Monday, February 4, 2013

Prem Chand's story "Thakur ka Kuan" in translation

Here is my translation of Prem Chand’s short story  ‘Thakur ka Kuan’ .

                                   Thakur’s Well
                               (Thakur Ka Kuan)

As Jokhu brought the lota to his lips to drink, the water smelled foul. He said to Gangi, ‘What kind of water is this? It stinks. My throat’s dry, and you’re making me drink this unclean water.’

Gangi used to store up water in the evening. The well was far away, and it was difficult to walk the distance again and again. The water she had brought yesterday was good. What could have gone wrong today? she wondered. She brought the lota to her nose. Yes, it was stinking. An animal must have fallen into the well and drowned. But where from would she get water now?

No one would let her mount the Thakur’s well. They would drive her away from a distance. Sahuji’s well was at the other end of the village. But who would let her draw water from there? And there was no fourth well in the village.

Jokhu had been ill for many days. Though thirsty he kept quiet for some time. Then he said, ‘I can’t hold my thirst any more. Come, I’ll squeeze my nose and drink a little bit.’ 

Gangi didn’t let him. She knew that drinking this unclean water would aggravate his illness, but she didn’t know that boiling would make it safe for drinking. She said, ‘How can you drink this water? God knows what animal it was. I’ll bring water from somewhere.’

Jokhu looked at her with surprise. ‘Where will you bring it from?’

‘There are two wells: the Thakur’s and the Sahu’s. Won’t they let me have even one lota-ful?’

‘You’ll get only broken arms and legs, nothing else. Sit quietly. The brahmin will bless you with curses, the Thakur wield his lathi, and Sahuji charge five for one. No one feels our pain. Even when we die, no one comes to condole, least of all to lend his shoulder to the bier. Will such people let you draw water?’

This was the bitter truth. Gangi kept quiet, but she did not let him drink the stinking water.

It was nine o’clock in the night. The exhausted labourers had gone to sleep but a few idlers were gathered outside the Thakur’s door. The times and opportunities for showing valour in the battlefield were gone; they were talking of battles won in the law courts. How the Thakur had bribed the thanedar and saved his skin. How cleverly he had obtained the copy of a landmark court judgement. The nazir and other court officials had said that the copy couldn’t be given. Some demanded fifty, others a hundred. He obtained the copy without paying a single cowrie or paisa! One should know the art of manipulation. 

It was then that Gangi arrived to draw water from the well.

A faint light from the street oil-lamp was falling on the well. Gangi came and sat close to the platform around the well, sheltering herself, and waited for an opportunity.

Everyone drank from this well. They alone, the ill-fated, were forbidden. Gangi’s rebellious heart began to hit out at the traditional society’s restrictions and compulsions. What makes us low, and them high? Just because they are wearing a string round their necks! All these people are so crooked, each one more than the other. They steal. They cheat. They file false cases against others. Only the other day the Thakur poached the shepherd’s sheep, then slaughtered and ate it up. And this panditji’s house is a round-the-year den of gamblers. And this very Sahuji adulterates ghee with oil. They make us labour for them, but don’t want to pay for it. In what way are they higher than us? In swaggering, yes. We don’t go shouting in the streets, like them, that we are superior. Whenever I walk through the village, they look at me with lusting eyes, and their hearts twist in envy. Yet they pride themselves on their superiority!   

She heard the sound of footsteps at the well. Her heart began thumping with fright. Hell would break loose if she was seen. She picked up the pitcher and the rope and, bending herself low, walked away towards a tree and hid herself in its dark shadow. They would show her no mercy. They had beaten up poor Mahngu so badly that he had kept spitting blood for months—just because he had refused to work without being paid! And they are higher! 

Two women had come to the well to draw water. They were talking.

‘They’ve come in to eat, and have ordered us to bring fresh water.’

‘These men become agitated if they find us resting for a while.’

‘They didn’t have the decency to come here and draw water for themselves. They only know to give orders, as if we were their bondswomen.’

‘What else are you, if not a bondswoman? Don’t you get food and clothing? And you snatch a few rupees from them, off and on. How are bondswomen different?’

‘Don’t insult me, sister. I’m not able to relax even for a short while. Had I laboured like this at another’s household, life would have been a lot easier. And he would have been grateful too. Kill yourself with work, yet no one’s pleased.’ 

Both the women walked away after drawing water. Gangi came out of the tree’s shadow and walked towards the well. The idlers had gone away. The Thakur too had shut the door from inside and was readying himself to sleep in the courtyard. Gangi heaved a sigh of relief. The coast seemed clear now. Even the prince who had gone to steal amrita, would not have taken such meticulous care. Gangi treaded the edge of the well with soft steps. Seldom had she experienced such a sense of triumph!

She looped one end of the rope round the pitcher’s neck. She peered to her right and left, like a soldier readying himself to pierce the enemy’s defences. If she were caught now, there would be no mercy at all. At last, invoking the gods, fortifying her heart, she lowered the pitcher into the well.

The pitcher sank into the water gently, making no sound at all. Gangi pulled the rope up quickly, and the pitcher came up to the top. Even a powerful wrestler couldn’t have drawn up the pitcher so swiftly.

Gangi leaned forward to catch the pitcher and rest it on the edge of the well, when the Thakur’s door opened suddenly. A lion’s look could not have been more frightening than this sound. The rope slipped through her hands, and the pitcher went hurtling down the well and hit the water with a loud thud.  The water kept making a rippling sound for a few moments.

The Thakur was advancing towards the well, shouting, ‘Who’s there? Who’s there?’ and Gangi, jumping from well’s platform, was running furiously.

When she reached home, she found Jokhu drinking the dirty water from the lota.

(Hindi, ‘Jagran’   August 1932)    

My Comments

In many ways the story has become dated. The rural India has undergone tremendous changes. The caste relations have become more horizontal and less vertical, though caste identities have sharpened with the rising political consciousness across the castes. New horizontal caste combinations and alliances are emerging to negotiate a space in the political power structure. Feudalism has been on the decline. Yet the important features of feudal India that Prem Chand portrays in this story still persist in the new and changing India. Exclusion and discrimination on the basis of caste are still endemic, and self-assertion by the lower castes often leads to violent retribution by the upper castes in many parts of the country, which goes unpunished by the state still heavily biased in favour of the upper castes, though with some exceptions. Women still remain at the receiving end because the society continues to be strongly patriarchal. And the rural rich and powerful, successors to the lost feudal world, are able to manipulate the state administration through connections, bribery, chicanery, and, above all, political clout. 

Today, Prem Chand would have written the story differently, but the essential features would have been the same: Caste/class/gender inequalities, gross social injustice, and corruption and abuse of power.

Prem Chand still remains the chronicler of themes and issues that, sadly, seem perennial and refuse to die down even in the independent and democratic India. This is what Bhisham Sahani wrote 25 years ago:  ‘Out of the evils against which Prem Chand struggled only one has disappeared – the British Raj. All the others he wrote about continue to haunt us in one form or the other.’ What about today?
Also see the following link for an analysis of the power structures in this story: