Home Book Review Usha Kiran Khan – The Legend Lives On …

Usha Kiran Khan – The Legend Lives On …

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Book Review

By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

This column is a tribute to Usha Kiran Khan (born 24 October, 1945) who breathed her last earlier this week after a long and protracted illness. She was the only 2023 VoW award winning author who could not attend either the Hindi knowledge vertical – Hindi Sahitya Sammelan at the Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya at Haridwar in September, or the signature festival at Dehradun in December. She had been in touch with Sachin Chauhan, our lead volunteer for Hindi, and we were looking forward to hosting her in Dehradun in the clement weather of March/April, and there were at least three institutions which were more than willing to offer their venue for an interaction with her on her award-winning offering, ‘Dinank Ke Bina (DKB)’.  While she was amongst the first to confirm her visit to Dehradun, and we had agreed that hers would the first session as she had to attend another family engagement at Bhopal on the next day, a week before the programme she informed us that she would not be able to travel on account of health issues. So, while we could not have her live interaction, or her acceptance speech,   what we do have in the VoW archives is an interview with her which talks about the journey of her life – from her birth in the remote village of Laheriasarai to parents who were deeply invested in the Gandhian ethos of Khadi, Charkha and self-reliant villages, as well as with socialist thought. In her interview with Sachin, she talks about how Kiran became Usha Kiran when the school certificate was being issued, and how Khan was added after her marriage to the top cop Ramachandra Khan, who was more of a friend and partner, rather than a conventional husband.

But before we talk about the award winning book, let’s share with the readers how the name came about. Forty years ago, she was asked by Vijay Bahadur Singh, the then editor of a Bhopal based Hindi journal ‘Kalkendriya’ asked to write something about her life,  as well as the people who shaped it – from her parents to the great stalwarts of Hindi literature – Nagarjuna – whom she affectionately called Baba, Agyeya, Rajendra Yadav, Jaiprakash Narayan, Prabha Devi – as well as    observations about contemporary polity. She responded by saying that, while she remembered her encounters with many people, she could not recall any dates, upon which Vijay Bahadur suggested that the memoirs could be called ‘Dinank Ke Bina’. And this is how the autobiography of one of finest writers of Maithili and Hindi came about. Again, the book is dedicated not to a family member or a litterateur who shaped her life, but to the next generation of readers.

DKB encompasses the life of our muse – starting with her welcoming India’s first President Dr Rajendra Prasad at the Gandhi Ashram in Laheriasarai (Darbhanga) in 1951, to her receiving the Padma Shri at the hands of Pranab Mookerjee in 2015 at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The writing is as fair and frank as can be. It tells us about how her parents broke with multiple conventions: inter caste dining, home spun khadi, women giving up purdah and stepping out of the house to follow the footsteps of the Mahatma and establish an Ashram where women and men from all castes came, sang, prayed and spun together. It is important to note that, when her father asks her mother to step out of the purdah and walk with him on the road, he addresses her as Dharamsangini – my partner in Dharma, rather than Dharampatni – wife as per Dharma. The two words – Dharamsangini and Dharampatni – carry in them two very different world views, and coming as they did nearly a hundred years ago reflects the very positive attitude of her father, which is why she believes that men and women have to walk together to break the mindset of patriarchy.

She talks of how Nagarjuna, who was almost like a father to her, motivated her to step into the world of long form fiction writing, for he said ‘poems are good, but they can only go this far, and not further’. But he insisted that she read Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsayan, more popularly known by his pen name Agyeya, for he was the best in his class. Here was a member of the elite who roamed the length and breadth of the country trying to retrace the steps of Sita Mata, whose life and legend is part of the rhythm of the daily life of Darbhanga. In her book, we also learn a lot about Jai Prakash and his wife Prabha Devi, and his interaction with several people, including Mrs Gandhi, and his leadership of the movement against the Emergency.

The best part of the book is that it a narrative of the most formative decades of our country without being judgmental. We are aware of her value systems, and how she has walked her own talk – from a remote village which can only be accessed on a bullock cart after fording a river on a boat, to cities like London and New York where her work has been acknowledged and celebrated, to islands like Surinam and Mauritius where many ‘girmityas’ from her region toiled in the plantations to provide sugar and cotton to the Empire.

Although DKB has not been translated (yet) into English, many of her Maithili and Hindi works have been translated into Odiya, Bangla and Urdu. VoW looks forward to the English translation as indeed in all the other Bhashas of Bharat, for DKB is a testament to how the nation transformed itself in the most critical decades after our Independence.

Sanjeev Chopra (born 3 March, 1961) is a retired IAS officer of the 1985 batch, from Kapurthala, Punjab. He is a resident of Dehradun. He is a former Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration and has written a book, “We, the People of the States of Bharat: The Making and Remaking of India’s Internal Boundaries”, published in 2022. He is now the patron and honorary consultant to a literary festival, the Valley of Words International Literary Festival, held annually in Dehradun. Chopra has held the Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship (Cornell), the Robert S McNamara Fellowship (World Bank) and positions at Royal Asiatic Society, London, the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute (Harvard).