Raag Darbari

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Item Code: NAG524
Author: Shrilal Shukla
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9780143418894
Pages: 384
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.5 inch x 5.0 inch
Weight 280 gm
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Book Description

About the Author

Shrilal Shukla, 1925-2011, grew up in the village of Atrauli, a few miles from Lucknow. He graduated from Allahabad University and joined the state's administrative service and later became a member of the Indian Administrative Service.

His first novel, Suni Ghati ka Suraj, was published in 1957, followed by a collection of satirical short stories and essays in 1958. His major work, Raag Darbari, was published in 1968, and received the highly prized Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970. Shukla has written a number of novels, such as Seemayein Tootati Hain, Makaan and Pehla Padaav, a biography of the author Bhagwati Charan Verma, and several collections of short stories, satirical sketches and essays.

Gillian Wright is an author, translator and journalist who has lived in India for over forty years. Her travel books include Introduction to the Hill Stations of India and an illustrated guide to Sri Lanka. She is co-author, with Mark Tully, of India in Slow Motion, a collection of essays on modern India. She has also collaborated with him on three other books- Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi's Last Battle, No Full Stops in India and Heart of India. A scholar of Urdu and Hindi, she has translated several modern classics of Indian literature into English, notably Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla, A Village Divided by Rahi Masoom Reza and Middle India by Bhisham Sahni.


The edge of a town. Beyond it the ocean of the Indian countryside. And there, on the edge of the town, stood a truck. As soon as you saw it you could tell that the sole purpose of its creation had been to rape the roads of India. Like reality, the truck had many aspects. From one point of view, the police could say that it was standing in the middle of the road. Looked at another way, the driver could say that it was on the side.

On one side of the road was a petrol station; on the other, shops constructed of bits of rotting thatch, wood, local know-how and various items of assorted junk Nearly all of them offered one of the favourite drinks of the Indian masses which is made from dust, dirt, tea leaves which have already been used several times, boiling water and so forth.

This is surely one of the most memorable beginnings in Hindi literature. It combines utter familiarity-a truck standing in the middle of the road with its side door open, a row of shops and shacks selling super-sweet milk tea and rock-hard snacks-with an ironic attitude that invites us to admire the truck driver's swagger and the tea sellers' impudence in selling inedible food and something that cannot answer to the name of tea. In itself it is a depressing sight, yet irony transforms it into something we can laugh at, just as we can laugh at the nationalist rhetoric of claims such as 'the manual dexterity and scientific expertise of our local working men. [The sweets) showed that even if we don't know how to make a decent razor blade, we're still the only people in the world who can turn rubbish into the tastiest of snacks' (p. 1). Not only does irony give us a little distance from which the dismal sight appears funny, in the context of post-Independence India it also guides us to read this distance as the gap between aspirations and possibilities, between appearances and substance, expectations and outcomes, reality and rhetoric.

Written in the early years of Indira Gandhi's government, when the Congress party ruled uncontested but internally ridden with factions, Raag Darbari (1968) traces the distance between Jawaharlal Nehru's grand vision of development planning, democracy and secularization, and the dynamics of an ordinary village. At the same time, Raag Darbari reveals the important role the modern Indian state plays in people's daily lives and in their imagination-however ineffective it may be-and describes its distinctively Indian characteristics. In what sounds at first a paradoxical statement but gradually becomes more and more of a truism, Shivpalganj village can and should also be read as a microcosm of wider dynamics playing themselves out on the national stage:

In just a few days Rangnath began to feel that Shivpalganj was like the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharat-what was to be found nowhere else was there, and what was not there could be found nowhere else. He realized that all Indians are one and that, everywhere, our minds are alike. He observed that the Indian genius for manipulation and manoeuvring existed in an unrefined form in Shivpalganj, in abundance. This was the same genius which was proclaimed by celebrated newspapers in bold type in front-page headlines, and due to which all kinds of great corporations, commissions and administrations were formed, fell and were dragged away. As Rangnath realized this, his faith in Indian cultural unity was reaffirmed. (pp. 48-49).

So vast has the perceived gap been between the rhetoric of the newly independent state and its local practices, between the aspirations of working- and middle-class men and women and the realities of their lives, and between the promises of social, gender and economic transformation and the limits and obstacles to almost any kind of personal freedom, that it is little wonder that satirical writing should thrive in Hindi literature. Shrilal Shukla belongs to a rich vein of writing that stretches from Suryakant Tripathi Nirala's autobiographical sketches Chaturi the Chamar (Chaturi Chamar, 1934), Kulli Bhat (1937) and Billesur the Goatherd (Billesur Bakariha, 1945) to Krishan Chander's sensible donkey in Autobiography of a Donkey (Ek Gadhe ki Sarguzasht, 1957), I from Harishankar Parsai's deft Inspector Matadeen who exports corrupt police practices to the moon to Uday Prakash's wry stories of everyday tragedies, from Vinod Kumar Shukla's almost enchanted contemplation of small-time, small-clerk life in A Servant's Shirt (Naukar ki Kameez, 1979) to the sardonic performances of cheaters and cheated in the more recent writings of Gyan Chaturvedi and Akhilesh. Indeed, as Shrilal Shukla himself put it in an interview, 'irony is a forceful and fundamental note in every meaningful piece of writing today'.

Yet the status of satirical writing has remained uncertain in the Hindi literary field, uneasily poised between 'timepass' newspaper columns and serious literature that engages in cultural critique and explores the personal as well as the political. Shrilal Shukla himself has suffered as a result. While Raag Darbari is recognized as a satirical masterpiece, received the annual prize of India's National Academy of Letters (Sahitya Akademi) in 1970, and has never been out of print since publication, it is yet to be recognized as a literary classic. Only one serious volume of criticism exists devoted to Shukla (edited by the writer and editor of the prominent literary journal Tadbhav, Akhilesh, in 2000), and only one essay in English (by Rupert Snell), and he is yet to become properly part of the collective under tanding of post- Independence Hindi literary history. Yet, as we shall see, not only does Raag Darbari deal with the crucial questions of state and politics in postcolonial India, Shrilal Shukla's writing more generally engages in dialogue-and occasionally in polemic-with the main literary trends and cultural attitudes of his time.

Shrilal Shukla's background is not unusual among Hindi writers of his generation. He was born in a village of Lucknow district in north India, to a Brahmin family of educated but economically vulnerable small farmers who had one foot in Sanskrit learning and one in modern education and colonial service. Lucknow is famed as the splendid capital of the late Mughal kingdom of Awadh (the old spellings are 'Oudh' or 'Oude'), a city of lavish architectural spectacle and a centre of music, of Urdu and Persian poetry, and of courtesan culture that has loomed large in collective memory far beyond its official demise in 1856, just one year before the great rebellion of 1857. But Shrilal Shukla's Awadh is not that of the Lucknow nawabs. It is the rural Awadh of small tenant farmers who in the late colonial period found themselves increasingly squeezed between the high demands ofland tax and free labour to their landlords on the one side and of plummeting grain prices on the other side, and who launched a no-tax campaign in 1920.

Shukla remembered as a child the disastrous effect the slump in grain prices after 1929 had on the holdings of his family and of other farmers." 'Unfortunately,' he writes, 'there is no realistic depiction of the terrible condition of farmers in Hindi literature. Apart from a few works by Premchand, whenever the topic has been written about it has been so tear-jerkingly sentimental that one can hardly recognize the issue." Here Shukla is referring to the great Hindi-Urdu short story writer and novelist Dhanpat Rai 'Premchand' (1880-1936). Premchand's many stories of village life, his last monumental novel The Gift of a Cow (Godan, 1936) and an earlier novel that dealt directly with the Awadh peasant movement, The Abode of Love (Premashram, 1921), give the mistaken impression that Hindi literature at the time was full of peasants. In fact, Premchand was almost an exception. The second point Shukla is referring to, and which comes out in Raag Darbari as well, is his strong reaction to the romanticization of the village and of 'happy peasant' life that grew out of Baden-Powell's idea of 'village republics' and M.K. Gandhi's championing of the self-sufficient village community as a counter model to the corruption of urban and Western modernity. The glorification of village life became one of the cornerstones of nationalist rhetoric, and of the statist rhetoric of rural development after Independence. In fact, the first piece Shukla ever sent for publication, in 1953-54, was entitled 'The Golden Village and the Rainy Season' ('Svarg Gram aur Varsha') and was written in angry reaction to a romantic radio play he had heard while stationed in a remote rural area of Uttar Pradesh. In Raag Darbari we find a hilarious deconstruction of public speeches on rural development and the public campaign posters that exhort villagers to 'Grow More Grain'-as if they were perversely unwilling to do so-while showing a healthy farmer and his contented, laughing wife (pp. 57 -58). What intrigues Shivpalganj villagers, however, is whether the man on the poster is their fellow villager Badri Wrestler, and which of the village girls the woman standing behind him could be.

While Shrilal Shukla's family lived in precarious economic conditions, it was nonetheless cultured and broad-minded. His father enjoyed physical culture and classical music, his village-educated mother was well read and of liberal views, an uncle who was among the first writers in Hindi on psychology and physical culture received the most important Hindi journals of the day, and while still in the village Shrilal Shukla imbibed strong literary tastes, first in the traditional style of versification (savayya) and later in modern poetry and fiction.

It is difficult to overestimate the role that Hindi literary journals miscellanies really-played in the early decades of the twentieth century. They wove together a Hindi-reading public and a community of writers (both male and female) across the wide expanse of north India that stretched for thousands of miles between Rajasthan and Calcutta, and instilled a taste for modern prose and poetry. Practically every writer of the period also owned or edited a journal, and the most successful ones circulated widely and deeply into rural areas thanks to the postal service, to public libraries or to the personal collections of obliging relatives and friends.

The next stage for Shukla after the village was university, first in Allahabad, then famed as the 'Oxford of the East' and host to a vibrant Hindi literary community of student and teachers, and after that briefly in Lucknow. Shukla had to abandon his studies after his father's early death and prepare for the Civil Services Examinations, which he passed in 1948. He later expressed regret at not having taken part in the freedom movement, engrossed as he was in his own personal struggles. At the same time, he objected vigorously to the stereotype of the struggling Hindi writer-a corollary of the idea of 'poor Hindi' vs 'wealthy English'. 'To be poor or unemployed in a country like India is actually no big thing. That's why when a citizen writer offers a pitiful description of his own poverty I feel that he is indirectly offending all those who are living in even greater hardship but do not have the means of self-publication'.

While Shukla did not become a professional litterateur-unlike so many of his contemporaries who viewed government employment as incompatible with creative freedom-already at university in Allahabad, he became friends with some of the most important young Hindi writers of the day, Dharamvir Bharati (1926-97), Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena (1927 -83) and Vijay Dev Narayan Sahi. He remained, as he himself put it, on the fringes of the literary circles in Allahabad, where fierce debates raged at the time between Progressive writers and critics (who internally rehearsed the well-known debates between Zhdanov and Lukacs) and the so-called experimentalists, modernist poets and fiction writers who placed central emphasis on the creative process. The electric excitement of the students there, who argued over fundamental questions while eyeing their future as leaders and intellectuals of the new nation, and falling in love, is captured in the defining novel of the youth of that generation, Dharamvir Bharati's romantic The God of Sins (Gunahon ka Devta, 1949).

The 1940s and '50s were a period of enormous creativity in Hindi-in poetry with the path-breaking collections of new poets edited by Sachidanand H. Vatsyayan 'Agyeya' (1911-87), and in novel writing with the very diverse experiments of Bharati, Phanishwarnath 'Renu', Krishna Sobti, Agyeya and so on. Some of them, like Bharati and Agyeya (for example in Islands in the Stream [Nadi ke Dweep, 1952]), reflected on how personal relationships could grow for modern individuals who craved authenticity and depth while the social institutions of family, neighbourhood and workplace seemed stuck in a conservative mould that prescribed strict gender roles and castigated anyone who broke out of line.

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