Friday, May 25, 2012



Every evening after dinner
When I go out for a walk
I seldom fail to talk
To the chowkidar, and ask:
‘How’s life?’
And every time I hear him tell:
‘Sir, all’s well.’

And then as I move out for a stroll
I roll my tongue over his words.
With his thin stunted and worn out body
His sickly wife and four scrawny kids
On thirty rupees a day
What do these words convey?

My over-stuffed pouch begins to gurgle
With wind, and I long to tell him
Of the debates I often have with my comrades:
How his father and grandfather were victims
Of colonialism, of imperialist conspiracies
How he himself has been undone
By the aborted socialist revolutions.
But now, all these spurious prescriptions
Having been consigned to the garbage heap
Of history, his children have simply to wait
For the sweet nectar of life to filtrate
From the seventh heaven
Of liberalization.

These amazing truths to him I yearn to tell
But perhaps he already knows
That’s why every time I ask: ‘How’s life?’
He says: ‘Sir, all’s well.’

As will be obvious from a reading, this poem was written many years before the arrival of the now famous lyric, All Izz Well, from the Hindi film 3 Idiots. Rancho, the hero of the film, tells us that he learnt  this expression from the chowkidar in his locality. This coincidence, that the same words are spoken by a chowkidar in the film and my poem separated in time and place, seemed interesting to me. This made me bring this poem  of mine out  on my blog,  and also delve a little bit into the history of this expression.

To me the expression immediately brings up the memory of Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well (1601). From the Internet one would find out that the expression is not original to Shakespeare and he seemed to have borrowed it from John Heywood (16th century English playwright, poet and collector of proverbs) who used it in 1546 in a play, and this expression was already in use as a proverb in the English language.

However the proverb All’s Well That Ends Well  has a very different connotation and meaning  from its clipped version All’s Well, whose Hindi versions, Sab thik hai/sab kuchch thik thak hai, people in the Hindi-speaking world  are familiar with. 

The proverb in itself and also in Shakespeare’s play implies that ‘a risky enterprise is justified so long as it turns out well in the end’. But, of course, this is being wise after the enterprise has ended happily. It could well have ended in a disaster, in which case we would need some other proverb, something like: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

After Shakespeare,  the English Victorian poet Robert Browning came to my  mind for I thought he had used the clipped version of the  expression, but when I checked  I found that he had indeed used it but with a slight change. The following lines from Robert Browning’s dramatic lyric Pippa Passes (1841)  are very famous indeed:
Pippa’s Song
The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven—
All's right with the world!

Browning has replaced ‘well’ with ‘right’.

These lines, expressing a mood of facile optimism (portraying a peaceful world over-seen  by a benign God), might have set the tone for so many subsequent uses of the expression All’s Well.  I can’t think of any but one example, among many, I can pick up from the Internet is a Christmas EP disc  All Is Well  (2006) by a famous American singer Clay Aiken (an American Idol icon, one can listen him on YouTube)  which contains four songs  all expressing the conventional Christian idea of redemption (regaining the paradise that was  lost by Adam and Eve through the sin of disobedience) through the sacrifice of Jesus. The four songs in the Aiken EP sing of the birth of Jesus and  the promise of redemption, Isaiah’s  prophecy in the Old Testament about Emmanuel’s arrival, the arrival of Santa with his Christmas gifts,  a hope for an end to all strife and wars, and a prayer for peace in the world. The essence of the message is that ‘all is well’ because of the coming of Jesus, of his sacrifice and compassion. It is an assertion of faith in the sacrifice of Jesus. Here are the opening lines of the song titled: All Is Well:

All is well all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love's light
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Let there be peace on earth
Christ is come go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

What about the lyric in 3 idiots All Izz Well was the watchword that Rancho’s chowkidar used  to make the residents feel that everything was fine and they could sleep peacefully without any fears. The truth was that the locality was hit by thefts, giving the lie to the chowkidar’s  assurance. The watchword gave the residents a false sense of security and resulted in a loss of faith in the chowkidar. The chowkidar, unlike Jesus, turned out to be a false messiah. However, in the film the expression All Izz Well becomes a magic mantra which, when chanted or sung, rescues one out of any crisis.

The message in all this is perhaps that never mind the difficulties in life, everything works out well in the end if one has faith in oneself and God, or something like this. What a soul comforting thought!

In my poem, the focus is on the Chowkidar’s own life. And the expression takes on an altogether different meaning. The Chowkidar’s reply, ‘Sir, all’s well’ to the speaker’s question is evasive, to say the least. He is able to see the hypocrisy behind the speaker’s superficial interest in his well-being, So he hides his own misery behind what has become a stock expression. 

It would be interesting to see the viewers' reactions to my poem and also  suggest other ramifications of the expression All’s Well.