Sunday, April 7, 2013

Prem Chand's story 'Namak Ka Daroga' in translation

Here is a translation of Prem Chand's story: Namak Ka Daroga.

                                     THE SALT INSPECTOR   
                                      (Namak Ka Daroga)   

When a new department banning open trade in salt (a free gift of God) was set up, people began to  trade it illegally. Many crooked ways were invented: Some took to bribing, others to smuggling. The government officials had a great time. People gave up the universally honoured office of the patwari and turned to this department. Even the lawyers hankered after the salt inspector’s post.  It was a time when people regarded the English education synonymous with Christianity. Persian was the dominant language; and Persian-knowing persons, well-read in love stories and erotic literature, were able to get appointed to the highest posts. Munshi Vanshidhar, too, having read the unrequited love story of Zulaikha, rating the love stories of Majnu and Farhad far above the achievements of Nal and Neel and the discovery of America, went out in search of employment. His father was a worldly-wise man. He gave the young man the following advice: Son, you well understand our sad plight. We are under a heavy debt. There’re girls in the family, who are growing up fast like weeds. I’m like a tree on the edge that is likely to collapse anytime. Now you’re the master and head of the family. Don’t  bother about status in a profession, which  is like the mausoleum of a pir. Your eyes should always be fixed on offerings and chadders. Look for a job with an ‘over-and-above-the-salary’ income. The monthly salary is like the full moon  which is visible only for a day, and wanes each successive day and then disappears. The over-and-above income is like a flowing stream that regularly quenches your thirst. Salary is given by man, that’s why it does not take you far; the over-and-above  income is the gift of God, which leads to prosperity. You are a scholar yourself and don’t need to be taught anything. One needs to use one’s understanding. Think of man and his needs, and his opportunities. Then do what you think is best. It always pays to be tough with a person needing favours from you. But it is difficult to tame one who does not need any favour. Keep all this always in front of your eyes. This is my lifetime’s accumulation.’

After this sermon the father gave his blessings. Vanshidhar was an obedient son. He listened attentively to all this and then walked out of his home. In this vast world perseverance was his friend, intelligence his guide and self-reliance his aid. But since he had an auspicious start, he was appointed to the post of salt inspector as soon as he had stepped out. The salary was good, and there was no limit to over-and-above  income. When the old Munshi received this happy news his joy knew no bounds. His creditors became a bit soft and the hope of old revelries revived. Thorns began to prick the neighbours’ hearts.

It was a winter night. The constables and watchmen of the Salt Department were dead drunk. Munshi Vanshidhar had been here only for six months but he had impressed his officers with his efficiency and spotless conduct. They had begun to trust him wholeheartedly. The river Yamuna flowed about a mile away from the office of the Salt Department, where there was a boat-bridge over the river. The inspector had shut the doors and was sound asleep. Suddenly he woke up and heard, instead of the sound of the flowing river, the clatter of bullock carts and the shouts of boatmen. He wondered why carts were going across the river at this hour. Surely there was something fishy. A moment’s reflection strengthened his suspicions. He got up and immediately put on his uniform, took his pistol and rode his horse and arrived at the river bridge in no time. He saw a long line of bullock carts going across the bridge. He demanded, ‘Whose carts are these?’

There was no answer for some time. Then after  some whispering among the men,  one of them said, ‘Pandit Alopidin’s.’
‘Who’s Pandit Alopidin?’
‘Of Daatagunj.’
Munshi Vanshidhar was taken aback. Pandit Alopidin was the  most prominent landlord of this area. He had a turnover of lakhs, and there was no trader, big or small, who was not under his obligation. He had a huge business, and was a skilful manipulator. English officers came to his area for hunting as his guests. This hospitality went on  round the year.
The inspector asked, ‘Where are the carts headed to?’
When he asked what was loaded in them there was a stunning silence. The inspector’s suspicions were mounting. When he did not get any reply he shouted, ‘Are you all dumb? Tell me what’s inside these carts.’ When he got no reply even after this, he moved his horse close to one of the carts to examine the load. His suspicions were confirmed. This was salt indeed.

Pandit Alopidin  was following the convoy in his ornamental chariot, lying half asleep and half awake. All of a sudden a few rattled-up cart drivers came and woke him up. ‘Maharaj, the inspector has stopped the carts. He’s at the river bank  and has summoned you.’
Pandit Alopidin had unshakable faith in the goddess Lakshmi. He used to say that not only on earth, the goddess Lakshmi reigned even in heaven. This was the plain truth. Justice and policy, both are playthings of Lakshmi. She can make them dance to any tune. Still lying in the same posture, he spoke with great confidence, ‘Go, I’m coming.’
After this Panditji  rolled a paan for himself with great nonchalance. Covering himself in a quilt he walked towards the inspector and said, ‘God bless you, babuji. Tell me how I have erred that the carts have been stopped. You should be kind to us brahmins.’
Vanshidhar said brusquely, ‘By the government order.’
Pandit Alopidin laughed and said, ‘We don’t know ‘the government order’, or the government. For us you’re the government. It’s all between us, our family affair. How can we be outsiders? You needn’t have taken this trouble. It’s impossible we should pass this way and go away without making an offering to the god of this Ghat. I was just coming to present myself before you.’
Vanshidhar remained unmoved by this captivating tune from the flute of wealth. New to his job, he was riding on the wave of honesty. He spoke in a harsh tone, ‘I’m not one of those who would sell their honour  for  a few  coweries. You’re under arrest now. You’ll be challaned under the law. I don’t have time to waste. Jamadaar Badlu Singh, take him into custody and bring him along. This is my order.’
Panditji was dumbfounded; the cart drivers were at sixes and sevens. This was the first time ever in his life that Panditji had to listen to such rude talk. Badlu Singh moved forward but did not have the courage to hold Panditji’s hand. Panditji had never seen Dharma insulting Artha in such a manner. He thought the inspector was  being rude and unmannerly, having not yet succumbed to temptation. He is too young and hesitant. Pandit Alopidin played a very humble tune. ‘Babu sahib, don’t do this. I’ll be ruined. My reputation will roll in dust. What‘ll you gain by insulting me ? I’m not a stranger to you in anyway.’

Vanshidhar answered rudely. ‘I don’t want to hear all this.’

The ground that Alopidin thought was rock solid appeared to be slipping from under his feet. Both prestige  and wealth had been hit hard; but even then he had full faith in the numerical strength of wealth. He said to his assistant, ‘Offer one thousand rupees to the sahib. He’s behaving like a hungry lion.’
Vanshidhar became angry. ‘Forget one thousand, even one lakh won’t shake me from the path of truth.’
Panditji was annoyed at Dharma’s blind stubbornness, and this renunciation rare even among gods. Both the powers now engaged in warfare. Artha began to push larger numbers into the attack.  From one to five, from five to ten,  from ten to fifteen,  and from fifteen it reached to twenty thousand. But Dharma with its superhuman bravery stood unshaken like a mountain against this vast numerical strength.
Alopidin was helpless now. He said, ‘I can’t go beyond this. You may do whatever you like.’
Vanshidhar shouted at the Jamadar. Badlu Singh advanced towards Pandit Alopidin, cursing the inspector in his heart. Panditji  drew back in fright. He spoke with great humility, ‘Babu sahib, for God’s sake have pity on me. I’m willing to settle it for twenty five thousand.’
‘It’s impossible.’
‘Thirty thousand.’
‘No way.’
‘Not even at forty thousand?’
‘Not even forty lakhs. It’s impossible. Badlu Singh  take this man into custody immediately. I don’t want to hear another word.’
Dharma had trampled Artha underoot. Alopidin saw a strong man advancing towards him with handcuffs. He looked around helplessly with pleading eyes. Then he fell down in a swoon.

The world was asleep but its tongue was wagging. In the morning the same story was on everyone’s lips, the young-n-old. Everybody was commenting on Panditji’s conduct; condemnation came in showers from all sides, as if  the world had been saved from sinners and sinfulness. Milkman who adulterated milk, officials who made false entries in their diaries, babus who travelled ticketless, moneylenders and traders who concocted fraudulent documents – all were  shaking their heads like gods.  The next day when Pandit Alopidin, handcuffed and flanked by constables, his heart filled with remorse and anger, and his head held down in shame, moved towards the court as an accused, the whole city was rattled. Eyes wouldn’t have been so searching even in the fairs.  Roofs and walls had become one with crowds of people.
But the moment Pandit Alopidin reached the court, he became the lion of this impenetrable jungle. The officials were his devotees, the junior staff his  minions, the lawyers his obedient servants, the orderlies, peons and watchmen his voluntary slaves. The moment people saw him they ran towards him from all directions. They were surprised; not that Alopidin had done this deed, but as to how he had let himself be trapped in the jaws of the law.  How could a person who had so much money to employ all the possible means and a marvelous gift of the gab be caught like this? Everyone sympathized with him. An army of lawyers was immediately readied to tackle the impending assault. In the battlefield of justice, Dharma and  Artha were arrayed against each other. Vanshidhar stood there speechless. He had no force except that of truth and no weapons except bare facts. There were witnesses, but they had turned wobbly out of greed.
Vanshidhar had the feeling that even justice had deserted him. It was the court of justice but the staff there were drunk with partiality. Justice and partisanship don’t go together. Where there is partisanship there can be no justice. The trial was over in no time. The Deputy Magistrate wrote in his judgement: ‘The  evidence presented against Pandit Alopidin is false and misleading. He is a prominent person. It is unimaginable that  a person like him would break the law for such a small gain.  Although Inspector Vanshidhar is not to blame too much, yet  his  brazen and thoughtless act has caused needless agony to an honourable man. We are happy that he is watchful and alert in performing his duty but his overboard loyalty has destroyed his reason and judgement. He should be careful in future.’
The lawyers leaped with joy when they heard the judgement. Pandit Alopidin came out smiling. The near and dear ones began to rain money all around. The sea of generosity was on a high tide and it shook the very foundations of justice. When Vanshidhar came out of the court he was showered with volleys of sarcastic comments from all sides. The peons mockingly bowed their heads and saluted him. But  each and every harsh word or gesture was feeding the fire of his pride. Had he won the case he might not have walked with  a straighter head. Today he underwent a strange realization. Justice and learning, great titles, long beards and loose gowns –
none of these was worthy of any respect.
Vanshidhar had antagonized Artha. He had to pay for this. Hardly a week had passed when he received  the letter of suspension. He had been rewarded for performing his duty. Broken-hearted, sad, bewildered, the poor fellow headed homewards. The old Munshi had been fretting and fuming even before this disaster: ‘The boy had turned a deaf ear to his advice and would have his way. Here I should face the demands from the wine-seller and the butcher and live like a saint in my old age, and there just the bare salary! I have also been in service and was not holding any rank, but I worked and worked hard. And this man is making a show of his honesty. Never mind if there is darkness at home, he must light a lamp at the mosque. It is unbelievable. All his education has been a waste.’ A few days after this, when Vanshidhar reached home in that sorry state and the old man heard the news he beat his head. He said, ‘I feel like breaking mine and your head.’ He said many harsh words, and if Vanshidhar had not removed himself from his sight, his anger might have turned wild. His old mother was also unhappy. All her plans of pilgrimage to Jagannath and Rameshwaram had come to naught. His wife too was resentful and would not talk to him for days.
A week passed. It was evening. The old Munshiji was at his prayers. At this very moment an ornamental chariot stopped at his door. Green and red curtains, driven by a pair of bullocks from the western parts, their necks bedecked with blue ropes, their horns capped with copper, escorted by servants carrying lathis on their shoulders. Munshiji ran out to welcome. It was Pandit Alopidin. Munshiji bowed his head in salutation and opened with a gush of admiration: ‘It is our great fortune to see you at our door. You are like a god to us. How can I show you my face, which has been painted black. But what can I do? My son is a luckless black sheep. Otherwise, why should I have to hide my face out of shame. God should keep one issueless rather than shame one with such a son.’
Alopidin said, ‘No bhai sahib , don’t say all this.’
Munshiji was surprised. ‘What else should I say about such a progeny?’
Alopidin spoke in a voice full of love. ‘People, steadfast in duty and ready to sacrifice everything to preserve their  Dharma  and enhance the glory of their family and ancestors, are rare indeed.’
Pandit Alopidin said to Vanshidhar, ‘Inspector sahib, don’t treat this as flattery. I didn’t have to come so far to flatter you. That day you had arrested me on the strength of your authority, but today I have come of my own to be arrested by you. I have met thousands of rich and wealthy. I had dealings with thousands of high officials. I enslaved all of them with my money. You alone have vanquished me. Allow me to say something.’
When Vanshidhar saw Alopidin advancing towards him he  got up and received him  courteously but  with his head held high. He thought this fellow had come to insult  and humiliate him further. He did not try to apologize,  and did not like his father’s fawning attitude. But when he heard what Panditji said, he  forgot all the malice. He cast a fleeting glance on Panditji’s face and saw it radiating sincerity. His pride changed into shame. He said, ‘You’re being very generous in saying all this. Please forgive me for the disrespect I showed you. I was shackled in the chains of Dharma, otherwise I’m your humble servant. I am ready to obey your orders.’
Pandit Alopidin said in a humble voice, ‘You did not accept my request at the river bank. But today you will have to do it.’
Vanshidhar said, ‘I can’t be of any use to you, but still I shall  try my best to serve you.’
Alopidin took out a  judicial paper from his pocket and put it before Vanshidhar and said, ‘Accept this position and put your signatures here. I am a brahmin and shall not go away until you agree to this.’
When Vanshidhar read what was written on the paper his eyes were filled with tears out of gratefulness. Panditji had appointed him the manager of all his properties. A salary of six thousand rupees per annum, besides  the daily expenses. A horse to ride, and a bungalow to live, and servants!
Vanshidhar spoke in a trembling voice, ‘Panditji I don’t have the words to praise your generosity, but I’m not fit for such a big position.’
Panditji smiled and said, ‘At this moment I need only an unfit person.’
Vanshidhar replied, ‘I am your humble servant. It will be my good fortune to serve such an honourable and  famous person. But I have neither the education, nor the wisdom, nor the temperament to  make up for my weaknesses. You need an experienced and far-sighted man for this job.’
Alopidin took the pen out of the pen-holder and handed it over to Vanshidhar, saying, ‘I want neither learning, nor  experience, nor farsightedness, nor even expertise. I have already tasted the fruits of these qualities. Now fortune has cast before  me a pearl that outshines the brilliance of the able and the learned. Take this pen, don’t think too much, and sign this paper. I pray to God that he should always keep you as steadfast, fearless and unwavering yet  committed to Dharma as you were on the river bank.’
Vanshidhar’s eyes were filled with tears. His small heart could not contain such generosity. Once again he looked at Panditji with devotion and reverence and  signed the contract with a trembling hand.
 Alopidin  embraced him with great joy.  


(Urdu, Hamdard, October  1913)

My Comments

 An amazing story, to say the least. 

The story was written in 1910, very early in his career, and just see how perfectly well Prem Chand understands the nature of Indian (or human) society, and how it seems a story that might have been written today, except perhaps for the ending.

First, Prem Chand fully understands how imposition of controls by the State (the Inspector Raj) leads to smuggling, black-marketing, tax evasion and corruption. See how the job of the salt inspector is eyed by everyone, especially by the lawyers.

Look at Vanshidhar’s worldly-wise father asking him, blatantly, to fix his eyes on the offerings, on the income over and above the salary, rather than bothering about the rank and status in a job. It seems he is in debts because of his love of good life, eating and drinking.  When he hears that his son has been appointed salt inspector he is delighted and hopes his son would, through his ‘over and above the salary income’, not only relieve him of his debts and help in the marriage of his daughters but also facilitate a life of conviviality in his old age, as in the past. Look at the neighbours, who become green with jealousy when they hear the news of Vanshidhar’s appointment as a salt inspector!

Further, look at the manner the employees of the salt department perform their duties. The watchmen and constables are dead drunk, while still on duty, a common occurring today. Nothing seems to have changed during these hundred years in the way the administration works in the country.

And Pandit Alopidin! He might well be a businessperson of today! His philosophy that it is the goddess Lakshmi who rules on earth as well as in heaven is perfectly in tune with  what the modern-day business community believes in and practises. He is also typical of the modern day businesspersons and politicians, brazen and self-assured in their exercise of power, but in reality cowardly and chicken-hearted when confronted with their crime. Alopidin, having failed to win over Vanshidhar with his offerings, swoons the moment the policeman advances to arrest him. Today’s businesspersons and politicians rush to hospitals with chest pain when they are caught.

Look at the public reaction at Alopidin’s arrest. Everyone enjoys his humiliation, even the milk-seller who adulterates milk, the policemen who makes false diary entries, the ticketless travellers and the fraudulent businessmen. But in the court the scene changes dramatically in Alopidin’s favour. Everyone is on his side: The lawyers, the court officials, the peons, the watchmen and even the magistrate. He is now ‘the lion of this impenetrable jungle.’  Vanshidhar’s witnesses turn hostile, the  case breaks down and Alopidin is acquitted. Strictures  are passed against Vanshidhar. Tables are turned. Artha has triumphed over Dharma. Vanshidhar, like the modern day whistle-blowers, is  isolated and suspended, though luckily not ‘eliminated’, as might have happened today. Even his own family turn against him. His father rues that such a son was ever born to him, that his education had been a waste. His mother too is disappointed for she cannot now go on her pilgrimage to Jagannath and Rameshwaram. And his wife refuses to talk to him.

Prem Chand has painted a perfect image of a society where Lakshmi is all powerful, even during the times when we could not even think of a consumer society, of conspicuous consumption, and did not see the presence of an infinite variety of goods and pleasures that money can buy today. Worldliness, it seems, is in everyone’s blood.  Prem Chand says all this with such facility and in his inimitable style laced with humour and irony, while yet probing the human psyche to its very depths.

Look at the marvellous felicity of his expression! Some of his images are magnificent. Girls who ‘grow up like weeds’. A job is like the Mausoleum of a Pir where chaddars and offerings are more important than piety. A salary is like a ‘full moon night’ that lasts only a day and wanes progressively. One might quote many more. Prem Chand’s volubility is a constantly flowing stream. But there are occasions when the stream overflows  and breaks the bounds of propriety and swells into wordiness. Prem Chand is sometimes guilty of using too many words. This is one  major weakness in Prem Chand that seldom deserted him even to the end. Many of his stories lack the tautness of a finished product. All he needed to do was to trim and edit to achieve that perfection. Why he did not, only those who have worked on his texts and circumstances under which he worked and wrote can tell us. Translations often tend to hide this flaw.

But the most important, fascinating and debatable issue in this story is its ending. A present-day story writer might have ended the story at the court with Vanshidhar’s complete humiliation at the hands of our system of justice where Artha completely overwhelms Dharma, highlighting the mockery of justice so characteristic of our times today.

So what to make of the last episode of the story, and the way it ends? It seems to be going totally against the grain of Prem Chand’s own understanding of human nature. The arrival of Alopidin at Vanshidhar’s house to offer him the position of the manger of his estate, and Vanshidhar’s tame acceptance? In the court Artha had triumphed over Dharma. Here it seems Artha, chastened and transformed, comes to surrender itself before Dharma. Or does it? Can one really believe that Alopidin  has been transformed? But that is how it looks. This is another issue with Prem Chand. The story ends not  as it should, driven by the logic of what has happened  before, but in the way Prem Chand thinks it should end. Prem Chand believes that Artha should subordinate itself to Dharma, for that is the only solution for the problems of corruption, injustice and greed. So it looks an issue between what is and what should be. Prem Chand most probably chooses what should be.

I would however like to read the story’s ending differently, although a straight forward reading of  the text does not seem to warrant this. Though, just an ironic twist might justify this.

My reading is  that, far from  Artha bowing before Dharma, it is Dharma that surrenders before Artha. Oily-tongued Alopidin attempts to mislead Vanshidhar to believe that he is a changed man  and has given up his Adharmic ways, giving the impression that now onwards he would use his wealth and Vanshidhar’s steadfast honesty only in the service of Dharma. And  Vanshidhar, sensing Alopidin’s real intent, goes a step further in this game of mutual deception, or understanding. Chastised by his father and family, realizing the mistake he had made in disregarding his father’s advice, he now goes all out to accept Alopidin’s  offer, realising fully well that his arresting Alopidin  has helped him to make a better bargain for himself. He remembers what his father had said to him: It always pays to be tough with a person needing favours from you. From now onwards Vanshidhar will work as a humble servant of Alopidin’s. So the story is not a (wishful) triumph of Dharnma over Artha, but in fact one of abject surrender by Dharma before Artha, in the true spirit of our times. Vanshidhar will now act as a watchdog (and a loyal Munim) over Alopidin ill-earned wealth against many predators and competitors.  Only such an ending is in tune with the rest of the story, and Prem Chand’s deep and wonderful understanding of our society, where Lakshmi presides.  

Prem Chand’s idealism, has been regarded as another weakness. The story's ending seems to testify to this charge. But this limitation was self-imposed. Prem Chand, in his reformist’s zeal, had consciously decided to create characters who are good  and models to be emulated to show that everything is not evil. So it is a self-inflicted ‘weakness’, if it is. In this story he wanted to show that it is possible for even a man like Alopidin to transform himself after he has seen that his wealth has failed to bend  an honest man. This is probable, but only to a very small degree.