Several Days in Umraonagar

Note on “Several Days in Umraonagar”

“Several Days in Umraonagar” was published originally in 1986, or 18 years after the publication of Shukla’s best-known work, Rag Darbaari, an epic satirical account of the society and cultural politics of an Indian country town after Independence. “Several Days in Umraonagar” functions as a retrospective, or coda, on the earlier work. It would be like a type of movie that doesn’t actually exist: not a sequel per se but an abbreviated update—same setting, different characters, new particulars of a social dynamic but the same social dynamic. Over and above the criticism of the state’s failed plans to distribute social goods to all of its citizens, and beyond the accurate descriptions of physical and emotional life in the Indian countryside, perhaps the most notable attribute of Shukla’s satire here is how all sorts of different characters display a cunning inventiveness and dexterity (chalak hona, in Hindi) that comes off as both a necessity of life but also as a special and endearing quality of people who didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths.

– Matt Reeck

Several Days in Umraonagar

1. Goats, Chickens, and Ripped Shirts

There were no goats where I was seated in the bus. But in the lap of my seatmate there was a chicken. The goats were in the back. Back there, if a baby goat happened to be on someone’s lap, or if a goat was resting on someone’s knee, there were also people resting their feet underneath a goat’s belly or on top of a goat’s back, as they leaned against the back of the bus. In that mess, it was difficult to say where any one person’s head was: it was heads upon heads upon heads.

When the bus stopped, there was no time to think about how getting off the bus required more alacrity than boarding the bus. But my chicken-friendly seatmate was more energetic than me. Like Abhimanyu, he broke through the throng of passengers, and I grabbed onto his kurta’s hem. We arrived where in theory the door should have been and, without being able to confirm this fact, we jumped down, landing face first on the ground. The briefcase that had been dangling from my hand must have got caught on someone’s leg because the traveler behind me—pushed from the bus with a stout thrust—had one leg in the air while the dhoti of his other leg was hanging from my briefcase’s handle. The back of my chicken friend’s kurta was in shreds, but he had no idea. Then I discovered another nasty surprise. The stitching of my shoulder had been ripped apart, and around the shoulder my shirt was hanging down my back.

Alongside the street where the bus stopped, there was a pharmacy bearing the name of some Dr. Ansari. The signboard announced degrees such as AAUP, PMP, and MD. The last brought a smile to my face—so what of those who claimed that once doctors got advanced degrees they never left the city! But when I looked again at the signboard, after the MD there were parentheses in which was written in Urdu—I mean, Farsi, “Managing Director, Ansari Clinic.” This is what MD meant. So now I wanted to discover the real meanings of AAUP and PMP! PMP was easy to guess: private medical professional. But I would have to wait for the next day to figure out the meaning of AAUP.

In the pharmacy, there were a yawning octogenarian and a thousand flies. In front of the store, there were two seating platforms on which a half-dozen people were talking while stretched out in various yogic positions, though not one was a position from which a person could quickly get up. As far as conversation went, only one person was speaking, and the others were noisily listening.

2. Iqbal Mian 

My friend was a teacher. I didn’t know where he lived. I stopped to ask.

The conversation I interrupted was about India’s misery. As should be the case, no person, especially no person such as myself, should be prioritized ahead of the country. “ . . . you say politicians have ruined the country. That’s entirely wrong! The whole country is in the hands of the bureaucracy! It’s a kingdom of bureaucrats! Whatever the bureaucrat wants, that’s what happens!”

There was nothing new to this argument, but I might have unwittingly nodded my head in agreement. In reaction to this, the man stared at me with wide eyes, as though to confirm that if I wasn’t a wasp, and if I wasn’t local, then I was still human. He said, “Look at what happened this January 26. Look at the miracle that some bureaucrat managed. January 26 is a holiday. But this loser put it smack dab on a Sunday. One day of holiday for the poor was wiped out!”

It was a subtle point. People tried hard to understand. Then he said, “Even the ministers had no idea.”

One man opened his mouth, paused, then decided to go ahead with his comment, “But, Iqbal Sahib, which date falls on what day is hardly the work of any bureaucrat or minister.”

“Then who decides?” he said, looking in my direction for approval. His audience was silent.

I asked for my friend’s address.

The speaker was around sixty years old. He wore a kurta and tehmad around his stout frame. He wore a four-sided hat. He had a big black mole on one side of his nose that, sitting beneath his big eyes, had taken hold of his entire face, like a ship of bloodthirsty pirates. The impression was that if he would shut his eyes halfway, his countenance would be even more inscrutable—it would definitely give an added oomph to religious speeches.

3. What My Friend Said

“It’s great you met Iqbal Sahib as soon as you got here. He’s the richest man in town. He’s pretty smart too. In the last election, he was on the ruling party’s ballot. He almost won.”

“He proved that from the start. He said that a Delhi bureaucrat in some office establishes which date falls on what day.”

My friend raised an eyebrow, thought for a second, then said, “So tell me, who does decide that?”

I couldn’t believe his response, but quickly I offered an answer, “All of this is done by Mr. Ganeshan.”

“Which Mr. Ganeshan?”

“You didn’t read the papers? The one who just married his widow’s sister.”

It was always like that with us. The two of us laughed loudly, as though in our competition of wit I had just pulled ahead.

“Actually, Iqbal Mian is a type of specialist. Outside his specialty, he doesn’t know anything.”

My friend’s place was on the second floor in the building alongside the road. He had two small rooms. On the far side of the roof there was a small room for his kitchen. Then in the other direction, there was a place to bathe—an open-air room surrounded by walls. This second room also had something astonishing: a clean toilet. He must have used a very good bucket for flushing. In the bathing section, there was a hand pump, but you had to be careful with the handle because it rubbed against the rough wall.

When I had to use the hand pump, I tore the skin on my fingers against the wall. I put some Dettol antiseptic cream on the wound then went to stand outside the kitchen, where I felt the tingly effects of the medicine on my skin. My friend was lighting the stove to make tea, and he picked up the thread of his hagiography of Iqbal: “With specialists, it’s often like that. Look at yourself. You’re an expert on village economy. If you were asked about some physics problem, you’d be at a loss, just like Iqbal Mian, right?”

“Yes, but what’s Iqbal Mian’s specialty?”

“Him too, you could say he’s a type of specialist of village economics. In particular, there’s no one that can touch his knowledge about the cutting down of forest timber and its uses.”

“You mean the protection of the environment, and forestry?”

“If you mean stealing and robbing, then yes.”

In order to get from the street to my friend’s place, you first had to walk down a two-and-a-half-foot wide alley to get to the backyard where there was a set of stairs. This narrow, steep staircase was like heaven’s ladder. You had to ascend holding onto a greasy rope secured to the wall, and one misstep would indeed take you straight to heaven.

Listening to my friend, I felt like someone had grabbed my throat and tossed me down the stairs all the way to the ground.

4. Chewing Tobacco and Computer Training

In just one day, I learned a lot about the village’s story of development. It was the Block Development Officer—whom everyone called the B.D.O. Sahib—who explained things to me. And it was he who broke the mystery of the AAUP in Dr. Ansari’s title: it meant “allopathic, ayurvedic, unani physician.”

The B.D.O. Sahib was the friend of my friend. We met one evening. He was very tired, but his face showed the satisfaction of having done some important work. He refused any and all food or beverages—tea, coffee, liquor, even a meal. He lay down and relaxed on a charpoy then took out his own suckable snack, meaning, chewing tobacco. From a little metal box, he took out some lime slake and mixed it with the tobacco. On the palm of his left hand, he rubbed the lime slake and the chewing tobacco together, then he slapped it repeatedly, got rid of the stray bits, then placed it between his teeth and his lower lip. He said, “This evening was the last of the computer training. Somehow it finally wrapped up. My honor is safe!”

I hadn’t seen anyone mix chewing tobacco in this backward way in a long time. To see this from someone mentioning computers was even stranger. I asked, “In this town?”

He got up, spit out his tobacco juice, then went on talking, “Tomorrow I have to show the officers-in-training some development work in the area, and then the forest. All of them will meet the forest officers. They sent their men a hundred fifty kilometers away to get pastries and fried cashews. You’ll come tomorrow, too, won’t you?”

“Computer training? In this town?”

“This isn’t a town, sir, it’s a village. We’ve just over 4000 people. Once we talked about consolidating with other villages to make a town, but all the villagers were opposed to it.”


“They didn’t want to be taxed.”

“But the village is developing, right?”

“That happens by itself.”

Then the B.D.O. Sahib started to talk about tantric practices, astrology, archaeology, meteorology, sociology, novels, and poetry in one long breath. He started in on stories about the local development projects in the forest region affecting the thirty or thirty-five villages where he had family members—schemes bearing the titles of “self-generating,” “self-propagating,” “infrastructure,” “orchestration,” and “take-off stage” in the language of the Planning Commission.

I, the well-known eccentric journalist (and in the friendly language of my friend, the specialist of village economy), was all ears.

5. The Voice Louder than All Others

Over the last twenty years, the development of the little forest village of Umraonagar had happened on its own. That’s why the village was chosen out of all regional villages for intensive development. The person who had chosen the village was in fact the regional state representative.

Exactly two years before, he had been elected to the state assembly. And just as any story must advance, he tried to advance to the Transportation Ministry. His cut was eight anna for every bus that went to Umraonagar. Once he became a representative in the state legislature, his cut increased to all the profits. The heads of the local transportation union, Mr. Verma, the construction boss, the wealthy landlord, and other principal players like that all raised a ruckus that the man was becoming the state’s transportation minister. The same was published in the newspapers. But no one could anticipate the actions of the state’s Chief Minister, and this representative was instead given the title of the State Minister of Sugar Factories. In any event, Umraonagar’s transportation union welcomed him eagerly, and the newspapers described in rosy superlatives how the welcome event was “splendid” and the speeches “magnificent.” He announced at the event that he would open up a cooperative sugar mill in Umraonagar.

A sugar mill capable of processing 2,000 metric tons and a hand mill for flour are two different things. The ministry’s more cautious officers tried to explain this to him: wherever you can run an electric wire, then you can have a hand mill; but you need more than that for sugar. At the very least, you need sugarcane. Umraonagar was completely surrounded by protected forest. The sugarcane would have to be brought in from afar, and that would not even be enough. The issues were explained in brief. But he became stubborn. Like every other minister, he already knew everything about bureaucracy, and so he could call good advice bad and bad advice good. In the end, he kept repeating his intentions. While he was repeating himself, the state’s Chief Minister heard a voice from inside his mind call out to him (in other words, he heard the ultimatum drawn up from his party’s high command), and he resigned without any forewarning, as often happens these days. In the new administration, the local politician, unfireable by virtue of being his community’s lone representative, went back to being a representative in the state legislature. Nevertheless, it was still not clear to the transportation union members what exactly his job was. That is, he was a state representative of the Department of Administrative Reform and Public Grievances.

The second event was also called “splendid” and “magnificent,” but it was not as good. Imagine if the shopkeepers went all out in decorating their shops, but no one could tell what they sold—that was how to describe the minister as well. People didn’t understand what “administrative reform” and “public grievance” meant. But the minister was no less energetic. This time he made a new announcement: “Following the leadership of our great Prime Minister, we will have to develop new forms of technology and new forms of knowledge. For example, all children should learn about computers. Our top officials will be in charge of this initiative. And so we’re planning a two-week training course to teach our senior administrators. It will be held in Umraonagar.”

Now the tie-wearing, briefcase-toting officials who used to pass gas in air-conditioned Delhi offices were walking the alleys of Umraonagar with computers in tow.

The B.D.O. Sahib was relating this all to me while, like in documentaries made by the government’s Film Division, noises behind him acted as the soundtrack. Below on the street, there was the heeing and hawing of donkeys wandering around grazing, the cacophony of trucks blaring their horns, the sound of flour hand mills whirring around, the sound of transistor radios from several stores, and from another store, amplified to top volume, a folk tune that was almost obscene. A little while before this aural background was audible, the call to prayer had drowned everything out with its echo-heavy loudspeaker, but the azan’s glory lasts only several minutes. Then the devotionals from Swami Raghubardas’s ashram swamped out all other sounds.

In the devotionals, both male and female voices could be heard, but the strongest voice was a woman’s. As the B.D.O. Sahib was finishing his anecdote, this voice rose higher and higher into the very highest octave of her range and never retreated. Then the voice rose by more one note, and went into an alap: kiiii—ii—ii—ii, kiiii—ii—ii—ii. It sounded like someone had burst a lung while shouting.

My brow must have furrowed. The B.D.O. Sahib said, “Sounds like Siyadulariji has had a fit again!”

More on Siyadulariji later, after I tell you about the five houses. But first, let’s take a look back at the area in its earliest, darkest days.

6. Before Medicine

Just off in the distance a ways, a dried-out but thick branch rose from a mango tree stump, stretching toward the heavens as though in supplication. Nearby, there was a house. It was Umraonagar’s first proper house. Based upon the mango tree stump, you can guess—and would correctly guess—that this was once a mango orchard. The trees back from the road were the first to get cut for the townspeople’s stoves and fires. The trees along the road were the government’s. And so through a method of cutting them up without cutting them down, they were turned into stumps.

What was this method? It was just like the method of taxing without an actual tax. For example, several months ago, the price of petroleum products jolted up. People raised a hue and cry, so the government economists explained, “Now, people, just think of it like this—it’s not a price increase, it’s like we put a tax on it.” The people who had to pay this tax raised a hue and cry again, so the economists explained again, “We don’t want to raise the tax rate, and we don’t want to put a new tax on fuel. So, you see, we’ve raised the price!”

The villagers took the government’s lead. Due to a lack of firewood, a husband would say to his wife, “I’m going to cut some wood from the tree along the road.” All the branches were cut off the trees, and only the freshest shoots were left. Then the trunk was attacked. First, the bark was stripped. Then the trunk was cut into to extract bits of wood. And this went on. Afterwards, all that was left was a misshapen trunk and one branch like an arm reaching up to the heavens. In the end—meaning, the tree’s end—it was a withered skeleton, and its leaves disappeared. The tree’s shape was ruined without the use of power tools, and, all in all, it looked like the oval of India on the map. In this way, the tree was all cut up, without being cut down, and the number painted onto the tree in tar by the government would stay there forever!

These skeletons lined the road for quite a ways into the distance. As for the trees of the mango orchard that lay behind these skeletons, there was no need for such decorum. That was because they had already been laid to waste. That’s where the house now used for the government dispensary was built.

Before this house was built, Umraonagar was a very backward village. It was said to be an administrative seat in Raja Umraosingh’s demesne. That is, the ziledar lived there. The raja had had some buildings built along both sides of the road for the ziledar and his administrative team. These were mud houses with tile roofs. Only the ziledar had a house with brick walls. Each house had a veranda in front, and two walled-off spaces inside, which, if they’d had any windows, could’ve been called rooms. In their interior darkness, spiders, mosquitoes, lizards, millipedes, and scorpions took shelter by the dozen (and snakes too). The sun’s rays, the winter wind, the summer wind, and dust storms never penetrated inside these chambers. Each building had a narrow veranda and courtyard inside. Between the buildings, there was a two-and-half-foot wide path, which is to say that this civilization didn’t lack for architecture. Yet they lacked the sewers of the Mohenjo-Daro Civilization. Not one building had any plumbing. The raja knew that whatever was true about his country was also true of its water. Water always finds its own level.

What can be said for certain is that at the end of the time of the zamindars and due to the lack of upkeep of these buildings, a lot of things were wiped away by the water. On their ruins, new houses were built. Some have been fortunate enough to be spared by the water. They have been saved. But dozens of people are involved in litigation about these houses. Each person claims that they bought the house from the Ziledar Sahib, and that they have the paperwork to prove it.

7. First House

The ziledar was a high-ranking officer. He earned twenty rupees a month. He lived right there. Or not really “lived,” but he came for a couple nights a month to spend time with a boatman’s daughter.

The buildings with tile roofs, which could have been used for stores, lined the road for about a hundred meters. Behind them, there were the big stands of mango and rosewood trees. And behind them, it was fields, the river, and the forests. Beyond that, it was thick forests.

The climate inspired thoughts of romance. The only thing missing was people to put the romance into practice. For the most part, the tile-roofed houses and stores stood empty. Everyone was scared of getting robbed. Some of the tile-roofed houses were the ziledar’s. He lived in one. The boatman’s widow and her parents lived in another, and the families of the boatman’s brother and sister lived in another. The boatman’s parents could have lived in one too, but they didn’t. Their son had died so young. They thought their daughter-in-law was a bitch, but her parents through she was a goddess. They also thought highly of the ziledar. They thought he was very kind and noble-spirited. This was what most people thought.

A couple land managers lived in the other buildings. They lived alone. With the help of the tharra liquor distilled on the boatmen’s property near the river, and with the help of the loving affection of other people’s daughters-in-law and daughters, they lived a pleasant life. They weren’t scared of being robbed; the robbers were their men.

As the time of the zamindars was ending, the landlords started selling their property. Some sold off all their barren lands and their every last blade of grass and moved to the city where they became members of the zila council, or, if they couldn’t manage that, they became politicians in some-or-other party and started to make their new lives. Raja Umraosingh’s children became ambassadors in this or that country, and their on-site managers started racking their brains about how to sell off Umraonagar’s fields, forests, and state property. Everything was for sale. But there were no buyers. Then one disreputable but well-known family member of the king stepped in to help.

He was the leader of the zila cooperative union. He rented out five of Umraonagar’s market buildings at a rate of six rupees per house per month. In these buildings, he opened up stores that sold cheap grain, sugar, clothes, kerosene, and cement. And so, in six months, he bought up three stores. But enough about him. We were talking about the village’s first house.

The cooperative union stores did good business. Only cement didn’t do well. Perhaps it was in order to increase cement sales that the construction of the first house took two years. It was the cooperative union supervisor’s house. After it was built, his opponents started crying corruption. In those days, corruption was still seen in a negative light. So the leader claimed health concerns and retired from public life. The zila cooperative union then passed into many other people’s hands. But the house stayed in the hands of the same former supervisor.

8. Ram is God, or Robbery

Bhagvan Rajneesh, Satya Sai Baba, Maharishi Yogi, Swami Sadachari—these and other men are the fruits of a scientific and technological age. Swami Raghubardasji is another link in this chain. The rumbling of his jet has not yet been heard on the international stage, but from the speed at which he rose into the sky of Umraonagar, it seemed as though he had been transformed from a man into a god and from a god into a jet plane.

It was said that before becoming a god he was a principal at different girls’ schools. The Enlightened One didn’t care about the intellectual beauty of his staff members, but he did care about their physical beauty, especially their facial beauty. Due to conflicts of body and mind, he suffered a lot there—I mean, at the girls’ schools. On average once a year he would be attacked physically, and every two or three years, he would be transferred. This happened year after year. In the end, he figured things out, which was perhaps due to the barrel of a country-made pistol held in the strong grasp of the hand of one girl’s brother who started following him even in his dreams; or perhaps it was due to repeating the hagiography of Tulsidas or Vilamangala, or some other bogus prophet, in which the beautiful girl’s every charm is torn away to reveal that she, too is just blood and guts. Anyway, in this particular case, transferring him was no longer necessary. He resigned. For two years, he lived in a cave in the Himalayas, meditating and taking instruction from a guru, but back in Umraonagar he smeared the yellow paste of renunciation on his forehead and became a god. His religious order was up and running in no time. They had their own flag, they had their own costume (a yellow kurta, a yellow lungi, a yellow sari and a red blouse for the lady disciples—which suited some of them quite well), their own way of praying, their own path to enlightenment, their own prayer music (both bhajan and kirtan)—they had everything, even their own ashram, their own tradition of charity, and even their own kitchen serving free food.

What you have to understand is that Swami Raghubardas was an incarnation of Lord Ram. A girl named Siyadulari was found to sit next to him on the throne. Her real name was Phulmati. She was the fruit of the ziledar’s love for the fisherman’s widow. The ziledar had also educated her through high school. And now she was suddenly known as Siyadulari.

She had been singing devotionals at the top of her lungs for several days. Since there was no scope for her to sing stories from the Ramayana, Raghubardas had not yet let her go into the forest.

It was part of the customs of Umraonagar that in the evening right after the azan ended, the bhajans and the kirtans would start up. Calling this communal harmony and unity in diversity, politicians pushed forward the example of the village. Communal violence could break out at any moment. But it hadn’t. Why? Each side was still busy counting its own money, and it was their good luck that they hadn’t yet achieved the status of being able to waste it.

9. The Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Houses

Every Indian knows that their country is a country of traditions. Some foreigner said that a Great Being leaves his footprint in the sands of time. But how long can this footprint last? Wherever the Great Being of the nation emerges, that’s where his Eternal Path will be. So to make a permanent mark in such a backwater, a Great Being will have to thrust his neck forward like a camel to get noticed.

This is what the former leader of the cooperative union did. After resigning, he handed over control to the other members, but he kept the house for himself. This became a steadfast tradition. The directorship changed hands every two years, and in that time, the new director would build himself a new house for himself before stepping down. In ten years, five houses were built. It’s lucky that after the fifth director, the government got rid of the board of directors and made a young official its administrator. If not, today in Umraonagar three-storied houses would still be sprouting up like bamboo scaffolding. Still, the hope was that the young official wouldn’t break from tradition entirely, and it is said that in this and that city he has built some bungalows for himself.

If traditions change slightly with the times and the tastes of individuals, then so be it. This is meaning of social progress. If money earmarked for development only went to villages and the cities were left untouched, then there would be an imbalance in development activities. So we should regard the administrator as an unmatched coordinator of modernity and tradition who, in upholding the tradition of development, brought construction projects to modern cities as he saw fit.

In any event, the houses that the former directors of the cooperative union had built were the basis upon which Umraonagar suddenly became a proper town. With houses comes business. The first director leased free of charge the first floor of his house in the name of his dearly departed father to the government to open a dispensary. Both the local people and the government were more than surprised, and yet a dispensary opened up. On the opposite side of the street, a pharmacy opened that stole the drugs from the dispensary to sell for itself. It was the compounder’s nephew’s store. The nephew’s name was Amjad Ansari, AAUP, PMP, etc. His medical practice was supported by the store, and his store was supported by the government dispensary.

Dr. Ansari and the government doctor had no dispute. Actually, thanks to Dr. Ansari, the government doctor was able to run the clinic while living in the city. The first of every month, he showed up right on time to collect his salary, a fourth of the cut from the compounder’s private practice, and half of the proceeds that Dr. Ansari earned from selling the government drugs. Then he scurried back to the city.

Corruption was never mentioned in reference to the second director’s house. So there was no question of giving it over—or any floor in it—for the public good. In fact, through wringing as much rent from it as he could, he wanted to make clear that the house had been built from his own sweat and blood, though he had actually spent not a single penny in its construction. He had a nephew who was a ranger in the Forestry Department. God knows through what influence and exactly how he made it happen, but in only a couple days a branch office of the state Forestry Department opened up in the house. Not only that, but the backyard was rented out to become a state-level public park where in no time at all forest timber from the Forestry Department’s branch office was used to put up a huge depot. But enough of that.

The third director pledged to open an even bigger office in his house than the Forestry Department branch office. He also had several buildings in the city, which he leased out to the post office. This was his speciality. He had connections in the postal service all the way up to Delhi. Yet if he had opened in that village building a small post office branch to serve the needs of the people, still the rent would not have covered his monthly expenses for cashews and whiskey, for which he had a strong and lasting love. So he left the tried-and-true postal service and was forced to wander through the maze of endless half-functioning government branches. Finally, threats and bribes had their effect. In the house, a center for officer training in village development and village self-uplift was opened. Despite the fact that inside the house there were good toilets and bathrooms, outside on the street there was always a line of young men wearing t-shirts and lungis and holding their little steel toilet pots. These were the young men come for officer training. And now this was the same building being used for high-ranking officer computer training.

The fourth house’s owner was a little on the strange side. He opened a fish husbandry office in the building. Reproducing the loathsome pronunciation of the majority of Doordarshan newscasters, people called his underlings “pissing” (“piscine”) development officers. When some villagers filled in a puddle or a pond and started planting grain on the new land, then the “pissing” officers came, dug up the fields, and started a fish husbandry scheme there.

The fifth house was not rented out. In a broken-down truck, its owner brought a bunch of things from the city and set up shop right there. He said, “I’m staying right here for good. I’m going to get creative.” And that’s where he’s stayed.

10. May Bad Fortune Strike Those Who Wish Us Evil

That truck was sold a year ago, and two more came in its place. Now in front of the building there are also two buses and a jeep. On the back of the trucks, all sorts of proverbs, bits of poetry, and “Long live the youth, long live the farmers” slogans and the like had been written. From these words, you could guess each truck’s personality or community. The only proverb they shared was “May Bad Fortune Strike Those Who Wish Us Evil.” Beneath these words, a picture of shoes was painted on each truck. This meant that the truck’s owner was one and the same person. He was the fifth house’s owner. With his business’s growth, people had forgotten his old name, caste, and tribe. Now his name was simply Thakur Sahib. He owned all the buses and other vehicles too.

Even if the old truck was just as broken down as ever, it could still carry heavy loads of rosewood logs. So Thakur Sahib—who used to be called Ramesar Bhai—started using it to carry rosewood logs. The road went in one direction to the city and in the other direction passed through the forest. It was very old. People said that in the Treta Yug, Ram, Lakshman, and Janaki walked on it. So you can imagine how old the rosewood trees along it must have been. Its lumber was practically as heavy as iron. Thakur Sahib dedicated his broken-down truck to these trees. Every night, one tree or another was being cut down, and the timber was being sent off to the city while its leaves, twigs, branches, and extras went on to some nearby village. This work went along without a hitch for several months because the road’s junior engineer was then one of Thakur Sahib’s old classmates. But Thakur Sahib didn’t do this business for long. The seed capital that he earned from selling this priceless timber in the city was collected under the rubric of the developmental policies of the nationalized banks, and he slowly started putting together a fleet of trucks and buses. In the beginning, he had to give half of the revenue from one of the trucks to the junior engineer and half of the revenue of one of the buses to a state representative. When that politician became Minister of State, Thakur Sahib offered the bus in full to the nation through the minister’s auspices.

The need for development never ends. That’s what the Planning Commission has said. Just think how much construction took place in the city with the rosewood lumber shipped there, just think how many new neighborhoods and houses were built—this could be written about as well. But, please forgive me, I still have so much to say about Umraonagar.

Now Thakur Sahib is an important man. Now he has diabetes and high blood pressure. Impotence would soon follow. But as his mustache grew day by day, it made him look ever the more fierce. He had become so rich that he no longer talked about his early days, but he never stopped telling the story of how his transportation union became so powerful in that area.

“‘May Bad Fortune Strike Those Who Wish Us Evil’ isn’t just a saying,” Thakur Sahib was explaining to my teacher friend, mostly for my benefit. “Master Sahib, I developed this look to make those who might wish me evil think twice. Master Sahib, I’ve never done anything. You know better than anyone, whatever outsiders think when they see my mustache, I’m really a peace-loving man. Let liars lie, but you know that’s the truth! Think about what was here before my buses! Just Iqbal Mian’s two ramshackle buses—and ikkas. And what of the ikkas? They could only go twenty-five kilometers. Then people would have to transfer to buses coming from Umariya. That was the only way to reach the cities. I spent hundreds of thousands of rupees on my buses, then Iqbal Mian brought in more buses, then Verma’s buses started up. Now you can reach the city just like that in two and half hours! People in Umariya used to drive tempos, but then our union spent hundreds of thousands on buses. So, I’m telling you, Master Sahib, could the tempos have lasted? No. But I didn’t do anything. It was Iqbal Mian—he got to them. The tempo drivers put their tails between their legs and slunk back into their holes.”

“And there used to be government buses,” I interjected.

“Okay, good for them. We didn’t stop them from running. It was schoolboys. I heard there was a rude bus driver. He was beaten up somewhere. So the buses stopped running. You think I could have stopped them from running? Please. The government drivers don’t want to drive this route. Are you stirring up rumors to give my buses a bad name?”

“What I’m thinking is you should shave your mustache off,” my teacher friend said. “Silly people say things about you.”

I told him not to shave it off, and I explained the importance of having a big mustache. He was reassured.

Then my teacher friend spoke in a half-teasing and half-provoking way, “But, Thakur Sahib, you had the daily rail service shut down.”

He laughed at this, “I know, I know. It was thanks to Iqbal Mian. The outbound train from the city stopped here in the morning, then stopped in the evening on the way back. But then it was canceled. People were flying off the handle saying that Iqbal Mian greased the palms of the people in charge of the rail schedule. I had my suspicions, too. But, I swear to god, our union didn’t fork out one single penny! The railway was losing ground. Then it was canceled. That’s all I know about it.”

I walked to the station the next morning at dawn. It was a romantic place. Thick forests stood on every side. Birds were everywhere. There were no people at all. Now there was a night train that went to the city. It stopped at two in the morning. The train coming from the city stopped at three in the morning. Now the rail authorities were changing the station from a fixed stop to a flag station. If there had ever been any threat to the friendship of people, goats, and chickens traveling together on the buses, it was long since a thing of the past.

11. The Story of Religion’s Development in Town

It was no ordinary work to chop down rosewood trees for four or five hours in the middle of the night, leaving a wasteland behind. It required a tightly run ship, like at the circus where as soon as the lion has leapt through the hoop, it takes just the blink of an eye for the circus workers to set the stage for the man to be shot out of the cannon. And Thakur Sahib had put in place such an organization. With the expansion of his transportation business, his powers had grown in other ways as well. His activities were the catalytic converter for Umraonagar’s development.

He had eight lead workers. Out of these, one got drunk and was crushed under the wheels of his own truck. Then a union leader sacrificed another in the coal mines of Bihar. Nothing so graphic happened to the remaining six. Some tip-top stores were built for them on the road going away from town. The tile-roof buildings were torn down, and with the seed capital gained from selling the rosewood trees, the stores were set up for selling everything from Ayurvedic remedies for impotence to diesel engine pumping equipment. The bank down the road was of the same sort. When nowadays it seems like new bank branches are opening everywhere, even on the back of a mule grazing in a field, there should have been banks opening up in Umraonagar. Thakur Sahib took out loans from banks in order to build his bank. But it was said that he lent this loan money out to others at an interest rate three times what a real bank charged. But the type of work for which he loaned money was the type of work that banks shied away from. He had found a market where others feared to go.

This is the story of religion’s development in town. What happened was that when Iqbal Sahib paid for a mosque to be built in some empty land, then across from it the foundation for a Hindu temple was laid. The mosque never got finished. The expensive tiles that were to go on top of the whitewashed red bricks of the minarets were never sent from Hyderabad. But, no matter, loudspeakers with an amplifier were installed on their tops. At the same time, Swami Raghubardas’s ashram grew and grew to the side of the temple. In fact, it spread over some of Iqbal Mian’s land. Call it communal harmony or unity in diversity, or say it was due to Thakur Sahib’s strong-arm tactics, but Iqbal Mian ceded the land to the ashram.

During this time, Lord Ram, alias Swami Raghubardas, was ensconced on his throne. He didn’t look anything like Ajanbahu, Vrishskandh, Vyudhorask, Koti Manoj Lajavan—any of these avatars of Ram. Under his heavenly halo, he looked like the oppressed, mediocre, tired-out country college principal he had been.

Underneath a red velvet canopy decorated with strings of sparkling silver stars, the Raghuvanshi court announced its glory while Raghubardas and Siyadurali sat together on the throne. Lord Ram had noticed her when the Ziledar Sahib had sent her to study in his high school. Siyadurali sat as motionless as a statue, and her big, intoxicating eyes were the only things on her dark and attractive face that moved.

Lord Ram recited a sloka then started singing a bhajan that he had come up with himself. His worshippers were sitting in front of him, mostly girl devotees, and they quickly picked up the melody. Then in another direction, the azan started to rumble through the loudspeakers.

The B.D.O. Sahib said, “Up till now, everything has been fine. Thakur Sahib and Iqbal Mian get along pretty well. Only once or twice have things almost gotten out of hand. I just heard they asked the police captain to station an armed police brigade in the area. The upper floors of Thakur Sahib’s house are empty. He wants to go live in a smaller house. He’s ready to rent out the house to the brigade. And the arrangements for the police commander will be made by Iqbal Mian.”

12. Mazhar Mian’s Religious Processional

Thakur Sahib and Iqbal Mian’s mutual understanding was based on a principle of the moral code that neighboring kingdoms should respect one another’s borders. In the forests around Umraonagar, cutting down trees through hardworking though nefarious means was a long tradition. Iqbal Mian had a monopoly over the illegal lumber business. He used to live in a nearby village even smaller than Umraonagar. When electricity came to the area, he set up a power saw alongside the road to cut wood. Then it grew into a factory, and with its proceeds, he built himself a house. From out of the government forest, he set out a little swath of forest for himself. With his lot staked out, his younger brother Mazhar Mian started to help him out.

Thakur Sahib never so much as looked at the government forest. That was Iqbal Mian’s domain. His business was limited to the rosewood along the road. And so, though both were in the lumber business, they never so much as had a cross word for one another. Then later in the transportation union their friendship grew yet stronger.

At first Mazhar Mian devoutly cut down the government forest and sent the trees to his brother’s factory. When he took up residence in the second house, he set up a branch of the forest department, and found his life’s true calling. The first year after the branch was established, he sold his timber at auction at the highest prices in the entire state. That is, to his brother Iqbal Mian. This branch started adding so much money to the state’s till that the higher-ups in the forest department started chirping and grunting like a bunch of wildlife. Branch manager there became a prestigious job. Each time a new manager was assigned, right after the first auction, his office would be flooded with congratulatory letters from top officials, and based on the forest division’s program of encouraging hardworking officers and demoting officers that slacked, an announcement followed of how the new branch manager was being awarded a prize, promoted, and given a quick transfer. So, the job at Umraonagar became a guarantee of promotion for the worst sort of corrupt officers. All of this was due to the generous heart of Iqbal Mian, alias Thekedar Sahib—Mr. Contractor. The reasons for this generosity are another matter altogether.

Where along the road there had been the stores of Thakur Sahib’s friends, now there were a handful of factories for cutting wood–for making wooden doors, windows, wooden platforms, and so on. These were owned by Iqbal Mian’s men. Their primary business was revitalization. No, they weren’t beauty parlors. I mean, they took the wood cut illegally in the forest and revitalized it to look like wood bought at auction. How? At the factory, timber was transformed into planks, platforms, doors, windows, and so on. When it was loaded onto a truck, just like it’s impossible to recognize how there’s old horse fodder inside ground coriander, so too it was impossible to know which wood was stolen and which was bought at government auction. You could stop and inspect timber before it was loaded onto a truck, but after the product was made it was impossible to know what was what.

That’s why Iqbal Mian bought the government timber at whatever price at auction. He needed it at any price. When the timber got to his factories, it turned into what industrialists call “margin money” when they take on a loan. This is how he was able to pass off his inferior black market wood (of which he had nine times as much) as good wood and sell it at a much higher price; this was the method he used to establish his business “Messieurs Iqbal Hussain And Brothers, Government Contractor And Timber Market.” As soon as the forestry officials started congratulating themselves upon his last exorbitant bid, his agents started cutting down more of the forest and sending it to his factories. As the forest division’s profits grew, so too did the division’s moral decline. The good thing was that with a booming economy, you only look at the profit graphs and never turn around to see the long-term consequences.           

13. Robbery, or National Development

The alley leading to my friend’s house was so narrow that if a man and a woman happened to exit the alley at the same time, they would likely be charged with adultery, or the man, with rape. At the time there was trash and mud everywhere. Like a single electrical wire, my friend weaved his way between the obstacles then leapt over a wall onto the street. I followed. We were going to a party hosted by Iqbal Mian, alias Thekedar Sahib, a.k.a. the local representative from the Satta Party. We hadn’t been invited at first, but then we’d received an invitation through the state Finance Minister.

The occasion was the end of the computer-training program. The Finance Minister had come to give a speech marking its conclusion. The occasion’s main guest was the State Minister of the Department of Administrative Reform and Something Something Something. The B.D.O. Sahib was the MC. The location was the backyard of the third house. Dishes to be served were goat, chicken, and fish. Entertainment was folk songs first, Bhojpuri songs later. The Bhojpuri songs would recite the legend of the 20-Point Program and Rajiv Bhaiya’s long-standing love for the poor and oppressed.

Some indigenous peoples still lived along the forest’s edge. They supplied the goats and chickens. Over there, beyond a clump of trees, there was a piddly little river and some fishermen’s houses. That’s where they got their fish. These things were abundant in that area of the countryside, as was moonshine brewed along the river. If you bought chickens or goats, you could get liquor at a discount. So, all in all, food and drink was to be had, as long as you could pay, which Iqbal Mian did.

The Finance Minister was famous for believing that the Indian press was irresponsible and petty. But operating through the principle of not hating the messenger of bad news, he loved journalists. He treated executive editors and reporters to the best that his hospitality could offer. Managing editors and desk reporters were left with the dregs.

Even though I was technically part of the latter group, the Finance Minister knew me. So my friend and I were included on the revised and final guest list. At the banquet, though I was the only reporter not tied to the government, I wasn’t sidelined. The spotlight of the minister’s smile kept finding its way to me.

After the banquet and the folksy entertainment, and before the minister left, we had the chance to catch up. But even then he talked only about national development, the poverty line, village uplift, and so on. The Finance Minister mentioned the exceptional development of Umraonagar, asked if I didn’t find it so, and said that the irrigation project that had been stalled for years due to the inability to procure the needed land was now all but ready to go forward.

“Then the market too will come about in short order,” I said.

“Of course it will. There will be so many workers coming to the area that they won’t be able to work without a big, modern shopping area.”

Two or three days before, I had seen this particular marketplace. There were half-built buildings, and brick walls with moss growing on them. It was hard to say whether they were the ruins of old buildings or the beginnings of new buildings; the irrigation project had ground to a halt four years earlier. With the project’s cement, metal, and other building materials, a brick kiln owner named Guptaji had built as many buildings for the marketplace as possible, but the bazaar had gone belly up along with the irrigation project.

“You’ve only been here a couple days. You’ve seen for yourself the rapid development of the area. Look here, the newspapers publish stories about murder, rape, highway robbery, and so on. Shouldn’t they write about places like here? I know you’re interested in village economics. You’ll write something, then?” the Finance Minister asked.

He and his cronies waited enthusiastically for my response. There was nothing for me to think about, but I made out like I was thinking. Then I gathered my breath, saw that Iqbal Mian, Thakur Sahib, and some others were listening to me, and I addressed the minister in English: “Of course I would love to, but there’s one point that I just can’t reconcile. The national government and your Finance Ministry are always announcing a new war on the double economy, black money, tax evasion, embezzlement, fraud, and so on. But after having studied a little how things work here, I can say that if the government worked hand in hand with these other players, then development could happen very rapidly here. Yet if stealing and skimming didn’t take place in public works projects, then I’m convinced that despite a handful of government agencies having opened branches here, it would still be a thatched-roof village, and the healthy middle class today would be living under the poverty line. These houses, these factories, these busy stores . . .”

Suddenly Thakur Sahib said something that made me shut up. He spoke in English, “Are you calling all of us thieves and robbers?”

I spoke to him with all the courtesy I had left in me. To cool him down, I couched what I had to say in complicated economic terms so that he would understand that it hadn’t been an insult but a theoretical analysis. I apologized for my part in the misunderstanding, and said, “Not at all. I’m talking about something else. Take Delhi, for instance. Look at the last Asian Games. Millions and millions of rupees were spent to modernize the capital. In this, thousands of people of no consequence rose above the poverty line and left behind their low-class status. This was through nothing else but sheer robbery. They rose into the middle class by hiding money in their houses, their bank lockers, and in the trunks of their cars. I’m convinced that if there weren’t such energy invested in this robbery and stealing, then there would be a huge cash windfall for you to use in your welfare schemes. But that takes time. And also it isn’t clear whether what in the government’s view is good for their welfare is in their opinion good for their welfare.”

The Finance Minster replied, “You’re a good joker, but even when making your jokes don’t forget that thirty-seven percent of Indians live under the poverty line and they place no trust in stealing and robbery.”

So I replied, “If not yet, they will. From Umraonagar to New Delhi, as a byproduct of national development, the way the middle class as a group steals isn’t lost on the poor. Do the fishermen living here on the riverbanks not know that the bribe that the village development officer gets for giving the loans for their fishing business can make him rich in just a year?” Then I spoke to the minister with a coaxing tone, “Please believe me. Bribes and trickery and underhanded business—instead of raising a hue and cry against them, if you worked with them, in just a couple days a really cohesive campaign for village development could be put in place. Just think how quickly development would take place then.”

The minister laughed heartily then said, “Your jokes never end. You really want to build the nation through corruption and stealing?”

Then my friend spoke for the first and only time, “No, sir, that’s not it. My friend is trying to theorize the way that development is taking place thanks to you all.”

14. Between Kumbhipaka and Astipatra

Going home, I wanted to escape close quarters with goats and chickens. So the two of us were standing in the pitch-black night waiting on the street for an ikka. While the transportation union had put an end to the rail service, the government buses, the tempos, the taxis, and so on, they had let the ikkas continue plying their trade. It’s an old tradition, the fear of one day falling on tough times. And so, in the same way that people don’t light their old thatch on fire, so the transportation union didn’t interfere either in the little business the ikka drivers did.

We didn’t have to wait for long. It was too dark to see anything, but we certainly heard the ikka’s approach. When it came by, my friend asked it to stop. He yelled, “Stop! Stop!” and we both ran after it, but it didn’t stop.

Then my friend threatened the driver with a horrible insult, “Stop, asshole, or else . . .” The “or else” had an immediate effect. The ikka stopped.

My friend started to ask the driver about whether I could get a ride. The ikka driver said that the rider—one “Lalli”—had the ikka for herself, and that it was impossible to seat anyone else. But then Lalli tersely instructed the ikka driver that he was to let me on then hurry along.

We call an ikka like that a “kharkhara.” They sound like a ox cart going down the road, “kharkhara kharkhara . . .” If the ikkas had been made of solid wood and in the place of a horse there had been two yoked oxen, then it would’ve been an ox cart. I mean, it could only comfortably seat two people. It’s another matter that, until Lalli and I introduced ourselves, she had to sit cramped and hunched over.

Our introduction came several kilometers into our journey when she raised her niqab. The heavens and the stars didn’t drop from the sky, but I was startled to see who it was. The purdah-keeping Lalli wasn’t a Muslim lady. In the growing light, I recognized her. It was Siyadulari.

“Siyadulari? Is it you?” I asked.

“My name is Phulmati,” she said in a voice reserved for public-speaking events.

She slowly managed to worm her way out of her burka. Then she carefully folded it and put it in a bag. She wasn’t wearing a yellow sari and a red blouse. She was wearing a nylon print sari. The color hadn’t entirely set, but the sari didn’t look bad on her.

I had several questions in mind but couldn’t get one out. She answered one without my asking, “He’s a disgusting person.”

In order to show her I understood, I nodded my head. She said, “You’re not from here. So I can tell you. In three kilometers, there will be an intersection. There’s a bus from Umariya that stops there. I’m getting on the first one.”

“And I’m taking that one back as well.”

“Don’t take that one. It stops everywhere. Take the next one.”

Then the ikka driver spoke, “Please get off before the intersection, sir. What’s the point of having anyone see you two together?”

“Why would it matter?”

“Thakur Sahib and Swamiji Maharaj’s devotees will bother Master Sahib. They’ll think it was because of you two that I fled,” Phulmati said.

“You’re fleeing?”

At first she didn’t answer. The ikka driver spoke, “Her dad in the city is sick. She doesn’t have anyone else. Swamiji Maharaj didn’t give her permission to go.”

“The Ziledar Sahib is still alive?”

It was a stupid question. But it was entirely natural for me to ask. Hearing the old stories about him and about how the Ziledar Sahib had taken up with a fisherman’s widow, I felt like he was a legend and not a real man.

This upset Phulmati. “If he’s not living, you mean he’s dead? Is that what you want?”

I lowered my head to express how sorry I was for having spoken. She calmed down, then said, “A long time ago my dad started living in the city. That’s where I went to school. My mom stayed in Umraonagar. She was sick all the time. She used to have sharp pains in her stomach. Then dysentery. Fever. I don’t know what all. I think my dad’s caught the same thing.”

I had to say something, so I asked, “So you’re going to look after your dad?”

Then it was the ikka driver who got upset, “She couldn’t do anything but leave! Swamiji Maharaj was getting a second Siyadulari. You must have seen her, Babuji, a very white, bright-faced girl is always sitting in front of him. Swamiji has started to say that Siyadulari will never be beautiful.”

“So why didn’t Swamiji want her to go?”

“That’s Swamiji. You must know how he is.”

I got off a little before the intersection. Getting off, I asked, “And if you meet one of Swamiji’s students?”

“I’m not scared of that here. Rakesh Bhai is already here.”

“Rakesh Bhai?”

“He’s the leader of the Youth Party—that Rakesh. You don’t know him? He’s a very important youth leader.”

The birds were beginning to sing, but there was nothing as radiant just then as Phulmati. I put my hand on the ikka to stop it. My curiosity was finally getting the better of me.

“So you’ll live with your dad and work with Rakesh Bhai?” I asked.

“I’ll study and work. Rakesh Bhai says that I speak very well. There’s going to be a youth camp in the mountains. Rakesh Bhai says I’ll have to give a lecture on spiritualism there.”

“On what?”

“On spiritualism. The physical world is nothing, right?”

I said goodbye and let the ikka go on. For a second, I thought I should tell her about the ways of this insubstantial physical world in which a fisherman’s widow can find refuge in a good man and yet die alone with her sickness left untreated, in which her daughter would fall prey to social ills even scarier than what the widow experienced. But there wasn’t the time, and then there was no one to listen to me. But even then, the night’s conversation took on the shape of a question that rose into the sky: once you see for yourself the system of stealing and thieving that goes by the name of development (and that is the middle class’s heaven), where is Phulmati’s place in that?

In the Puranas, Kumbhipaka is a hell full of blood and gore. Another hell is called Astipatra, where trees have swords for leaves and slash at you with every step you take, scarring your flesh. As dawn lit that autumn day, my mind started to worry for the girl heading to the intersection where Rakesh Bhai awaited her, the girl who had escaped Kumbhipaka just to wander into Astipatra. Whether development in Umraonagar took place on the Finance Minister’s principles, or through Iqbal Mian’s savoir-faire, it would not take away any of the power of these realms. Thinking about Phulmati, I thought how these two veins of development were hand-in-hand falling face-first into hell.


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. He will be the translator in residence at Princeton University in Spring 2021.

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