A conference was held recently at Delhi University to commemorate 50 years of Shrilal Shukla’s Hindi novel Raag Darbari. Shukla was an IAS officer who wrote Raag Darbari based on his experiences in rural UP, winning the Sahitya Akademi award for it in 1969. The book went on to capture the imagination of Hindi readers. In 1993, it was translated by Gillian Wright into English, thus allowing a broader audience to read the book.

Funny, nihilistic, and brutally satirical, Raag Darbari is a novel that continues to resonate in the Indian imagination today. It tells the story of Rangnath, a young MA student who goes to Shivpalganj, his uncle’s village, to recover from an illness. There he is introduced to life as it is lived in India’s interiors, full of corruption, infighting, factionalism, petty rivalries and a mixture of defeatism and jugaad. Rangnath’s eyes are opened as to the real situation of the country and he realises that the ideals of the nationalist leaders have failed India dramatically.

Surprisingly, the conference at Delhi University was held not by the Hindi department, but by the Political Science department, under the leadership of Professor Satyajit Singh, who saw that Raag Darbari might offer a framework to rethink the top-down version of political science practised at DU and elsewhere, generating in its stead a vernacular theory for understanding how politics actually works on the ground in rural India. This visionary approach to decolonising political science met with enthusiastic response from the participants.

Reversing the gaze

I was one of the only literary scholars in attendance, and my role was to argue for the contemporary relevance of Raag Darbari from a literary perspective. Despite all the rhetoric of a shining India and academics’ insistence that we are now in an era of neoliberal governmentality, in fact everyday life still very much takes place along the logic of what I call, borrowing a phrase from the novel, “ulti batein,” a topsy-turvy world in which things are never as they seem: causes become effects and effects, causes, ideals are perverted in every way possible, and corruption is justified with such twisted excess that it manages to appear as the natural, god-given way things should be.

This is conveyed delightfully in Raag Darbari’s language. For instance: “Khaki kapde pehne hue do sipahi bhi utre. Unke utarte hi pindaariyon-jaisi loot-khasot shuru ho gayi. Kisi ne driver ka driving licence chheena, kisi ne registration-card.” (“Two constables in khaki uniforms also got out. Immediately they began to rob and loot in the style of the old Pindari dacoits. Someone seized the driver’s licence, someone else, the registration card”). Here the action of the police is presented from the perspective of the accused, in which it appears to be looting, when “in fact” it is just normal police procedure. At the same time, written this way, the line shows how the police often act like looters and dacoits. These ulti batein become this novel’s indirect means of political critique.

In another example: “Ek purane shlok mein bhugol ki ek baat samjhayi gayi hai ki surya disha ke adheen hokar nahin ugta. Woh jidhar hi udit hota hai, wahi poorv disha ho jati hai. Usi tarah uttam koti ka sarkari aadmi kaarya ke adheen daura nahin karta, woh jidhar nikal jata hai, udhar hi uska daura ho jata hai.” (“An ancient Sanskrit verse explains a point of geography – that is, that the sun doesn’t rise depending on where the East is, but where the East is depends on where the sun rises. In the same way senior officials do not go on tour depending on their work, but whenever they go anywhere it automatically becomes an official tour.”)

Anyone today will recognise the absurdity that characterises the “ulta” logic of the Indian state, and appreciate its presentation in this humorous, deadpan way.

Upside down you turn me

But even more than the continuing relevance of its social critique, Raag Darbari is contemporary in that there are some surprising commonalities between this novel and 21st-century Indian writing. Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, with the internationally-known novels of Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and others, we saw the prevalence of themes of exile, the nation, borders, and cosmopolitanism, today we see a return to more populist modes and styles, a more satiric and even nihilistic streak, experiments with “ulta” logic, and what may be called a “new provincialism” that reanimates India’s Tier-II cities and small towns as sites of futurity, rather than only the cosmopolitan cities of Mumbai and Kolkata.

For instance, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is full of such comedic inversions, beginning with Balram’s jubilant pronouncement that “One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing.” In Peeli Chatri Wali Ladki by Uday Prakash, language is subject to parody and play, allowing the Hindi department chair to confuse the Indian English writer Arundhati Roy with the beauty pageant winner-turned Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai: “Accha! Aajkal ka aadhunik sahitya model log bhi likha karti hain? Hamne woh Arundhati ka kuchh padha toh nahin, haan usko Lux ke vigyapan mein TV par zaroor dekha hai” (“So! Even supermodels are writing modern novels these days, eh? I haven’t read anything by her but I’ve seen that Arundhati on TV in her ad for Lux soap’”). Here, Prakash uses the slippage in Hindi between “Roy” and “Rai” to satirise both the provincialism of the Hindi department and the celebrity status of many Indian English writers.

Even the recent Hindi film Newton, which, like Raag Darbari, commented upon the failure of democracy in India’s rural regions, was advertised by the tagline, “Seedha Aadmi Ulti Duniya”. The fake ambush started by the captain to force Newton to abandon his polling booth before the promised time is only one of the absurd ways in which the state responds to perceived danger by actually creating the danger themselves.

Borders and margins

We see a similar thing in contemporary Pakistani literature as well, such as this parody of religiosity in Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes: “Our commandant wants everyone to wear double-starched uniforms…which leads to regular outbreaks of rashes and ugly skin infections…Anyone who gets a skin infection because of his starched uniform gets a prescription which says ‘no starched uniforms.’ The commandant won’t have any cadets in nonstarched uniforms on active duty,…so they have all been ordered to spend their day in the mosque…The only clear winner in this running feud…is God Himself. The mosque these days has more worshippers than ever before”

Today’s new provincialism also hearkens back to the anchalik literature of the immediate post-colonial decades – even, surprisingly, works written in English. We see the depiction of a range of Indian English accents in novels by Anuja Chauhan, for instance, which contrasts with the unmarked, St Stephen’s English in which all the characters in Amitav Ghosh’s novels seem to speak. This suggests increasing awareness among writers of the range of Englishes across India’s different regions and is part of a vernacularisation of English happening in the new literature that increasingly belies the strict divide between English and the bhashas.

The new literature also refuses the orientalist representations of India that Shukla poked fun at as well. In Raag Darbari we read: “Phephde, gale aur zabaan ko chirti hui aawaaz mein ve chikh rahi thin aur ek aisi chichiyahat nikaal rahi thin jise shehrati vidwaan aur radio-vibhaag ke naukar graam-geet kehte hain.” (“[The women] were uttering lung, cheek and throat-rending screams, and producing the kind of shrieking which urban scholars and broadcasters call folk-songs”), which satirises the romanticisation of rural life by urban scholars. In The White Tiger we have the hilarious scene when Ashok mistakes Balram scratching his eye as a form of rural religiosity, and Balram indulges this fantasy by proceeding to touch other parts of his body as well: “first just touching my eye, then my neck, then my clavicle, and even my nipples. They were convinced I was the most religious servant on earth.”

And in Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States, we read: “Smells of mustard, curry leaves and onions reached us. If this was one of those prize-winning Indian novels, I’d spend two pages on how wonderful those smells were. However, the only reaction I had was a coughing fit and teary eyes.” In all these examples, India is less a site of exotic culture, food and spices, and more an experience of daily life.

All these suggest that the legacy of Raag Darbari lives on, perhaps even more now than in the latter two decades of the 20th century, when the Indian novel became world-famous. Far from lamenting the state of literature today, which many critics seem eager to do, we might recognise how today’s literary scene reflects some of the impulses exemplified in Raag Darbari, so that the satirical, nihilistic, episodic bhasha novel of the 1960s might actually have found its future in the populist, provincialist novel of today.