Friday, May 10, 2013

Prem Chand's story 'Poos Ki Raat' in translation

Here is Prem Chand's story Poos Ki Raat  translated by me.








                             A Winter’s Night 
                          (Poos Ki Raat)
                                         

Halku came in and said to his wife, ‘Sahna is at the door. Come on, give me the money you have. Let me pay him and be rid of the noose.’

His wife, Munni, was sweeping the floor. She turned her face towards him and said, ‘Three rupees is all I have. If we give these up, how shall you buy a blanket? How’ll you face the winter nights guarding the crop. Tell him, we shall pay at the time of harvest. Not now.’

Halku stood quietly for a moment, unsure of himself. The month of Poos, the peak of winter, was at hand and he won’t be able to sleep out in the field without a blanket. But Sahna won’t relent. He will threaten and curse. It was better to face the winter somehow and be rid of this trouble.  Halku , carrying his heavy weight (which disproved his name which meant ‘light- weight’), moved towards his wife and said in a cajoling voice, ‘Come on, please give me the money. Let me get rid of this. I shall find a blanket somehow.’

Munni moved away from him, arching her eyes. ‘What’ll you do?  Will someone give you a blanket in charity? God knows how much more we owe him. There’s no end to it. I say, stop tilling the land. Kill yourself toiling, and when the harvest is ready, hand it over to him. That’s the end. We’re born to remain under debt. And then slave as a labour to fill our stomach. What use is this tillage? I won’t give you the money. I won’t.’

‘So I should face the insults?’ Halku said in a melancholy tone.

‘How can he insult you? Does he own you?’ shouted Munni.

But the taut eyebrows were lowered just as she uttered these words. There was a bitter truth in Halku’s words that stared at them like a fierce animal.

She went up to the nich in the wall, took out the rupees and placed them on Halku’s palm. ‘You stop tilling the land. We shall feed ourselves through our daily labour peacefuly. And we won’t have to face the insults. What sort of tillage is this? Even the earnings from daily labouring also go into it. And over and above this bullying.

Halku walked out with the money as if he was going to tear his own heart out and hand it over to someone. He had saved these three rupees bit by bit out of his daily wages for buying a blanket. He was losing them today. With each step he took his mind was sinking under the weight of his helplessness.


2

A dark night in the winter’s month of Poos! Even the stars seemed to be shivering with cold. Halku lay at one edge of his field on a bamboo-stick cot under the sugar cane-leaf shed, wrapped in an old thick cotton sheet, shaking with cold. Under the cot sat his pet dog Jabra with his mouth pushed into his body, whining. Neither of them was able to sleep.  

Halku folded his knees up to his mouth and said to Jabra, ‘Are you feeling cold? I had told you to sleep under the pual at home. Why did you come here? Now face it. What can I do!  You followed me thinking I was coming here to feast on halwa-poori.  Now go and call your grandmother for help.’

Jabra wagged his tail, and letting out a long whine he stretched his body once and then became silent. Perhaps his dog-sense had told him that his master was unable to sleep because of his cries. 

Halku stretched his hand to caress Jabra’s cold body and said, ‘Don’t come tomorrow, or you will go cold for ever. God alone knows wherefrom this bastardly west wind is bringing in this iciness. Let me light another chillum. The night must be passed somehow. I have already smoked eight. This is the pleasure of farming! There are many so fortunate that if the cold came near them it would be driven away by heat. Thick quilts, sheets, and blankets! The cold dare not come near them. How strange life is! We work hard, others enjoy at our cost.

Halku got up and filled up his chillum with a bit of  fire from the pit. Jabra also stood up.

As he smoked, Halku said to Jabra, ‘Would you have a go at the chillum? It doesn’t drive away the cold, but it’s a good diversion.’

Jabra looked towards Halku, his eyes overflowing with love.  
    
‘Face this cold for this night. Tomorrow I shall spread a pual for you, and you can sit covered under it. Then you won’t feel the cold.’

Jabra placed his front legs on Halku’s knees and brought his mouth close to Halku’s mouth. Halku could feel his warm breath. After smoking his chillum Halku lay down again with the determination to sleep this time. But his heart began to beat fast in no time. He would turn and twist now on this, then on that side, but the cold had caught hold of his body like an evil spirit.

When he could do nothing to ward off the cold, he gently lifted Jabra, patted his head and made him lie down in his lap. The dog stank awfully, but by holding the animal so close to his body Halku was experiencing a kind of contentment he had not felt for months. Jabra was perhaps feeling that this was the very heaven; and in Halku’s pure heart there was no trace of any aversion towards the dog. He would not have embraced his dearest friend or the nearest relative with such affection! He was no longer feeling hurt by the wretchedness of his state. No, this strange friendship had expanded his spirit in all directions, and every pore in his body was shining brilliantly.

Suddenly Jabra heard the footsteps of an animal. This rare show of friendship had infused such a new spirit in him that he thought nothing of the blasts of the cold wind. He got up out of the shed and began to bark vigorously. Halku tried to coax him to come back to him but Jabra did not turn. He kept on running around in the field, barking. He would return for a moment but go back at once. Duty was spilling out of his heart like an unfulfilled desire.  


3
      
 Another hour passed. The night began to pulsate with draughts of cold wind. Halku sat up. He folded his legs and brought his knees on to his chest and hid his head in them. This gave him no respite from cold. He felt as if the blood in his body had frozen, and ice was flowing through his blood vessels. He looked up at the sky to check how far the night had gone. The constellation Saptarishi was still half-way up. It will be dawn only when the constellation reached directly above. More than one fourth of the night still remained.

There was a mango orchard at a gun-shot’s distance from Halku’s field. It was the time when leaves fall off. There was a heap of dry leaves in the orchard. Halku thought of collecting them and lighting a fire to get some warmth. He was reflecting: If someone saw him gathering the leaves here, he might take him for a ghost. Who knows some animal might be hiding in them. But now it was impossible to stand this cold.

He went into the neighbouring arhar field, uprooted a few stalks and tied them together to make a broom. He picked up a piece of smouldering dung cake and began to walk towards the orchard. Jabra saw him and came to him and started wagging his tail.

Halku said, ‘I can stand it no more. Come, Jabru, let’s go to the orchard and burn the leaves to get some warmth, and when we have warmed ourselves a little we shall come back and sleep. The night is still long.

Jabra whined his assent and began to walk in front towards the orchard.

It was pitch-dark in the orchard; and the cruel wind was blowing across, mercilessly trampling upon the leaves.  Dewdrops were constantly dripping down the trees.

All of a sudden the wind carried towards them a waft of fragrance from henna flowers.

Halku said, ‘What a fine smell, Jabru! Doesn’t it tickle your nose?’

Jabru had found a bone and was gnawing at it.

Halku put the smouldering piece of dung cake on the ground and began to gather leaves around it. In no time he had collected a big heap. His hands were stiff with cold. His bare feet were dissolving. And he was raising a mountain of leaves, lighting which he was going to incinerate this cold.

The fire came alive in a short while. The flames leapt out of it to touch the tree above. In the flickering flames of the fire, it appeared as if the trees in the orchard were carrying the unbounded darkness on their heads. In this limitless sea of darkness this light seemed to be rocking and dancing like a boat.

Halku was sitting in front of the fire warming himself. Soon he took the cloth sheet off his body, tucked it in one of his armpits, and spread out his legs, as if he was provoking the cold. ‘Come on, do what you can.’ Having conquered the infinite power of cold, he was unable to repress his triumph. 

He said to Jabra, ‘Are you still feeling cold?’

Jabra whined, as if to say, ‘Shall we go on feeling cold for ever?’

‘We didn’t think of this, otherwise why should we have suffered so much.’

Jabra wagged his tail.

‘Come on, let’s jump over this fire and see who can cross over. And son, if you burn yourself I won’t get you any treatment.’

Jabra looked at the fire with frightened eyes. 

“And don’t tell Munni about it, or there would be a fight.’

Saying this he jumped cleanly over the fire, just grazing the flames but without any harm. Jabra only circled round the fire, and then came and stood beside him.

Halku said, ‘Come, come, this is not right. Now jump.’ Saying this, he jumped over the fire again and came over to the other side.


4

The leaves had burnt out. Once again the orchard was stark dark. The fire was still alive under the ashes; and ruffled by draughts of wind, it would peep out momentarily, and then close its eyes.

Halku once again wrapped the sheet round himself, and sitting beside the still warm ashes he began to hum a song. His body had warmed up but as the cold around him began to envelop him he was sinking into a state of torpor.   

Jabru barked angrily and ran towards the field. Halku thought that a herd of animals had invaded his field. Perhaps it was a herd of neelgais. He could clearly hear the noise of their running and tramping around; and then it looked they were grazing in the field for he could hear the sound of munching.
‘No.’ For a moment he thought, ‘No no animal can enter the field in the presence of Jabra. He would bite them away. It’s my imagination.’ The next moment he heard no noise. He must have been mistaken.

He shouted loudly for Jabra.

Jabra kept on barking and did not come to him.

Then again he heard the sound of animals grazing. He could deceive himself no longer. He hated the idea of moving from his seat. How cosily he was sitting! In this cold the thought of entering the field and chasing the animals seemed foolhardy. He did not move.

He shouted loudly, ‘Go! Go! Go!’

Jabra barked again. The animals are going to ruin him.

Halku got up with determination and walked a few steps. But all of a sudden a draught of wind, biting like the sting of a scorpion, overwhelmed him and he returned to the dying fire and began scouring through the ashes to get some warmth.

Jabra was barking himself hoarse, the neelgais were cleaning out the field, and Halku was sitting beside the warm ashes with a calm resignation. Listlessness had bound him hand and foot.

He covered himself in his sheet went to sleep, close to the ashes.

When he woke in the morning there was sunshine all around, and Munni was waking him up, ‘Will you keep sleeping today? You are lying here in bliss, and there the crop has been destroyed.’

Halku woke up and said, ‘Have you been to the field?’    

‘Yes’, she said, ‘The whole crop has been ruined. Who sleeps like this? How did your spending the nights out here help?’

Halku reeled off an excuse, ‘Here I was dying, and you’re worried about the crop. I had such a severe stomach ache!’

Both walked to their field. They saw the whole crop trampled upon, and Jabru lying under the shed almost lifeless.

Both of them were looking at their field. Munni was sad, but Halku was happy.

Munni said, ‘Now, to pay the tax we shall have to work as daily wagers.’

Halku replied, ‘So what? I won’t have to sleep here on a cold night.’  

                                                               ---
(Hindi, Madhuri, May 1930)