Today is the birthday of the Hindi author Phanishwarnath Renu—most famous for his novel Maila Anchal, and many other stories detailing village life. Tīsrī kasam, Panchlait, Raspriyā: these are all beautiful and groundbreaking works of fiction, immediately evocative of Renu’s native Bihar and much loved by those who read them. It was my own love for Renu’s writing that led me to Bihar, and to Renu’s village, where I conducted my Ph.D research on Hindi literature and north Indian oral tradition.
Renu was born on March 4, 1921, to a family of land-owning farmers in a village named Aurahi-Hingana, in Purnea district (now in the newly-formed Araria district), in the northeast corner of Bihar. Like many other literary figures of the time, he became involved in India’s Independence struggle. He participated in the 1942 Quit India movement, coordinating with other freedom fighters in efforts to tear up railway lines, destroy telegraph wires, and engage in other activities intended to force the British out of India.
He also spent this time in the company of singers, dancers, and jokers, learning and performing their traditions—unusual for someone from a landowning family. He eventually became a leader and master of his village’s song and performance repertory. During my time in Renu’s village, I had the good fortune to work with singers of Renu’s generation, and a younger generation of singers who studied at Renu’s feet.
Renu’s portrayals of rural life stood out against the literature of the urban middle class. His literary turn toward the village resulted in his 1954 novel Mailā ānchal, which quickly became one of the most celebrated novels in Hindi literature. The novel initiated the regional movement—the ānchalik āndolan—in Indian literature, through which other Hindi authors turned to their own rural homelands for literary inspiration.
In this time when some lament the decline of Hindi literature, or turn to the IIT generation for its rescue, I hope we don’t forget that literature such as Renu’s was never obscure or marginal. In fact it still speaks to the values and aspirations of millions of Indians, whether they live in the village or the city. Hindi has much to offer the literary world. We are all ready here; ready to read.