It would have been impossible to write Alipura in 2021. “Village and block Alipura, district Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh”, with its dominantly Hindu population would probably not exist, having been forced into a nomenclatural change to a benign and acceptable “Amitpuri” or “Rampura”, as per a certain dispensation’s current creative agenda. However, written in Hindi in 1995 as Baramasi, Gyan Chaturvedi’s novel manages to capture that title as well as the various inflections of provincial life in the adroit hands of its translator Salim Yusufji.

Set in Bundelkhand of the 1960s, Alipura performs significant calisthenics with social commentary and satire, humour, politics, and Hindi heartland cultural imperatives. Multiple nods to Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, seamless segueing with Phanishwar Nath Renu’s aanchalik upanyas, a fair bit of prophesying about the resurgence of Savarna, right-wing extremism in India, Alipura is a delightful romp through the flux of the ’60s and ’70s.

Till it is not. Till it turns into a sombre exposition of exactly what it means to be powerless in a power-hungry socio-political milieu.

Tracing the history of the Dube family, fallen on bad days since the early and unexpected demise of their father, well-regarded poet and seemingly urbane Amritlal, the novel is a sprawling story of four brothers – Guchchan, Chhuttan, Chandu and Lalla, with marginal, only liminal space occupied by their sister Binnoo and the long-suffering, severely stereotype-fitting mother, known not by her name, but only by her relationships – Amma or Jijji.

The novel opens with the description of visitors to Alipura. Halt for exactly one passenger train, Alipura’s railway tesan (station) regularly produces the spectacle of out-of-towners, with their city ways and their complete unfamiliarity with the narrow, usually filthy lanes of the village, providing much mirth to its denizens, none of whom seems to be going anywhere or doing anything. Caught in a time warp, life in Alipura seems to go on endlessly in unbroken cycles of caste-pride, masculine aggression, and chasing dreams that are doomed to failure.

Caste dynamics in full flow

For anyone who has lived in/experienced provincial India, Alipura is familiar territory. It is a world in decline that holds on steadfastly to traditional codes of caste hierarchy and caste-based oppression. The Dube brothers, right at the top of the caste ladder with their pedigreed Brahmin descent, have little other than their caste identity to hold on to.

Respect, or the lack thereof, comes from caste. Marriages take place within the caste. Hermetically sealed from each other, love and marriage are never to be mixed. “Love whom you like but marry within the caste,” as one of the brothers is reminded, is the primary credo of romance in Alipura. Love, as exciting as it is ephemeral, is mostly conjured up by a man who has every freedom to foist his feelings upon a usually unresponsive girl, but marriage needs to be sanctified by caste.

It is a scandal when a respected Brahmin man “installs” a sweeper woman in his home, claiming to love her and holding fast to his proclamation even in the face of social censure. It is an affront to the entire Brahmin community when a carpenter’s son qualifies for a tehseel-office job and is the one laying down the law to his “natural superiors” from behind a desk.

The ugliness of this caste dynamic is brought home to the reader in an episode where a wedding party at the bus-station is disrupted by Chhuttan and his friend with threats of violence because a young boy of the weaver caste had dared to wear a markin kurta, a fabric deemed too fine for his “low” caste. The boy compounds his sin by “talking back”.

Violence is averted only when an older man from the wedding party, an adherent to the age-old philosophy of not upsetting any apple carts, apologises: “The old man looked guilt-stricken at being caught in a markin kurta, as if he had violated India’s Constitution and its injunctions against ‘low’ castes wearing fine cloth.”

The fault was Gandhi-ji’s and the Congress government’s, our heroes tell us. And yet, in the gaze that the young man directs at Chhuttan, the revulsion and rage that he carries, Chaturvedi gives us a glimpse into a future where no apologies will be issued, no violence left unanswered.

Patriarchy and the inviolable code of masculinity

Women in this fictional Alipura are exactly as expendable, interchangeable, and irrelevant as they are in most modern-day patriarchal societies. Binnoo, only sister to four brothers, has always been aware of her primary function in the family. She is the burden that can only be set down with a suitable marriage. She will need to be given away and with a dowry that will inevitably be beyond the means of her family.

Early in the novel, when she is paraded in front of a prospective groom’s family, Binnoo is devoid of all resentment, all complaint. Her raison d’être is to make herself acceptable enough to land a matrimonial match and when that does not happen after multiple times of dressing up and displaying herself, she starts thinking of herself as an unfinished story, a tale that meanders and loses meaning and doesn’t quite know how to conclude itself.

Education, for women like Binnoo, is only a stopgap, a temporary arrangement to keep them occupied till they fulfil their larger purpose in life. Unlike three of her brothers, she clears her Intermediate examinations and enrols for a BA, but education is not her route to happiness or fulfilment.

Women are not the protagonists in this story. “A woman lives, suffers, works, dies for others, and that’s the truth of her life.” The credo that Amma has lived by becomes the mantra for her daughter and her daughters-in-law. They suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands and know that there is no other way of life.

A woman’s body is, as always, the site where her family’s honour resides. Not for her the world of choices and desire and falling in love. If a man is seen making advances towards her, she is to be married off as soon as is possible, to preserve the family’s reputation. The aggressor, as is that other staple of deeply misogynistic cultures, is to be punished with death. The world of Alipura validates and glorifies honour killings. Violence is not a crime; it is a way of life.

The youngest of the brothers, Lalla, has elaborate fantasies of becoming a dacoit. Dedicated acolyte to the code of masculinity that defines all male interaction in his universe, Lalla’s pride and joy is the illegal countrymade pistol, the katta that his friend procures for him. He belongs to a world where an old man whose grandson is in jail for having butchered his father’s murderers in broad daylight feels nothing but pride, even as a young life languishes in prison.

“To die fighting your enemy is how you go to heaven,” the reader is told. All disputes are to be settled by muscle might. Little surprise then that a young man who cannot pass school, finds his life’s calling in intimidating and threatening and meting out his version of punishment and justice. The small-town with violent tendencies that multiple OTT platforms have streamed straight into urban living rooms in the past few years is not something that has emerged from a vacuum. It is this alarmingly realistic Alipura and its counterparts that have chronicled the space and its idiom, sans glamour, sans pretentions.

Sharp edges of existence

Life in Alipura is hard. People die of disease, of deprivation, of epidemics, of the heat, of disputes. Employment is difficult to come by. Opportunities are few. Corruption has infected every aspect of life. Schools are barely functional. Schoolboys are often to be found herding the headmaster’s cattle. Exams are passed by giving bribes. Degrees can be bought for reasonable rates. Jobs are procured the same way. Money and connections run the world. Court cases run on forever. Justice remains elusive. The law does not bother the rich. The police has its own systems of truth-telling that are based, largely, on custodial torture. The small man keeps getting smaller still, ground down by the callousness of all structures surrounding him.

Chaturvedi makes the reader chuckle at Lalla’s multiple attempts at entrepreneurship, all of which are doomed to failure. His kiln collapses, his firecrackers and fabrics remain unsold, his medical career is a farce. However, once you stop laughing, you are forced to confront the illogic of selling dreams in the absence of either infrastructure or institutional support. The lot of the common man is to remain, much like the women in Alipura, uncomplaining in the face of severe hostility.

Chaturvedi’s very bleak, very black humour is sharp with satire. Like an Alipura man shooting the breeze on a day when time itself seems immovable, the narrator layers the saga of the Dube household with anecdotes and stories about other villagers that mostly do not appear within the pages of the novel. Ranging from the hilarious to the surreal to the obviously exaggerated, these tangential sub-stories inform the novel with a sense of community. The follies and foibles, the flaws and failings of the brothers are not unique. Neither are their tragedies.

Cleverly, in a nation obsessed with cinema and cine-stars, Chaturvedi interweaves the ups and downs of the Dubes with the rise and fall of three cinema legends. The novel opens in the era of the idealism of Dilip Kumar, plays out for the most in the heydays of Dharmendra and his aggressive masculinity balanced with a rouge romanticism, and ends with the announcement of a new star on the horizon – Amitabh Bachchan – the soon to be angry young man of the ’70s.

This grand cinematic sweep is a perfect counterpoint to Alipura’s brushes with ambition and love and hope, and the dismal failure of each. This is not a novel of hope. It is not even a story of resilience. Instead, it is a commentary on systemic failure, whether in the 1960s or the 1990s or the 2020s.

Alipura, Gyan Chaturvedi, translated from the Hindi by Salim Yusufji, Juggernaut Books.