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Nobody’s cheerleader

On Harishankar Parsai’s birth anniversary, it is time to remember his contribution in making satire a distinct literary genre

August 21, 2015 09:16 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 04:37 pm IST

Harishankar Parsai

Harishankar Parsai

Today is the 91st birth anniversary of Harishankar Parsai, indisputably the greatest satirist of the Hindi language. He was born on August 22, 1924, in village Jamani in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. By the time he died on August 10, 1995, he had revolutionised the art of satire writing in Hindi.

Just as Kumar Gandharva raised bhajan singing to the level of an independent musical form, so did Parsai who firmly established satire as a respectable and distinctive literary genre that had nothing to do with light comedy or mindless humour as it used to be traditionally understood. It speaks volumes about his genius that even after two decades of his death, he remains unsurpassed.

What made Harishankar Parsai and his satire so special? In one word the answer is worldview. Parsai identified with the deprived and downtrodden because of his progressive worldview and penetrating understanding of social, political and historical processes. His critical insights into social and political situations and personal psyche enabled him to bring out their inherent irony and his literary talent made it possible for him to pen devastatingly effective satirical writings. With surgical precision, he exposed the hypocrisy, double standards and corruption of the country’s social and political life. His satire did not titillate but brought the reader face-to-face with reality without bothering how unsavoury or ugly it was. He was a realist to the core who took upon himself the responsibility of showing the mirror to his fellow countrymen. Parsai had not even passed his matriculation examination when he lost his mother. His father too contracted an incurable disease. Thus, early in his life Parsai had to take care of his two brothers and two sisters without much financial support to fall back upon. Little wonder that he opted to remain a bachelor.

Against all odds, he did M.A. (Hindi) from the Nagpur University and also got a diploma in teaching. However, he took a courageous decision in 1957 to give up his job and lead his life as an independent writer who survived on his writings. He wrote regular columns in various newspapers and magazines. One of them was a daily column in Raipur’s Hindi daily “Deshbandhu” and it ran for more than 10 years. Its format was also unique. Readers sent their questions and Parsai gave his answers. Appropriately titled as “Poochho Parsai Se” (Ask Parsai), it was later compiled into a book of the same name and published by Rajkamal Prakashan. It’s a nearly 750-page volume that shows his wit, range and depth of knowledge and heightened social consciousness.

Rajkamal Prakashan has published his other books too and they include “Vikalang Shraddha Ka Daur” (Age of the Handicapped Devotion), “Nithalle Ki Diary” (Diary of a Jobless Man), “Jaane Pahchane Log” (Familiar People), “Vaishnava Ki Phislan” (Slipping of a Vaishnava), “Awara Bheed Ke Khatare” (Dangers of a Lumpen Crowd). He also wrote short stories and novels besides satirical essays and many of them have been published by Vani Prakashan. His short story “Bholaram Ka Jeev” (The Soul of Bholaram) was successfully turned into a play and was widely staged all over the country. His language and style were such that the reader felt as if he or she was being directly addressed by the writer. In the absence of this communicability and directness, his satire could not have enjoyed the kind of unprecedented popularity it had.

Even in the face of serious financial difficulties, Harishankar Parsai founded the journal “Vasudha” that soon made considerable impact on the Hindi literary scene and acquired the reputation of being a fearless, Left-wing publication. Although CPI had supported the Emergency in 1975, Parsai had his own views about the anti-Indira Gandhi movements that preceded it, the experiences of the Emergency, and the events that took place after the Morarji Desai government came to power at the Centre. His critical insight saw through the charade of politicians of all hues. It was the writings of 1974-79, published as “Vikalang Shraddha Ka Daur” that fetched him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1982. In a preface to one of his books, Parsai made the critical, rather adversarial, role of satire clear, “Satire has now been recognised as a Kshatriya and elevated from the status of a Shudra. It is worth pondering that it has not become a Brahmin, because Brahmins do Kirtan.” Parsai was nobody’s cheerleader. He never sang bhajans in praise of any deity.

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