Shivpalganj proper was in Vaidyaji’s sitting room.”
An entire village prised open in a single, terse sentence; the romantic veneer concealing the feudalism of rural life scratched off, and post-independence Nehruvian ideals of inclusive development dealt a blow. In the unflinching sentences of Raag Darbari, his masterful satire published in 1968, Shrilal Shukla (1925-2011) punctured the blimp of the Indian village idyll.
The novel took home the prized Sahitya Akademi award the very next year. The honour lent a fillip to its already growing popularity; soon it would become one of the most widely read Hindi novels of all time.
Forty-four years on, Penguin has released a revision of Gillian Wright’s English translation, which may just introduce a new generation of urban readers to the confounding dynamics of Indian rural life.
The strange music of Raag Darbari reverberates through its episodic narrative. The book begins with the arrival of Rangnath, a young man visiting Shivpalganj to recuperate from an illness, and spans his stay at this village, lorded over by his wily uncle Vaidyaji. The city-educated Rangnath stumbles into the quagmire of Vaidyaji’s political wheeling and dealing, used to fortify his hold on the village. Rangnath’s image of the idyllic village, it goes without saying, is shattered.
“He had seen all this during his first few postings as a civil servant in the villages of Bundelkhand,” says Rekha Awasthi, a critic and friend of the late author. “That’s why he decided to expose the rot that lay there.”
Shukla became a civil servant in 1948, at age 23. He began writing in the 1950s, and by 1957, had published a novel, Suni Ghati ka Suraj. Years of experience had convinced him of the insufficiency of employing a traditional narrative structure to grasp rural life in its entirety. He closely observed the particular sense of humour that thrived in the areas where he worked, despite the bleakness of their prospects.
So, conjoining the two strands, Shukla developed a style unique for the Hindi literature of the time. Sample how he describes the scene as Rangnath is about to enter Shivpalganj: “They were women sitting in rows, talking contentedly and at the same time relieving themselves. Below the road, there were heaps of rubbish and their stench was making the evening breeze blow with the sluggishness of a pregnant woman.”
Writer and critic Murli Manohar Prasad Singh says the 1960s was a time of great romanticism in Hindi letters. The Progressive writers, and the writers who believed in “art for art’s sake”, the Parimal group, comprised two opposing camps. Shukla’s acerbic, witty examination of rural life was greeted with silence and contempt by both sides, incongruent as it was with their own agendas. Some critics dismissed it as lacking plot; others castigated it for its bleak outlook on social progress.
“The language he used in his novel—full of local idiom and tremendously witty—and the episodic narrative ran against the convention of the time,” Singh explains. “It must be said that Raag Darbari succeeded in spite of its critics.” This is borne out by history; in 1969, Shukla won the Sahitya Akademi award.
Wright says in her introduction that Shukla told her how the stories which came to be collected as Raag Darbari seemed good initially when told to friends over beer, but insipid when written down. The loose plot that tied the episodes together was imagined during these moments of revelry.
The methodical, disciplined novelist was at a far remove from Shukla, the bureaucrat and family man. His youngest daughter, Vinita Mathur, recalls a letter while she was in college in Allahabad, in which he wrote, “You are poised on the brink of a new life, poised being a word which conjures images of a girl standing on a diving board in a bikini.” He read John le Carré, Saul Bellow, Gabriel García Márquez and Amitav Ghosh with equal relish.
“In critical circles, the litmus test for a great writer is that he never repeats the foundation he used for a great novel of his,” says Singh. Shukla never did. His examinations into social life continued with such acclaimed works as Makaan (1976) and Bisrampur ka Sant (1998). “No other writer has been able to write a satire the way he did. Even he didn’t write in that way again,” Singh says. “You see, Raag Darbari remains one of the few novels that are better when they are read aloud—a novel that is meant to be heard, not just read.”