You can learn a lot about Yashpal (other than his birthname!) at http://www.viplava.com/.
Yashpal, a revolutionary fighting for India's freedom, was twenty-eight years old when he was caught, tried and sentenced to fourteen years to life at hard labour. There was little expectation at the time that he would emerge as one of India's outstanding writers of fiction.
He had led two lives, and in each of them had made important contributions to his country. His first life was dedicated to her freedom, his later life to her literature. As India celebrates the centenary of his birth (1903), scholars and public alike are re-evaluating his life and work in the light of changing social and political values.
Yashpal grew up at a time of ferment and agitation for Indian independence. In his school days he was drawn at first to Mahatma Gandhi's non-cooperation movement, but later felt that such movements were unresponsive to the needs of the poor and that non-cooperation with the British was ineffective. He joined National College, Lahore, a hotbed of nationalist sentiment, which was founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, the venerable leader of pre-partition Punjab. There he met Bhagat Singh, who was hanged for his role in the assassination of policeman J.P. Saunders in Lahore (1928), and for exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi (1929).
Yashpal wrote in his reminiscences Sinhavalokan, “One day I and Bhagat Singh got a chance to practice rowing in the Ravi river. Just two of us, no one else was there. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but in that solitude I said to Bhagat Singh, trusting him implicitly: Let us pledge our lives to our country.
“Bhagat Singh’s face turned very serious, and extending his hand to me he said: I do pledge.”
At first Yashpal took part in the activities of Naujawan Bharat Sabha organized by Bhagat Singh, but after the Lahore Bomb Factory was unearthed in 1929, he too went underground and never looked back. As an active member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), he came in contact with another well-known revolutionary, Chandra Shekhar Azad, who was killed (1931) in a shootout with the police in Allahabad.
During the next two years, Yashpal made explosives at several secret factories, blew up the train carrying the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in 1929, took part in an attempt to free Bhagat Singh from Borstal Jail in Lahore, shot and grievously wounded two police constables in Kanpur when they tried to block an attempt by his group to escape. He also met his future wife, 17-year old Prakashvati, who had left home to join the revolutionary party.
Yashpal was arrested in Allahabad in 1932 when his bullets ran out, after an armed encounter with the police. He was one of the main accused in the concluded Lahore and Delhi conspiracy cases, but after a lengthy trial the government decided not to reopen these cases in view of the expenses involved. Some other charges against him could not be proven for the lack of witnesses. In the end, he was given a life sentence.
In prison Yashpal taught himself enough French, Russian and Italian to read original works in those languages. He also wrote and re-wrote short stories that were later published as Pinjare ki Uran (Flights of a Caged Mind). In this life of discipline and contemplation came a surprise in the form of a petition by Prakashvati to the jail authorities that she wanted to marry Yashpal, the prisoner serving a life sentence.
Since the jail manual did not forbid a prisoner from getting married, the British superintendent gave his consent. The police did not want the notorious revolutionary to go to the civil court without handcuffs and leg irons, and Yashpal refused to get married tied up like a criminal. A compromised was reached when the Deputy Commissioner agreed to perform the marriage inside the prison. After the ceremony, Yashpal was returned to his cell to serve his life sentence, and Prakashvati went back to Karachi to finish her studies to become a dental surgeon, which she had begun after her own arrest and subsequent release by the police.
Their's might be the only marriage ever to take place inside a prison in India. When the news of the marriage leaked outside, the newspapers seized upon the novel idea, provoking the government to add a section to the Indian Jail Manual forbidding a sentence-serving prisoner to be married in the prison in future.
India moved toward self-government in 1938. As a part of the election campaign, the Congress Party had promised to release of all political prisoners. Workers of Gandhi’s movement were released immediately, but assurances were sought from the revolutionaries that they no longer believed in violence. Yashpal refused on the ground that it would appear that he had bargained with the government for his release. He was the last to be set free, on the condition that he would not be permitted to go back to Punjab. He then decided to make Lucknow, the capital of United Provinces (UP) where he was serving his sentence, his home.
Yashpal and Prakashvati, as he wrote in his reminiscences, were penniless. After a few months of hardship, Yashpal founded the Hindi monthly Viplava (revolution) while Prakashvati worked as a dentist. Her dental practice was flourishing in those days of few women dentists, but she gave it up to help her husband. Soon they brought out the magazine’s Urdu edition, Baagi. The masthead of their publication said it all: “You may preach the message of peace and equality. Let revolution sing its fiery song.”
Viplava was a milestone in Hindi and Urdu political journalism. Besides being immensely popular, it was also a forum where staunch Gandhians and avowed believers in non-violence and satyagraha (civil disobedience) debated social and political issue with equally staunch Marxists and hardcore revolutionaries. When Yashpal was put in prison for seditious writing, Prakashvati filled in as editor.
In an attempt to muzzle the fiery enthusiasm of the couple, the government demanded huge security deposits from the magazine. The two closed down Viplava and Baagi, and began publishing Viplavi Tract. But police raids and constant harassment took its toll, and it all came to an end after five years of trend-setting journalism. Viplava reappeared briefly in 1948, but could not survive the censorship laws in a free India!
Yashpal, his own freedom regained and India’s on the horizon, soon made his mark as a writer. Mahadevi Verma, the eminent Hindi poet, summed it up: “When other writers were praying to Saraswati, the muse of literature, for her blessing, Yashpal was making bombs in a dark, secret cellar. When he arrived on the literary scene much behind others, it was him that Saraswati gave her undivided attention.”
If the literature of social reform and social protest in Hindi found a worthy advocate in Yashpal, he wielded a sledgehammer when writing about the exploited and the economically deprived in his fiction, and in the editorials and columns he wrote for Viplava.
Yashpal set about immediately on one of his life-long missions: repudiation of what he considered to be backward and unrealistic in the Indian society. But unlike most people devoted to causes, he went about it with gentle humour and tongue-in-cheek wit. His criticism of ancient Hindu ideals as a basis for contemporary society can be seen in his story Dharmraksha (To Uphold Righteousness) where a man denying his normal instincts under the discipline of brahmacharya (celibacy), attempts to rape his 19-year old daughter. Such questioning of long-practiced religious rites and rituals, of the Hindu doctrine of karma and reincarnation as preached by the orthodox often earned him threats to his life.
Yashpal never hid his preference for Marxist ideals, and the inefficacy of the movement led by the Congress Party and Mahatma Gandhi. His Gandhi wad ki Shav-pariksha (Post-mortem on Gandhiism), written in 1941 when Gandhi was alive, continues to be among his best-selling works. Although some of his early works showed the Communist Party as the saviour of Indian people, he himself never joined the party; in fact, the Communists later turned against him for his criticism of comrades who sacrificed free will and independent judgment to the Party’s dictates.
Another consistent feature of Yashpal’s writing is his compassion for women and his special concern for the inferior position of women in India. The women protagonists in his writings often break free, or try to, from the traditions of society that keep them in total dependence upon their family. Divya (1944), his novel set in the 1st century AD when there was a wide mingling of Indian and Hellenic cultures in northern India, is about Divya from an aristocratic Brahmin family who tries to find her identity in a male-dominated society.
Assertions by Divya such as “the mistress of a noble family is not a free woman; she is not independent like a disreputable courtesan” outraged many of Yashpal’s contemporaries. Others tried to ignore it because they felt that a story about India’s so-called Golden Age could not be considered ‘literature’ if it expounded an unacceptable political ideology. Fortunately, a core of young critics and scholars of successive generations has continued to stand - and even swear - by Divya’s yearning for independence when she decides to be a prostitute, so as to be a free woman and have ownership rights over her body. The work showed Yashpal’s deep knowledge of Indian classics and his command of Sanskrit.
His novel Jhootha Sach (1958 & 1960), similar in scope and breadth to Tolstoy's War and Peace, and has been compared to the works of Balzac and Victor Hugo. Probably the only work of its kind in any language and often acclaimed as the definitive novel on India's partition, it chronicles the ups and downs in the lives of two families (a brother and sister, and his girlfriend/wife) in pre- and post-partition India. Critics praised the novel for its balanced depiction of both Hindu and Muslims, and readers loved its merciless portrayal of the Congress Party leaders on the make in British-free India.
That portrayal was so merciless that Yashpal was blatantly passed over for the Sahitya Akademi Award given by the government. The issue of Congress Party criticism, and of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, resurfaced a decade later when his name was on the national honours list. Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, reportedly read the ‘objectionable’ pages of Jhootha Sach and found nothing objectionable. Yashpal, the born anti-establishment rebel, was finally bestowed Padma Bhushan in 1970. The Sahitya Akademi tried to make amends by giving him the denied award in 1976 for his last novel Meri Teri Usaki Baat. It’s not known if he’d have accepted it; he was too unwell to say either yes or no.
Yashpal's more than fifty books of short stories, essays, novels, a play and his 3-vol. reminiscences had a profound influence on Hindi literature, and on social and political philosophy in India. Corinne Friend, translator of several works by him, said it all in her book Yashpal: Author and Patriot: “Yashpal, in his concern for the common man and commitment to social justice, his understanding of the quirks of human nature and ability to portray human beings with compassion and humour, and in his simple and powerful writing style, is heir to Prem Chand,” the greatest Hindi writer of pre-independence India. Yashpal died in 1976 while writing the fourth volume of his reminiscences. Praskashvati, who had been the publisher of her husband’s books for 60 years, died at age 88 in September 2002.
In the year 2003-2004, events to celebrate Yashpal’s birth centenary were held across the length and the breadth of India with an enthusiasm not seen except at the time of Prem Chand’s birth centenary celebrations: from national seminars organized by the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) at Shimla and at Kolkata, and by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi at Cochin, to local affairs in small towns in the Hindi-speaking heartland of India. These events were marked by a forceful and unequivocal acknowledgment of Yashpal being the towering figure in the post-Prem Chand era, as well as of the author’s importance and his impact on Hindi literature and on the successive generations of young writers. The Government of India issued a commemorative Yashpal Centenary postage stamp.
I read this story in an excellent anthology Our Favorite Indian Stories edited by Khushwant Singh and Neelam Kumar