Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Books & Authors/ DAWN, January 29,2006

Vibhuti Narain Rai : Observation at close quarters -
By Asif Farrukhi

A writer is often described- and rightly so-as the conscience of the age, a guardian angel or a watchdog against all that is wrong in society. But what if the guardian turns into an actual guard? The writer as a real life thanedar. Can one speak of a portrait of an artist as a policeman? In the case of Vibhuti Narain Rai, the answer is a big ‘yes’. But then, he is an exception on more than one count.
Police officer and writer, Rai was born in 1951 in a small village near Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh. He did his masters from Allahabad University in 1971 and in 1975 he joined the Indian Police Service. During his association with the police, he came to see the Hindu-Muslim riots at close hands and while he was associated as a fellow with the National Police Academy in Hyderabad he carried out research on “the perception of police neutrality during communal strife”, which was published as a book and was later translated into Hindi and Urdu.
He depicted the same theme in his short and intense novel Shahar Main Curfew which created a stir in the Hindi circles when it was first published .It viewed the communal issue from the perspective of the victims, who happened to be poverty-ridden Muslim beedi –workers in this case, and was dubbed “pro-Muslim”. The novel was translated into Urdu by Waqar Nasiri and published in India as well as in Pakistan , where it was printed in two journals before being released in book form. The well-known scholar Prof C.M. Naim translated it into English with the title, Curfew in the City in 1998.
While this novel remains his best known work, Rai has penned a number of others, including the novels Ghar, Qissa Lok-Tantra and Tabadala. He has served as editor of a literary journal in Hindi and has also published a collection of satirical pieces.
Posted in Lucknow at present, Rai was recently in Pakistan to participate in the Sajjad Zaheer Centenary celebrations organised by the Irtiqa group. In his busy schedule, he listened patiently to the lengthy deliberations, seemed more relaxed while exchanging notes outside the conference hall and drove down with me to chat about things in general over a cup of tea.
Rai does not see any contradiction in his work as a police officer and his vocation as a writer. At ease with questions, he sits back to talk, looking more like a professor of Hindi literature than anything else.
“The situation in Hindi is bad and with freelancing, it is not possible to lead a comfortable middle-class life,” he says. “So I had to look for a job and it so happened that I joined the police. I am asked this question often that there is no direct relationship between literature and the police department and the two seem contradictory. But my work has also presented me with some opportunities. I was able to meet more people and see certain things closely which if I had been in some other department; I would not have been able to do. These include criminals, touts, corrupt politicians, corrupt officials and other such elements of our society. I was able to observe at close quarters the criminal violence which stems from fundamentalism and is gaining grounds in our society. I don’t think I made any mistake in selecting my job.”
According to Mr. Rai, the ideas for three of his novels emerged from his experience as a police officer. In Tabadala he has tackled the issue of corruption rampant in the system. He says. that he was interested in the issue of communal violence. While he was posted in Allahabad in the initial phase of his career ,he had to deal with such a riot." Although I was still relatively junior in my service , I had the opportunity to deal with it independently. I was witness to many events which were later incorporated in the novel," he says revealing his source.
The novel was even more appreciated in the Urdu circles, being reprinted, serialized or extracted in more than a hundred periodicals, "It is ironical that it was a critique of the Hindu behaviors , or the Hindu police," he says indicating that he is aware of a possible misleading of the book. He recounts that in certain Hindi circles, it was not accepted as a novel and some people termed it as "a mere reportage, a newspaper report". "Behind it was also the fear that Hindus have been shown as oppressors or perpetuators of violence," he explains.
"As a writer I was not concerned with favouring Hindus or Muslims. I wanted to depict my observations during the communal violence and as a writer, I will stand with those who suffer. I am saying this with reference to all writers not only myself. This is my commitment as a writer." He agrees that the novel has a feeling of empathy for Saeeda, its protagonist, " this is not only the story of Saeeda but the story of women in all the homes of Rani Mandi," he emphasizes.
This novel brought a large readership to Rai and he is more satisfied with it than his other books. There were 13 or 14 editions in Hindi alone and the book is translated in to Marathi Bangla and Punjabi. However Rai is not a one-book Writer. He smiles as he says that here in Pakistan he is known to many people by the name of his book rather than his own name.
He goes on to talk about his other books. His other well-known novel deals with what he calls, "the criminalization of politics in recent years and the rise of the mafia" when the mafia realized that all this time they working for others they could serve their own purpose better by running in elections." His recent work includes a collection of essays; mostly on communal issues and the dalit question.
Currently he is working on two novels. The first is a love story which he hopes to complete this year. The other novel is set in his native village. The story starts fro 1966, which he considers a watershed year "when the politics of the country changed. The Congress lost the elections in many states. The upper casts began to decline and the dalits began to open up spaces around themselves. Those changes are at the heart of this novel," he says.
Rai is familiar with the work of a number of Pakistani writers. He mentions Zaheda Hina and Fahmida Riaz, Saying that he would also keep a lookout for their new writings. He says that a good new work from Pakistan gets translated into Hindi fairly quickly. Going back to the previous generation of writers, he singles out Manto, Ibne Insha and Intizar Husain as writers whom he has cherished.
Rai is equally vocal about the other Hindi writings on Communal issues. "Our mainstream is anti-fascist and anti-communal," he says with a sense of pride. "Those who take a communal stance are not part of the Hindi mainstream. "This is our good fortune. Much has been written since Babri Mosque on this issue and our dominant stance is against all forms of communalism." He cites the work of a number of writers on this issue and the many collections of stories and poems which have appeared around this theme.
He takes a critical view of Nirmal Verma saying that he was openly and sometimes discreetly close to Hindutya. "Look, where he had started from and where he reached," he shakes his head. "But he is an exception rather than the norm," he says and goes on to talk of the Hindi writers who believe in freedom of expression, democracy and secularism. As he speaks of his cherished values, the face of this Hindi novelist is lit up with passion.

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