With the first decade of this century has come a growing realization that corruption is not limited to the state and its affiliates. Films like Life in a Metro and Page Three present the possibility of the existence of social and moral corruption outside the immediate purview of politicians and bureaucrats. As the aura of the state recedes from the urban imagination we begin to find more and more depictions of a structured and structural social corruption in which the line between corruption backed by political or administrative power and corruption backed by other kinds of power begins to get blurred. But Raag Darbari, Shrilal Shukla's classic novel, had already demonstrated 40 years ago--when the socialist state and its particular brand of putrefaction were beginning to come into their own in a big way--that corrupt governments, like corrupt people, spring from corrupt societies.
Raag Darbari is widely celebrated as an object lesson in the art of dry epigram. Just one example: "Babu Rangnath tumhare vichar bahut uunche hai. Par kul milakar us se yahi saabit hota hai ki tum gadhe ho." But in the face of an unjust and degenerate system, self-indulgent humour, no matter how high the quality, would be an act of complicity. And so we see that within the comic impulse lies the painful cognizance of a dark and oppressive reality. As one story is layered on another, there is a feeling that the act of telling is an attempt to maintain the integrity of the moral core that lies within each person; a desperate endeavour to define a moral existence by describing its opposite. Conflict arises, we begin to realize, not from the corruption of society, but from the moral urge within the individual that prevents him from accepting his given role in the corrupt scheme, or prevents him from being at peace if he does.
The weakness of Raag Darbari is that the stand-in for our conscience, Rangnath, is shown to be an outsider to the village of Shivpalganj. In fact, the novel begins with his crossing city limits into the "ocean of rural India." His time in the village is a season in hell and it ends with him rejecting Shivpalganj with a lyrical virulence in a passionate section called "palayan sangeet" near the end of the book. His flight is cowardly, but possible. He comes from outside, and to the outside he will return.
In contrast to Rangnath, Satte, the narrator of Pehla Padav, Shukla's 1987 novel, doesn't want to run away. When we first meet Satte, he has just finished a long period of commuting to the city to study. Being a daily passenger on the Indian railways has been a formative experience for Satte, teaching him that a young man must acquire a certain shameless thuggishness if he is to make his way in this world. He reverses Rangnath's journey and moves from village to city where he becomes the overseer of a house being constructed for Parmatmaji, a minor politician who happens to have married a former object of Satte's affection. At this construction site his now objectless affection finds a new target in Jasoda, a Bilaspuri labourer.
The mysterious death of Jasoda's ganja-smoking husband, Neta, is the hand that shields the flickering wick of Satte's conscience. But a waking conscience does not put his cunning to sleep. When he aligns himself with the now widowed Jasoda and decides to discover who killed Neta, he goes about it in the sly and roundabout ways that he has learned as a daily passenger. Satte is sensitive enough to realize that no matter how low in the hierarchy he lies there are those far below him who can never change their lot no matter how hard they try. He is courageous enough to dare to sympathise with them; and he is intelligent enough to realize that an open expression of this sympathy would be disastrous.
Line for line, Pehla Padav is as funny a book as Raag Darbari. But the despair of Pehla Padav is different from the despair of Raag Darbari. Satte's realization that he has a conscience that, despite his best efforts to kill it, refuses to die brings with it an acceptance that he must now live a life that squares up against corruption and attempts to fight it. There is no naive idealism here, no preachy moral high ground. Just a simple idea: if you cannot live with corruption, you have to resist it. And the understanding that when you fight against a debased and entrenched system, you fight not because you believe you will win, you fight because you must, because that is the only way you can ever be at peace with yourself.
Shukla's journey from Raag Darbari to Pehla Padav, from Rangnath to Satte, is a journey from fear into wisdom, a journey from despair into courage. It is the kind of journey that makes a reader feel that somewhere below the surface there is a spring of clear water that nourishes the roots of this ugly twisted tree.
Amitabha Bagchi is the author of the novel Above Average.