Harishankar Parsai brilliantly satirises traditional Indian society in his short stories. From taking digs at the bureaucratic system to patriarchal norms and religion, Parsai brings out our so-called “Hindu culture” out to the forefront for everyone to see. His short story titled Inspector Matadeen on the Moon manages to display the criminal system in India by creating Inspector Matadeen, the ‘ideal’ policeman who ensures justice no matter what. Matadeen displays the “glorious traditions of the Indian Police” and his aspirations of a true “Ram Rajya”. His pursuits of the former land him on the Moon where he pays a visit to train their lackadaisical police force. Prior to leaving, he tells a junior officer in the police station that should the need arise, his friend should send his “bed and house” to his place. In certain strata of the society, this term was used to refer to the wife – reducing her ultimately to a docile, domesticated being whose role in life was to manage the ‘home’ and be on the ‘bed’ for pleasure whenever the man wanted.
Matadeen is the ideal policeman because he challans whenever he wants and also makes sure that drivers honk because that is the ‘rule’ and has his mantra that the police “should be able to punish a criminal as soon as they catch him” and not be bogged down by courts. Although Parsai makes fun of how police systems work in the country, he is also asserting that courts still hold the upper hand and have survived from being manipulated by the state. “But sad to say, we are yet to achieve that in our Ram Rajya” continues Matadeen. He finds the lack of a Hanuman temple in the police stations on the Moon deeply disturbing and instructs them to put up shrines without delay. He also reduces the salaries of all the policemen in order to bring them out of their lazy attitude and make them catch some criminals. Policemen in this country are underpaid which, in a way, forces them to look for alternate means of income. This mostly ends up in them engaging in bribery from truck drivers to real estate agents and diplomats. Parsai comments on one of the most relevant aspects of how our police system works when Matadeen says that “What is important is who can be proven guilty or, better still, who should be proven guilty?” In a country where the police detain people illegally and frame them for crimes every single day, these lines ring true. It has become commonplace for the police to resort to custodial torture in order to extract information and to detain people against the writs which have been enshrined in the Constitution. Matadeen states on what basis a person should be detained, “One, has the man been a nuisance to the police, and two, will his conviction please the men at the top?” The police system works hand in hand with bureaucratic “men at the top”, especially when it is an issue involving those men or when it garners enough attention. At that time, it becomes crucial for them to keep their fundamental moral duty at bay and listen to what the top dogs say. If needed, eyewitnesses in the form of “petty thieves, gamblers, goondas, bootleggers” also appear after they have been blackmailed and conditioned appropriately. “That one sentence – those at the top want it so – has always come to the rescue of our government in the last twenty-five years,” says Matadeen. If this isn’t relevant in today’s India, I don’t know what is.
Matadeen’s story was written in the 1960s but since then, nothing much has changed. The justice system is pretty much the same and custodial torture is glorified in Bollywood movies like Singham. Somehow, it seems really cool to see Ajay Devgn beating the living daylight out of someone. The crowd shouts and whistles at this form of instant justice.
In another story titled A Ten Day Fast, Parsai looks at social problems and superstitions. The premise is set behind a man who goes on a fast because he is unable to marry a married woman, who he apparently likes. Why does he fast? Because his “you can fast for anything these days” His friend encourages him to follow this path because “today all major demands are gained only through threats of fasts and self-immolation” Bannu decides to sit down for a fast-unto-death after consulting with Baba Sankidas, a veteran sadhu who has forced the government to pass laws just by fasting. When great sadhus and babas can fast, why should the common folk stay behind? Issues like death can be managed as long as one keeps an “eye on their medical chart, the other on the mediator” The mediator enters the scene after five days of fasting in order to create deals with people in authority. Parsai goes on to highlight several other issues as well. The most prominent one being the mindless discrimination that is directed towards women in Indian society. Radhika Prasad is the woman Bannu has his eyes on. When she comes to meet Bannu and shows her anger at his ridiculous move, Baba Sankidas tells her to go away and warns that “In a day or two, once the public opinion is fully formed, some people may not allow for your nasty comments” Naturally, people behave like sheep and thanks to the excellent brainwashing by Sankidev and his team, chants of “Radhika Prasad is a sinner” echo everywhere. Bannu is regarded as a hero after stories of his past life where he was a sadhu married to Radhika Prasad emerge from a certain Swami Rasanand. When Sankidev sees that the issue isn’t anywhere near to be solved, he incited communal sparks by playing the caste card. This is so mind-numbingly relevant in our times where Brahmanical forces are subjugating Dalit and Adivasi communities in a bid to achieve the dream of ‘Ram Rajya’. Radhika Prasad who is a Kayastha is targeted by four local goondas who throw stones into their homes and then do the same to Banni’s Brahmin community. The result? Section 144 gets imposed and everything comes to a standstill. After several days of deadlock and bus burnings, a resolution is finally formed and although Banni is unable to marry Radhika Prasad, he gets a ticket to contest in the upcoming elections. “In a democracy, public opinion has to be respected. This issue involved the sentiments of millions of people. It’s good that it was resolved peacefully, otherwise, violent revolution could have taken place” is the statement said by Sankidev in the end.
Any reader can point out the satirical attacks that Parsai makes in the garb of carefully crafted humour and a fun-filled storyline. Again, this story first appeared in 1966 and in 2018, we have blind followers of babas like Ram Rahim Singh. Parsai’s stories are written testaments that we, as a society and as a people haven’t moved forward. Sure we have Aadhar cards and multi-billion dollar scams now but deep in our hearts, we still sway like puppets in the threads of religion, superstition, patriarchal notions and conservatism. Parsai’s stories are excellently written and show Indian society in its true colours and it is inadvisable to dismiss his contribution, especially in present times.