Pandey Bechan Sharma Ugra’s memoir, Apni Khabar, is considered to be the first autobiography written in modern Hindi that displays a striking originality in its tone and style. It marked a radical departure from the established autobiographical and biographical conventions of its time, and is now regarded as an example of a new genre of writing because of its intrinsic modernity and individualism.
An eccentric and controversial writer Ugra was familiar with many prominent men of his day including Premchand and Nirala. That he gloried in his extremism is evident in his choice of a pen-name (ugra means ‘extreme’), and also in his tendency to wilfully damage his reputation and social standing. As a child he was expelled from school; and as an adult, he defied everyone’s advice when he published stories on male homosexuality.
Translated for the first time into English by Ruth Vanita, About Me depicts Ugra’s exploration of the making of the modern, North Indian, male intellectual self, with layers drawn from urban and rural, orthodox and radical, Hindu and Muslim cultures.
Beginning with his birth in 1900, Ugra intimately describes worlds that have either disappeared or been transformed beyond recognition, such as those of indigenous urbanity, the milieu of the itinerant religious theatre in which he was a child actor, and social reformist education. He is one of the first Indian writers to openly depict domestic violence and child abuse from the viewpoint of a child victim. Suffused with his distinctive blend of amiable sarcasm, pungent satire and self-deprecating humour this disarmingly candid and illuminating memoir reveals how present-day Indian public debates on nationalism, morality, censorship, religion, caste, gender and sexuality are deeply imbued with thoughts and feelings inherited from Ugra’s era.
‘To save me from following in the footsteps of my older brothers who had taken the road to the next world, it was decided . . . to sell me as soon as I was born. No part of the money that was the price of my life fell to my share. All I got was the name pinned on me like a badge, which indicated my sold status —Bechan.’