Hindi Mahotsav: Hum Log: The Creative World of Manohar Shyam Joshi

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Tripurari Sharan, Prabhat Ranjan, Mridula Garg, and Mrs. Bhagvati Joshi met to honor the memory of one of the century’s most iconic journalists, novelists, and serial/film writers at Hindi publisher Vani Prakashan’s event, “We People: The Creative World of Manohar Shyam Joshi,” at the Delhi World Book Fair on Feb. 22nd.

“I want to take full responsibility as saying Joshi-Ji was a genius,” Tripurari Sharan, the director of the government broadcaster, Doordoorshan, announced unabashedly on Thursday. “As a journalist, and for those who knew him or spoke with him, as a human being.”

Manohar Shyam Joshi was born in Ajmer, Rajasthan in August of 1933. He demonstrated his “genius” across a wide spectrum of media and styles. Joshi worked as a print and broadcast journalist, writing for such publications as Hindi SaptahikEnglish Weekend Review, and Outlook India. He also contributed to a variety of content at All India Radio and The Film Division of India and Mumbai. He is especially noted for his collaboration on the major-hit film “Hey Ram!” with Bollywood actors Rani Mukherjee and Sharukhan.

Outside of the world of journalism Joshi was a prolific novelist. He composed literary works in romance, comedy, and political satire. Some of his most notable of his works include Kasap, Netaji Kahin, Kurukuru Swaahaa, Mai Khan Hoon, and T’ta Professor.

Upon his death in 2006, India’s former prime minister Manmohan Singh praised Joshi as “one of the most influential writers and commentators in Hindi in recent times.” When writers and friends met to discuss his work in Hall 18, his eulogy continued unabated upon the release of more of his life works.

“Unlike other contemporary authors, Joshi wrote according to his own style,” said Tripurari Sharan. Joshi revolutionized the entertainment sector of India forever by introducing soap operas to middle-class living rooms in the 1980s—the immensely popular Hum Log (We People) and Buniyad (Foundation). Sharan characterized Hum Log as “not only popular but also purposeful”–a serial that tapped into the inner lives, quiet anxieties, and mundane joys of families amidst a larger social backdrop of government family planning. Joshi was revolutionary in many aspects; he brought a new face not only to journalism but also to modernity as it was understood at the time.

Mridula Garg, a widely read Hindi author and columnist on women, children, and the environment, recounted her own experience reading Joshi:

“You all probably know that Joshi Ji was working constantly on a novel for a long time. Kapish Ji,” she explained. “It is my understanding that Kapish Ji is not only one of the greatest of Joshi’s novels, but is one of the greatest novels in any language today. I don’t know how many people have read it, but I suggest everyone pick it up. If you want to understand contemporary India or the absurdities and paradoxes of the economy, or of the secret of our culture…” (her voice surged with passion), “then you must certainly read this book.  If you don’t read Kapish Ji, then you will not know what Hindi literature is, what India is, or what India’s culture is today.”

It is ironic that while writers, intellectuals, and critics rush to defend the Hindi bastion against the thundering popularity of Indian English, many English readers remained barred from the cultural and literary insights offered by Hindi literature. Fortunately, translators are in our midst! One of these includes Department Head at the University of Virginia’s South Asian Department, Robert Hueckstedt.

Four years ago Penguin Global published Hueckstedt’s translation of Hariya Hercules Ki Hairani, or The Perplexity of Haryana Hercules. In this paradoxical postmodern tale, our protagonist, Hercules, is the only son left to care for his ailing father. While Hercules performs the Herculean labors of cleaning up after his father’s defecations, his father bemoans a fate of being stuck with the most worthless of sons.

Hercules’ redeeming virtue is his kindness and dedication. It is precisely this unerring sense of duty that grinds on the nerves of his father and the village. Every morning he rides to his neighbor’s houses a teatime to report on the status of his father’s health. (This report usually includes an update on his bowel movements.) His neighbors politely offer him tea, secretly wishing he would quit spoiling their mornings.

This provincial village tale assumes a universal philosophical context when Hercules discovers his father’s hidden inheritance of a treasure chest. Through this discovery—in conjunction with a series of other strange encounters—Hercules begins to suspect he has a doppleganger living in Australia. He goes on to conclude that not only he, but perhaps every Indian has a mirror self living somewhere else in the world. Perplexed but compelled by this riddle, Hercules sets off to return the chest’s contents to Tibetan monks in the mountains. The ridiculousness of the novel successively spirals out of control as the narrator mutates into the gossiping villagers he’s left behind.

Some critics refer to the Perplexity of Haryana Hercules as a “scatological” novel—a double-handed compliment with which I must wholeheartedly agree. The novel, funny but unpredictable, leaves the sense of questions unanswered and narrative threads untied. Given the title of the novel and writing style of the author, however, it is possible that this “perplexity” is the entire point. We readers are perhaps meant to leave the book as baffled as our protagonist, as speculative as the village neighbors. Published in 2010 and now available on Amazon, this book showcases a Hindi creative genius unrecognized in a market over-saturated with Indian English fiction.

As a writer fascinated with mirror images, it is appropriate that Joshi’s work has come to mirror the multifaceted, perplexing realities of modern India. Garga reported interviewing the author, but stated that her interviews were perhaps unnecessary, since Joshie did a better job interviewing himself. He was constantly engaged with his many creative voices, as evinced in his autobiography, Joshi-Ji.

“I accept Joshi as a Guru,” she said. “And what is a Guru? It is not to write like him. It is to write in your own style with the courage he inspires.”

And Joshi inspired many. Unlike many authors today, he didn’t think of his readers as stupid. So don’t be stupid! If you want to learn more about India or Indian culture, pick up his books in Hindi or in English. Or if you’re too lazy, Guru-Ji has provided another option:

Just flip on the TV.

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