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June 7, 2013

The novel and the present

The world of Shrilal Shuka’s Raag Durbari reflects many of our social realities of today. But there is much that has changed too.

2287813936_066b0dd341_oRaag Durbari by Shrilal Shukla was first published in 1967 when the euphoria of independence was dying and cynicism was setting in, whether this was the “tryst with destiny” our founding fathers had envisioned.

The novel is a cynical take on the Indian Village with an Ambedkaran view of rural India: “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic…What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?” The fresh preface written for the 2007 edition mentions that the ills of the village life are seeping in the national elite. This is a topic of great importance that deserves a separate discussion. It would be nevertheless interesting to compare the world in Raag Durbari with the world today, to see all that has changed and all that has remained unchanged. At least we can see where our instinctive “nothing changes in this country” prognosis stands with a 45-year snapshot.

Delving into the background of the novel, Srilal Shukla was a bureaucrat in Uttar Pradesh for a long period and his novel therefore displays a deep understanding of the subject and its setting. It is said that Shukla knew a number of stories of rural India which he would retell to his friends. Many of these stories found their way into the novel and the starkness with which they are told in the novel, added with Shukla’s authorial style, add to the visceral humour that emerges within the novel. This also makes the novel episodic in nature, linked by characters in a village, without a traditional plotline or a protagonist. The novel revolves around the politics of public life in the village with a few instances of visits to the city thrown in.

The first thing which strikes you in the novel is the  absence of  strong female characters. Although women do feature but they don’t have much of a role in the story. Rather than being seen as a sign of misogyny, it portrays the reality of the village level political life where women rarely figured. Even today, when the reservation for women in village panchayats has brought many into the public life, majority of them are still controlled by a male member of their family. Independent women politicians at the lowest level are exceptions to the norm, and certainly not enough in a country of this size and magnitude.

The novel aptly describes the state of literacy in the village. In a telling incident about the state of education, the entire panchayat struggles to read an application for justice and a main character, who gets elected as Sarpanch, also confesses to his illiteracy. The local school is the hotbed of politics and is a tool to siphon resources of power. The novel is set in a period when the government had recently started focusing on educating the rural children. But it ignored the demand side of the equation — where there was little demand for educated workers. The village children want to move out of agriculture after their modest education, contrary to what the government really wanted. The novel stresses on the pathetic quality of education, rather than the access to it. In our real lives, it is only recently that the debate around education has shifted from quantity to quality in India.

The economy depicted is mainly agrarian and the only other professions mentioned are teaching, shop keeping, law, government work and being an outlaw. The novel is written just prior to the Green Revolution and lampoons the efforts of the state machinery to increase agricultural yield. Food scarcity is described multiple times. Practically every character is physically malnourished. The absence of migration to urban areas makes it all the more notable. Even now, rural India is primarily agrarian. While the agricultural performance is poor, relative to world levels, we are doing better compared to 1967. The other key economic drivers in this day and age are migration and remittances. While food security is not a concern, malnutrition remains a problem even today.

In the world of Raag Durbari, people don’t own vehicles and communication is remote. Today two-wheelers and cell phone networks permeate every village. Roads are not mentioned in the novel probably because walking is convenient even without asphalt. Electricity is not mentioned in the novel at all. The crop is irrigated from canals and not bore-wells, as is popular today.

The novel portrays a decrepit standard of governance. The local police stations are grossly understaffed and the village strongman is easily able to get a police officer transferred, when his interests are harmed. This hasn’t changed even now. The police still remain under political control and such transfers are common. The local elections in the novel are easily rigged and the techniques for doing so are given in hilarious detail. In contemporary India, if not anything, the elections have gained a reputation of being free and fair. The novel has multiple instances of stealing, encroachment and unfair use of resources like water by the powerful. Nepotism  features even in 1967. The power centre of the village appoints his son as the head of the co-operative and his minion is crowned as the village sarpanch. While he claims to not be interested in positions of power, he is happy to rule from behind the scenes.

Other aspects of life are effortlessly stitched into the narrative of the novel, though often indirectly. The only entertainment in the village is local gossip, radio and an occasional mela. Today, television and cinema have transformed the entertainment landscape. Hygiene is extremely poor in the setting of the novel. To this day and age, the squalor described the novel, is present in our urban and rural reality. Casteism is prevalent in the novel. While the characters are aware of the changed laws against its practice, everyone is happy to observe the social customs that they are comfortable with. This has not changed even now.

The world of Raag Durbari and today’s realities in many parts of our country have striking similarities. But there are vast differences too. India has changed in many ways, even if that change has been slow and halting. It is only the last two decades that the pace of change accelerated. But the events of the last few years have dampened our enthusiasm about growth and change. Even if the euphoria of India Shining is now in the past, let us remember that India is not an inert civilisation. The question is no longer whether we can change. It is, how fast can we change? And what can we do to change faster?

Photo: Meena Kadri


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