Shekhar: Ek Jivani
Cover page of English translation; 2018 edition
Published in English
Shekhar: Ek Jivani (pronounced [ʃe.khər: ek jiv.ni]; transl. Shekhar: A Life) is an incomplete Hindi-language novel by Indian writer Sachchidananda Vatsyayan, also known by his pen-name, Agyeya. Published in two parts with a yet unpublished third part, Ek Jivani is semi-biographical in nature and is considered to be Agyeya's magnum opus.
Agyeya acknowledged inspiration from Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe, the French novel in ten volumes. He wrote that "like the author of Jean-Christophe, [he] was concerned with etching the portrait of a self-analytical, introspective soul, and was interested in discovering how such a person became a terrorist."
Agyeya also quoted or mentioned Romantic and lyrical poets like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Edna Vincent Millay, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Byron, John Keats, and Walter Scott. In the preface of the novel, Agyeya has referenced T. S. Eliot and Luigi Pirandello and literary formulations of other modernist Western writers like James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Lionel Trilling, Dorothy Richardson, and André Gide.
Agyeya wrote the first draft of the novel after being arrested working with an underground revolutionary group, where he contemplated writing about his life before he would be executed. The first part was published after four redrafts, and the second was released in 1944. A third part was composed but never published.
Shekhar: Ek Jivani is written in the first person, with the narrator telling their story in a nonlinear narrative. The narrator is a revolutionary who has been sentenced to death. Shortly before his execution, he reflects on his life. He recounts his memories of social rebellion and passionate love.
The narrator was born in a ruined Buddhist monastery to Brahmin parents. His father, moved from town to town in India, taking his family with him. Because of this, the narrator failed to form an attachment to any location. Furthermore, conflicting personalities of his parents split his personality. Therefore, he grew up as a introverted young man. Intelligent, yet oversensitive, he reacted violently to events he disagreed with, contemplating on his mother's actions. He then developed a deep dislike for his mother, while admiring his father and adoring his elder sister. The narrator also developed an antagonistic attitude to religion, and a rebellious view of social distinction and political slavery.
As a young child, the narrator was often violent, attacking postmen and classmates, and defied orders from adults. The narrator recalls having been badly frightened by a stuffed tiger in a museum, when his father brought home a similar fake tiger and discovered that it was filled with straw. Thus, he became convinced that all fears were imaginary. As he grew to lack fear for even death, he would bathe in the river despite his inability to swim.
From an early age, the narrator rejected social norms which he disapproved of, including the caste system. From childhood, he demonstrated an intense dislike of slavery. At college, he abandoned the Brahmin hostel in favour of the Harijan hostel as a sign of rejection of strict interpretations of Brahmanism. He was also anti-English, and would set fire to foreign clothing and refuse to speak English. He grew to be an active Indian National Congress party volunteer and eventually, he became a revolutionary.
Shekhar always harboured strong yet frustrated romantic feelings. After some early and earnest romantic experiences with a girl called Sharda, he fell deeply in love with a young woman called Shashi. After being deserted by her husband, Shashi came to live with Shekhar, but died shortly after. Shekhar felt that he was haunted by her memory.
Structure and analysis
Ek Jivani is told through the thoughts of a political prisoner recalling his life. Agyeya writes in the introduction that he " strove to give voice to a man’s passionate quest" by the examination of the past. In terms of genre, its distinctiveness lay in the way it melded autobiographical elements from the author's life with imaginative fictions.
The author adopted a style emphasizing how the narrator felt inwardly and disagreement with feelings such as his family, human relationships, women, and the manner of teaching. In personal term,s there is a focus on the protagonist’s feelings with three basic instincts — sex, fear and the pursuit of self interest: Ways that affected his upbringing. While respecting his father, the protagonist finds himself hindered by her mother, causing him to resent her and grow closer to his sister. In adolescence, he falls in love with a distant cousin, which helps him grasp the meaning and value of life. He reflects on the conflict between his desire to achieve personal freedom and his social pressures which inhibit its attainment. These conflicts are played out against broader social activities, like his interest in helping the class of untouchables.
With this backdrop explored, the author, in part two, describes the gradual disillusionment which creeps over the narrator as he meets various political figures and engages in programmes of social reform. In prison, to the contrary his faith in man is strengthened by the people he encounters there. His lover, however, decides upon a conventional marriage, and, on his release from imprisonment, the narrator strives to fulfill the calling of being a writer. As his disappointment mounts up, he is tempted to commit suicide, his lover convinces him otherwise. Their love develops profoundly only to be cut short by her death, which concluded part two.
Shekhar: Ek Jivani is considered a unique and landmark novel in Hindi literature. The experimental nature of the novel gave it attention, and many critics recognized it as the first psychoanalytical novel of Hindi literature due to its focus on thematising the gap between the external world and internal states. Encyclopedia of Indian Literature mentions that the novel indicates a new beginning in Hindi literature.
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