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Srilal Shukla: Tribute from a Rereader

A tribute to Srilal Shukla (1925-2011), the writer in Hindi whose writings held up a mirror to all that is lovable and revolting, funny and alarming, feudal and democratic in India, particularly in the gigantic Hindi belt, that hotbed of political intrigue, power and corruption.

COMMENTARY

Srilal Shukla: Tribute from a Rereader

Mrinal Pande

A tribute to Srilal Shukla (19252011), the writer in Hindi whose writings held up a mirror to all that is lovable and revolting, funny and alarming, feudal and democratic in India, particularly in the gigantic Hindi belt, that hotbed of political intrigue, power and corruption.

Mrinal Pande (mrinal.pande@gmail.com) is a writer and senior journalist.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 4, 2012

...a major reader, an active and creative

reader is a rereader.

(Vladimir Nabokov: Strong Opinions)

A
t the passing away of Srilal Shukla (31 December 1925-28 October 2011), the tributes paid to the departed Hindi writer who bared the black comedy of India in the post-Independence years, revealed an enviably large body of rereaders like this writer, who could quote chapter and verse from his novels, especially Rag Darbari. Impatient page turners, shuffling academics, irreverent students, ageing fellow writers, all have, over the years, come to feel that they alone have savoured the real flavour of his writings. Perhaps the most enviable way for a writer to be remembered is for his readers to consider his claim to his creation secondary to theirs. For a writer to leave behind such a large body of longtime squatters within the unique world that he created is indeed both a rare honour and a miracle seldom witnessed today.

Shukla was born in the village Atrauli, once a famous gharana of classical Hindustani music and today better known as home to several dubious educational institutions that facilitate cheating in exams and attract a host of students who wish to pay their way to a school certificate rather than study. He graduated from the Allahabad University and joined the Provincial Civil Services (PCS) for the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government and was later inducted into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). During his long working life as a government official in UP, Shukla also published over 25 books: novels, collections of short stories and satires, memoirs and profiles of major Hindi writers Agyeya and Bhagwati Charan Verma.

Shukla published his first novel Sooni Ghati Ka Suraj in 1957. Next came a collection of satirical writings, Angad Ka Paon. In 1969 he published his best known work, the novel Rag Darbari which won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979. Rag Darbari was published under the same name

vol xlvIi no 5

in an English translation by Penguin India and in 15 Indian languages by the National Book Trust. It was also made into a serial for television. His other novel Makan (about the tragic comic plight of a government official running around to get him

self the government house allotted to which he is entitled), won the prestigious Madhya Pradesh Hindi Sahitya Samman in 1978. His last novel Vishrampur Ka Sant (about a lapsed Gandhian of the 1990s) published in 1999, won the Vyas Samman. And in 2011, 10 days before his death, he was presented the prestigious Gyanpeeth award on his sickbed by the governor of UP. A collection of his satirical writings Babbar Singh Aur Uske Sathi, was published in an English translation Babbar Singh and His Friends, by Scholastic Inc, New York in 1999.

Ganjahas of Sheopalgunj

Shukla’s most memorable creation remains the chaotic village of Sheopalgunj somewhere in UP, peopled by a whole mob of cunning, lovable and needlessly argumentative ruffians also known as Ganjahas. With its wily politicians, corrupt bureaucracy, stubborn litigants, terrible roads and failed developmental schemes, Sheopalgunj holds a mirror to all that is lovable and revolting, funny and alarming, feudal and democratic in India, and in particular in the gigantic Hindi belt, that hotbed of political intrigue, power and corruption. Like the court dwarfs painted by Velaz quez, many of Shukla’s Ganjahas are handicapped at birth, and each has his own reason for it. Together all of them register a sort of resignation that declares, “we are like this only”.

The society of Sheopalgunj that Shukla watches, recognises and listens to is really a decadent and feudal one. It is a sort of a tribal society that prepares us for much of what we see around us today in 2012. As a middle ranking member of UP’s state civil service in the 1960s and 1970s, Shukla’s great resource for penning the tales about the emerging independent India is not money but first-hand information. Shukla reports what happened to Hindustan and also Hindi as a young government servant, and in each piece he wrote, his sharp, ironical sentences pierce the conventional academic Hindi spawned by the Hindi departments of our universities.

COMMENTARY

Shukla’s sensibility, his memories of rural north India, his sharply etched sketches of India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and its wily politicians are as rich as his mode for expressing it all – a sparkling idiomatic Hindi sprinkled with the star dust of many dialects: Awadhi, Brij and Bundelkhandi. The suppleness and thrust of his language (including popular swear words and terms of affection) sparkle with the age-old wit of India’s marginalised ones. The men and women who have always been patient bystanders to the parade of power and are frequently seen playing history’s clowns, appeared unique to my generation that hungrily devoured Angad Ka Paon, Rag Darbari, Makan, Sooni Ghati Ka Sooraj and many others. We shared with him our horror of the warts on the body politic of the great Indian democracy and chuckled over his subtle barbs baring the punditry and platitudes of those who had it all. In a time when the politicians, instead of exploring the potential of a secular democracy, had begun defining and sizing up the national, linguistic and caste identities of the electorate with an absurd precision, how could the idea of a secular, socialist, Indian republic or a meaningless prattle about our Gandhian values not have seemed absurd?

Unhinged Humour

Then there was our disenchantment with the Hindi curricula created by Hindi ideologues. Most of our literature, we felt, was so very traditional even when it was being called avant-garde. It did not look out at the world such as it was, but over its shoulder, noting the position of his or her predecessors. Left unchecked, academic snobbery, based on these texts, could almost squeeze the joy out of reading and writing creatively in any Indian language. As students, most of us had come to regard the forced humour encountered in our textbooks as an iceberg: cold, frigid and surrounded by dark brackish water and the sad looking jokes were the scum that had risen to the top and got trapped in ice.

Our intellectuals frowned upon the bawdy humour of the dialects even as they celebrated the Beat poets who came visiting the ghats of Varanasi. Our parents, so admiring of the writings of Flaubert and Whitman and Hemingway, were wary of the revue-style bonhomie of popular Hindi films like Golmaal (the original one) and Half Ticket (that Kishore Kumar classic) and thoroughly disapproving of the bawdiness of risque folk songs and theatre forms like nautanki and nacha that celebrated, they said, only love and lust.

Shukla’s Rag Darbari broke through this grim scenario like a refreshing gust of wind. His is not the bold humourless laugh of the triumphant atheist or the flag waving political activist who has conquered what he calls the bourgeois love for a good life and his own fear of it. Shukla’s humour is more unhinged and unhinging. It arises out of the despairing realisation of the powerless outgroups in our democracy, and an almost adulatory highlighting of their homecrafted weapons of countering the beastly beatitude of the State the real “aam admi” must encounter every day. His is the truly funny laugh of laugh-till-you-cry-variety. And his rereaders share with him the aura of survivors, speaking the language of mutual hard experience: the petty politicians and mediocre writers using Hindi to settle scores and make political capital, clerks and officials barricading access to what we know to be rightfully ours, the great developmental scams and the fomenting of a casteist, communal ethos by wily leaders feigning the utmost vairagya (detachment) as phony Mahatma Gandhis.

I met Shukla in Lucknow when he was about to retire from government service and wrote popular columns in Hindi dailies. He seemed quiet, somewhat preoccupied, and I felt too overawed by his frowning silence to ask impertinent questions about his contemporaries. His long-time friends like Kunwar Narayan, Raghuvir Sahai and my late mother Shivani spoke of him in affectionate terms. His predilection for alcohol (what fellow writer Ashok Vajpeyi calls Ras Ranjan) was well known, as also his contempt for those who solicited good reviews and flattering mentions in the halls of fame. He was luckier than most Hindi writers in that he had been chosen for some of the most prestigious awards, including the Padma Bhushan, for his writings, before he passed away. And this was when one never heard him either whingeing to political mentors for selection for awards, or celebrating his brilliance in his columns. He remained taciturn about himself and his opinions till the end and his privacy was protected by his doting family who looked after him so well during his last declining years. Among the Lucknowwallahs, tales about him are many and keep changing with the venue, the journalist and sometimes the mood of the teller. Yet there is no doubt that he was one of the most unique, beguiling and in a funny way, Indian of our writers.

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