The translator's introduction to Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla, translated by Gillian Wright (1991)
Raag Darbari is not widely read in Delhi society and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who had heard of it or its author at the average dinner party. The latest English novels, on the other hand, are a favourite subject for discussion. But no novel I have ever read in English comes close to capturing life in an ordinary north Indian village, whereas the smell of the earth of Uttar Pradesh emanates from every page of Raag Darbari.
It's author, the retired bureaucrat Shrilal Shukla, has spent a lifetime in Uttar Pradesh. His accurate observations of society and keen sense of humour made Raag Darbari a bestseller over thirty years ago when it was first published, and are responsible for its continuing popularity wherever Hindi is read and valued. As a bookseller from Lucknow's congested Aminabad area told me, 'Raag Darbari sells so well because it gives an absolutely correct description of village politics find the working of government machinery.' .
Politics and government are the two main themes of the novel. Uttar Pradesh is India's most politically dominant state and it's often said that politics is the state's main industry. Shrilal Shukla describes politics at the grass roots, but much of the factionalism, nepotism and behind-the-scenes manipulation he portrays is familiar to anyone who follows events through the national press. U.P.'s highly developed bureaucracy, the author's other main target, is satirized for its irrelevance to the common man, inefficiency and close connections with politicians. A senior official in the government of UP. sought to explain away the book's appeal by saying, 'You see, it's a sort of Indian, "Yes Minister."' But Raag Darbari covers a much wider spectrum than the British television series.
The title itself reveals the political emphasis of the plot. Raag Darbari is the name of one of the most difficult raags of Indian classical music, but Shrilal Shukla has taken its meaning literally — the melody of the court. In the novel it refers to the tune sung by the courtiers of a latter-day local raja, that's to say a village politician. The court of the title is presided over by Vaidyaji, a Brahmin ayurvedic doctor who is the political mastermind of his village, Shivpalganj. The story, set in the late nineteen-fifties, describes his struggle for political control of Shivpalganj, a fictional village typical of Rae Bareli district, south-east of Lucknow. Among the novel's other main characters are Vaidyaji's elder son, the village strong man, Badri Wrestler; his younger son, the student leader Ruppan Babu; and his nephew, Rangnath, a graduate from the town. Rangnath comes to his uncle's village of Shivpalganj to recuperate from an illness and the novel covers the period he stays there. During this time Vaidyaji, who controls the local Co-operative Union and college, launches a bid for power over the Village Council and faces a stiff challenge to his dominance in the college from a group of dissident teachers backed by his main political rival in the village.
When I met Shrilal Shukla on the lawns of Lucknow's palatial but crumbling Carlton Hotel, I asked him why the Co-operative Union, the Village Council and the college were so important for Vaidyaji to control. He replied, 'They are the three key institutions in Shivpalganj because in the late fifties and early sixties, education, co-operatives and panchayats were the three main planks of village development. The fruits of large-scale industrial projects, the 'new temples' of the Nehruvian era, had, by and large, not reached the villages. So these three institutions were the three instruments of change and also the institutions which dominant castes in the villages soon learnt to master in order to perpetuate their control of village matters. In Raag Darbari the main characters happen to be Brahmins because in much of U.P. the dominant castes in villages were, and to a large extent still are, Brahmins and Thakurs.'
Shrilal Shukla, besides being a retired member of India's elite IAS cadre, comes from a village not very dissimilar from Shivpalganj and from a conservative Brahmin family. After graduating with a B.A. from Allahabad University in ancient Indian history, English literature and Sanskrit, he drifted into government service where he was posted mainly in the areas in and around Lucknow, including Rae Bareli district. At one time he served as Director of Information of the state government under V P. Singh who later became Prime Minister. I naturally drew the conclusion that Raag Darbari was a largely autobiographical work.
But the author emphatically denied that. 'It's true I am a Brahmin,' he said, 'but I have never been conscious of my caste when I write, nor is caste particularly important in Raag Darbari, as in politics, then, it had not become the dominant force it is today. Similarly Shivpalganj is not my village, and none of the characters are based on individuals I know. Vaidyaji, for example, is a mixture of characteristics from three or four different types of people. And my being in the administration did not mean I had a special insight into the way the government worked or that I wrote as a bureaucrat. In fact I kept my official personality completely detached from my personality as an author. Whatever I describe in the book, for example the working of the Co-operative Union, was the kind of thing that was common knowledge. In fact, one of the criticisms of Raag Darbari when it first appeared was that it didn't say anything new—it just described what everybody knew already. What I do have is the equipment of any author, a wealth of experiences on which I draw.'
While Shrilal Shukla relied on his experience to create his characters, the novel's episodic plot is clearly the result of the way the book was first conceived back in the sixties. Then, during relaxed lunchtimes spent on the lawns of the same Carlton Hotel, Shukla related thirty or forty village tales to his friends who were them- selves talented writers and journalists. 'The stories seemed good over beer,' he told me, 'but insipid written down.' However his friends insisted there was something very unusual in these tales. He told me, 'They said the stories had a natural iconoclastic attitude which was the antithesis of contemporary Hindi writing on rural life. That writing either emphasized misery and exploitation or presented an idyllic rustic picture.' So Shrilal Shukla created the loose plot which bound the episodes together. But the environment of rural Shivpalganj remained the element which gave the novel the most cohesion .
Few of the characters at home in this environment are prone to much introspection, although most believe strongly in plain speaking. Some of the most colourful are the wrestlers who repeatedly make their appearance either caked with mud from the wrestling pit or smelling strongly of their latest mustard oil massage. I asked Shrilal Shukla how close they were to reality. He replied, 'That sort of collective exercise of wrestling at an akhara is now virtually obsolete, but it was common in villages about fifty years ago and in the fifties and sixties there were still some vestiges of this village institution lingering in central U.P. The attitude the wrestlers represent is still very real, but nowadays people don't rely on straight muscle power, there are other sorts of gangsterism in politics, different kinds of wrestlers who rely on illicit firearms for their strength.'
One of the main activities of the wrestlers and other characters is imbibing bhang, the preparation of which Shrilal Shukla has observed since his childhood. As he told me, 'Although Thakurs have always taken liquor, alcohol was taboo for Brahmins and Banias. Bhang was the only sort of socially permitted intoxication and was important as a major source of relaxation and entertainment. As a boy in my village, the bhang-making used to start at five every evening. Now norms are changing as a result of closer contact between towns and villages and other factors, and people are not horrified by drink as they once were.'
Shukla's Shivpalganj is also strangely devoid of women. Apart from the daughter of the local moneylender who climbs over the rooftops to kiss Rangnath, women only appear as passers-by or in bedtime fantasies. I asked the author whether village women were not part of his wealth of experience. Shrilal Shukla replied, 'Society in, Raag Darbari is a male-dominated society, and politics is still a male-dominated field despite Indira Gandhi being the Prime Minister for so long. And all the distortions of values that can attract satire or irony come from men in real life. For example, defections. Very few lady politicians indulge in floor-crossing. So male characters are much more attractive if your aim is to satirize distorted values in political life. I don't think a lady would have behaved like Vaidyaji if she'd been in charge of the college.'
Even the distortions Shrilal Shukla sees in traditional social values seem to be male-oriented. For example, he debunks the concept of filial devotion, the great respect Indians have for their elders. Two of the characters, Chote Wrestler and his father, are constantly up in arms against each other, following a family tradition generations old. The author argues that this also represents reality. But perhaps he is unduly cynical about the social system which has given India a remarkably stable society for hundreds of years. When I put this to him he replied, Am I too critical? What else can you be? And then you must bear in mind that I was writing in a mood of high comedy.'
It is the book's lively humour which carries the plot along and makes light of the flaws in the system which Shrilal Shukla highlights. The political and administrative system he describes was inherited from the British who created it to run an empire. It is therefore not surprising that it became strained when asked to run a complex independent country like India. In fact, many of the systems the British introduced worked far from perfectly even during the Raj. A favourite target of the author are the courts which have been the cause of complaint for the common man ever since the 1850s when the administrator Sleeman visited villages in what is now U.P. and found people confounded by the corruption and complications of the newly introduced British legal system. The courtroom scenes in Raag Darbari, starring amongst others the village's professional witnesses, are some of the funniest episodes in the book.
The author maintains that this humour is not unique to himself and that the people of U.P., especially in villages, have a highly developed ability to see the funny side of life. Their humour is reflected in the richness of local dialects. Shrilal Shukla has written Raag Darbari using a gamut of literary styles, but he has largely relied on genuinely colloquial Hindi enriched with Hindi translations of expressions drawn from dialect. This technique is unusual. Many writers on village life, for example Prem Chand, rely heavily on dialect itself to add realism to their writing. Shrilal Shukla's use of translated expressions gives an equally authentic rural flavour to Raag Darbari, besides presenting the reader with some startling mental pictures. For example, a person pleased with something which is in fact going to prove a nuisance is compared to a man with a tree growing out of his groin who thinks he's going to enjoy the shade.
Shrilal Shukla himself is widely read in English as well as Hindi and Sanskrit, and could easily write in that language. But he believes that only one's mother tongue will do for creative writing. He remembers the case of his uncle, a brilliant student who wrote a book in 1913 with an English preface, and was roundly castigated by his principal for the misuse of the definite article. 'My uncle realized,' he said, 'that it was not his native language, no matter how much he studied it, and he should not write in it.' So Shrilal Shukla continues to write in Hindi, taking long trips to the hills to painstakingly draft and redraft his novels.
His dry humour is still very much intact although he is increasingly disillusioned with the way India has gone since independence. That's partly because he remembers the days of the independence movement when he was an idealistic student, and finds contemporary realities do not measure up to his hopes. In his opinion, values have degenerated even further since he wrote Raag Darbari, rendering his novel outdated.
As he told me on the lawns of the Carlton Hotel, 'In the days when I was writing that novel we were concerned about mild distortions of the system, now you would have to write a fantasy on the lines of Garcia Marquez to begin to capture what is going on. Raag Darbari has become quite irrelevant now.'
He believes that the government's performance since independence has been 'quite dismal', and points to what he sees as the virtual collapse of the co-operative movement and the fact that well over half the population is still illiterate as proof of that. He sees money-power and what's known as the local mafia playing a much larger role in politics than before, and the administration weakened by excessive political interference. Others share his views. As a Lucknow journalist remarked to me, 'Corruption is now so accepted among politicians that it is no longer an issue, and if an official accepts the set rate of a bribe and doesn't ask for more, he's considered a very good, honest man.'
So Shrilal Shukla appears to be right in saying distortions in the system have increased. But the system is still the same one inherited from the British Raj and the problems it faces are of a similar nature to those described in Raag Darbari. The only difference is that they're bigger and will continue to grow until the system is properly adapted to meet Indian needs. Therefore I believe that Raag Darbari is still very relevant. Moreover, many of the observations the author makes of everyday life in U.P. are clearly as accurate as they were twenty-five years ago. Families of domestic pigs still jostle one another as they trot down the roads, truck drivers always park almost in the middle of the road with the cab door wide open so that no other vehicle can pass, and groups of village women can still be seen squatting in the fields at dawn and dusk so that they can defecate with some privacy.
Towards the conclusion of the novel Vaidyaji tries to re-establish his influence by approaching politicians and officials in the town— a thinly disguised Lucknow. Here, too, there's much in the description which is recognizable today. Traffic has increased but a very large proportion of it still consists of government vehicles, the most impressive being the Ambassador cars with flashing red lights, and miniature fans which blow air into the faces of the ministers reclining on the rear seats. English, understood by a mere 2.5 per cent of the population, is still the natural language of the elite, and the best schools are still English medium. English also continues to be the language of shop signs in Hazratganj—the bazaar originally built by and for the British. Paan shops still spring out of every corner, glasses of milky bhang can still be had, and no man ever seems short of a place to pee. Officials and politicians still live in the greenest areas of the city away from the noise and congestion, and politicians' bungalows are still thronged by favour seekers and representatives from various factions as politics becomes more and more a business of patrons and patronage.
This is not to deny that some things have changed for the better as well as for the worse. After all, Raag Darbari focusses on the negative aspects of the system. There are positive aspects too. For example, sections of society which were traditionally excluded from power are increasingly demanding their due share in government. At the time of writing the Chief Minister of U.P. was a leader belonging to one such backward caste. It's another matter that he was an ex-wrestler and a former teacher at an intermediate college, his brother headed his home district's co-operative federation and a cousin the District Board—proving that even the rising political powers find these local institutions as important to control as they were when Raag Darbari was written. Two of the Chief Minister's main programmes—promoting Hindi and providing latrines for village women—are also as necessary now as they were then.
But the ultimate proof of Raag Darbaris continuing relevance is in its expanding readership. A second generation of Hindi readers has discovered the novel, and translations into fifteen different languages have made it accessible to people all over the country. It has also been adapted for stage and television. And now, finally, it has been published in English too. I have tried my best to capture the spirit of the book in this translation, and if I have I am sure that Shrilal Shukla will win his fair share of acclaim among English readers too.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla, translated by Gillian Wright. Also See: Gilian Wright on Shrilal Sukla: Writing the Wrongs