The literary tradition of Premchand and Manto is alive and well thanks to two modern novelists, Uday Prakash and Ajay Navaria.

TWO works of fiction that I recently came across (I am sure there are others) have reassured me that the literary tradition of Munshi Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto and Manohar Shyam Joshi with its appealing mix of social realism and pungent sarcasm has not come to an end in Indian writing. Their literary heirs have not merely taken on the predecessors’ social project and modes of writing and critiquing the world but contemporised, modernised and refreshed them, bringing in new elements, including the magic and the black humour of the modernists and postmodernists from Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera to Samuel Beckett and Salman Rushdie.

Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (UWA Publishing, Western Australia, 2012)—which follows The Girl with the Golden Parasol besides his hugely popular works in Hindi—ably translated by Jason Grunebaum, brings together three long, stingingly comic tales of surviving in today’s globalised India with its black money, underworld gangs, corrupt bureaucracy, pro-rich economic policy and discriminatory caste and class systems which leave the poor to go up the social ladder either by turning criminal (remember Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger) or by a combination of wit and luck (Vikas Swarup’s Q & A/Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire), both fictional options that exist only in the fantasies of the status quo’s apologists.

Title story

The title story is set in Delhi, not the Delhi of monuments and sahebs but of the street vendors from the villages with their makeshift shops. The shops were on wheels because of the need to get away quickly if an official came nosing round. The cops were easier to handle; they just wanted their weekly cut. And paying that was better than paying a rent as Sanjay Chaurasia the paan seller from a village near Pratapgarh would tell his friends Ratanlal and Sasaram.

It is a world of rickshaw drivers, ice cream sellers, hashish peddlers, street food vendors, bicycle repairers, menders of shoes, beggars, loonies, the maimed, the old, the dispossessed and the battered… from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and other States. And all of them have stories to tell, stories that never make headlines in newspapers, and they keep vanishing from the New Delhi of wealth and wizardry without a trace, “like the tears of an ill-fated fakir, leaving only the tiniest trace of moisture on the ground”, the damp spot serving as a protest against injustice. The narrator meets Ramnivas Pasiya at a street corner: he had moved to Delhi with his father, Babulla, two decades ago from Shahipur near Allahabad and got settled in an illegal colony and even managed to get a ration card and a job as a city sanitation worker. He had married Babiya when he was just 17 but was not getting on well with her; he was chasing another girl, Sushma, a part-time housemaid when the narrator met him.

One fine day, Ramnivas’ drab life was transformed beyond recognition: while cleaning the gym where the overeating middle-class people went to lose weight and to have fun with the masseuse, he banged his broom against the wall to right the bristles that had gone awry to discover to his surprise the plaster gave way to reveal a hole filled with cash—stacks and stacks of Rs.500 and Rs.100 notes! He knew he had stumbled on dirty money hidden inside the wall; it was no fairy tale though it looked like one. He just took two stacks of five hundred rupee bills—Rs.20,000— and hid the hole with a sack, a table and a chair the way he had found it.

He struggled hard to hide his excitement and anxiety. His first thought was of a happy ride with Sushma, whom he had managed to half persuade while they were watching a film together to accompany him on a tour of Delhi. On the appointed day, Ramnivas set out to his workplace and found to his excitement a fully made-up Sushma waiting at the bus stop. He hired an autorickshaw and took her to all kinds of places in Delhi, buying her food and clothes. Sushma, too, enjoyed his attentions. She had already noticed how this penny-pincher had bought tea for all his street-fellows. It was like being inside a technicolour dream. This was later repeated; their romance blossomed, and she even got pregnant and had her abortion done at Naharpur. In the author’s words: “gone was the poor, broken, sorrowful Jitendra. Now he was a gregarious, colourful, radiant Govinda, always ready to flash a smile.”

His home now had all the new gadgets, his children had joined computer courses, his wife ate well and his estranged relatives suddenly began to show up at his place. His social status went up; he began to help others and to be consulted on things and invited to weddings. He also had many more escapades with Sushma, this time with her family’s knowledge, though her mother wanted her to marry him. Ramnivas was wise enough to know that the money might not last for all time and so bought a 10-acre plot of land in his wife’s name and deposited Rs.300,000 in savings accounts in different banks in different names, including Sushma’s. Curious people were told that Ramnivas had been hitting the jackpot or that some scheme he had joined had matured or that he had won a lottery.

One fateful day, Ramnivas wanted to take Sushma on a longer trip, to Jaipur and Agra. They took a taxi from the Agra railway station and asked the driver to take them to a top-notch hotel, which aroused his suspicions. They checked in at a good hotel, did some sightseeing and shopping and went back to the hotel to sleep. When he was about to open a whisky bottle, two policemen knocked at the door and asked about the girl. Ramnivas replied she was his sister-in-law. But they would not take his word for it, and questions followed about the source of his wealth. Both were asked to report to the police station. But the expected compromise followed: the two policemen were given plenty to drink and eat and some cash to boot. But during the revelry, a drunken Ramnivas told the police about the cash hidden behind the wall! He cancelled the trip in fear and returned to find a police vehicle parked in front of his house.

The next day he asked the narrator to help him out of the mess, but that was the last time he saw Ramnivas. No one now remembers him; his wife and children say he is not home, his colleagues say they cannot remember all those names. But the narrator found a photograph of his dead body in the newspaper of June 7, 2001: it went with a report on a police encounter with robbers and the discovery in a car of 2.3 million rupees, all counterfeit. The money actually belonged to a Minister who had been charged with taking a billion rupees in kickbacks from a foreign company to buy some high-tech equipment. And the money said to have been recovered from the car was only a small part of what was stored inside the wall. The rest went to the policeman who led the operation and who now owned many homes and farmhouses in which to entertain top cops, politicians, journalists and intellectuals, including writers: “If you read any poetry or stories coming out these days, you know what I mean when I say that you can smell the stench of liquor coming from the words they write. And underneath their sentences lies a pile of chicken and goat bones, and the skeletons of the innocent ones. If you poke the head of your broom into contemporary literature, you’ll find a hollow wall stuffed full of money—impure, dirty money.”

The author concludes the story with the sarcastic observation that there are many such walls in Delhi whose hollows hide unaccounted wealth: “And if you want to get lucky, come to Delhi right away—it’s not far at all. Forget about being a millionaire; coming to Delhi is the only way to scrape by. The other ways you read about in the papers, and see on TV, are rumours and lies, nothing more.”

New narrative style

The second story, “Mohandas”, begins with a quote from Mahatma Jyotirao Phule’s essay “Slavery”: “The most glaring tendency of the British government system of high class education has been the virtual monopoly of all higher offices under them by the Brahmins.”

“Mohandas” narrates the terrifying and pitiful story of a bright young graduate being robbed of his identity when he finds a job after a lot of waiting and is even threatened with death for claiming he is the real Mohandas. He was in the grip of terror when the narrator met him, and the man of 45 looked like a decrepit old man. His father suffered from TB, his mother had gone blind after a cataract operation at a free eye clinic, and his loyal wife shared all his troubles and tribulations. His children were studying and working, too, to earn their livelihood.

Mohandas had striven hard to get some job but found that either they were auctioned off to the highest bidder or that one needed to have the right connections. It was then that he got selected for a job in Oriental Coal Mines. He was to get the joining order in a week, but there was no letter. So he went to the office and was asked to wait for another six weeks. After one more useless visit, he gave up hope and decided to be a farmer. His toil did not yield much as the vegetable prices fell. One day after years, his friend from near his village informed him that Bisnath from Bichiya Tola had been working at Oriental Coal Mines under the name of Mohandas for the past five years earning ten thousand rupees a month! He had pasted his photographs on the diplomas and transcripts that Mohandas had left at the office and got all the documents notarised at the court. His identity card now carried Mohandas’ name. And even his father and wife were known as Mohandas’ wife and father!

Mohandas went again to the company, and even to Bisnath’s home, only to be abused and threatened by him and his friend, a police officer who had been Mohandas’ college mate. They asked him to just forget his name. Mohandas was ready to do so, but his good friends went ahead and complained to the manager, who held an inquiry only to conclude that Bisnath was the real Mohandas and that the case had no basis. Another well-wisher, the lawyer Harshvarddhan Soni, decided to file a case on Mohandas’ behalf. And the judge who heard the case, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, was an honest man who understood what had happened. But Bisnath had bribed the patwaris of the two districts concerned who gave witness against Mohandas. The judge ordered a secret judicial inquiry. They won the case, but before the rejoicing was over, the judge was transferred and soon died of a brain haemorrhage, and Mohandas’ hopes of getting his job were dashed to the ground. Bisnath, who had been arrested, became “Mohandas” in the police records as he was bailed out with the help of the ruling party. So next time it was Mohandas who got arrested and beaten up. He now just wanted to forget his name and his degree.

The story cleverly plays on names: Mohandas reminds one of Mohandas Gandhi; the name Gajanan Muktibodh and those of Mohandas’ friends Sreekant Verma and Nemi Chand Jain are real names of Hindi writers. Interwoven with Mohandas’ story is a parallel narrative of all the historic incidents that happened during those years.

The third story, “Mangosil”, is the fantastic tale of Suryakant, a boy whose head alone continues to grow. It turned him into a precautious boy who finally decided to end his life as he could no more bear his condition, especially when he compared himself to his younger brother who went to school, and did not want to give more trouble to his loving parents. In all the stories, Uday Prakash uses a kind of wry documentary style, combining incisive humour with gentle pathos, interspersed with occasional poetic passages, creating a new kind of narrative style that has been well caught by the translator.

Fine storyteller

Ajay Navaria, another fine storyteller and the author of two collections of short stories and a novel in Hindi too, shares Uday Prakash’s sense of dark humour. His Unclaimed Terrain (translated faithfully from Hindi by Laura Brueck, Navayana Publications, 2013) carries seven short stories that together reveal a new, more mature and confident humanist phase of Dalit fiction. Navaria’s dedication says: “To the characters in my stories who fight for their dreams of justice, and to the tradition that teaches us to struggle for dignity, equality and freedom.” His characters refuse to be categorised in black and white, unlike many in earlier Dalit fiction. He remarks in his endnote: “To me the process of creating literature is like building a house of love that does not have walls and doors of caste, religion, colour, race and nationality. It’s an effort to forge a passport that will make borders and differences disappear.”

His story “Scream” begins with a warning given to the protagonist by a priest in whose school he had studied: “Crime is very seductive. And revenge, a trickster.” The man came from Dantewada in Madhya Pradesh—now in Chhattisgarh. His papa did odd jobs in the village and his mother passed away when he was a little boy. Papa was constantly abused by Bajirao Patel, his landlord and the head of many temples in the area, whom he praised to his face and made fun of once he left. Patel was an exploiter and a rapist. The Father who ran the school encouraged the boy to study English, but he was mocked and punched by the rich, upper-caste boys who also once forced themselves upon him. The disgrace depressed him, and he became indifferent to studies. But he scraped through, and the Father sent him to Nagpur for higher studies.

There, too, he was looked down upon; he found no friends, and even the anthropology teacher treated him like a Negroid specimen. His scholarship was stopped as he refused to convert as he knew even that would not give him dignity, but he was grateful to the Father who had helped him so far and he liked Jesus though he hated the church. He survived by taking tuitions and after graduation moved to Bombay for a postgraduate programme. A classmate, Sharda, who danced in bars at night along with her friends Revati and Padmini—they, too, like him suppressed a scream inside as they were often treated brutally by the customers—arranged a part-time job for him as a masseur.

He liked the vibrant city where he could forget his caste. The head of the massage parlour, Suneja, also liked him as he spoke English well; his name here was Tyson. He began to send Tyson to the homes of exclusive customers. One of them, Pillai, a gay dance teacher, seduced him with money. He also introduced him to Mrs Deshmukh, a shrewd woman who had risen from poverty but was very lonely as her husband was a living corpse. She also wanted to take revenge on her husband, who until two years ago had been a womaniser. That meeting was the beginning of Tyson’s life as a gigolo. He began to realise that “labour” had many connotations in the city.

Soon, Mr Deshmukh died, and Tyson found himself living in Mrs Deshmukh’s house. Meanwhile, Revati had committed suicide, Vinayak, the Patel’s son, had died, and Tyson developed a new, emotional, relationship, with Shuchita, the wife of DSP Varun, an unwilling husband who later left for Australia. Tyson realised through all these meetings that sadness was universal and that to be poor, even if one was a Brahmin, was to be cursed. Revati too had been a Brahmin. Even under all these pressures, he continued to study, got a first division for his M.A. and cleared the preliminary civil services examination.

One night as he was sleeping with Shuchita, a masked man entered the room with a pistol and fired several times. He never knew who it was. Behind his closed eyes, he saw Baba —who had told him that a hungry soul should not eat poison—Papa and the Father. He thought of the Patel’s son who had been dumped in the jungle: “This was a fight… couldn’t be concluded… but for Vinayak’s crime… can the entire community be punished... would it be justice?... But our caste… why are we lowly? How will our people become strong? Where will we go? What should we do?” The author seems to suggest the futility of revenge and the need for other ways of empowerment.

This one example is enough to demonstrate the rich complexity that Navaria brings into his stories without sacrificing the narrative interest and the way he places his characters in a twilit, transitional zone between good and evil, and past and future, and reveals how changeable is their subjectivity, shaped as it is by the changing biographical and historical circumstances and the ideological milieu.

Unforgettable characters

The other stories in the collection, though less complex, too have their moments of fury, humour, magic and tenderness. They also have unforgettable characters such as Kalu, the sensitive boy who has to watch and even assist in the butchery of Piloo, his dear goat kid (”Sacrifice”); Ramnarayan Tiwari, the unhappy Brahmin peon who poses as an officer in his village but is ready to fix the boss’ toilet in gratitude for his promotion (“Yes Sir”); the well-dressed traveller being treated with reverence as a Thakur sahib by the owner of the tea shop but being asked to wash his glass when the owner comes to know he is a Dalit though the owner himself is a saini, a “low-caste” man (the traveller then pays for the glass and breaks it—“New Custom”); Siddharth Nirmal, a Dalit officer learning to hate the village he had so much loved and idolised after he sees the way his people are treated by the Brahmins (“Subcontinent”); Subhash Kumar Paswan, who tries to hide his identity while joining a gym in Delhi being identified as a Dalit when he uses the “Jai Bhim” greeting while talking to a friend on his mobile phone, only to find that “Rahul Upadhyay”, who runs the gym, is also actually a Valmiki who has concealed his caste identity (“Tattoo”); or Mangaldas, the Bhangi who through his determination and with the help of a teacher is saved from the sweeper’s fate and turned into a civil servant who married his landlord’s daughter (“Hello, Premchand”—so called as Premchand and B.R. Ambedkar make their magical appearance in the story).

These stories once again tell us that Dalit writing in India has really come of age.

[The editorial introduction had earlier wrongly mentioned Uday Prakash as a Dalit writer. The error is regretted.]