma writes about OP’s life in Amaravati and Delhi on pp. xiv-xv: Not only had his health created darkness around him but also the academia in Delhi that ditched him to death. None bothered to take note of him.

I.K. Sharma seeks to present O.P. Bhatnagar as “a critic with a rare generosity of understanding,” to quote Prema Nandakumar (from her letter to him). In the first essay, Bhatnagar convinces us that poets such as Toru Dutt, Aru Dutt, Romesh Chander Dutt and Manmohan Ghose wrote with Indian history and culture wedded into their medium. Tagore and Sri Aurobindo were keen about their poetic content rather than the medium, and without any affectation or sense of alienation, “exile or worked-up nostalgia for the country or language or loss of identity” noticed in Nissim Ezekiel, R. Parthasarathy or A.K. Ramanujan. Poets such as Kamala Das, I.K. Sharma, Narsingh Srivastava and Jayanta Mahapatra write with a sense of “participation in the creative act” rather than demonstration of “western attitudes”, mode or style of expression.

In the second essay, Bhatnagar refers to naturalization of English, or what Braj B. Kachru calls, nativization of English, by several new poets “of unspoilt sensibilities” such as Baldev Mirza, I.K. Sharma, Pravin A. Parikh, R.K.Singh, T.R. Srinivas, Mukund R. Dave, Niranjan Mohanty, Krishna Srinivas, Mahanand Sharma, D.V.K. Raghvachrayulu and many others. Those “who are in touch with this huge mass of new Indian English poetry today will not falter in recognizing its linguistic and aesthetic dynamics as genuine and natural,” points out O.P. Bhatnatar (p.43).

The third essay deals with ‘death’, a major preoccupation in Bhatnagar’s own poetry. Here the critic reflects on death in the poetry of Sarojini Naidu vis-à-vis Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke and Adriene Rich. Sarojini Naidu uses death impersonally as a plea for life (p.51). As he points out: “Hers was the poetry of rejection of death in a politico-metaphysical philosophy of self-sacrifice, surrender and suffering for a higher cause leading to a defeat of mutability and unity with the Infinite and the higher being” (p.54).

The fourth essay examines the Indian political novels in English “against the logic of its own political history and growth” (p.58). He discusses K.S. Venkatramani’s Murugan The Tiller (1927), which presents for the first time the Gandhian ideal of rural reconstruction and rural economics. Bhatnagar also mentions Venkatramani’s other novel, Kandan the Patriot (1932), which advances the Gandhian ideology or Satyagrah, before he reflects on Raja Rao’s Kanthapura , Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, Coolie, Two Leaves and a Bud and The Sword and the Sickle, R.K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma, and B Rajan’s The Dark Dancer (1958), which presents politics as a way of life and conviction. These novelists present a contrast to others who were moved by the tragedy of India’s partition. Significant among them are Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Chaman Nahal’s Azadi.

Bhatnagar also reflects on the decline in Gandhian values with lack of political order, as manifested in the narratives of Manohar Malgaonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges, Bhabani Bhattacharya’s Shadow from Ladakh, and Nayantara Sahgal’s Strom in Chandigarh. The Indian political novelists have been aware of the ” pitiabale politics of the poor politicians” just as they have found sense in Gandhi’s humanism and secularism (p.77).

Bhatnagar’s scrutiny of over a dozen novelists is deep and thorough. As one would notice in his appreciation of Manorama Modak’s Single is the Wheel, which is the subject of his exploration in the fifth essay, O.P. Bhatnagar reads the novelist with empathy and a sense of history. His study of V.A. Shahane’s Prajapati against the perspective of the “image of India”, the sixth essay, is thought-provoking in that the narrative seeks to reconstruct the spirit and vision of the unity of India despite its caste-ridden social structure and disappointing contemporary realities. The irony is: As against the mythical prajapati, the modern prajapatis are power-seekers, indulging in violence of all kinds. However, I agree with Bhatnagar’s observations on pages 107-109: Shahane’s humanism is doubtful.

The seventh essay examines Indian short stories in English against the phenomenon of “colonial encounter” as presented by Mulk Raj Anand, Manohar Malgaonkar, Raja Rao and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala.

In the next essay, O.P. Bhatnagar points out that Jawaharlal Nehru failed to inspire literary imagination, even if Shahane’s Prajapati seemed to have been structured after the vision of Nehru. ‘Nehru and Indian Novel in English’, one of the best essays in the volume, is an extension of the sixth essay, cleverly placed before ‘Gandhi in Indian Drama in English.’

Indeed, Gandhi has a massive presence in Indian English fiction, but one rarely comes across Gandhi in drama. (I wish O.P. Bhatnagar were alive to watch Gandhigiri in Lage Raho Munnabhai!) The earliest image of Gandhi appears in Bharati Sarabhai’s poetic play, The Well of People (1943), which is followed by K.S. Rangappa’s Gandhiji’s Sadhana, eleven years after the Mahatma’s death. Gandhian ideas are also presented by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in Barrister at Law, Asif Currimbhoy in An Experiment with Truth, Lakhan Deb in Murder at the Prayer Meeting, Shiv Kumar Joshi in He Never Slept Too Long, R. Javanthinathan in Guardianship of India, M.V. Rama Sarma in The Mahatma, and Gian Singh Mann in Truth and Tears. All these playwrights present Gandhi “not in the dramatic but in the absolute image of truth, goodness, courage, justice, non-violence, abstinence, compassion, faith, sacrifice and universal wisdom” (p.150). The last essay makes a comparative study between Lakhan Deb’s Murder at the Prayer Meeting and T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, emphasizing that the Indian dramatist provides a better model of conduct in human values than T.S. Eliot.

The volume very imaginatively made as it is, presents O.P. Bhatnagar as a pillar of Indian English Writing, with intrinsic faith in Indian English authors. His de texte critical analyses, devoid of intolerance of others’ views, are very logically developed and convincingly presented with a forward-looking mindset. His contribution to the cause of Indian English Writing will always be remembered as positive, forceful, and valuable. I.K. Sharma deserves kudos for his yet another significant contribution, as editor, to Indian English Writing.