Hari Mohan Jha

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Hari Mohan Jha (1908-1984)[1] was an author who wrote in the Maithili language.

Hailed variously as ‘monarch of wit and satire’, ‘incarnation of humour’ and the ‘Vidyapati of Maithili Prose’, Prof. Hari Mohan Jha made his appearance on the Maithili literary scene as a miracle which holds its spell even today. Laurels of praise though these sobriquets might be, they have a circumscribing and delimiting impact on his multi-faceted genius. To brand him as a satirist who is generally believed to be inferior in merit and destructive in intent amounts to a denial of his talent as a creative artist. To call him a wit is, of course, an admiration for his intellectual sharpness and cerebral brilliance, but it also points to, by implication, a lack of emotional elements in his writings. By confining him to humour we tend to become unresponsive to his equal deftness in handling other human emotions, especially pathos. And the great prose-stylist, we should bear in mind, was also a versifier of considerable merit. By profession a philosopher, generally notorious for his absent-mindedness, he was gifted with a rare agility of mind which expressed itself through a ready wit, bright and sparkling irony and quick repartee that enliven all his writings. In life a Professor of Philosophy known for seriousness, he is perhaps the greatest humorist in letters. The kind of humour he is famous for has no parallel in world literature: not even Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse could ever come quite close to it. It is the inimitable native humour of Mithila which tickles as it pinches or stings, and ranges from a simple chuckle, giggle or smile to a full-throated guffaw or an uproarious laughter that has the capacity to bring the roof down. It is also surprising that a philosopher who dwells primarily in a world of abstractions could be so concrete in the delineation of plot, character and incident. But the logician and the literary artist seem to unite in the ‘tough reasonableness” of his arguments moving as an undercurrent beneath the surface of his humour. His humour is not just an intellectual luxury but a corrective measure aimed at exposing shams, stripping naked the follies of the time, or pricking the bubbles of pretension. His humour has much more therapeutic effect than the present-day laughing clubs. Like Bernard Shaw he believed in art for life’s sake, and made his writing purposeful. To him literature was a platform whence he could air his radical, iconoclastic views to correct the evils eating into the vitals of the socio-cultural complex of Mithila. The message is sometimes overtly stated; sometimes it is artistically woven into the plot.

The personality of Prof. Jha was a curious blend of eastern and western cultures. He inherited the one from the family and the social milieu in which he lived, and imbibed the other from the kind of education he got. He was equally well-versed in Sanskrit and English. The umpteen quotes from the Vedas, the Puranas and other religious texts scattered through his writings bear testimony to his profound study of Sanskrit literature. His Sanskrit in Thirty Days and Sanskrit Anuvad Chadrika, two indispensable manuals for beginners, written rather in haste to earn tuition fee for his B.A. Course, are better than most books on Sanskrit grammar and translation. And his Trends of Linguistic Analysis in Indian Philosophy which was acclaimed as a valuable contribution to the subject all over the country and even abroad speaks highly of his proficiency in English. The two strains in his personality – oriental and occidental, antiquity and modernity, past and progress – far from being warring elements standing in antagonism to each other, move towards the same goal – to make life better and more meaningful. He was keenly alive to the traditional values and cultural richness of Mithila. But he was also critical of the hypocrisy and arrogance rampant in its social, moral and religious texture. A modernist in his attitude to life he was highly conscious of the zeitgeist and believed in keeping pace with the times. Yet he was intolerant of a blind aping of the west in the name of progress. Prof. Jha’s was a versatile genius which expressed itself through his novels, short stories, one-act plays, reminiscences, rambles, skits, sketches as well as poems and parodies with equal accomplishment. Most importantly, when all the known genres of literature proved inadequate for his inexhaustible creativity, he innovated a completely new genre hitherto unknown to Maithili literature or any other literature for that matter in Khattar Kakak Tarang (Brain Waves of Uncle Khattar). He might have been inspired by Bankim Chandra’s Kamlakanter Daftar (Kamlakant’s Office) Or De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium-eater. Yet his Khattar Kaka is so different from them that it stands apart and has no peer in world literature. The only form of literature he did not try was criticism, but what are his writings but an embodiment of social, moral and cultural criticism? To me the corpus of Prof. Jha’s short stories collected in three volumes namely Pranamya Devata (Revered Gods), Rangshala (The Theatre) and Charchari (A Miscellany), some of which were reproduced in Ekadashi and Selected Stories (Sahitya Akademi) with a handful of fresh ones, represents the most exquisite blossom of his creative art. The present article intends to critically analyze his representative stories and find out factors that account for his unprecedented popularity as a Maithili short story writer.

In his exhaustive introduction to Prof. Jha’s Selected Stories published by Sahitya Akademi, which is perhaps the most detailed criticism of his short stories, Raj Mohan Jha puts them in four categories on the basis of the varying degrees of humour and satire in them: (i) stories with a proportionate balance of humour and satire (ii) serious satirical stories (iii) light-hearted humorous stories, and (iv) stories which have pathos as central emotion. Classification of other kinds is also possible. To me Prof. Jha’s stories can broadly be divided into two groups: stories which dramatize life and those which transcribe it. In the first he is a story-teller par excellence like Somerset Maugham; in the second, a story writer like Chekhov sharing his natural ease and the power to successfully render emotion into words and pass it to the reader making him his collaborator.

In fact, most of the stories of the world can be placed in either of these groups. Whether a short story writer presents a dramatization of life that could interest, excite and surprise or a direct copy of life through symbolism and imagery depends on his choice and ability or demands of the plot. Two most popular names for dramatization of life are Maupassant and Maugham while Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield stand as forerunners of the transcription of life type. To Chekhov even an ordinary character or situation like “people going to offices, quarrelling with their wives and eating cabbage soup” could provide sufficient material for a short story. But to Maugham this was not enough: “In order to make a story they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives, and when they eat their cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance”. This was because of his preference for the stories of the narrated type which could be “told over the dinner table or in a ship’s smoking room and they held the attention of listeners.” In Prof. Jha’s short stories we have a wonderful combination of Chekhov and Maugham. He chooses his style according to the purpose of the stories, and excels in both types. And this is primarily on account of his honest representation of life’s realities. How nicely has it been said that one can lie in love and politics, one can deceive his brethren, even God, but deception in art is something unpardonable, inexcusable and intolerable.

The first group of Prof. Jha’s short stories comprises a major chunk which became so popular even among the illiterate that he was catapulted to fame overnight and became a household name. These are stories of the narrated type which can be read individually or shared by a group gathered at the village choupal or by a fireside. They had an instant mass-appeal and there was no attempt on the part of the writer to make them classy. They had an elaborate plot-pattern, a graphic and detailed delineation of character, and a string of comic situations. The readers to whom the situations were familiar and the characters easily identifiable found in them the stories of their own life.

Stories collected in Pranamya Devata presenting to us modern versions of eleven Rudras can be placed in the category of the narrated type which exploit dramatization to the full for humorous and satirical effects. The debate whether they are stories or otherwise is most unfounded. They are stories of character, and of the same order as The Luncheon or Mr. Know-all. Prof. Jha calls them “satirical sketches” which have their western counterparts, at least in respect of their social purpose, in the pen-pictures of various types of men and women – the hypocrite, the Milkmaid, the Dull Physician, a young Raw Preacher etc – drawn by early 17th century essayists like Hall, Overbury, Earle, Dekker, Fuller and others. Inspired by Theophrastus and influenced largely by Seneca and the dramatists, especially Ben Jonson’s Comedy of Humours, these writers made the ‘character’ a favourite form of description and satire. In fact, Prof. Jha did more or less the same thing in his stories as they did in their essays. The vogue of such character portrayal was continued by the 18th century periodical essayists like Addison, Steele and Oliver Goldsmith. Prof. Jha shares with them the general purpose of their essays which was “to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguise of cunning, vanity and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in dress, discourse and behaviour”. More than an album or portrait gallery, Pranamya Devata is a ‘menagerie’ of one short of a dozen odd creatures vying for supremacy. The book is dedicated to one whom the author considers to be the supreme contender, but the readers may have their own pick. We have quite an assortment of funny characters in a foursome of queer, gluttonous guests unscrupulously callous to the inconvenience of the host (Vikat Pahun/ Odd Guests); a greedy, newly-wed young man who wants to show off at the cost of his poor father-in-law (Adarsh Kutumb/An Ideal Relation); a poor, pitiable husband who is compelled to live with his affluent in-law and is subsequently reduced to the status of a domestic servant (Ghar Jamai/Living with In-law); an illiterate, uncouth southern Brahmin who cannot even pronounce correctly the name of his culturally superior wife (Bhadeshak Namoona/Sample from the Off-country); and an anglicized fop whose discomfiture reminds one of Khushwant Singh’s Karma (Angrejia Babu / An Anglicized Youth). There is also a poet, or a poetaster rather, with a vast gap between his practice and precept in Kaviji (The Poet). The professed emancipator of woman turns out to be a jealous husband, and the revolutionary poet shows his real skin when a cat rattles the door at night. Likewise, there are an orthodox theologian, a hypocrite astrologer, an avaricious pundit, and the leech of an insurance agent who would pursue one to the underworld to get a deal. Together they complete the social scenario of the Mithila of Prof. Jha’s time. These stories combine entertainment with enlightenment at a level of literary accomplishment and cultural sensitivity.

To this group of stories of the narrated type we may add two more from another collection Charchari. Tirhutaam (The Hospitality of Tirhut) and Teerthyatra (A Pilgrimage). The first dramatizes how excessive hospitality often becomes the cause of pain and discomfort. The second is an exposure of rapacious pandas at holy places, while it also highlights the selfishness and narrow-mindedness of people even while moving as a team. The narrated stories of Prof. Jha, taken as a whole, lack compactness, singularity of incident and perception, and a total artistic detachment which characterize the modern short story. The narration is loose and detailed, and the satirical intent is well-marked. The characters are realistically sketched types akin to Jonsonion ‘humour’ characters with their dominant traits drawn in prominence. There certainly are elements of exaggeration in plot, character and situation, but far from being implausible they are essential for comic and satiric effects. There is a deliberate attempt to inflate the characters out of proportion by overstretching them as caricatures so that they could be punctured with a bang. The aim of these stories is not just to tickle us with humour; they have rather a serious social concern. For example, stories like Ghar Jamai, Bhadeshak Namoona and Angrejia Babu deal with incompatibility in marriage from three different angles. Dharmashashtracharya and Jyotishacharya dispel the clouds of self-created myths of theologians and astrologers by exposing them to their bones.

The second category of Prof. Jha’s shorter fiction comprises beautiful transcriptions of life in such pieces as Panch Patra (Five Letters), Kanyak Jeevan (Life of a Girl Child), Maryadak Bhang (Loss of Grace), Gram Sevika (The Lady Village Worker), Graduate Putohu (The Graduate Daughter-in-law), and Railak Anubhav (Experience of a Train Journey). Artistically superior to the earlier group, these are the real gems of Prof. Jha’s stories, and some of them like Panch Patra and Kanyak Jeevan can compete with the best in world literature. In the earlier stories we invariably feel the presence of the author in the personal comments and the messages that are allowed to go overtly stated. That was quite in keeping with the social satire he was writing. But here we have snippets of life presented in total objectivity, with the bareness and conciseness of a Chekhovian story. The author withdraws himself and lets the story unfold itself. The message is there but it is artistically interwoven in the story.

Panch Patra, a marvellous example of Prof. Jha’s multi-dimensional art, is at the first glance, a moving account of life-time interwoven with the hopes and aspirations, sorrows and sufferings, memories and desires of a lower middle-class Sanskrit teacher. The five brief letters written purposively at an interval of a decade are word-pictures which combine to form a collage of a whole life. The description of different mental states, creation of a corresponding atmosphere, presentation of conflicting emotions, and a powerful use of imagery lend the story poetic dimensions. The letters read as five acts of a drama or five chapters of a novel with well-marked points as the climax or denouement of the story. They also stand as dramatic monologues revealing the weaknesses of the protagonist while he talks about others. They also present a progression of life in terms of Purushartha Chatustaya (Karma) – Kama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha, or the four Ashramas – Brahmacharya, Garhastah, Vanprastha and Sanyaas. The contradiction of dualities viz. life and death, pleasure and pain, youth and age, dream and reality, attachment and renunciation, bring the story very close to life’s truth.

An equally touching tale, Kanyak Jeevan, is a pathetic saga of a child widow, which compresses the tragedy of a life-time and easily earns the epithet ‘great’. The pathos is generated by the juxtaposition of two pictures of the same girl drawn at two different points of time – Tittir Dai as an innocent, playful girl, and just fourteen years thence a young widow, mother of four including two marriageable daughters, her body barely clad in a tattered sari and her face reflecting “leaden-eyeed despairs”. This story has the capacity to move the readers to their depths as it has done to me bringing tears to my eyes each time I read it. I can say that Prof. Jha would have been counted among the great even if he had written nothing else but this single piece, like Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights) and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind). It is a kind of story that can only be felt; to retell it is to mangle it, to destroy its essential beauty. The story poses a pertinent question to the entire Maithil society – Why is it that a woman is finished with life much before a man steps into it? Who is responsible for this immense tragic waste, this devastating human wreck?

These two stories are a class apart. Like great stories of the world they give us a feel of what James Joyce calls “moments of epiphany”, a sudden, evanescent spiritual manifestation of life’s truth. These moments of epiphany are akin to Ezra Pound’s notion of the image or the flash of insight in the best of Wordsworth. A great story becomes an image of a particular emotion, and every word of it, overtly stated or suggestively implied, contributes to its effect. It is “a glimpse through” a moment that unfolds before us a history of the millennium, an individual who gives us a feel of the entire humankind, an incident that makes us aware of the vastness of life itself. It is the accomplishment in words of a single emotion or dramatic effect which leaves us with the feeling of having participated in the life and movement of the world. To a modern short story writer any significant fragment of life provides sufficient material to work upon. He observes it minutely, describes it simply and objectively, and at the end the point is made without apparent effort, leaving the reader thrilled, emotionally disturbed or spiritually enlightened. The success of a story can be determined in terms of how efficiently it conveys the truth of life through symbols or archetypes. Viewed in this light, Panch Patra and Kanyak Jeevan are really great stories unfolding before us truthful pictures of life drawn objectively. They offer a glimpse through individuals who give us a feel of the lower middle-class humanity in the one, and of widowed womanhood in the other. Unlike the stories of Pranamya Devata, there is no intrusion of the personal element, and the stories are left to stand on their own and speak for themselves. The epiphany or flash or vision of an image that I have talked about must stand in itself, in complete objectivity, like painting, sculpture or music, without any attempt at interpretation. An artist is just a medium through which the white, celestial light passes, and in its passage from the divine to the human it must not be corrupted by any personal hue. He is required to possess “an almost Christ-like quality of self-abnegation” or “negative capability” of Shakespeare to enter truly into the joys and sorrows of other people. The stories under consideration are beautiful specimens of the writer’s self-effacement and honest representation of the verisimilitude of life.

The next three stories in this category namely, Maryadak Bhang, Gram Sevika and Graduate Potohu reveal Prof. Jha as a champion of the “new woman”. These stories present bold and emancipated young women taking charge of duties hitherto denied to them. Situations in these stories have been created in such a dexterous manner that old values become ridiculously redundant and the new ones assert themselves. In Maryadak Bhang, the daughter-in-law of a conservative Maithil family boldly defies the purdah and comes out to receive the guest thus saving the grace of the family from being lost, while elderly ladies of the house try to hide behind some cover. Gram Sevika is the story of a village worker who impresses the entire village by her selfless social service, and wins the heart of even those who were critical of her in the beginning. Graduate Putohu is about an educated woman of independent views who is coldly received in her husband’s family but her untimely death from snakebite brings about a radical change in their perspective of woman. In Railak Anubhav there is a juxtaposition of two contrary scenes – one highlighting linguistic affinity among the Bengalis and their exemplary love for mother-tongue, the other revealing an utter lack of these among Maithils. The story poses a relevant question and asks us to ponder why there is such a vast difference between Bengal and Mithila in spite of geographical proximity. Padma and Kamla connote the same thing, then why is there such a difference in their waters? All these stories have neatly crafted plots, and there is a total elimination of the personal element. They all have some intellectual element compelling us to think and improve the social situation. But the message is never made explicit but is artistically embedded in the plot of the story.

Besides these two major groups, we also have a third in which we can place Prof. Jha’s allegorical satires such as Brahmak Shaap (The Curse of Brahma), Babak Samskar (Father’s Funeral), Dwadas Nidan (Twelve Remedies), Kalaazarak Upchar (Treatment of Kalaazar) and Vinimya (Exchange). Presented under the garb of an allegorical story about the creation of man, Brahmak Shaap is essentially a subtle satire on the contentious nature of Maithils. Babak Samskar also makes a successful use of allegorical framework revealing its real intent only in the last sentence. Seemingly a story of horrifying cruelty and patricide, it is, in import, about the impatience of Maithili writers of the younger generation with their older counterparts. In all probability the story was occasioned by an inhumanly harsh criticism of Prof. Jha describing him as a “stinking corpse”, by an over-enthusiastic young writer who was perhaps in a hurry to get himself established overnight as a great writer. In stories like Dwadas Nidan and Kalaazarak Upchar Prof. Jha moves out of the territory of Mithila and focuses on some burning national issues. He lashes at the government machinery, especially bureaucracy, exposing the futility of mad national projects and high-level committees. Vinimay offers a frank and candid picture of the practical form of the so-called modernity and progressiveness, and show how repulsive it could be.

Prof. Jha wrote some stories out of sheer fun and for his own delight, taking a holiday, as it were, from the seriousness of satire and social criticism. They are remarkable for his inventive power and his capacity for creating something highly enjoyable out of nothing. These are trick stories, stories of ingenuity and verbal playfulness. In this category we can place such stories as Totama (A Cure for Hiccup), Kalibarik Chor (The Thief of Kalibari), Darogajik Monchh (Darogaji’s Moustache), Alankar Siksha (A Lesson in Rhetoric) and Pressak Leela (Printer’s Devil). In Totama and Kalibarik Chor we have two memorable trick stories that keep us glued to the text till the very end. The crescendo of suspense that ultimately leads to an anti-climax has been so well maintained that it keeps us on tenterhooks forcing us to jump ahead to the conclusion. The beauty and originality of Darogajik Monchh lie in the dexterously drafted letter which gives one meaning when read in part and a completely opposite meaning when read in full. In our enjoyment of the story we do not question how come the letter which was torn in frustration had two exactly equal halves. Pressak Leela is a hilarious description of how the printer’s devil made an estate Pundit lose his job. An instance of “learning while playing”, Alankar Siksha relies solely on verbal exercise and the use of prose as a functional medium. A supreme example of verbal humour, it reveals the inventive power of Prof. Jha’s mind in the way a Sanskrit teacher is shown to use a volley of abuses among the women of his house as a textbook to give his disciple a lesson in rhetoric. He gives a practical demonstration of different figures of speech by identifying and explaining every abuse, idiom or proverb hurled in the course of the wordy quarrel.

In view of the variety of stories Prof. Jha attempted – satirical sketches, transcriptions, allegories and ingenious tales – it can be said that the short story became in his hand a highly flexible medium which he could mould and shape according to his personal requirements or the demands of the occasion. For example, in Rasmayik Grahak (Subscribers of Rasmayi) he uses an epistolary form to give it an edge and a point. In his dramatizations and transcriptions of life he combines the quintessence of some of the greatest practitioners of the short story – Maupassant, Turgenev, Chekhov and Maugham. The ease and naturalness with which his genius expressed itself in the comic as well as the tragic, and moved from the ridiculous to the sublime remind us of Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness.

His realistically drawn characters have become part of our memory, and the names of some of them have gained currency as common nouns. In the best of his stories he parts with himself, in the manner of great artists, to enter into his characters as diverse as Tittir Dai and Dev Krishna. The way he throws his personality off and drowns himself in the joys and sorrows of his characters is almost Shakespearean. In his exposition and exploration of characters he combines the attributes of two contrary geniuses – Shaw and Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare again, he makes an exploratory-creative use of language, and exploits the full resources of the native tongue. He can forge language into his own mould, making words do service at the command of the master. He freed Maithili prose from the bondage of Sanskrit and made it stand on its own by bringing it closer to colloquial, idiomatic speech-pattern. Prof. Jha’s stories are rooted in Mithila’s socio-cultural tradition which he always prized as a treasure. It is true that a work of fiction has its natural source in subjectivity, but it is not just an aesthetic act but also social. Great writers have always shown a concern with interpreting the flux of life most prominently in its socio-cultural perspective. A good story, thus, appeals to us not only on the levels of theme, character and event, but also on social and cultural levels. The stories of Prof. Jha are stories of Mithila in all her strengths and weaknesses – her people, actions, habits and customs, rites and rituals, dress and food-habits, dogmas and beliefs. They give us the smell of her soil in the description of events, delineation of characters and their interactions, the colloquial idiom they use. They cherish the memory of her age-old cultural heritage but they also expose certain incongruities, inconsistencies and anomalies inherent in various aspects of her socio-cultural fabric – customs and superstitions, religion and morality. But in spite of his revolutionary spirit and reformative zeal he remains an artist, from first to last. And that is perhaps why he is considered an all-time great in Maithili literature.

References[edit]

  1. ^ K. M. George, editor (1994). Modern Indian Literature, an Anthology: Plays and prose. p. 356. ISBN 8172017839. "(Hari Mohan Jha, 1908-84)"