Satire by Shrilal Shukla

Interview with a Defeated Politician

When I arrived at his bungalow, I mistook him for a piece of furniture on the veranda.

He was standing there like Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo.

A dried-out lawn lay in front of the bungalow. Several dust-covered jeeps were parked there. Old car parts and tires were strewn about.

Inside an open shed, four sets of loudspeakers and some worn-out carpets lay in a heap. To the side, bamboo poles and sticks were scattered on the ground. I could see a handful of gunnysacks inside the shed, but I couldn’t tell if they were full of knives or liquor bottles.

On the veranda, a breeze riffled a stack of posters. Election ballots blew this way and that.

I told him I was a reporter. He said he’d already lost the election, that he’d vacated his seat. “I can’t give you anything now . . .” he said.

I said he could give me an interview.

To encourage him, I said his situation was like that of Napoleon: he had lost, but he wasn’t dead. “In this situation,” I said, “even if you aren’t able to do anything else, you can still give an interview. Just look at your fellow elder statesmen. For years now, what have they done for the country other than give interviews?”

He agreed. “Give me a couple minutes. Let me get my gadgets.”

He was eighty-two years old. Actually, up till then, I had been shouting into his ear. He rang a bell for his servant. He put in his false teeth, put on a pair of glasses, and inserted a large hearing aid into one ear. As soon as he did this, he looked exactly like he was depicted in caricatures. Then he sat slouched in a comfortable armchair in a position somewhere between lying and sitting, between living and dead.

“I was very sad to hear about your defeat,” I said.

“A lot of people have said this to me, even ones who voted against me.”

“That’s no surprise,” I began to explain. “Actually, the people are passing through an upsetting time. Even if you had won, they would have been upset. So, you lost, and still they were upset.” Then I asked a question, “What are your plans now?”

“To give an interview, as you already know.”

“I understand. But several days ago the newspapers said that you had renounced politics.”

“That’s wrong. What I said was that religious renunciants should join politics too.”

His answers were full of wit. It seemed as though his mind wasn’t a part of his body—as though, like his teeth, it had been attached prosthetically.

“So you’ll continue to be active in politics?”

“If I’d won, you wouldn’t be asking. Other than politics, what’s there for me to do?”

“You’ve been active in politics for more than half a century. It doesn’t get boring?”

“We call it service for the country,” he said in a serious tone, then his mouth went slack.

“You don’t think it best to let a new generation into politics?”

With great effort, he raised his head. For a moment, he stared at the ceiling. “Where’s the new generation? I don’t see them anywhere.”

I was taken aback. I asked again, “So, in your opinion, there are no young people in the entire country?”

This seemed to irk him a little. He answered sharply, “There must be! There must be somewhere! But I don’t know them.”

“And don’t you think that in the masses there are some people who . . .”

He interrupted me, “The people? The people must be out there somewhere! But I don’t know them.”

In order to let him cool off, I said nothing. And, after a while, he cooled off. Then I asked, “What do you think the reason for your defeat was? To what extent do you think it can be considered a defeat of your policies?”

He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Look, this can’t be a defeat of my policies because I don’t have any.” Quickly, he added, “But it wasn’t out of love.”

He tried to explain the situation to me, “No one likes to say they were defeated, it’s better to say it wasn’t me, it was my policies that were the problem. Then the stain of defeat is one step removed.”

“So what was the reason? Caste politics?”

“I don’t have any problem with caste politics. I’ve been elected several times on the back of caste politics.” He nodded his head, “The real reason for my defeat is Saturn and Rahu. Policies, principles, the people’s mood—that’s always what people say. But, really, it was the planets that did me in. And I knew it beforehand. A full seven astrologers warned me that Saturn and Rahu were in transit in the twelfth house, and Mars could be seen clearly above them.”

He stopped for a moment. “You don’t believe in astrology? This is our sages’ great blessing—the science of astrology!”

I didn’t bother answering his question. Instead, I asked, “Why then did you contest the election knowing what the astrologers had said?”

“There was no way around it!” he said. Then he added, “It’s because of the planets! Jupiter was in the ascendant, sitting in the fourth house, looking straight at the tenth house! How was I supposed to win with such inauspicious conditions?”

Now I finally understood. He intended to start out on a journey of the solar system, visiting each and every planet just so long as it wasn’t Earth. I closed my notebook, said thanks, and got up. He was still saying something about astrology.

I interrupted him, and said my final words to him, “People are suffering. It would be good to give them a message of hope—of asha.”

Maybe he didn’t fully hear me. He looked in my eyes and asked, full of distress, “Asha? Do you know her? Where does she live now?”

I had heard enough. Now there was no need to push me out the door.

One Happy Day

I got up in the early morning and washed. I got out a shirt and a clean pair of pants from the laundry, and, to my surprise, I saw that there were no missing buttons. I glanced into the corner of the room where my shoes were. Our servant had an old habit of using the red brush to polish my shoes, but this time he had actually used the correct brush instead. Right then I said to myself that it was going to be a happy day.

I got on the bus going to the college, and I gave the conductor a one-rupee note. I got back the correct change, and he didn’t write an “I owe you” worth one anna on the back of the ticket. When I sat down, it wasn’t next to a woman, and so I was freed from my weakness for reading about the romantic entanglements of the stars of the film world. I spread out my legs and relaxed. A man seated next to me was reading a newspaper. I glanced his way, and he lifted the paper so I couldn’t look at him. I looked at the paper. There had been no foreign loan of industry for India’s development, no speech from the Prime Minister. Today I could read the paper without flinching or grumbling.

At the railway crossing, the guard saw the bus coming and didn’t put down the gate. The bus passed by without impediment as though this was a daily occurrence. When the bus stopped near the college, I got off, without having to push anyone, without bumping knees with anyone, without having to say “thank you” and “sorry.” Of course there was a man selling chaat at the bus stand, but he didn’t see me, and he didn’t try to entice me with his “Hot hot chaat!”

I spent a happy day at school. I read to the boys an essay about my trip to Europe. In the next class, I expounded upon the glory of virtue. I didn’t have to tell a love story, and I didn’t have to explain the meaning of any satirical witticism. No female student told me a sentimental story or recited a poem over the course of an hour that would force me to revise her grade. No sycophantic students came to praise some mediocre work of mine. No lecturer called me “Amma yaar” in front of the students. Students came out of the room of a rival lecturer shouting for a revolution. In the staff room, I heard some choice stories about the principal, and they didn’t come from me.

Before going home, a friend picked me up to go drink tea at a fancy restaurant. He let me talk, and he listened for practically the whole time. In front of the restaurant, I reached into my pocket to search for money to pay the rickshaw driver. I found a ten-rupee note, but my friend had already found the correct change in his pocket. Inside, there was no hassle. The waiter wasn’t the old, stuffed, overbearing sort. Instead, he was a timid neophyte. At the nearby tables, there was no wisecracking youth, no fashionable young ladies, and no uproarious guffaws. No one was staring at me, and no one was whispering about me. The restaurant wasn’t that busy, but it wasn’t empty either, and so the manager behind the counter didn’t have the opportunity to stare only at us. Before we left, two serious-looking men sat down at a nearby table, and when I happened to use the word “existentialism” in conversation, they looked over at me. After leaving the restaurant, my eyes fastened upon an insurance agent that I knew walking down the street, but he didn’t see me. Then I ran into three men I knew. They said hello and went on their way. My friend didn’t run into anyone he knew.

When I got home, I asked my wife if she wanted to go to the cinema, but she said she was sorry but she had a get-together with friends already arranged. So I was able to go ahead with my plan to go to the movies with my friend. This time we were actually able to get tickets from the cinema’s ticket counter and at the correct price. We got seats right under a ceiling fan. Before the movie, there were no commercials for soap, oil, or Vanaspati ghee. There was no one nearby blowing cigarette smoke into my face. No one behind me put his feet up on the back of my seat. No one elbowed me in the dark. No one started sobbing because of the film hero’s plight. It was a Hindi film, but it finished before the end of its eighteenth reel. Outside the theater afterwards, rickshaw drivers didn’t accost me. Without being forced into a rickshaw, I was able to walk home. While I walked home on the quiet night road, no bicyclist rammed into me, no motorist cursed at me, and no policeman gave me a fine.

At home, having sat down to eat, I didn’t have to listen to my wife talk about our financial problems. Our servant didn’t get mad. I spoke on and on about literature, I mean, I kept lambasting writers I knew; and my wife listened with great interest and didn’t guess my pettiness.

The entire house was peaceful. Nowhere was there a light bulb that had unexpectedly burnt out, or a pipe that had burst without reason; there was no guest shouting at the front door, no sound of a plate dropped on the kitchen floor; there was no poetry festival being broadcast over the radio, no religious songs blaring from a loudspeaker in the neighborhood. And the best thing about all of this was that the next day would be Sunday, and my over-enthusiastic friends were all going on a picnic together somewhere far from the city.

More Like a Swami than a Swami

The former city manager was famous for eating too much paan and taking too many bribes. And so, to punish him, he was given a new job as the state’s finance minister. The new city manager was different. He didn’t eat paan. And yet there were no fewer complaints: the city was lost in a maze of poor planning; there seemed to be a plot underfoot to tarnish the image of the honorable prime minister.

And so as soon as the new City Development Minister swore his oath of office, it fell upon him to launch an unannounced investigation into the city and the city administration. He took with him a government photographer and two non-governmental reporters.

Once at the office, he found that one engineer, two deputy administrators, and three assistant administrators were absent. He announced their transfers on the spot. The engineer had already been given his transfer papers, but the high court had postponed the transfer, and so he still had his job. While chewing paan at the paan store outside the gates, as soon as this engineer heard that the minister had handed down new transfer orders, he flew off to the high court to file a defamation suit against the minister. There he met the two deputy and three assistant city administrators who were already there to file for delays on their reassignments.

As soon as he got to the city offices, the minister was shocked beyond belief by the haphazardness of the workings of the city administration. He bellowed, “Come on now, where’s your discipline? No one comes to work. No one’s doing anything. The whole city is rotting away, rotting beneath garbage. The city’s turning into a big trash heap.”

The city manager politely asked the minister to sit down. Then he said, “You’re completely right, sir. This is exactly what I faced when I came to this job. But we’re trying with all our might to rejuvenate the city. We want to make it a model town of the twenty-first century . . .”

The love call of the twenty-first century stopped the minister cold in his tracks.

The ensuing conversation went a little like this:

MINISTER: The whole city smells like shit. There are missing manhole covers everywhere. When it floods, the water brings the trash with it . . .

CITY MANAGER: Sir, the sewer problem is dire. It was built for a city of 300,000. But now the population is 1.3 million, and by the turn of the twenty-first century, it will be 2.1 million. We’ve asked the World Bank for a loan of 503, 700,000 rupees, which will bring in some innovative technology from Japan and Italy. Another thing is . . .

MINISTER: Trash is lying in heaps on the streets. What is your staff doing about that?

CITY MANAGER: Sir, our old garbage trucks and staff work every day for ten hours a day. In three days, they can remove only 5,000 tons of trash, but the city generates 30,000 tons of waste in a week. Analyzing the city’s trash production, in the next five-year plan, where there are provisions for it, and also it takes on the Washington Pattern . . .

MINISTER: Enough, enough. What about the water problem? The western neighborhoods haven’t got a drop of water in three days, and you’re at home in your bungalow napping.

CITY MANAGER: This problem, too, sir, is a result of the bad planning of the last administration. Based upon the survey of the World Health Organization, the central government, and the State Planning Commission, we have formed a initiative that in the next seven years will lead to 1,200,000 additional gallons of capacity . . .

MINISTER: Not another initiative!

CITY MANAGER: And as far as the bungalow is concerned, sir, I don’t have one. There is a 1,242,000-rupee provision for the building of a residence for the city manager. With a new residence, the city manager’s abilities can be expected to increase by 35.7 percent.

MINISTER: The roads are full of potholes! Transfer the chief engineer immediately.

CITY MANAGER: Sir, there is no chief engineer. The Human Initiative Commission is going to advertise the job next month. To fix the roads, we’ve submitted a initiative asking for 1,230,000 rupees to the state, in which . . .

MINISTER: Even if you get this money, there’s so much corruption here . . .

CITY MANAGER: Sir, the problem of corruption relates to human resources, planning, and moral climate. It’s a universal problem. But we’ve put together a top-flight team to address it.

(The MINISTER gets up.)

MINISTER: Shut up! I’m talking about the current conditions of the city, and you’re citing statistics for your upcoming plans like you’re on television reporting the news!

CITY MANAGER: Sir, it’s very important to report the news on television. The news tells people about the present conditions and about what India will look like in the future. In fact, I take my inspiration for building the city’s future from the news. But from now on, we’ll also have your valuable leadership. Now everyone living in the city should be full of the hope that our young prime minister will lead the city into the twenty-first century . . .

The reporters on duty were busy taking these notes when the door opened and snacks were brought in—coffee and cashews.



Shrilal Shukla

Shrilal Shukla (1925-2011) is widely regarded as the leading modern Hindi satire writer. Shukla’s satire is known for its biting critique of the failures of the Hindi developmental state, that is, the Nehruvian government’s largely failed plans to develop economically and socially the Indian countryside. Prizes from his lifetime include all of the most prestigious Indian literary awards: the Jnanpith Prize in 2011, the Padma Bhushan in 2008, the Vyas Saman in 1999, the Sahitya Akademi Prize in 1969. Shukla was a prolific writer, with some thirty volumes to his credit, including novels, short story collections, satire collections, literary criticism, an important edited volume on the history of Indian satire, and memoirs. Rag Darbari (1968), his masterpiece, is considered one of the best single works of satire in the Hindi literary tradition. Translated into English by Gillian Wright in 1992 (with a new edition in 2012), Rag Darbari has been translated into fifteen Indian languages and reportedly sold over 300,000 copies. Two other volumes of Shukla's writing are said to have been translated into English in India, but no bibliographic records for these books can be found.

Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck has translated from the French, Urdu, Korean, and Hindi. Patrick Chamoiseau’s French Guiana: Memory Traces of the Penal Colony (1994), his most recent translation, is now available from Wesleyan University Press.

Fifty Years of Ignorance. Copyright (c) Rajkamal Prakashan (New Delhi), 1997. English translation copyright (c) Matt Reeck, 2020.