AfsanaBadosh ep 3: Listen to Mannu Bhandari's 'Alagaav' | Presented by Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam
AfsanaBadosh, presented by Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam, celebrates the spirit of storytelling through narrations of the greatest Hindi and Urdu stories. This is Episode 3 — Mannu Bhandari's 'Alagaav', as performed by Shashwita Sharma.
Editorial support, execution and text by Neerja Deodhar | Art by Pinaki De | Episode edited by Aneesh Arora and Nikita Rana
afsana (story, legend) | khanabadosh (vagabond, gypsy)
AfsanaBadosh is the coming-together of stories and a vagabond perspective to traversing the world of fiction. It is embodied by the sort of person whose head is always in a book, or who looks for stories in the places they visit and people they meet.
But it is not that cliche of an old man with a long, white beard who trades in legend and cannot rest in one place. AfsanaBadosh is us: ordinary individuals who have experienced the beauty of storytelling in different contexts — as a way to better know the world, to find a sense of solace, and to enrich and entertain. It speaks to an ability to listen to and contend with ideas different from our own; to learn from the past and build a better future.
AfsanaBadosh is Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam's celebration of the spirit of storytelling through narrations of fiction written by some of Hindi and Urdu's greatest writers. These include Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hassan Manto, Mannu Bhandari, Krishan Chander and Premchand.
The stories that are part of this project have been chosen for their continuing social resonance, decades after they were published. The foundation of each story is a sense of truth, whether real or imagined.
Episode 3 — Mannu Bhandari's 'Alagaav', performed by Shashwita Sharma. Listen to more episodes here.
MANNU BHANDARI was one of the pioneering voices of the Nayi Kahaani movement, which featured writers such as Bhisham Sahni, Kamleshwar, and Nirmal Verma. Responding to a new India that was rapidly industrialising and urbanising, this literary movement focused on the work and personal lives of the urban middle class. Bhandari's work embodied these values — of note are her female characters, who were praised for being fully-formed individuals with independent hearts and minds.
Her first novel Ek Inch Muskaan, co-authored with her husband, was centered on a romance between one man and two women. This was followed by Main Haar Gayi and Aap Ka Bunty; the latter told the story of the breakdown of a marriage — and ultimate divorce — through the eyes of a child.
The protagonist of Yahi Sach Hai was a woman choosing between two loves, while Mahabhoj, which earned Bhandari much acclaim, shed light on bureaucratic corruption.
She was also the writer of screenplays such as Rajnigandha (based on one of her own stories) and Jeena Yahaan. The daughter of a freedom fighter and social reformer, she participated in the freedom struggle in the 1940s.
She has been the recipient of awards from the Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan, Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Akademi, and Bhartiya Bhasha Parishad, among other institutions.
In 'ALAGAAV', Bhandari turns her gaze towards the vicious cycle of apathy and lack of accountability in Indian society and its justice system. The village she situates the story in could be any village in the country, where the police is feared, where the status quo is never questioned, and where one person's outrage is another person's gossip or disdain.
Bisesar, a man in his late 20s, is described as 'sar-phira' and meddlesome; his crime is that he rouses and encourages labourers and residents in the Harijan tola, or backward caste settlement, to demand better wages from their employers and fairer interest rates on loans. He was also an avid teacher in the village, who especially enjoyed spending time teaching underprivileged children. He was well-educated for his social milieu.
One day, Bisesar's corpse is found on a small bridge, but the circumstances aren't mysterious to anyone who understands how power works in the village.
What emerges most starkly through 'Alagaav' is the lack of accountability on all fronts. Bisesar's death was preceded by an incident where three houses in the Harijan tola were set ablaze. No investigation was launched, and no suspects were rounded up.
When the news of Bisesar's death reached the city, the wheels of the political class and the media were set in motion.
The thanedar and two police constables of the village were suspended for their negligence in this case — reminiscent of how optics and scapegoating play out in cases like the Hathras gang rape.
The politicians, just like their counterparts in real life, make promises about a 'fair' investigation which will be conducted by a top police officer. They visit Bisesar's home and give assurances to his father, but not without the presence of a dozen cameras flashing their lights.
Bhandari makes a sharp comment about the media reportage of such cases, where journalists present scenes from a village as poverty porn or a spectacle. The reporters in this story wonder about whether they can capture smoke emanating from the burnt houses, or worse, the corpse itself. The consumers of news are as flippant as its creators: their outrage lasts only a few seconds before they turn the page and move on to the next news item.
Bhandari's use of the language itself makes the story memorable. She compares the post-mortem of the corpse to the way Bisesar's case was pulled apart and inspected by the police. She says that the clouds of dust roused by the wheels of city vehicles continued to float in the air for many days — the impact of attention from urban authorities in a rural town.
The author establishes that it is neither individual nor circumstance that is 'big' or 'sensational' in the world of news; it is a result of opportunity that someone or something makes a headline. In the backdrop of this story, it is the midterm elections.
Bhandari spares no one in her social critique: Of the police, she depicts both an eagerness to prostate before power, and a cruel outlook towards the public. One angry look from the thanedar can prevent a witness from divulging an important detail during an investigation. Bisesar's father had no clue about why his son was thrown into prison a few years ago. And though he was able to heal the wounds his son suffered as a result of custodial torture, he had not been able to soothe the scars to his mind.
A female Superintendent [the SP is male in the original text] takes over the case, as part of the politician's promise, but even her intervention is limited to what is deemed 'necessary'.
The villagers themselves are unmoved by the whole case, though they are aware of who is responsible for Bisesar's death. It is partly their apathy and partly their inability to do anything on account of being powerless that makes them the silent majority.
As for the academics who are conducting research in the village, they have been given strict instructions to not get involved in the goings-on of the area. Their 'objective', cold approach to work means that though they may sympathise with Bisesar and be aware of how caste plays out in the village, they do not act.
Ultimately, there is no one to fight for the man who championed other's causes. The thousands of Bisesars who live across the country are India's real human rights defenders. They work tirelessly and selflessly for those who don't have a voice. It is no wonder then that they are viewed as a threat, that their spirits are broken, and their lives are reduced to statistics, either by ensuring they languish in jail, or in more unfortunate circumstances.
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