Truly great satire is funny only the first time you read it. By the second or, at the most, third reading you begin to feel yourself sinking deeper and deeper into a bottomless void. In order to extricate yourself from the abyss you find yourself resorting to what is, in the age of social media, the first refuge of both scoundrel and self-styled saint: you try to shoot the messenger. Shooting the messenger is second nature to the inhabitants of passport-photo-sized boxes that appear arranged in a neat two-by-four grid on your screen in a TV “debate.” They do it simply by shouting accusations that do not need to pass the test of believability if delivered in a loud enough voice. But the rest of us, we resort to ad hominem by psychoanalysis. And so it was that after having laughed myself silly over several days of reading Raag Darbari, having sought out friends and read out one brilliant one-liner or the other to them, I began to ask myself: Shuklaji ko itna gussa kyon aata hai? After all, look around the field of Hindi literature, you find some grand humanistic works, like Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama or even (Phanishwar Nath) Renu’s Maila Aanchal, which present Indian village life in a way that telegraphs the fullness of a lived experience without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality. As Renu puts it in his foreword to Maila Aanchal: “…phool bhi hain, shool bhi.” So, then why does reading Shrilal Shukla’s masterpiece — through chapter after chapter that exposes the most degraded aspects of the life of an Indian village in the era we like to call post-Independence, of human life in fact — feel like walking barefoot over a carpet of thorns? Where does this rage spring from?
An answer to this question is not difficult to find if one goes through the writings of a Yashpal, say, or an Amritlal Nagar. One generation older than Shukla, these writers, like Renu, see a broken promise in the dawn of the postcolonial era. Shukla was just 22 in 1947. In 1949, he entered the provincial civil services of Uttar Pradesh and began the career that would take him back, as a potentially transformative agent of the state, to the villages of his birth. The details of what he saw there formed the basis of Raag Darbari. One can only imagine how a bright young idealistic civil servant in his mid-twenties would have felt when he found that the village was quicksand; every noble intention would suffocate to death in it.
Our imperfect republic, the one Shukla set out to serve, was built, like a house of cards, out of grand moral gestures. The unbelievably progressive Constitution that we “gave ourselves” is proof of this, proof of the unchecked idealism of the men and women who compelled the British imperium to relinquish power to a local formation. And while, as post-Enlightenment individuals who see the world as a theatre for the moral development of the human species, we are within our rights to congratulate ourselves for the barrage of beautiful ideas we have written into stone, let it also be said that idealism has not served us Indians well. Let it also be said that Rabindranath Tagore had warned us in Ghare Baire of the perils of high-minded vanguardism. The effete wishy-washy Nikhil, played wonderfully by Victor Banerjee in Satyajit Ray’s film based on the novel, cannot buy into the concept of Swadeshi because the poor peasants who work his land cannot afford the expensive Indian-made cloth, but the revolutionary Sandip — Soumitro Chatterjee in the movie, unforgettably impressing the viewer with the notion that certainty is the wellspring of masculinity — can only see the nation and its rise, not the sufferings of the individuals who constitute that nation.
Ghare Baire, the novel, was published in 1916, exactly one hundred years ago, but the basic conflict appears painfully topical. Nikhil loses the argument because he lacks the “eye of the fish and only the eye of the fish” conviction that has seemed to be the hallmark of the great heroes of human civilisation, and along with the argument he loses the fidelity of his wife. How completely Nikhil, and Tagore, lost that argument cannot be lost on anyone who looks around to see that deep into the Bretton Woods era, we still respond emotionally to catchily-framed slogans that aim to boost local manufacturing, even though these slogans are raised by dispensations that are heavily emotionally and financially invested in the global system of trade. The professed economic rationale for the grand moral gesture went away long ago, but the gesture remains.
The futility of a grand moral gesture remained in Shrilal Shukla’s mind for a long time after the day in 1952 when, as a young civil servant, he witnessed the first gramdaan at Mangroth in UP. A logical development of Vinoba Bhave’s bhoodan movement, based on the idea that landlords should give their land voluntarily to the landless, gramdaan was the giving of all privately held land in a village by its owners for communal use. By the time, more than 40 years later, Shukla came around to writing what was to be his last published novel, Bishrampur ka Sant, bhoodan had been long been diluted to nothing, emptied out and forgotten as a moral force in the life of the nation. Dwelling on the emptiness of Bhave’s grand vision and the tragic waste of the lives of the young people who devoted their youth to make it a success, the novel is a less angry work, but the pathos of a lost generation still makes itself felt in this book, reminding us again, the way Nikhil in Ghare Baire had, that the grand moral gesture is not a victimless crime.
Somewhere near the end of Bishrampur ka Sant, one of the characters, the tellingly named Vivek, gives a simple but effective analysis explaining how the bhoodan movement was anti-Gandhian in essence because it undermined the revolutionary impulses in the peasant sensibility. The character being addressed, a bhoodan worker, says that this analysis appears to be no more than an attack on Vinobaji. In response Vivek says: “If coolly delivered academic analysis is to be evaluated in terms of insult and respect, then it would appear that the days of political discussion in this country are over.” What was beginning to appear as a possibility to Vivek in a novel written and set in the 1990s had become a full blown reality by 2011, the time when I was reading this book while Anna Hazare and his merry men commandeered Ramlila maidan, the moral high ground and the national imagination. And by 2014, when even professional academics became incapable of delivering cool analysis, the end of the era of political discussion was a foregone conclusion.
The fundamental problem, then, with the grand moral gesture, in the context of a republic, is that it draws a line and asks people to choose a side. We have been doing this for over a hundred years now despite having been repeatedly warned of the toxicity of such gestures. In Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, the character of the young RSS recruit in late 1947 says of Mahatma Gandhi: “How could you put sense into the skull of a man who keeps saying, ‘I am right, everyone else is wrong’?” That character chooses a side and the consequences of that choice are part of history’s record.
In such an atmosphere there is no space for reason and questioning, no space for engaged neutrality. Those who want to stand on one foot in the Toba Tek Singh between two extremes soon find themselves toppling over to one side or the other. Are you against development? Are you against cleanliness and hygiene? Are you against Hinduism? Are you? Are you? Do you support corruption? Do you support terrorism? Do you support the Maoists? Do you? Do you? You would have to be someone of the stature of Rabindranath Tagore, it appears — and this would have to be a hundred years ago —for you to stand up and say: I reject the false question, I oppose you, and doing so does not mean I side with those forces that threaten the well-being of our countrymen.
Amitabha Bagchi is a Delhi-based novelist. This Place is his most recent work.