First published in The Hindu on 27 March, 2016.
I never cared much for Delhi until I read Ravish Kumar's short Hindi love stories. My old bias — perhaps from too much Premchand, and not enough Chetan Bhagat — had me seeing more authenticity in Bihar's villages than in Delhi. The city was just a necessary stop on the way to the village. At home in Australia, I told this to my university Hindi students when they began reading Ravish's book a month ago. Some of them know Delhi well. Others have never even been to India. Together, we are constructing a poetic map of Delhi from the perspective of couples in love. Ravish breaks down barriers between city and village. And he asks us to fall in love with Delhi, which contains both.
The city in love
Ravish's book, Ishq Mein Shahar Hona, is the first in Rajkamal Prakashan's Facebook Fiction Series, and it was one of last year's best-selling Hindi titles. Ravish is one of India's most respected Hindi journalists. With this book, he also establishes himself as the most prominent author of a new literary genre called Laprek, which has the potential to revitalise Hindi readership. Laprek is an acronym for Laghu Prem Katha, or 'short love story.' The genre was born on Facebook, where groups of writers refined the genre to look nostalgically to the past while also considering love in the age of online status updates. Laprekars also tweet their works: love stories in 140 Devanagari characters or less.
I picked up a copy of Ravish's book at the Amrit Book Company in Connaught Place. The 90 pages are a quick read, perfect for an hour-long metro commute. I read some excerpts to Santosh Kumar, my auto driver from Connaught Place to Defence Colony. The book opens with a young couple's conversation. He feels like Karawal Nagar, but she feels like South Ex. The distance between them is reduced by the Barapullah flyover. Santosh was fascinated to hear the cartographies of his professional life recast as metaphors for love.
I skipped ahead 20 pages and read aloud: A couple finds solitude in the noise of an auto ride, while their driver steals glances in the rear-view mirror. Santosh laughed and then unexpectedly pulled to the side of the road by Lodhi Garden. "This is my auto," he explained. "All types of people sit in the back, as you are now. If those people are in love, they have the biggest problem of all. They have no place to be in love." He pointed to the book and said, "This is the story of Delhi."
Like the book's author Ravish, and like many of Ravish's characters, Santosh has migrated to Delhi from Bihar. He has settled in Delhi, but "home" remains a village in Bihar's Darbhanga district. In his introduction, Ravish explains the village-city divide that permeates the book. Even after his migration, the city remains a temporary residence. Ravish's experience of the city is informed by his identity as a villager from Bihar. In this way, he brings the village to the city.
The city's edge
The memorable opening scene of Shrilal Shukla's magnificent 1968 novel Raag Darbari describes India's cities as islands in a village ocean: "The city's edge; beyond which expands the ocean of rural India." Does this edge exist any more? A year ago I posed the question to Ravindra Tripathi, a Hindi publisher based in Gorakhpur. I was sitting on the back seat of his motorcycle. We were travelling from Gorakhpur to Dumari village to spend the day with Bhojpuri poet Ramnaval Mishra.
"No, the edge doesn't exist anymore," said Ravindra. "The city has expanded beyond its border, and there are very few real villages left. I could take you to one, but it would take a long time, because there must be no road. There must be no electricity. It must take days to get there." Ravindra continued his description of how difficult it would be to reach an authentic village, and I wondered if such a remote place ever existed. When we arrived in Dumari, Ramnaval sang of seven decades of change in his village: "The village has become like a city."
If Ravish's book breaks down the barrier between village and city, that barrier is obliterated in Girindra Nath Jha's Ishq Mein Mati Sona, the second book in Prakashan's Laprek series. The book follows a young couple from Delhi to northeast Bihar's largest city, Purnea, and then to a village in Purnea district. This is the contour of Girindra's own life. His late father Gaurinath Jha moved his family from Chanka village to Purnea. He did not want his children tied to the village, or even to Bihar. So, Girindra moved to Delhi for university and then to Kanpur for work as a journalist. But his father's declining health brought him back to Bihar, and he resettled there four years ago. Since then, he has worked as a farmer and activist for Chanka's agricultural community. He uses social media to bring farmers together to discuss issues ranging from rural education to agricultural technology. And through the Laprek genre, he has also embraced social media as a vehicle for literary creativity.
In his introduction, Girindra writes: "I am both urban and rural; the city is within me, and so is the village. My life is incomplete without both." As we follow his characters Sneha and Ashish from the city to the village, we learn what this means. They leave behind coffee houses and metro stations for village fields and footpaths. We are presented with a compelling portrait of a northeast Bihari village, where both the plough and the status update are components of life and love.
I have known Girindra for some time, and have often turned to him with questions about Phanishwarnath Renu, the famous Hindi author who hailed from a village very close to Chanka. Girindra's writing, with its interplay between city and village, and its close attention to regional detail, carries Renu's literary tradition into the 21st century. Like Maryganj in Renu's Maila Anchal, Girindra's literary village could be any other in north India. And yet, much of it is so specific to Purnea that Chanka residents would be forgiven for declaring it theirs and theirs alone.
Girindra and I recently travelled together from Patna to Chanka, where he arranged for me to work with a group of expert musicians. Before they assembled, Girindra read some of his later passages to an elderly man named Yoganand Jha, including a story which featured Yoganand himself. Yoganand recognised his village, and had only one comment: "There is so much truth in this."
As my Australian Hindi students turn to Girindra's writing, they find their imagination stretched. Ravish's Delhi is foreign, but still recognisable. The footpaths and courtyards of Girindra's village, however, seem a world away. But this is literature, and a connection has been made. The city has no edge, and neither does the village. Chanka is blossoming in Melbourne.
Dr Ian Woolford is a lecturer in Hindi at La Trobe University