It is the only Hindi novel I have ever found in the office of an investigator — perhaps, the most unlikely of all places — the Jhandewalan headquarters of Director General, Investigations (Income Tax), Delhi. Having purchased copies in bulk, Aditya Vikram had been gifting them to his junior officers and friends. At our next meeting, I also received one from the cheerful bureaucrat who supervised sensitive cases of financial fraud in the capital.
That was how I rediscovered Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari (1968) as a journalist. Like many others, I, too, had once found it to be the portrayal of a decaying society in a north Indian village, a caricature of regressive people responsible for the gradual failure of democracy. As reporting assignments took me to different places around the country, a task that demanded transcending one’s prejudices and listening to the perceived other, the novel was suddenly revealed in a new light. It captured the sluggish pace of life that moves beyond the calls of GDP growth and that worries little about the twin ideals of scientific temper and rationality. Shukla depicts a society that refuses to surrender before modernity and responds to history with its own mythologies. It does not always symbolise decay, it can also be resilience.
It was thus obvious that the residents of Shivpalganj subverted even love, an eulogised, and often exaggerated, emotion in Indian novels. Shukla’s contemporary Dharamvir Bharti, for instance, wrote Gunahon Ka Devta (1949), a romance emerging from a city that was still Allahabad. How does Shukla explain the condition of Ruppan Babu, the only character who can be accused of being in love? “He had needed a girl for a very long time, and while recognising this fact he had mistakenly come to believe that he needed only Bela… and he named it love, a word that perhaps entered his vocabulary through the fraud of poetry.”
Notably, the subversion is recorded with immense delight, without any malice. The charmingly irreverent tone continues as the novel demolishes the romanticised image of a village that was built by several generations of writers and thinkers and then nourished by Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955): inhabited by simpletons, an idyllic land with small ponds and a nearby railway line. The lanes of Shivpalganj are muddy and stinking, its residents shrewd bullies, but they are also witty — they believe that the “significance of abuses is in hurling them loudly”.
And yet, they do not evoke revulsion in a reader. Perhaps, disillusionment, but never disgust.
A modern state governed by codified laws needs certitudes in its language and operations. It cannot afford to be ambiguous. A large population of India’s Hindi-speaking states — perhaps, in other parts of India, too — lives in an almost antithesis to the ideal. Giving directions about a place to making a statement on oath or even writing love letters, people often cherish prevarication. Not necessarily with an intention to mislead or deceive, but they enjoy answers that don’t bring any closure, rather raise new and even confounding questions. It’s a sign of a civilisation that refuses finality, cherishes the unfinished, and swears by the contingent and contextual.
A journalist recognises this trait quite early. Witnesses to a crime rarely give the right answers, politicians are circumspect during interviews, even a meeting with a friendly police officer, who has invited you to share information, may end after 90 minutes and three coffees without the officer revealing anything other than an uninvited primer to the reporter on dengue fever or Zika virus.
Are addebazi and flippancy, detailed so endearingly by Shukla, signs of regressiveness or do they reveal a fundamental aspect about Indians? The courtroom battle between Chhote Wrestler and his father Kusahar Prasad is one such delightful episode. Their family tradition has seen sons abusing, and, occasionally, thrashing their fathers for several generations. Prasad, marking a break, approaches the village court against Chhote. A case is made under the Indian Penal Code. As the Sarpanch accuses and abuses the father during the hearing, the son suddenly gets furious. After all, it’s only his right to do so. He threatens the Sarpanch, grabs his father’s hand and walks out of the sabha. The duo happily return home, oblivious to the fact that they had been fighting for months.
Are such amusing contradictions visible only in mofussil towns? “After a lifetime with the sociology of MN Srinivas, he was seeking relief in the sociology of Ekta Kapoor,” Rukun Advani wrote of Ravi Dayal in his obituary of the man who, as the chief editor of the Oxford University Press, edited some of the finest books in social sciences that emerged from India for decades, before he turned into an addict of saas-bahu serials on television.
One can also turn to Shukla, a connoisseur of the oblique in personal life. Once he was having drinks with friends at home when his domestic help intervened. “Ab jhin pi (don’t drink now),” the woman said irritatingly. “Achha, ab tak rum pi raha tha, tum kahti ho to gin par aa jata hun (Ok, I was taking rum so far. If you say so, let me switch to gin),” Shukla said, while making another peg.
Fiction in many Indian languages gained a new theme of disillusionment and alienation in the 1950s and 1960s — characters uprooted from their soil, migration to the city, a quest for meaning, a yearning for a grand narrative in the post-Independence era. Shukla overturns these themes. Raag Darbari is firmly moored in the village. Its characters face no existential crisis. No resident of Shivpalganj can be accused of being dull, lifeless or colourless. They are cunning, but cherish their laughter and paradoxes. India is still in its second decade after Independence, but Kalika Prasad has already mastered the art of securing grants from every government scheme that reaches the village. Be it a grant for raising poultry, making fertiliser pits, fitting smokeless stoves in homes or installing new lavatories. “By the time the Central Planning Committee had worked out any new scheme, he had found out all about it…several times he had reached the district offices with his applications even before the funds had been sanctioned by the higher authorities.”
Shukla doesn’t deliver moral sermons on the decay, he traces its sociological roots. The colonial encounter, the setting up of institutions like courts that became the instruments of exploitation, the imposition of English and the consequent loss of identity. His diagnosis is accurate and incisive that can partially be attributed to his long stint as a civil servant. “Indians have invented, with British help, a science dealing with their old way of life. Its name is Indology,” he quips and notes that when the Planning Commission faces any problem it coins English phrases and believes that the issue has been resolved. And how does he describe “intellectuals” who occasionally get afflicted with a disease called “crisis of consciousness”? “The disease finally culminates in coffee house debates, liquor bottles, in embrace of random women, government job, or sometimes in suicide.”
Raag Darbari, in a way, is a successor to Fakir Mohan Senapati’s 19th century Odia masterpiece Six Acres and a Third (1896), among the earliest Indian novels to highlight the damage colonial institutions had brought upon the Indian society. Not a coincidence then that both the writers chose satire as their favoured genre.
The only election that takes place in Raag Darbari is for the post of a gram pradhan that sees Vaidyaji propping up his puppet Sanichar as the candidate. This election amply reflects the country’s politics. Independent India had seen only three general elections when Shukla enumerated “three methods to win elections”. It rings true even today.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Mahasamund seat in Chhattisgarh witnessed a Shivpalganj-like contest. Facing the Congress candidate Ajit Jogi, BJP’s Chandu Sahu suddenly found that there were 10 other Chandu Sahus in the fray, all independent candidates. Who were they and from where had they sprung up overnight? An extraordinary talent hunt, apparently by Jogi, had unearthed these absolutely apolitical men, seven of them carried BPL cards, who lived across five districts and 1,100 km. They were then propped up to confuse voters. None of them knew about the ploy until some journalists came looking for them.
Or consider the instance in which Gayadin of Raag Darbari elaborates the failure of artificial insemination (AI) for buffaloes and expresses a preference for a he-buffalo: “I’ve sent this buffalo to the centre twice. But god knows what sort of syringes they use. She won’t get pregnant.”
That was the mid-1960s. A month ago, in October 2018, residents in some Himachal villages conveyed the same displeasure with the AI centres. “The syringe is of no use. We have our Sheru (a he-buffalo) for the job. We give him desi ghee and chana. He mates with nearly 100 buffaloes in a year,” said Om Prakash, a resident of Galot village, emphasizing that Sheru “is always in demand”. Sheru’s owner charged a “high price” of Rs 1,500 per “cross”, but was committed to the task. He would take the amount only if the pregnancy came through.
Another instance when the novel crossed my path during a reporting assignment was in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. A local advocate Upendra Vikram Singh could recall its long passages by memory, even comparing Vaidyaji with Baba Ramdev. Both advocated for a supreme male potency and sold desi medicines to strengthen it. Both, Singh said, wove a cocktail of Ayurveda, business and political power.
The fate of modern institutions was, perhaps, foretold in their stubborn belief that they could govern a complex nation like India by rigid certainties. Leaders wanted to inculcate the virtues of rationality and scientific temper, but they ignored that these ideals cannot easily decode the lives of humans who find myths and fables no less virtuous. Noting the “enormous range of language” the Hindus used, 10th century Iranian scholar and polymath Al Beruni was puzzled as “nobody could distinguish between the various meanings of a word unless he understands the context in which it occurs, and its relation both to the following and the preceding parts of the sentence”.
India had realised much earlier that homogeneity— be in language, politics or religion — often breed intolerance. It has flourished through several millenniums precisely because its guiding lights deliberately chose a path that nourished diversities.
Hope in such a social system often lies beyond the obvious. Aditya Vikram, who is now Member (Investigations) at the Central Board of Direct Taxes and oversees topmost probes across the country, was aware of the light Raag Darbari offered. As he gifted the novel to his juniors, he wanted them to recognise the accurate diagnosis Shukla had given. Hope exists as long there’s a diagnosis. A disease is half cured if diagnosed properly.
The hope of the novel lies in its ability to identify ambivalence as a charming, perhaps necessary, trait of a society — a characteristic that adds colours and sounds to an ordinary life.
It’s not without reason that the residents of Shivpalganj never name the city, they always refer to it as “city”. Similarly, the judge or the magistrate is always addressed as “adalat”. They know that as one names or defines an idea or a thing, it instantly gets restricted.
Raag Darbari reminds us that the dream of democracy in India was, perhaps, destined to falter at what was to be its sharpest edges. Shivpalganj contests the imposed ideals and as it fumbles in its negotiations with the state, it nevertheless attempts to draft its own version of democracy. Its residents are not always averse to change, but they also cherish their individual identities. The only character who turns disillusioned is Rangnath, an outsider. The failure of the government schemes in Shivpalganj may also be a local resistance to the thoughtlessness with which a homogenised development model was, and is, being foisted on people without their involvement.
The novel can also be read as an anthem of ambivalence, a critique of modernity and history; the ideals that were supposed to obliterate old hierarchies, instead, created new ones. Such a reading makes one humble, prompts a realisation about the inadequacy of external laws to decide the human life that is full of colour.
Is there, AK Ramanujan once asked, an Indian way of thinking? He then illustrated that Indians don’t believe in certainties, as almost every rule, code and law is contextual. If there’s a similar question about the Indian way of prevarication and fabrication, its cues may be found in Raag Darbari. The grand narrative of an overarching Indian democracy cannot, perhaps, be built by overlooking the little myths, delicious ironies and flawed romances of individual lives.
The writer is a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.