The cooperative union fraud was pretty straightforward. Its beauty lay in its purity, unlike the hundreds of other frauds that take place every day. There were no forged signatures, no fake bills, no creative accounting. You didn’t need any expertise to understand the nature of this scam either. All you needed was will power.

—Raag Darbari

Shrilal Shukla wrote Raag Darbari more than 40 years ago, but it continues to be one of the most discussed works in Hindi literature. Indeed, no serious discussion on Hindi letters is considered complete without a look at Shukla’s masterpiece. Even the title is evocative. Darbari is a Hindustani music raga, but Shukla is less concerned with that than the tune that officialdom pipes, both for itself and those it rules.

It wasn’t Shukla’s first work, and he continued to write prolifically after that until his death last October. But Raag Darbari is his passport to immortality. It’s been translated into 16 languages, and it’s seen more than one printing in a year many times. And if you collect all the comments on this one work that, too, will run into several volumes.

It belongs to that rare class of literature which could be called perennial. Its longevity is amazing enough, but for the serious student it’s imperative to work out the reasons for its continued appeal, especially in the very different world of today, or for the new generation and even those who haven’t read the book yet.

For someone like me (a long-time fan) there’s a special delight in reading this book all over again. Not only does it remain as fresh as ever, but one’s insights seem to sharpen with every reading. And, of course, I get a chance to renew my acquaintance with so many old friends, whether it’s Vaidyaji or Ruppan, Bade Pehelwan, or Rangnath, Principal Sahib, or Ramadhin Bhikhamkhedvi. They’ve been familiar neighbours since 1968 when the book was published, only we knew them by different names. Today, what it says can be experienced even more clearly, given the sharp changes in practices and values.

Last September, after the Jnanpith award was announced, the critic Virendra Yadav asked Shukla in a conversation if Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign would give new point and relevance to Raag Darbari.

Shukla’s response was typically wry. “Corruption today has increased many-fold. It’s left Raag Darbari far behind.”

Yadav persisted: Do we need a new Raag Darbari for the present day?

Shrilal Shukla: Things have changed so much that I’m afraid imagination is cursed to lag behind the reality!

Obviously he was referring not only to the totally amoral and self-centred attitudes that characterise our political system, but also to its universal spread. Shivpalganj (his fictional village) was severely infected, but not to the extent that he saw in the present day. But it wasn’t an attitude of dull resignation at something inevitable. He was just trying to evoke the same satirical spirit that so magnificently informs Raag Darbari through and through.

It’s about a village in north India, but there are few villages like this one in Hindi literature.  It’s totally different from the villages of Premchand or Phaneeshwarnath Renu’s fiction. Indeed, it is an indictment of that portrait.

Shukla describes Shivpalganj and its denizens layer by layer, in loving detail, and plays every note of the “Raag Darbari” with which its rulers delude them into violating the precepts of decency and self-worth. He exposes, in deadpan prose, the hollow slogans of development with which its leaders befuddle the villagers. Even in real life it would be hard to find a better example of the nexus between politicians, businessmen, criminals and police, and the way they casually eviscerate all the values that people hold dear.

The tone is satirical and you can’t help laughing at some of the descriptions, but his insights into politics and the multi-layered nature of social relationships are so staggeringly true and yet so lightly done with such a deft touch that it would be hard find a parallel. In Hindi literature it simply doesn’t exist.

Let’s start the music, then. Raga Darbari, as we all know, is a raga in Hindustani music, sung in the night. It’s a lovely but difficult composition. Shrilal Shukla takes it for the signature tune of the Darbar, or ruler’s court. In Shivpalganj, that is Vaidyaji, who calls the tune to which everyone dances. The courtiers waltz in and waltz out, but the tune and the tone are unchanged.

Every page, indeed every line, of the novel maintains that spirit. When you read it you realise that however difficult or impossible it may be for ordinary mortals, Shukla displays a casual mastery of the material, much like Mian Tansen, one of Akbar’s Nine Gems, may have done with the actual raga.

The novel is at its best exploring the byzantine labyrinths of the “Darbari” mindset in a deadpan prose interspersed with a mixture of pure Awadhi (a dialect of Hindi) and rustic phrases and idiom that is hard to describe and a joy to read.

We, too, live in those times. Every day we read about scams involving thousands of crores, accusations and rejoinders from politicians and corporate heads. So if anyone wants to understand something about this country, there’s no better introduction than Raag Darbari.

Shivpalganj’s Vaidyaji is a small-town dictator who treats the Changaamal Inter-College management committee, the cooperative society and the village panchayat as his personal fiefdom, but he does represent, in an intimate way, independent India’s “democratic administrative culture”.

Here’s an excerpt about this self-professed devotee of Gandhi, who’s well-spoken and balanced outwardly (but cunning inside), as told by his son, Ruppan, to a curious Rangnath:

“Father’s manager of the college,” Ruppan said, brisk as a businessman. “He decides the coming and going of the teachers here.”

As he saw the effect on Rangnath’s face, he added proudly, “There isn’t another like him in the land. He’s straight with the good guys, but if you get smart with him you won’t find a more crooked fellow.”

Rangnath absorbed this remark and said, more to keep the conversation than any other reason, “What about the cooperative? Uncle was something there, too, wasn’t he?”

“Still is,” Ruppan said sharply, “Managing director, and will be.”

It does sound familiar, doesn’t it, as we look around and see the new dynasts in every field. The next excerpt is about Vaidyaji’s discovery that things aren’t happening as he wants because he’s lost control of the village panchayat. He finds a solution right away, his bhang-maker (a drink of crushed marijuana leaves) and servant Sanichar (real name Mangaldas) as head of the village committee.

He (Sanichar) regained control of himself and exclaimed, “Please, no sir, it’s enough for me that you should have thought a good-for-nothing fellow like me is actually worth something.”

Sanichar preened himself at his sudden, stylish eloquence in Urdu. But Badri Pehelwan swiftly squashed his satisfaction. “Oy, don’t carried away so soon. This is the kind of thing people say after they become pradhan. Save it for that kind of occasion, or you won’t know what to say then.”

At this point Rangnath cut in. Gently patting Sanichar on the back he said kindly, “It’s not about useful-useless, Sanichar. We agree that you’re useless, but what does that matter? You’re not electing yourself pradhan. It’s the people who’ll decide, and they’ll do what they want. Who are you to interrupt with your opinions?”

It’s just possible to imagine a similar dialogue between Lalu Yadav and his wife when he was going off to enjoy government hospitality in jail.

Sanichar’s elevation shows how hollow the government slogans about strengthening panchayat raj really are. As the narrative proceeds it shows the real faces and intentions behind this posturing. Even today, the old feudal regimes in north India have no compunctions about putting up their family retainers for state assembly elections, and ensure their victory in the bargain. That’s how they maintain their old power though their proxies.

Now that village panchayats have seats reserved for women, the strongmen often put up their wives or daughters-in-law as candidates, and when they win, operate through them, subverting the popular verdict. Against this background, it seems as if Raag Darbari’s Shivpalganj was the proving ground, the Pokhran if you will, where the various forms of subversion were tried out, stamped “OK TESTED” and released for use in every part of the country.

When Shivpalganj’s cooperative society secretary vanishes with two truckloads of wheat from the grain warehouse, there’s a big hullabaloo and a lot of muttering in the durbar.

Vaidyaji’s tone was aggressive. “What the hell are you whispering like a bunch of old women? What’s so great about fraud in the coop? Tell me of one place where it hasn’t happened”

He stopped and then resumed in a more reasonable-sounding tone. “Look guys, we hadn’t had a single case in our union, but far from being admiring, people were getting suspicious. Now that we’ve had one we can say we’re truthful men. There was a fraud and we didn’t hide it. We told it as it happened.” 

Nothing escapes this writer’s eye, not the smallest quirk or false note. The media’s watchful eye does keep people on their toes, but there’s also a major ongoing debate about its honesty, purity and priorities. Forty-three years ago, Shrilal Sukla was asking the same questions.

“Yes sir! It was the cops who got rid of the dacoits. With help from the villagers, of course. But they were the ones who chased them out.”

Rangnath looked at Ruppan Babu in surprise. “Dacoits?”

“Who else? Do you think thieves would dare to operate on a moonlit night? It had to be dacoits.”

Ruppan Babu laughed aloud, holding his sides. Wiping his eyes, he said, “Brother, you’ll find it hard to understand. So I’m just telling you what the papers will say tomorrow.”

A whistle sounded sharply from the street below. “You’ve seen Master Motiram, haven’t you? Elderly man, the chief of police respects him greatly. He respects the chief, too. And Principal Sahib respects both of them. Not one fucker does a stroke of work, but they do respect each other.

“Anyway, this Master Motiram is the town reporter. So if he can’t even describe the thieves as dacoits, what’s the point of having him around?”

Anyone who is familiar with the world of news will instantly recognise Motiram, who’s not a name so much as a tendency. It’s a tendency that’s always been around the journalist’s universe, the one that makes a mountain out of a molehill, a storm out of a gentle breeze, with the greatest of ease. The truth usually takes a shame-faced backseat in this game, or even turns tail and vanishes. If the breaking news is a hit, do the facts really matter?

Indeed, how often have we ourselves, today, heard, “Who reads (or watches)?”, as we casually dismiss the search for the facts of a case.

The characters who people Raag Darbari remain in the reader’s mind, but sometimes they also step out of their world to enter ours and stand right in front of us. We have no trouble recognising them.

Langad is one such character whose presence in the narrative is all-pervasive, with his “Dharmayuddh” resolve. You can see him everywhere, at Vaidyaji’s doorstep, “Chamrahi’s” porch or even standing in front of the court’s notice-board.

This is the hint that precedes his first appearance in the novel:

“The doctrine of rebirth was probably born in our civil courts, as a reassurance to the plaintiff and the defendant so that they wouldn’t die disappointed if their case wasn’t decided. After all, there’s always the next birth, when the case could be decided, so the litigants could go in peace to the hereafter.”

Fighting a case for seven years, Langad has been toiling for months to get one copy of a declaration. He fails to get the copy, but the oath both he and the court clerk swear to “neither take nor give” becomes the basis of the “dharmayuddh”.

And there’s only one reason for this “dharmayuddh”:

“See, Langad, you need to know one thing, you’re the ordinary people, and get this, the people don’t get any easy victories.”

And this is how we learn about Khanna, the rebellious history teacher at Changaamal Inter-College as we’re being introduced to the principal and some other teachers:

“Khanna Master’s real name was Khanna, just as Tilak, Patel, Gandhi, Nehru, and so on, are the names of individuals, not indicators of caste. It’s one way of killing off caste in this country. Take the name away from the caste and paste it on an individual, and caste won’t know how to refer to itself.”

There will be those who feel that between the writing and today, the world has changed beyond recognition, and that goes for the village and village life as well. I for one would have grave suspicions about their understanding. It’s true that things have changed, but just take a look at the basic structure and you’ll see a thousand Shivpalganjs around you.

The tantalising glimpses that Jawaharlal Nehru showed of his dreams of a mighty, industrialised society never reached the villages. Here it was the schools, the cooperatives and the panchayats that brought whatever development entered them. The traditional leaders are well aware of the power of these bodies, and that’s why they go to such lengths to maintain an iron grip.

The one big change that we do see is the Dalit awakening, which has woken up the other depressed classes to their rights, and they are demanding them in an ever louder voice. The tensions that characterise the struggle between people such as Vaidyaji and Bhikham Khedvi are still there—only the names have changed. The travails and tears of Langad, engaged in an unending fight for righteousness and justice, are familiar words even today, plain for all those who have eyes to see.

Shivpalganj is a male-dominated society, where the women are virtually unseen and unheard. Have things changed since those days in north Indian villages? Maybe not. There’s no shortage of men who use women as proxies (from the seat reserved for them) and wield the real power in village committees and panchayats, and you can find these same characters under various names in Shivpalganj.

The language of Raag Darbari is characterised by a delicacy and elegance (I would call it that) hard to parallel.  Shukla himself recognised that the charm of its humour is not unique. But this is how people in UP villages often converse. They have the ability to see the funny side of life. Their humour is reflected in the richness of local dialects.

I’ve never read the English version of Raag Darbari, but I often wonder if the satirical vein could have been maintained with the same power and cut to the same depths had it been written in English. Would it have been so powerful a narrative?

Would plays and TV adaptations have been inspired by Darbari? I think the answer is not. It’s likely that Shrilal Shukla himself recognised the greater power of Hindi in this sphere. Otherwise a man whose command of English was equal to his mastery of Sanskrit and Hindi may have decided to write in that language. He told Raag Darbari’s English translator Gillian Wright that any writer felt most at home in his mother tongue, and that’s where his best work would be done.

There are only two English near-parallels that I can think of, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (Pankaj Mishra’s travel diary) and Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur. In their respective takeoffs on city ways, there is a certain resemblance to Raag Darbari, but this one moves to a music all its own.

Shukla always maintained that this Raga was no more than what he had seen and experienced—he just wrote it all down. In this view, it would be a fictional account of everyday reality.

Shukla also said works such as Raag DarbariMaila Aanchal and Aadha Gaon were not descriptions of a marginal reality but centrally rooted, because the truth was that the greater part of India lived in the village. In this, too, he was striking new ground for he was among the first to voice a truth so obvious that it seemed to have been missed by a great many of his contemporaries. Indeed, it was fiction like Andhere Band Kamre that should be considered marginal, because it spoke of life in that tiny segment of India called urbania.

It’s true that a few years ago, Mudrarakshas (the writer) panned the novel and delineated its shortcomings, and even dismissed its claim to be part of the village world. Only he knows the reasons for his viewpoint, but those who have read Raag Darbari are unlikely to agree with him.

As Ruppan tells Rangnath: “It seems to me, brother, Shivpalganj is the entire country itself.”

A little later, Rangnath finds himself in agreement: “You know, just as in the Mahabharata, those you find nowhere else are here, but if you can’t find them here, they’re nowhere at all.”

(Translated from Hindi by G K Rao)