Raag Darbari is Sahitya Academy award winning novel of noted Hindi writer Shrilal Shukla portraying power struggle in rural landscape of post Independence India in a satirical vein that has gone somewhat ignored by the English speaking literati of New Delhi. Yet, no English novel comes close to capturing life in an ordinary north Indian village as this one from every page of which emanates the earthy smell of India’s villages. The story spans over a short span of six months in Shivpalganj village of Oudh region in Uttar Pradesh during which a post-graduate from the city comes to spend a sabbatical with his maternal uncle, Vaidji, who is a power-broker manipulating the village’s social and economic activities.
Translated by Gillian Wright, it exposes the nexus between politicians, businessmen, criminals, and policemen, and highlights the way in which they collude to exploit society for selfish reasons. The protagonist, Ranganath, who comes to the village with an idyllic vision of rural India and enthused by ideals and moral values instilled by the Western liberal education, discovers that all village politicians, including his uncle, misuse their positions of power to manipulate the village people. As he scrutinises the social undercurrents in the day-to-day village life, the difference between myth and reality become glaringly obvious.
Politics and government are the two main themes of the novel. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most politically dominant state and it’s often said that politics is the state’s main industry. Shrilal Shukla describes politics at the grass roots, but much of the factionalism, nepotism and behind-the-scenes manipulation he portrays is familiar to anyone who follows events through the national press.
The state’s bureaucracy, the author’s other main target, is satirised for its irrelevance to the common man, inefficiency and close connections with politicians. Control over the co-operative union, the village council and the college is key to controlling the village’s economic and political life because in the early Sixties, education, co-operatives and panchayats were the three main planks of village development.
The main characters happen to be Brahmins because in much of UP, the dominant castes in villages were, and to a large extent still are, Brahmins and Thakurs. The title itself reveals the political emphasis of the plot. Raag Darbari is the name of one of the most difficult raagas of Indian classical music, but Shrilal Shukla has taken its meaning literally—the melody of the court. In the novel, it refers to the tune sung by the courtiers of a local raja, that’s to say a village politician. The expanding readership of the novel is proof of its continued relevance. It has also been adapted for stage and television.