Moral historians

Print edition : November 04, 2011

Srilal Shukla, joint winner of the Jnanpith Award for 2009. -

Amar Kant and Srilal Shukla, joint winners of the 45th Jnanpith Award, analyse the changing sociology in post-Independence north India.

WHEN Amar Kant, the octogenarian writer in Hindi, was informed by the Bharatiya Jnanpith that he had been selected for the 45th Jnanpith Award jointly with Srilal Shukla, another octogenarian writer, he said: Srilal is a close friend and it is a pleasure to share this award with him. It was the natural response of a writer who has always upheld the values of collectiveness and equality in life and work.

Amar Kant and Srilal Shukla share many other things: both of them were born in Uttar Pradesh in 1925 and received most of their education in Allahabad, the intellectual capital of the Hindi heartland in the 1950s and 1960s. Through their novels and short stories, both have dissected in a masterly manner the changing sociology and the degeneration of values in post-Independence north India. Both authors also share age-related health problems now.

It is remarkable that the Jnanpith has honoured a writer in Hindi like Amar Kant, who is known for his leftist leanings and has been a member of the Progressive Writers' Association. Srilal Shukla has not adhered to any ideological position as such (because he was a member of the U.P. civil services) but he has always maintained a broad left-humanist profile.

Born on December 31, 1925, in Atrauli near Lucknow, Srilal Shukla is best known for his novel Raag Darbari, now a modern classic running in its 18th print. It is comprised of a series, a kaleidoscope of events encountered by the young protagonist Rangnath, a research scholar, who had gone on a trip to his native place Shivpalganj, a fictional U.P. town created by the author. Unlike the innocent ambience of R.K. Narayan's Malgudi, Shivpalganj is a collage of the transformations taking place in a town, the emergence of a valueless middle-class in a feudal structure, the increasing corruption and lumpenisation of society, and the downtrodden people struggling to sail through it.

When Raag Darbaari was published in 1968, after a brief face-off with the bureaucracy, many critics, who considered the genre of novel as a grand national narrative, were shocked to find a novel with no hero or an anti-hero who finally escapes the bizarre reality that is constantly chasing him'. One of them termed the novel a big volume of big boredom whose destiny is to remain unread, while others dismissed it as too much of reality, too much of satire and a bundle of humorous episodes and even as being contemptuous of rural life. But, defying predictions, Raag Darbaari went on to become one of the most read and must-read texts in Hindi, a new national metaphor deconstructing the much-celebrated image of Bharat Mata, or Mother India, famously expressed in a poem by the Chhayavadi or romantic poet Sumitranandan Pant: Bharat mata gramvasini/ Kheton mein phaila hai shyamal/Dhool bhara maila sa aanchal (Bharat Mata dwells in the villages /with her dark soiled sari border/ spread onto the crop fields).

To Srilal Shukla, Mother India's sari is soaked in the mud of humanity which cannot produce any lotuses. It was for the first time that the well-entrenched perception of the rural milieu as a quiet and innocuous place got problematised in such a comprehensive way. Raag Darbaari is not a tale in black and white, rather it is a huge grey area where the protagonist is just an observer, a chronicler of contemporary history, who is in the end unable to take in so much of the reality around him.

Prof Raaj K. Sah, a Chicago-based economist, once told this writer that Raag Darbaari was an essential text for social scientists studying the north Indian polytheistic social structure which is full of upper-caste hypocrites who consider everything acceptable in society from the trinity of the gods and their incarnations, to corruption, nepotism and all kinds of fraudulent practices. Raag Darbaari won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, making Srilal Shukla the youngest Hindi author to win the same.

In another magnum opus, Bisrampur ka Sant (The Saint of Bisrampur), Srilal Shukla again deconstructed the values of the freedom movement and the Gandhian ideals in the post-Independence era through the life of a Governor, Kunwar Jayanti Prasad. He is a zamindar, an advocate, a freedom fighter and later a prominent pillar of the ruling political party. These are the characteristics that go into the making of a prototype politician in India.

With feudal and aristocratic traits, Jayanti Prasad is a degenerated patriarch, a consumer of power, money and sex, but unlike most of our contemporary politicians, there is still some sense of guilt, or the fear of society, left within him. When he hears the news of the death of Sundari, an idealistic Sarvodaya activist whom he had tried to exploit physically even when she was having an intimate relationship with his leftist son Vivek, a disillusioned Jayanti Prasad retires to a Sarvodaya Ashram in Bisrampur where Sundari used to work and takes his own life.

The so-called Bhoodan activist also realises that the agrarian equations in his village have not changed even after 32 years of Bhooda, and the villagers of Bisrampur are up again in arms to get back their agricultural land. Bisrampur ka Sant, written in a style distinct from Raag Darbaari, is a narrative of the decadence of the politics that promised liberation to the people, and also provides a discourse on the unresolved question of land reforms and the suffering of peasants.

Makaan (The House), yet another significant novel of Srilal Shukla, remained somewhat sandwiched between the above-mentioned works. In it he chronicled the decay of our time using the realm of music. It is the tale of a sitar player, Narayan Banerjee, who is a mixture of talent, ambition and cunning. He wants to achieve greatness in his art but, at the same time, abhors the life of austerity and struggle that his musicologist father had happily led. He wants to be successful in worldly ways while retaining the purity of his music. Caught in the conflict between art and business, pursuit of music and worldliness, Narayan Banerjee tries hard to get a house of his own. But when a house is ultimately allotted to him by a shrewd and cruel administrator, he loses all interest in that abode of his dreams and prefers to stay on in his old hotel room, listening to his favourite Raag Bihag, which he composes again and again. His father and the woman he loved are no more, and Narayan too is destined to die in a rickshaw accident with his broken sitar and a bottle of rum thrown aside. This portrays the end of an era of the values and ideals of lofty artistic pursuits.

Srilal Shukla has 10 novels to his credit besides several other books, but he has not repeated himself in any of his works. Before writing Raag Darbaari, he had established himself as a satirist, along with Harishankar Parsai and Sharad Joshi. His first collection of humorous-satirical pieces, Angad ka Paanw (Angad's Foot, 1958), exhibited his skills in dissecting the degeneration and cynicism in India's post-Independence public sphere. Later it was to become a recurrent theme in his writing, greatly helped by his experiences as a civil servant. In almost all his works, Srilal Shukla's main concern has been to dissect in a clinical manner the feudalism that had covered itself with the garb of democracy after Independence. In a deluxe edition of Raag Darbaari released in 2007 to mark the 40th year of its publication, Srilal Shukla wrote in a new preface: Given today's pan-Indian corruption and fraudulence among the middle and upper classes, it may seem that the writer has wasted his energy on some rustic folks.

Amar Kant

Amar Kant, on the other hand, is best known for his short stories although he has published six novels until now. His short stories, such as Deputy Collectory, Dopahar ka Bhojan (The Lunch), Zindagi aur Jonk (Life and the Leech) and Hatyaare (The Assassins), are considered milestones in post-Independence fiction. He started writing in a period when the Nai Kahani (New Story) movement was heralding a big thematic and structural shift, and almost overshadowed the tradition of Premchand which used to be the mainstream fiction in Hindi. This movement focussed more on urban settings, individual characteristics, man-woman relationships, and so on, in place of people in villages and small towns. The scene was dominated by authors such as Mohan Rakesh, Kamaleshwar and Rajendra Yadav, aggressive advocates of the movement as a new metaphor for and of modern society.

Amar Kant, who shared the award with Srilal Shukla.-SANJAY JOSHI

Amar Kant was one of the few writers who stuck to the social realistic' tradition of Premchand. Literary critics like Dr Vishwanath Tripathi consider his short stories to be in the lineage of Premchand's later works, particularly his masterpiece Qafan (The Shroud), which is a compactly crafted tale of a Dalit family. The portrayal of Siddheshwari Devi in Dopahar ka Bhojan, Babu Sakaldip Singh in Deputy Collectory and Rajua in Zindagi aur Jonk are intricate and remarkable. For instance, Siddheshwari Devi in Dopahar ka Bhojan distributes a very limited quantity of food amongst her retrenched husband and unemployed children so that nobody feels half-fed, but in the end when nothing but half a roti is left for her, she cries silently. The beauty of Amar Kant's writing lies in its simplicity, which the critic Pranaya Krishna described as the most difficult pursuit. Amar Kant goes deep into the sociology as well as the psychology of his characters without any cathartic drama and turns them into authentic representatives of our social margins.

Urban brutalities

His short stories of the later period mark a shift to urban brutalities. In Hatyaare, he describes two young bullies who boast to each other about being close to leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and John F. Kennedy, about refusing the offer of the Prime Minister's post, and about being Presidents. They sexually exploit a poor woman, deprive her of her wages and, while running away, knife to death a man chasing them. It is a dark and cruel world profiled in a tense, mocking language.

During a drinking bout, one of the bullies says: Wretch! You're a coward! I was thinking that when I become Prime Minister, I'd make you the President of the Society for the Prevention of Corruption and the Society for the Abolition of Casteism. But if you can't drink this much, then how are you going to take bribes from officials? How will you make forgeries? How will you tell lies? How then are you going to serve the country, scum?

Amar Kant's own life has been full of struggles. At a time when a journalist's job was not a lucrative one, he worked most of his life in that profession with various newspapers, literary periodicals, and news magazines published by Mitra Prakashan in Allahabad.

Born in Balia on July 1, 1925, he was, as a 17-year-old student, attracted to the Quit India movement headed by stalwarts such as Acharya Narendra Dev, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan. Gandhiji's Do or Die call had a historic impact on Balia, along with Satara in Maharashtra and Medinipur in West Bengal. An independent government was formed for 10 days in Balia and non-violent revolutionaries took over police stations and tehsils and freed prisoners from the jail. Later, in 2003, this history surfaced in Amar Kant's voluminous novel Inheen Hathiyaron Se (With These Weapons Alone), which focusses on the people rather than the leaders involved in the movement. One of the characters in the novel says: Call it Gandhi storm, old dame storm or mega storm, it is a well-known storm in human history. Yes, this is the oldest storm. It repeats itself wherever there is slavery, atrocity, injustice, and dictatorship.

Amar Kant's other notable novels include Kaale Ujale Din, Sukhjeevee and Sunaar Pande ki Patohu. At present, despite his ill health, he is working on a novel based on his experiences as a journalist.

If fiction is the moral history of our time, Amar Kant and Srilal Shukla have chronicled it with a poignancy never seen before.

Mangalesh Dabral is a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Hindi poet and the executive editor of the Hindi fortnightly The Public Agenda.

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