Indian Classics: Shrilal Shukhla – “Raag Darbari”

srilal Shukla

Raag Darbari: If this phrase evokes the expansive singing of the said raga by the sonorous Amir Khan Saheb, please erase the image. Or if you, like Hindustani music critic Rajan Parrikar, think that, “It is a monumental raga, unmatched in Hindustani ragaspace for its gravitas, difficult in its swara-lagav, and profound for its emotional impact on the innocent and the illuminati alike” ( erase that thought as well . For there is no music in Shrilal Shukla’s book. If at all there is music in this book, it is not of the melodious variety. It is the music of dissonance.

The start of the book sets the tone for the whole book. With his sarcastic pen, Shukla describes the edge of the city: “This is the border of the city. From here starts the ocean called the Indian village”. He then goes on to construct a superb set piece, wherein Ranganath, who had missed his train (“The passenger train had ditched him. He went to the station confident that the train would be two hours late. It was late by only one and half hours. He lodged his complaint in a register kept at the station and left the station”) Ranganath then gets into a truck to go to the village Shivpalganj, which would be the domain of the book. The conversation between the lorry driver and Ranganath is hilariously told.

“Do you know Mittal Saheb?” asked the lorry driver

“No”, said Ranganath

“Jain Saheb?”


“You are working for the CID, isn’t it?”

“CID? What is it?”

“If you are not working for CID, why are you wearing khadi?”

The comedy continues with a checking squad stopping the lorry. The interaction between the checking squad, lorry driver and Ranganath is told with great humor. After the ‘checking’ we finally arrive at Shivpalganj.

The book then proceeds with hilarious set pieces, the first one at the police station, where we are introduced to a police inspector who is pained that people are disturbing his sleep. From there, Sukhla takes us to ‘Sangamal Vidyalaya, Intermediate College, Shivpalgunj’. There we are introduced to various teachers and then to the Principal, who will be one of the main characters and to Khanna Master, the arch nemesis of the principal. We are then taken into the home of the principal character, the local Ayurvedic doctor, known popularly as Vaidyaji.

As the novel proceeds, we slowly start understanding the meaning of the title. Shrilal Shukla is not talking about the musical raag called Darbari. Rather he is highlighting the political raag which is sung in all Darbar’s around the world. This is a novel which highlights the palace intrigues, the lust for power, nepotism and much more. Like a trained musician constructing a raga phrase by phrase, Shrilal Shukla constructs his raga set piece by set piece. The novel is full of interesting and funny set pieces, which slowly give us an idea of the politics in the village. The novel does not have a beginning-middle-end structure. The idea is clearly not to tell a story but rather highlight how politics and hunger for power have seeped into the villages. This was the post-independence era of disillusionment. The episodic structure of the novel aids in highlighting these aspects very well.

The novel demolishes almost every institution of the state, starting with education system with its power hungry principals who are backed up power hungry politicians. An education system where the needs of the students or society is of no consequence and in which the education inspectors are more interested in staying at the ‘dak’ bunglow and the teachers are more interested in their personal business than in teaching the students.

The inefficiency of the police and the justice system come to the fore in this novel, with police spending their times in misguided midnight raids based on information from questionable sources and finally getting berated by a drunk. The reality of what we consider as present day problem of political transfers, was highlighted in this novel, wherein the Inspector who has the gall to arrest an henchman of Vaidyaji is transferred, defamation case filed on him and life made miserable for him that he has no choice but to affect a compromise with Vaidyaji. Needless to say the henchman goes scot free.

Sukhla is at his humorous best when sends up the judicial system. The cross examination of a known false witness of the police by the defense lawyer provides him the ammunition to blast the whole judicial process. The cross examination by the defense lawyer, the answers by the false witness, the judge’s intervention: all these are used to construct one of the most humorous set piece of the novel and highlight the inefficiency of the system. Combined with this is the case of Langda, where he wages a Don Quixote level battle to get an official copy of a document without paying any bribe to the officials in the court.

The novel foresees some of the political actions that would become the norm later. A manager of the co-operative society robs goods from the society and escapes to the city. The loss to the co-operative is substantial. Vaidyaji, who heads the co-operative, has an excellent argument. The co-operative society is a government body. So the government must catch the culprits and recover the money. In case they are unable to do that they must make good the loss. This impeccable argument casually absolves Vaidyaji of all blame. When this doesn’t work, he rushes to the politicians in the capital. They teach him a new lesson. Vaidyaji comes back and in the next meeting of the co-opertaive body, he steps down from his post on ‘moral’ grounds. Not before ensuring his eldest son, Pahalwan Badri, has been elected the new head of the co-operative society. Doesn’t that remind you of Laloo Prasad and the fodder scandal?

The need to highlight the political aspects of village life makes Shrilal Shukla create characters that are more symbolic that real life characters. He doesn’t try and flesh out the characters as human beings with their own moral dilemmas. Rather, like each note in a raga having its fixed frequency, each character symbolizes a certain political aspect. Vaidyaji, is the center of power, or in modern parlance, the high command. He is soft spoken and rarely gets angry but doesn’t hesitate to use force when necessary. His elder son, Pehalwan Badri and his friend, chota Pahalwan, symbolize the brute force behind the politicians. Saneeswar is the loyalist. Roopan, they younger son of Vaidyaji, symbolizes the youth who doesn’t want education but wants to be part of local politics. Ranganath, to whom we are introduced in the beginning, stands for the ineffective educated youth. Ranganath, nephew of Vaidyaji, observes everything but his education is of no use to him when it comes to tackling local politics. He can only fret and fume but cannot do anything constructive. Similarly other characters like the opposition leader, policemen, local ruffians and others serve their purpose to highlight some aspect of this raag Durbari. They are not real people and you don’t have empathy for any of the characters of the novel. I don’t think generating empathy for anyone was Shukla’s aim either.

Like a concert made up of one raga, Shrilal Shukla only plays Darbari here. In the sense that you do not get a bigger picture of village life in this book. Only the local political angle is highlighted and Shukla is content with that. While Shukla anticipates the future political developments with the eye of a seer, it is in the involvement of women in politics that he misses the bull’s eye. This novel surprisingly has no women. Yes, women do appear once in a while, like the sex worker who passes herself off as a classical music singer or the well-endowed village women or the women who respond to nature’s call alongside the road. The only girl who has a shadowy presence throughout is Bela, a young girl, who catches the eye of both Pehalwan Badri and his brother, Roopan. Her character is never developed. Somehow Shukla did not anticipate Indira Gandhi or in later days Jayalalitha or Mayawati. While it is impossible for someone to predict the future perfectly, having woman as either direct political force or an indirect political force would have enhanced the novel and given it a more rounded feel.

I read this novel in translation. So I can only say about the overall style of Shrilal Shukla but cannot comment on his language as such. Shukla wielded a very sharp and sarcastic pen and that is evident from the very first paragraph of the novel. His sense of humor is good but his sense of absurd his even better. Shukla keeps us laughing for most part of the book. He does that by constructing set pieces which highlight some absurd aspect, like the government telling the farmers that growing more crop is good for them (as if they didn’t know that!!). He also keeps the humor going by passing comments and by his scathing attack on various institutions. Behind the humor, which is top class, a lot of bitterness is hidden. It is the bitterness and despair that permeates the whole book. You slowly realize that Ranganath, the educated but ineffective youth in the novel, is probably Shrilal Shukla’s alter ego.

The most disturbing aspect of the book is that it deals with very petty and local politics. In other words, what is nowadays known as grass-root level politics. The reader is completely disillusioned by this political maneuvering. Then the realization dawns that Shukla has not touched upon the larger political landscape where fault lines along caste, region and religion are routinely exploited. The reason why this novel will remain an Indian classic is that even fifty or hundred years from now, the absurdities in the book will be our present day realities.

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