Writing materials

Akshaya Mukul on Writing Famous Hindi Novelist Agyeya’s Biography

The man

Five years and over 800 pages later, when I think of Agyeya’s biography, it reminds me of a few lines from WH Auden O Tell me the truth about love.

When he comes, will he come without warning,
Just when I’m picking my nose?
Will he knock on my door in the morning,
Or walk the bus on my toes?
Will it come as a change of weather?
Will his welcome be courteous or brutal?
Will this completely change my life?
O tell me the truth about love.

Like love, Agyeya’s biography came without warning. I was having coffee with the scholar Vasudha Dalmia when the discussion veered into the complex life of the author. In love with his writing and his life, I asked why there was no biography of Agyeya. Vasudha returned the question to me. One thing led to another, Agyeya became the love of my life and changed it for a few years. As he sifted through his voluminous private files, spent days in archives, and got stuck writing at night, old memories of his first encounter with Agyeya at age 17, through a borrowed copy of Shekhar: Ek Jiwaniand Kumar Gandharva’s memorable tribute to him kept me going.

Akshaya Mukul is a writer, most recently from Writer, Rebel, soldier, lover: several lives of Agyeya

After nearly a month of sifting through Agyeya’s papers, one rainy afternoon, I unearthed a small, neatly closed cardboard box. Inside were dozens of letters from Kripa Sen, Agyeya’s lover in the early 1940s, but unknown to the world. Between the two were two neatly folded handkerchiefs with a monogram and a lock of hair, neatly attached to the paper. Manoj and Satpal, who helped scan the documents, refused to touch Kripa’s hair. There were also four intense letters she had written to him, each different from the next, in exquisite prose full of passion and desire. Among these buried treasures, there was only one letter from Agyeya addressed to him – that too, a farewell letter. I spent months tracking down Kripa and his family. Only UN diplomat Virendra Dayal remembered Aunt Kripa at her uncle Rajeshwar Dayal’s home in Lucknow. Agyeya immortalized her as Rekha in Nadi Ke Dwip, carried traces of her through two other relationships and left the rest to a biographer. I consider myself lucky.

Gateway languages

I have often been confronted with two haunting questions. Why did I write the life of a Hindi writer in English and why his love life? Why not, that’s how I often counter. Why should Agyeya be left to Hindi alone? Imagine a world where Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Clarice Lispector, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Nazim Hikmet are recorded in their languages. I am happy to note that my friend Vineet Gill’s brilliant book on the literary work of Nirmal Varma will be out in English next month. Let the lives and literature of more Indian language writers appear in English.

When it comes to privacy, a strange moral takes over. Agyeya’s silence and melancholy are more important than her love/sex life, I’m told. “You have disturbed his image as a sage,” a friend sent. I do not agree. Agyeya’s devotees have made it more boring than it has ever been. It is necessary to rescue literary icons from their bhakts. A suggested reading would be City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara by Brad Gooch. His private papers came from the family, but Gooch left nothing out – poetry, art, sex, gossip and glamour.


I wish Agyeya’s wife Kapila Vatsyayan was there to read about her ex-husband. Their love story was talked about at the time, from Delhi to Allahabad. She was the niece of Agyeya’s first wife, Santosh. Imagine a case like this today, in the age of instant justice and cyber-policing. Like Auden, Kapila’s last line resonates in my head. “You don’t understand the male-female relationship,” she asked me. Maybe not.

I meticulously kept a record of everyone who helped me in my endeavors. I forgot to mention the ever-smiling Kuldeep from the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library though. He photocopies archival documents and was very kind to me. He was sad to see his name missing from the thank you section of the book. Sorry Kuldeep.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Biographer’s Diary”)

Akshaya Mukul is a writer, most recently Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: Many Lives of Agyeya