Nirala’s singular satire

October 22, 2023

A significant work by a renowned Hindi writer gets a maiden Urdu translation

Nirala’s  singular satire


uryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ (1897-1961), who died this month 62 years ago, achieved fame as a great poet of Chhayavad, the neo-romanticism era in Hindi literature (1922–1938). He also explored new modes of reality by deviating from Chhayavad. Glimpses of this deviation are found in the poems of Kukurmutta and Naye Pattay and prose works like Kullibhat, Chhaturi Chamar and Billesur Bakriha. The four decades of the 20th Century that span Nirala’s creative period were dominated the struggle for independence. Nirala’s consciousness of freedom is palpable in his creative evolution. He had raised the question of the freedom of poetry in the preface to Parimal (Fragrance) in 1929. In the novels Kullibhat and Billesur Bakriha, Nirala had raised the question of free thought. This novel is an example of meaningful search for a new form for storytelling. It is especially notable for an engaging combination of humour, satire and realistic portrayal of agonising realities.

Billesur Bakriha is a unique creation, a purely Indian novel. In the preface to the first edition, Nirala called it an amusing sketch. Not surprisingly, it was for long labelled as a sketch-like novel. The truth is that it is the first expression of novel’s freedom from the traditional form. The novel carries glimpses of native humour and creative play on one hand and secrets of the main character’s life struggle on the other. While its conclusion sounds comic and resembles that of a folk tale, it is an epic account of the struggle and sustenance of the protagonist.

Billesur Bakriha was first published in 1942. That same year, Nirala’s long poem Kukurmutta was published. The poem was described as a “significant explosion” against poetic Platonism. Two episodes of Billesur Bakriha had earlier been published in the Rupabh of 1939. In the preface to the second edition, published in 1945, Nirala had called it a model of progressive literature. With regard to its structure, Nirala said:

“The inner portrayal can be seen within the outer portrayal; this is the first station of progressive literature. Three stories of various lengths have been joined together to run alongside one another. The end, published in 1945, is suspended even after the point of climax, which gives a sort of shock to the reader but strengthens the heart.”

There can be no doubt that Nirala had labelled Billesur Bakriha an amusing sketch not with reference to its form but in view of its narrative style. Nirala realised that “Till such time that a novel portrays a new structure and is founded upon some truth against the common conduct, it neither obtains literary significance nor helps the society attain a dynamic life.” From this point of view, Billesur Bakriha can be called a milestone in Hindi literature.

Today the novel that Nirala had called an amusing sketch has become famous for its realist views and progressive slant. Billesur is a poor Brahmin. He is entirely free of Brahmanical fundamentalism. He goes to the city seeking salvation from poverty. Upon his return, he rears goats and does not care for the pressure put on him by the displeasure of the community. He also has the guts to marry as he pleases. He realises that racial distinction (caste) is a social deception founded on economic inequality. When Billesur becomes rich, his social boycott ends. In short, this novel is a tale of the defeat and helplessness of feudal (Hindu) fundamentalism as economic relations in the society change.

Kullibhat had been published in 1939. The native form of humour marks both novels. Nirala found characters like Billesur and Kulli in the rustic settlements of Oudh. Billesur is the corrupted form of Bileshwar. The word bakriha points to the fact that when he could not manage to earn his bread by traditional employment or farming, Billesur, a Brahmin and a sukul belonging to Tari, took to rearing a goat and immediately found a justification for his failure. He consoled his heart, “How can rearing a goat be a vice, when Brahmins feel the need to grasp the handle of the plough and open a shoe shop.”

Billesur Bakriha does not read like a biography. It is also not a story about the characters. Instead several sketches from Billesur’s life. The most important aspect of Billesur Bakriha is the portrayal of the hero’s deep attachment to life and the expression of the strength of human nature with a democratic temperament and atmosphere.

The structure of Billesur Bakriha is a combination of essays, sketches, memoirs and biographies. The novel casts doubt on the idealism and reformism of a whole era of Hindi fiction. In Nirala’s view, easy idealism is an obstacle to the progress of time. While looking for a new form for the novel, Nirala was also giving importance to vehemence. In his own words, “Just as rebellion is necessary for great battles in the realm of politics, it is also important in the field of literature. The battle is not in sight anywhere in our literature at the moment. Such is the predicament of the reflective novel.”

Nirala spent approximately a decade of his creative life explaining his vision of the new novel. In Billesur’s seemingly ordinary struggle, the vision is paramount. The protagonist’s loss of faith despite deep devotion to the idol of Mahabir and attacking it are extraordinary. Today, the implications of this incident seem deeper, more meaningful and more symbolic. Billesur Bakriha introduces the new novel’s form by breaking with the traditional form and espousing a purely individualistic quality. From this point of view, it is the precursor of the new Hindi novel.

Billesur Bakriha

Author: Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ (translated from Hindi by Mohsin Khan)

Publisher: Aks Publications, Lahore, 2021

Pages: 64

The reviewer is the president of the Progressive Writers’ Association. He may be reached at He tweets at @raza_naeem1979

Nirala’s singular satire