The autobiography of Harivansh Rai Bachchan is in four volumes. This one is the first in that series and talks about approximately the first 28 years of his life. It is a difficult book to review. One because it is an autobiography. Second because it comes from an era, which you do not relate to. And third, because the author has described the era and his life in many layers and dimensions. Even after completing the book, you are still discovering the layers and meanings of what he says.
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Harivansh Rai Bachchan starts by tracing his family lineage from some 500 years before he was born. Then he goes on to describe the characteristics of Kayasthas, the community that he belongs to. I often used to wonder about the surname Bachchan, as to where it came from? Because I have not heard it anywhere in and around Allahabad also. The revelation came from this book.
Bachchan was the pet name of Harivansh Rai. He used Bachchan both as his surname and his pen name, instead of Srivastava which was his original family name. He talks about the family tree in great detail. He talks about the circumstances of a lower-middle-class family in that era and how most people lived hand to mouth. How the families operated, how some people always became the victims of family politics and some people ended up taking the responsibility of the extended family.
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Harivansh Rai Bachchan talks in great detail about his own evolution as a poet and writer. He fondly talks about the people who contributed to his poetry and were his inspiration or gave him the experiences that could give him poetic insights into life and people. It is interesting to read about three women and a few men who contributed to his poetic evolution. His struggle to remain a poet and not let himself get lost in the struggle for life is interesting. He describes his relationships in great detail, and how each of them contributed to his growth.
The honesty and bluntness with which he writes about himself and his family are unbelievable. Most of the time you can relate to what he says about people and human behavior. When he is describing his struggle to earn money while making all the efforts to establish himself as a poet, you can clearly make out what distinguishes winners from losers. For all his life, he never slept more than 4 hours a day.
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He did all kinds of jobs to sustain himself and his family and also ensured that he nurtured the poet in him every day. He did not get any royalty for the first book, just got a share of copies from the first print. His most famous book ‘Madhushala’, was self-published by him since the publisher was playing games with him. While describing all this he also acknowledges that he did not like or enjoy doing anything except writing.
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Harivansh Rai Bachchan describes his relationship with his first wife Shyama, very sensitively. How she came into his life when he was getting over his relationship with another woman, and how she was a teenager, a delicate flower-like girl when they got married. How her devotion to him gave him stability in life and how she matured on to become the pillar of his strength. This volume actually finishes with the death of Shyama. Probably a logical turning point in his life. While he was married he got attracted to another woman, and he can’t pinpoint what she meant to him, but he would let her use him willingly.
Overall, a very nuanced and intriguing read. Hindi is of a level that demands a good knowledge of Hindi from the reader. I learned so many new words from this book. I am amazed at the level of transparency he brings to his personal life.
Look forward to reading the next volume of his biography.