Thursday, October 25, 2012

Prem Chand's story "Kafan" in translation

Here is my translation of Prem Chand's short story 'Kafan', followed by my comments on the story.

                                                        The Shroud

The father and son duo were sitting beside a died-down fire in front of their hut. Inside, the son’s young wife, Budhiya, was turning and twisting in the agonies of child-birth. Every now and then her heart-rending cries brought the hearts of the duo to their mouths. It was a winter night. Silence reigned all around and the village was submerged in darkness.

Ghisu said, ‘It looks she’s dying. We have been running around the whole day. Just go and see.’ 

Madho was irritated. ‘If she’s to die, why’s she lingering? What’s the point in seeing?’ 

‘You’re so heartless! You spent a whole year in enjoyment with her. And now this disregard?’

‘Because I can’t watch her flailing her arms and legs.’

The duo belonged to a family of chamars, and both notorious in the village. Ghisu rested for three days after working for one. And Madho was such a shirker that he worked for half an hour and smoked his chillum for one. That’s why no one hired them. As long as there was a handful of grain at home they were determined not to work. When they went empty stomach for a day or two, Ghisu would climb a tree to cut some wood, and Madho would go and sell it in the market. And as long as this money lasted they hung around here and there aimlessly. There was no dearth of work in the village. Being a village of farmers there was plenty for an honest worker. But people engaged this duo only when they were under compulsion to pay two persons for the labour of one. Had the duo been sadhus they wouldn’t have needed to train themselves for self-control and contentment; for these virtues came naturally to them. Their life was so extraordinary. They had no possessions except for a few earthen pots and pans. Hiding their nakedness in rags they lived on. Free from all the human cares. Head and ears in debt! They were abused, they were thrashed, yet they took nothing to heart. They were so down and out that people lent them something out of pity without any hope of recovery. They would pick peas and potatoes from someone’s field, when these were in season, roast them and eat; or uproot a few sugar cane stalks and suck them at night.  Ghisu had lived out sixty years of his life in this sky-like freedom, and Madho, like a good son, was following in his footsteps, or rather outshining his father. Even now both of them were sitting in front of the fire and roasting potatoes picked from someone’s field. Ghisu’s wife had died long ago, and Madho had married last year. Ever since she had taken over, Madho’s wife had laid the foundations of an orderly life in this household. By grinding flour for someone or cutting grass she would assemble a few rupees and feed these two shameless creatures. And this made them still more lazy and easy-going. In fact they became so demanding they would ask for double wages without any sense of shame if someone wanted to employ them. And now the same woman was dying of birth travails, and they were perhaps waiting for her to die so that they could sleep peacefully.

Ghisu said, as he picked up a potato and began to peel it, ‘Go and see. She must be possessed by a chudel, what else? The exorcist would demand a rupee.’

Madho was apprehensive that Ghisu would clean up a big portion of the potatos at his back if he went inside the hut.

‘I’m afraid of going in,’ he said.

‘Afraid of what? I’m here with you.’

‘Why don’t you go in and see?’

‘When my woman died, I didn’t move from her side for three days. And won’t she feel embarrassed? I‘ve never ever looked at her face. How can I look at her naked body? She won’t even be aware of herself. And if she saw me she would freeze with shame.’  

‘I wonder what we shall do if she gives birth to a baby. We have nothing at home, neither dry ginger, nor gur, nor oil, nor anything else.’

‘God will give us everything. Those who won’t give us a penny now will call us and give us all we need. Nine sons were born to my wife. We had nothing, yet God helped.’

It was not surprising that this kind of mindset should take root in a society where those who toiled day and night were not much better than these two, and where those who knew how to exploit the peasants were so well-off. In fact we would say Ghisu was the more astute, for instead of joining the naïve and witless peasants he had joined the gang of shady characters. He did not have the capability to follow the tricks of their trade; so where as the other members of the gang had become leaders of the village community, the whole village raised accusing fingers at him. Even then he felt that, for all his impoverishment, he had the satisfaction that he did not have to plod like the peasants, and no one was able to exploit his helplessness and naivety.

The duo continued to eat the burning hot potatoes. They hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday; so they didn’t have the patience to wait for the potatoes to cool down. As a result they burnt their tongues. The peeled potatoes did not feel hot to the touch, but when the duo swallowed them after biting them with their teeth they burnt their tongue, palate, throat and food pipe, and the only remedy was to push the burning coals down into the stomach where there were many things to cool them.  But these effort brought tears in their eyes.

Now at this very moment Ghisu remembered the marriage feast he had attended at the Thakur’s twenty years ago. The feeling of satiation he had experienced on that occasion was unforgettable and its memories were still alive in his mind. He said, ‘I can’t forget that feast. Since then I have never eaten to my fill like that. The bride’s people served puris to everyone. Everyone. Big and small, all ate the puris, fried in pure ghee! Chutney, raita, three types of vegetables, one curry, sweets, and what else! I just can’t describe how I enjoyed that feast. There was no restriction. Ask for anything and any amount, and you got it. People ate so much, so much, that they could not drink any water. And those who were serving, they kept on filling your leaf-plates with sizzling hot, round and fragrant kachauris. You tell them you don’t want, try to stop them from serving by spreading your hands over the leaf-plate, but they go on and on. And after everyone had finished and washed their mouths there was the paan-ilaichi. But I was in no state to eat one. I could hardly stand on my feet. I walked out and went to sleep in my blanket. The Thakur was so generous!’ 

Madho tasted these dishes in his imagination, and said, ‘No one gives such a feast now-a-days.’ 

‘Oh, no. Those were different times. Now everyone has become thrifty. Don’t spend on marriages. Don’t spend on death. Ask them where they would stack the wealth snatched from the poor. There’s no stopping there, but they won’t spend.’

‘You – you must have eaten at least twenty puris?’

‘More than twenty!’

‘I would have eaten fifty!’

‘I too must have eaten fifty. I was so strong. You’re not half my size.’

Having finished eating potatoes both of them drank water. Then wrapping their dhotis around themselves they lay down beside the fire folding their legs into their stomachs, as if two pythons lay coiled there.


When Madho went into the hut in the morning he found his woman dead. Flies were buzzing over her mouth. Her stony eyeballs were pointing upwards. The whole body was covered in dust. And the baby in her womb was dead.

Madho ran out of the hut. Then both of them started howling and beating their breasts. The neighbours heard the wailing and came running and, true to the tradition, began to commiserate with these unfortunate ones.

But there was no time for grieving and wailing. They had to worry about the shroud and wood for cremation. The house was as bereft of money as a kite’s nest is of meat. The duo, weeping and wailing, went to see the village landlord. The landlord hated them, and had often thrashed them with his own hands, for stealing, for not honouring their commitments. He said, ‘What happened, Ghisua, why’re you crying? You’re not seen these days. It seems you don’t want to live in this village.’

Ghisu put his head down on the ground and, with tears in his eyes, said, ‘I’m in great trouble. Madho’s wife passed away last night. She spent the whole night writhing in pain, sarkar. We sat beside her, did all we could to save her, but she tricked us. Now we don’t have anyone to feed us, sarkar. We’re ruined. Our home is wrecked. I’m your slave. There’s no one except you who can help to perform her last rites. Whatever we had we have spent on her treatment. Your kindness alone can help us take her on her last journey. I can’t knock at any other door.’

The landlord was a generous man but helping Ghisu was like dying a black blanket. For a moment he thought of driving him out. The fellow never comes when called, and now when he is in difficulty the bastard is cringing for help. However, this was not the time to show anger and punish him. Unwillingly, he took out and threw two rupees at him. But he uttered no word of sympathy. He didn’t even look at him, as if he was getting rid of a load on his head.

After the landlord had given two rupees, the shopkeepers and moneylenders dared not refuse help. Ghisu knew how to play up the landlord’s name in the village. Someone gave two annas, another four, and in one hour Ghisu had collected the ample amount of five rupees. Some one helped with grain, others with wood. In the afternoon Ghisu and Madho started for the market to buy a shroud. And people began to cut the bamboos to the proper size required for the bier.
The kind-hearted women of the village came, looked at the dead body, shed a few tears on the hapless woman and went away.  

When they reached the market, Ghisu said, ‘We’ve now enough for wood to cremate her. Isn’t it Madho?’

Madho said, ‘Yes, we’ve enough wood, now we need the shroud.’

‘All right, let’s buy a shroud, a cheap one.’

‘It’ll be night when the body is carried. Who would look at the shroud then?’

‘What a strange custom! Someone who had only rags to wear all her life should need a brand new shroud.’

‘And the shroud will be burnt with the body.’

‘What else? If we had got these five rupees before her death we would have used them on her treatment.’

Both were trying to delve into each other’s mind. They kept on roaming in the market, now going to this cloth-seller, then another. They inspected many types of cloth, now cotton, now silken, but didn’t like any. By this time it was evening, and the two, with what godly inspiration no one knows, landed in front of a liquor shop. And as if out of some predetermination, they went in. They stood there for some time, unable to decide. Then Ghisu went to the counter and bought a bottle. Then came something spicy, and fried fish. The duo sat down in the verandah to drink peacefully.

After downing a number of cupfuls quickly both of them reached a high.

Ghisu said, ‘What use would it have been to put a shroud round her? It would have burnt. Nothing gone with the daughter-in- law.’

Madho looked at the sky and said, as if invoking the gods as witnesses to his innocence, ‘This is no more than a custom, or why should people give thousands of rupees to the brahmins. Who knows whether it reaches there in the other world?’ 

‘The rich have money to waste. What do we have?’

‘But how shall we convince the people. Won’t they ask? Where’s the shroud?’

Ghisu laughed, ‘We‘ll say, the money slipped off our side pockets. We searched but couldn’t find. No one will believe us, but they’ll still give us money.’

Madho also laughed at their unexpected stroke of good luck. He said, ‘She was so good, poor thing. Even on her death she has fed us so well.’

 They had drunk more than half the bottle. Ghisu ordered two seers of puris, Chutney, pickles, liver meat. The shop stood in front of the liquor shop. Madho went quickly and brought the eatables dished up on leaf-plates. It all cost a rupee and half. Only a few coins were now left with them.

The duo were enjoying eating puris with royal nonchalance, as if a lion were feasting on his kill. They feared nothing. They were answerable to none, nor were they worried about public shame. They had conquered all such feelings long ago.

Ghisu spoke like a philosopher, ‘We are so happy. Won’t she be rewarded?’

Madho agreed, bowing his head in reverence, ‘Surely, surely. God, you are omniscient. Take her to heaven. She has our blessings. We’ve never before enjoyed a feast like this.’

The next moment Madho was troubled by a doubt. ‘Why, dada, we too would go up there one day?’

Ghisu did not respond to this childish. He didn’t want to spoil the pleasure of the moment by thinking of the other world.

‘What shall we say if there she questions us for not having provided a shroud for her?’

‘Your pate!’

‘But she will surely ask.’

‘How do you know she won’t get a shroud? Do you think I’m such an ass? Have I wasted sixty years of my life mowing grass? She will get a shroud, and a good one.’

Madho was not convinced. He said, ‘Who will provide it? You have splurged all the money. She’ll question me. It was I who had daubed her hair with vermillion.’

Ghisu became angry. He said, ‘I say she will get a shroud. Why don’t you believe me?’

“Who’ll give? Why don’t you tell me?’

 ‘The same people who have given now. Only, this time they won’t hand over the money to us.’

As darkness became thicker, the stars became brighter, and the liquor shop became livelier. Someone sang, another bragged, another embraced his companion, and yet another put the cup to his friend’s lips.

The atmosphere was ecstatic, the air inebriated. Many became drunk just on a mouthful. More than the liquor it was the atmosphere that gave them the kick. The miseries of life had driven them here, and for some time they forgot whether they were alive or dead. Or neither alive nor dead..

And both fateher and son were still sipping and savouring their drink. All eyes were fixed on them. How fortunate they were! They had a full bottle between them.

After they had had their fill, Madho picked up the uneaten puris and handed them over to a beggar who had been staring at them with hungry eyes. And both of them experienced, for the first time in their lives, the pride, the contentment and pure joy of giving!

Ghisu said, ‘Take it, enjoy and give your blessings. The one to whom this belonged is dead, but your blessings will surely reach her. Bless with every pore on your body. It was hard-earned money.’

Madho looked at the sky once again and said, ‘Dada, she’ll go to Baikunth. She will be the queen of Baikunth.’

Ghisu stood up and swimming on the waves of ecstasy he said, ‘Yes, son, she’ll go to Baiikunth. She didn’t hurt, or oppress anyone. And with her death she fulfilled a great wish of ours. If not she, who else? Do you think these fat and rich, who rob the poor with both their hands and then bathe in the Ganga to wash off their sins  and offer water  at the temples, will go there?’

The mood of reverence suddenly changed, for drunkenness is always shifting its ground. Now pain and disappointment overpowered them.

Madho said, ‘But, dada, the poor thing suffered a lot. See how much she endured before dying!’
He put his hands on his eyes and began to cry loudly.

Ghisu tried to console him, ‘Why do you cry, son? Be happy, she is now liberated from this delusive existence, Freed from this misery. She was very fortunate.  She broke the bonds of relationships so early.’

And both of them stood up and started singing. ‘O temptress, why do you entice with your eyes, O temptress.’     
The drinkers were staring at them and these two were singing heartily. Then they began to dance. They jumped. They leaped. They fell. They strutted. They posed displaying many emotions. They acted. At last full with drunkenness they collapsed to the ground. 

                                                                                         ---                                                                                                           (Urdu, Jamia, September 1935)

 My Comments

Kafan (1935), is Premchand’s last short story, and one of his best. Without going into the issue of textual discrepancies between the Urdu and Hindi versions of his stories and some ‘flaws’ arising out of his ‘carelessness’ in the assemblage of realistic detail, I have translated the story by ‘harmonizing’ (an expression used by Frances W. Pritchett, see llink: the original Urdu version and the ‘carefully’ edited Hindi version (by Dr Kamal Kishor Goenka) of the story, and, of course, with inputs from Pritchett’s own translation. The changes in my version are few, almost imperceptible. The most visible change is in the use of one name, that of the son. In the Urdu version Prem Chand through out calls him Madho, but in the Hindi version he is called Madhav. Whether this was done by Prem Chand himself or by the first translator with his consent, I don’t know. Pritchett also uses Madhav. This surprises me. The name Mahav was then typically urban, or confined mostly to literate and upper class families, and I can’t imagine illiterate Ghisu naming, much less addressing, his son as Madhav. In any case it is ‘Madho’, not ‘Madhav’, that matches with ‘Ghisu’ and ‘Budhiya’. The combination Ghisu, Budhiya, Madhav looks very odd to me. So I have retained ‘Madho’, as in the Urdu version.  
Coming from Premchand, often a half-hearted realist and an idealist-reformist, it is an amazing story. To fully comprehend what Premchand is doing here, we should forget both realism and idealism. The straight forward and seemingly realistic narrative is very deceptive and disguises  a very complex texture of meaning, which perhaps could have been achieved only through a subversion of the realistic mode. Many things in the story look improbable, unconvincing, distorted   and unnatural from a purely realistic point of view. But the net result is very rewarding. Premchand is able to pack so many things in a small space using this subversive technique: The absolute pauperization and the consequent degradation of the father and son duo; the utter loneliness and isolation in which a woman, Budhiya, is left to suffer and die; the insensitiveness, perhaps born out of their helplessness in having no resources to ameliorate her condition, with which the duo watch  and let her die; the nonchalance with which the wretched two enjoy themselves at the liquor shop feasting and drinking, using the money they have been given for buying the shroud and wood  for cremation while Budhiya's body lies in the hut; the duo’s conversation about the feast that Ghisu had once enjoyed at the marriage in the Thakur’s family, and the feast at the liquor shop, which is a re-enactment of that old feast, in which both father and son are now partakers; the very disturbing black humour emanating from the conversation about Budhiya between the father and son in their drunken state; the bleak ending of the story; presentation, through hints and suggestions here and there,  of an overall critique of the feudal exploitative society ─ these are some of the strands that are woven into the story’s texture. Another element, which only a great writer could have introduced, is the moment in which the father-son duo offer the left-overs of their feast to a beggar, and experience the pride, and pure joy of ‘giving’, for the first, and perhaps the last time, in their lives. For a brief moment the two wretched creatures become noble and magnanimous philanthropists, revealing perhaps for an instant the gap between what the two are and what they would like to have been. This is also another example of Premchand’s use of irony to damn the society that perpetuates social injustice through philanthropy. The story is full of such ironies; and combining these with his typical genial bantering tone (that relieves the devastating tragedy of these three lives) Premchand presents his condemnation of the socio-economic system that produces men like Ghisu and Madho. At the same time it is an image of the degradation to which human beings can fall. Thus the story is both an image of the contemporary rural India as well as the fallen state of mankind. 

 As far the objections of some Dalit critics that Premchand has insulted a community, all I can say is that, if anything, Premchand’s sympathies seem to be with Ghisu and Madho. Nowhere does Premchand suggest that these two are what they are because they are low caste. He has no doubt damned them but he likes them.