In a dim-lit private room in the AIIMS that Muktibodh lay dying after a prolonged illness on September 11, 1964. I was helplessly watching a major Hindi poet breathe his last before completing 47 years of age and seeing his first collection of poems published. It was tragic that even his classic, the long poem ‘Andhere Me’ was not yet published in ‘Kalpana’ which brought it out soon after. I was more than 23 years old and was teaching in a college in New Delhi.
I had known Muktibodh barely for 7 years, from 1957 to 1964. He had not made a success of anything in life; he wrote long poems in the days of short poems; he questioned his Marxist fellow writers; he was carving out a new aesthetics for Hindi poetry which had few admirers and his physical and economic circumstances were wholly inadequate. He was not drawn to success though he never wallowed in his failures. Endowed with a deeply interrogative mind, a robust critique of the civilisation in which he was born and placed, he saw with great agitation in his mind and fury in his soul, the freezing of conscience in independent democratic republic of India and decided to be the witness, candid and unforgiving.
Muktibodh was a gentle, helpful person deeply interested in friendship. Living away from the literary centres of Hindi, he found in the company of local friends some intellectual solace. He has spent his life in such adversity and austerity and any help from a friend would move him deeply. When we, once at the Sagar Railway Station, lifted his tin trunk and kept it in the compartment he had tears in his eyes and said he did not know that he had done anything to deserve such help! He was also very mindful of such help. A small publisher from Sagar offered to publish his first book of poems but Muktibodh ignoring much persuasion by some of us declined saying a small lower middle-class publisher would sink irretrievably if he invested money in his book!
His contract in the AIR was not renewed since someone had reported against him about his left leanings. This made him suffer lifelong from a maniac feeling that he was being watched and spied upon. He did not have money enough to buy decent blank paper to write upon. He used to write on the blank side of the press notes of the British and Unites States Information Services! These same press notes later helped in identifying the dates of his poems.
He had a large family and in the last years of his life he lived in a part of an old palace in Rajnand gaon. He has become long last a lecturer in Digvijay Mahavidhyalaya. When, once in 1961, I visited him during my vacation from St. Stephen’s College where I was studying MA, he reproached his wife for not applying ghee to the rotis since I had come to lunch.
Muktibodh, his location and his circumstances notwithstanding, was full of curiosity about the world of literature. It has been rightly pointed out that his literary precedents were in the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, rather than in some poets. As a young graduate student, I sent him books of Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valery and Albert Camus, which after reading he used to return.
He has a niche reputation when he was alive and major literary journals did seek to publish his writings. But he was very reluctant to oblige since most of his poems were rather long. As a poet he was in some ways trying to write an epic novel of his time, an incomplete one in verse. Muktibodh remains a lonely poet, who was avant garde in his times and remains one in our time. His Andhere Me takes on new relevance today and feels more real than ever before.