It is the only Hindi novel I have ever found in the office of an investigator — perhaps, the most unlikely of all places — the Jhandewalan headquarters of Director General, Investigations (Income Tax), Delhi. Having purchased copies in bulk, Aditya Vikram had been gifting them to his junior officers and friends. At our next meeting, I also received one from the cheerful bureaucrat who supervised sensitive cases of financial fraud in the capital.
That was how I rediscovered Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari (1968) as a journalist. Like many others, I, too, had once found it to be the portrayal of a decaying society in a north Indian village, a caricature of regressive people responsible for the gradual failure of democracy. As reporting assignments took me to different places around the country, a task that demanded transcending one’s prejudices and listening to the perceived other, the novel was suddenly revealed in a new light. It captured the sluggish pace of life that moves beyond the calls of GDP growth and that worries little about the twin ideals of scientific temper and rationality. Shukla depicts a society that refuses to surrender before modernity and responds to history with its own mythologies. It does not always symbolise decay, it can also be resilience.