Book Review: Soliloquy of a small-town uncivil servant

Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant by K.K. Srivastava. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2019, 196 pp. Rs. 295

Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant
Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant

By Dr RJ Das

It’s a fact universally well acknowledged that science and technology have greatly impacted all aspects of human life and of course, are much needed for material progress. Computers, mobile networks, digitalization, and social media can boastfully claim to have transformed the world and closely connected man with others. Nevertheless, the other side is dismal.

These developments have also adversely affected the human psyche. It is incredible how far a conscientious man feels disconnected from the world around him; isolated, and even away from himself. The contemporary man has been reduced to a service robot as the digital world has given much power to the State. Unfortunately, man today stands on the edge of a precipice. He is experiencing alienation from his past, from his environment, from his community, and above all, from his own self.

He is thus a victim of existential despair in the prevailing machine-made culture in which advantages of technology are being misused for consumerism and hardly used for the enhancement of literature and art. It is in this context that K.K. Srivastava’s recent book Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant becomes relevant, purposeful and worth reading.

With the remarkable aplomb of a craftsman, Srivastava tells us a gripping story of his own life and experiences that interest the reader right from the very first to the last word. In his book, he has creditably attempted to retrieve his past. While walking down his memory lane he makes a search for his roots and identity discovers himself in different stages of life; his birth, childhood days, schooling, college and university education in a small, underdeveloped town of Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The book skilfully captures the unhealthy, criminal and the so-called academic atmosphere of his home town where he was born, bred, schooled and received his Master’s degree in Economics in 1980 from a ‘nondescript university’. Being a university town it couldn’t retain the original status of the only bookstall of some value in Golghar; instead ‘it had been reduced to a most inconspicuous existence’.

The title Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant may be misleading to many who might mistake the author (first-person narrator) for an impolite or even uncivilized person. The fact is otherwise; the word ‘uncivil’ takes the reader to Srivastava’s past, remote past when he was not a civil servant. At present, Srivastava is Director-General in the office of Comptroller and Auditor General of India, New Delhi. Hence the recently-published book is ironically titled.

Centred around his family, this ‘semi-autobiographical’ account, as the author observes in his ironic probing of the lower-middle-class Indian life in a small town, sheds enough light on his soul searching explorations, his self-assertion, devotion to study, and concerted efforts to become a civil servant. Not only this, but it is also evident from this book that Srivastava was ruthlessly driven by his creative urge, and thus remained isolated by it, from the most ordinary material sources of human happiness. His life has been an incessant struggle against poverty, discouragement and existential despair.

The author acknowledges ‘two big influences’ in his life: his uncle and Prof Yadav. He pays his tributes to the memory of his bachelor uncle who had adopted him and exercised his influence in shaping his career.

Surely he would have been much delighted to see his Kuldeep (writer’s first name — in Hindi, Kul means family and deep emits bright light) now as the shining star of his family. To Srivastava, his uncle was an enigma. It was difficult to assess if ‘in his living, there was no life — he did not exist, he lived without’, or as Prof. Yadav commented, ‘your uncle existed but did not live’. Such existential concerns tormented the writer; he himself faces similar moral dilemmas in his life.

Of particular interest is Srivastava’s use of McClure’s ‘cave’ symbol in chapter 8 Within the Cave or the Cave Within to highlight the growing social inequality — a wide gap between the elite class and the plebeians.

Since the author belongs to the class of plebeians and has developed a literary taste, he keeps the company of books and keeps a considerable distance from the elitist model of society.

From Within the Cave Srivastava moves on to the ‘Cave’ within individuals; ‘unseen talents’ lying dormant are awakened into activity to add ‘dignity to their wisdom’ by recalling their past. Interestingly, Srivastava observes, “They know the art of defacing clean faces to hide their unclean ones.”

He has also three volumes of poetry to his credit: Ineluctable Stillness (2005); An Armless Hand Writes (2008, 2012) and Shadows of the Real (2012). His books are widely read, and he himself is a widely-read person which is clearly evident from his scholarly references to great writers.

It is evident from Srivastava’s creative writings that he, like many other globally-acclaimed Indian English writers, have firm roots in their own culture, his feet solidly planted on his native soil. His Soliloquy, elegantly-produced, is a welcome addition to the corpus of autobiographical literature and makes it a significant contribution to Indian writing in English.

Thus the present book is a literary document of Srivastava’s existential journey of a life that begins with his loss of memory that he had to retrieve afresh (an interesting device indeed) to talk to himself, and concludes with the discovery of personal values to enjoy ‘greater isolation which is enlightened freedom — the freedom which illuminates’ his inner world.

(The Author is noted English Litterateur. Views expressed are personal)

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