In the course of a human life, a stage arrives when even change is conquered. When the rise and fall of our life doesn’t mean anything to us, and neither does it interest others. When we live only to remain alive, and death arrives yet doesn’t.
Some writers appear, seemingly from nowhere, burn brightly for a short time before disappearing into disarray and obscurity. Hindi writer Bhuwaneshwar is one such author. Neither end of his life can be firmly dated—born in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh between 1910 and 1915, he ended his days sometime in 1957, in Varanasi, where he was last seen ill and living among beggars. In the years that intervened there was a moment when this man with an exceptional gift for words appeared poised to lead Hindi literature into the future. His promise—and his pessimism—was recognized by Premchand, the prominent Indian writer known for his dedication to social realism. By contrast, his young protégée was more subversive in his approach, intent on shattering society’s myths and illusions to reveal its underlying darkness, a vision that won him both attention and distrust in the literary community. Yet, although his career was short, bookended by poverty and neglect, he left behind an important collection of stories and plays, along with Hindi translations of Gogol and Oscar Wilde—a body of work that has tended to remain largely forgotten in his homeland and essentially unknown in the English-speaking world. Now, with the release of Wolves and Other Stories—a slender volume containing twelve of Bhuwaneshar’s melancholy tales—translator Saudamini Deo has rekindled the voice and spirit of a man whose work captures a sense of ambiguity and anxiety that seems especially timely now, the better part of a century later.
The stories that comprise Wolves were originally published between 1935 and 1941, the majority in Hans, the literary magazine established by Premchand. The Indian Independence Movement was in its final stages, as reflected in an atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades these tales. But Bhuwaneshwar is not explicitly political in his writings. He is asking more philosophical questions about what it means to be alive in a world that is increasingly inhumane and unforgiving. His mood is grim, death is a regular presence, but his characters manage to salvage some measure of humanity, against the odds.
These stories tend to feature lonely, isolated people—even if they are not necessarily alone—unmarried women, abandoned children, students, soldiers, doctors, drifters and others who, for some reason or another, have found themselves at odds with their families, communities or societies. Some of my favourite stories are centred around women. In “Aunty” Bibbo is a poor woman, old “as if she’d originated old in the womb and turned immortal for a never-ending, unthinkable period,” has been seen as ever solitary and ancient by her neighbours. But she had, in her life, given her love and attention twice over, first to her nephew, abandoned to her care when her sister died. After that child grew up and moved away, he returned years later with his own son, now motherless, and begged his aunty to take care of the child. Again Bibbo consented, at great financial and emotional cost. She has her revenge though, in the end, in a small attempt to hold on to her dignity.
The dying woman at the heart of “Mothers and Sons” is also being exploited, on her death bed as her family gather around. Seen from her perspective, she revisits her dismay and disappointment in her sons and daughter-in-law’s as they imagine her clinging to more noble thoughts and argue about medical options. As death approaches, Bhuwaneshwar captures her shifting emotional state with remarkable intimacy:
At midnight, everyone was sleeping on mattresses on the floor, only Amma was awake and, as if drowning. Wondrously, even her troubles were drowning. She started thinking of faraway things. Meaningless, unparalleled. Some house, some man, once glimpsed somewhere, she started hearing strange sounds. But this state didn’t last long. She started feeling nervous, as if she was frightened of being alone on a dark road. There was no energy in the body, she had known for a while, she had grown used to it, but she was ready to fight for that energy now. Everyone was sleeping. She could hear their breaths, she recognized them, but what is all this to her when she has no more energy?
A wide range of voices emerge throughout this collection and the settings of the tales are varied, sometimes grounded in ordinary settings—hill station, post office, train compartment—others incorporating ghostly or somewhat surreal circumstances such as “Sun Worship” which follows a doctor and a raving madman on a strange urban journey. But the crowning entry is the title story, one of his best known, which closes this volume.
“Wolves” is presented as the reported account of an old gypsy of a horrific adventure from his youth. He and his father were making their way along in their family caravan which was heavily laden with pots and pans and three fifteen year-old acrobats when they were set upon by an unruly, insatiable pack of wolves. Forced to lighten the load, first with objects, then with passengers, the wolves just keep coming, consuming everything in their way. Relentless and unyielding, the story offers little respite. But its wolves are familiar—in our world today and no doubt to a man who saw beyond the façade of his own society and turned his visions into stories, stories he would come to imitate in his own life. He was pursued by wolves himself. Bhuwaneshwar’s later years were marked by mental illness—first his brother was committed to an asylum, and then he too was lost to madness and homelessness, like a character in his final unwritten tale.
Wolves and Other Stories by Bhuwaneshwar is translated by Saudamini Deo and published by Seagull Books as the first in a new series featuring Hindi literature.