The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Punjabi Literature
A biography of Tolstoy, in Punjabi
Jaspal Singh

MOST Punjabi novelists weave their narratives around social themes. Occasionally a writer takes up issues concerning an individual and his existential problems. Inder Singh Khamosh from Barnala has done precisely that. He has written a biographical novel, Kafar Maseeha (Aesthetics Publication, Ludhiana), about the life of Leo Tolstoy, one of the tallest literary figures of all times who as a writer and reformer is worshipped by millions of people across continents.

Tolstoy was born in 1828 into a feudal family of Russia that even the Czars personally knew and respected. This novel begins in the early sixties of the 19th century when Tolstoy, though in his mid-thirties, was yet a bachelor. As a youth he led a life of sin, drinking, whoring and hunting like other scions of aristocratic families of Russia. He also had a short stint in the army and had seen action in Crimea. This battle experience stood him in good stead while doing the war scenes for his classic War and Peace.

Tolstoy got married in 1862 at the age of 34 to his family doctor’s daughter Sonia from Moscow who was 16 years his junior. A few days before marriage he gave his would-be wife his diaries wherein he had meticulously recorded his black deeds. But it was too late by then. At a sub-conscious level she had a desire to become a countess and rule over the large estate of Yasnaya Polyana.


Though much older than his wife, he had an insatiable sexual desire, siring over a dozen children up to the age of 60. As a highly complex personality he was ridden with acute contradictions that at times created embarrassing situations for him and his kin. Sonia had her own problems. She was constantly breeding and bringing up her children and at the same time looking after the estate that was neglected by her husband.

The great author had a bad hand, so all his press copy was rewritten and sent to publishers by Sonia. She would also keep an account of royalties that ran into millions. The glitter of rubles had a great attraction for her. As Tolstoy matured and became a celebrity, he lost all interest in worldly possessions. He wanted to distribute his land among the peasants and give huge amounts in charities. But his wife would always resist. She was more concerned with the well being of her children. After all, they belonged to the aristocracy and wanted to lead life as aristocrats. But Tolstoy wanted them to shun all high-class habits and live like peasants. Except one or two, all others were indifferent to his wishes.

Sonia was always piqued by a sense of insecurity. She started a very successful publishing house in Moscow so that she could herself publish Tolstoy’s writings and make money. Her husband constantly wrote about the need for land reforms in Russia and virulently attacked the government, the Orthodox Church and the aristocracy, whom he held responsible for the deplorable condition of the masses. Thus, he was adored by the people and hated by the establishment as a rebel. Since as a writer he had a global reputation, the government could not touch him; rather, it always tried to placate him lest he should create more trouble. International media was very receptive to Tolstoy and every small detail about him was highlighted in reputed papers in Europe and America.

As his cult was spreading fast, the Orthodox Russian Church got scared. It ostracised him and declared him a heretic. His agnostic ideas had shaken the foundations of the Church. The clergy wanted him to be prosecuted as a rebel and exiled to Siberia so that Russia could be saved from the virus of his egalitarian ideas. But the Czar knew that an incarcerated Tolstoy would be more dangerous than a free one.

As he grew older his soul became more restless, longing for a universal change in the social conditions. He had become intolerant to the views of his wife, and vice versa. There would be constant brawls, screams and shrieks in their mansion. Everybody in the village knew about this family turmoil. Ultimately, in 1910, he disappeared from his house and died at a wayward railway station. This was the end of one of the greatest moral figures of the world, a man who so thoroughly influenced Mahatma Gandhi and a host of other leaders in the world.

Khamosh at places has been a little careless. For instance, a character in 1862 disliked the Russian rural life because there was " Cinema;" the scene of police raiding Tolstoy’s house with cameras clicking in 1860 or so; Sigmund Freud referred to as Edmund Freud and his ideas being discussed in 1880 when he was only 24 and still a student of anatomy; Tolstoy in 1880 saying " the train of my ideas has got an electric engine." All this was avoidable. Nevertheless, this novel is a huge intellectual effort that adds a new dimension to the Punjabi biographical novel.