Journalist-turned-scholar Akshaya Mukul on capturing the many shades of life and times of Agyeya

His new book about Hindi literary giant Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan promises to be a page-turner

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Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 23 Jun 2022, 4:49 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Jun 2022, 10:23 PM

Journalism’s loss is scholarship’s gain. Akshaya Mukul, who worked for some of the leading English dailies in Delhi for over two decades, made his literary debut as a researcher-scholar with Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (2015), which won every major non-fiction award in India on its release, including the Crossword Book Award, Ramnath Goenka Award, Tata Literature Live Award, Atta-Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Prize and the Shakti Bhatt Award. Mukul is the recipient of the Homi Bhabha, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and the New India Foundation fellowships. He has contributed essays to Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century, edited by Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald deSouza, and A Functioning Anarchy?: Essays for Ramachandra Guha, edited by Srinath Raghavan and Nandini Sundar.

Mukul’s new book is about Sachchidanand Hirananda Vatsyayan, or ‘Agyeya’, as he was popularly known, and is called Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives of Agyeya, published by Penguin Random House India in July under the Vintage imprint and is currently available on all major e-commerce websites on preorder. Its Hindi language translation, slated for 2023, will be published under the Hind Pocket Books imprint.

The book delves deep into Agyeya’s journey from being a revolutionary youth to patron-saint of Hindi literature. This story spans landscapes stretching from British jails, an intellectually robust Allahabad and modern-day Delhi to monasteries in Europe, the homes of Agyeya’s friends in the Himalayas, and universities in the US. wknd. spoke with Mukul about his upcoming book.

How did you get down to research on Agyeya and how different was it from that of your first book?

Agyeya has been a part of my reading life since my intermediate university years in Ranchi. The friend who introduced me to Agyeya’s Shekhar: Ek Jiwani could recite passages from her memory. So, I heard Shekhar… before I read the two-part novel. Since the mid-1980s, I keep going back to Agyeya, his novels, poems, essays, travelogues and diaries. In Delhi University, my affection for Agyeya slowed down a bit as I was mostly hooked to poets like Muktibodh, the poet of the dark alleys of heart and Raghuvir Sahay, probably the best chronicler of distortions in democracy. I am a serial monogamist when it comes to poets. I have many favourites and generally avoid ‘who is the best’ game of literature. I also never fell for the Agyeya versus Muktibodh pastime of the Hindi world. I kept returning to Agyeya.

The idea of writing Agyeya’s biography came one evening over coffee at the India International Centre, Delhi. I was meeting Vasudha Dalmia, one of India’s foremost scholars of Hindi literature. Conversation generally veered towards Agyeya and his biography and why a comprehensive account of his life and literature was missing. ‘Why don’t you write?’ she asked me. I agreed and within a few hours she had spoken to writer Ashok Vajpeyi and editor-writer Om Thanvi to help me access massive private papers of Agyeya. Vajpeyi and Thanvi were more than willing and over the next few months, I got the custody of the meticulously kept papers. It had everything that a robust archive should have but still there were gaps and questions. In research, filling these gaps is important. Often the exercise of joining the dots is arduous. In the case of Agyeya, I had to look at the Congress for Cultural Freedom archives in Chicago, his acquaintance James Burnham papers in Stanford and Rockefeller archives in New York. I travelled and took help from research assistants. Even in India, colonial records of his life as a revolutionary were shrouded in multiple myths. I found thousands of pages in the National Archives and Delhi State Archives. Above everything, Agyeya’s own papers are a treasure trove of new facts on his public, private and secret lives. His secret lover Kripa Sen being one of them.

Which is the most captivating part of his biography?

Well, I will be uncomfortable giving it out before the book comes out. Agyeya’s diaries in jail and his recording of dreams, writing and rewriting of Shekhar: Ek Jiwani, his relationships with women, especially Kripa Sen and friends like Balraj Sahni. There is also a great deal on Agyeya’s years in the Indian Army, dealings with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom and his transformation as a messiah of Hindi literature.

What kind of cooperation did you get from his ex-wife Kapila Vatsyayan?

Kapila Vatsyayan was Agyeya’s second wife and niece of his first wife Santosh. The marriage had created scandal but the two survived it and lived well for a few years. But they had a bitter parting. Agyeya was extractive in his relationships with women and left them in a miserable state. He had walked out of marriage, and they never formally got divorced. I had known her for many years. But when I approached her for help in 2016, she heard me out and asked me to read her ‘cognitive biography’. But Agyeya is barely there. I kept trying. At one point, she almost agreed but her health deteriorated. In February 2020, I met her for the last time. She refused. ‘You do not understand love. It does not end with a man walking out of the house,’ she told me. I must point out that the dozen times I met her to convince, Kapilaji was dignified and wished me luck. Thankfully, Agyeya’s papers have enough to recreate the joy and tension of their relationship.

How did the transition from your original publisher Westland to Penguin Random House India happen?

Like Agyeya, this biography had an itinerant existence. It was all set to come out from Westland, a publishing house owned by Amazon. V. Karthika and Ajitha G.S., two of my most favourite editors, were heavily invested in the book and had done everything possible. But a few days before it was to go to the press, Amazon closed Westland. In the uncertainty that followed, Penguin Random House India showed interest and acquired the book. Agyeya has found a new home and Penguin Randon House has given the book all the love and care. Thankfully, Westland has also survived and at some point, I would be working with Ajitha on a book we discussed a few months ago.

What’s the next project?

For the past two years I have been working on a full-length biography of Jayaprakash Narayan. It is part of the India Lives series to be edited by Ramachandra Guha.

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