Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Prem Chand's short story 'Bade Bhai Sahib' in English


Here is  Prem Chand's short story Bade Bhai Sahib translated by me. 






                                         MY ELDER BROTHER
                                          (Bade Bhai Sahib)                                                 

                                          
My Bhai Sahib was elder to me by five years, yet only three years ahead of me at school. He too had started school at the same age as I, but he didn’t like to be in undue haste in such an important matter as education. He wanted to lay a very solid foundation so that a magnificent structure could be raised upon it. He spent two years where only one was needed, and sometimes even three. How can one raise a strong building on a weak foundation!

 I was the younger and he the elder. I was nine and he was fourteen. It was his birthright to supervise and admonish me. And propriety required that I should accept his commands as the law.

He was studious by nature, and always remained glued to his books. Sometimes, perhaps to refresh his mind, he would draw images of birds or dogs or cats on the margins of his books. Occasionally he repeated the same name, word or sentence many times over. Sometimes he would copy the same couplet again and again in a beautiful hand. And sometimes he would write a set of words that made no sense at all. For example, once I saw this writing in his notebook: Special, not yet, between brothers, in reality, brother-brother, Radheyshyam-Shriyukt Radhey Shyam, for one hour. And at the end he had drawn the face of a man. I tried very hard to unravel this riddle but without success. And I had not the courage to ask him. He was in class nine and I was in class five. To try and understand his creation would have been the height of impertinence.

I myself never felt at home with books. To sit with a book for an hour was like climbing a mountain. At the first opportunity I would walk out of the hostel into the open ground, and toss pebbles into the air or fly paper butterflies. And it was still better if I had a companion. We would go up and down the boundary walls, or ride upon the gates and swing them to and fro to enjoy a ‘motor ride’. But the moment I returned to the room I would freeze in my tracks on seeing my brother’s red face. His first question would be: Where have you been? Always the same question in the same tone; and my answer was only silence. I don’t know why I couldn’t tell him that I had just gone out to play. My silence proclaimed that I accepted my crime, and Bhai Sahib saw no other way to welcome me except with expressions that were a mixture of love and anger.

‘If you study English like this you will go on and on for ever, and learn nothing. Learning English is no child’s play open to anybody; otherwise every man in the street would have become a scholar of English. You have to wreck your eyes and drain out your blood, only then can you attain this knowledge. Learn it? The truth is one learns it only superficially. Even great scholars can’t write correct English; and they are so far from speaking it fluently. And I tell you, you’re such a dimwit that you don’t learn from my example. You can see with your own eyes how hard I work; and if you don’t see, it’s lack of discernment on your part. Have you ever seen me going out to attend any shows and fairs? Everyday there are cricket and hockey matches. I never go anywhere near them. I devote all my time to studies. Even then I am stuck in each class for two or three years. Then, how do you hope you’ll get through just by playing and wasting your time. I take only two-three years, but you will keep rotting in this class for your whole life. If you have to waste your life in this manner, then it is better you go home and play Gulli-danda. Why waste father’s hard earned money?

Listening to this tongue-lashing, I would burst into tears. What else? I had committed the crime, who else should face the music! Bhai Sahib was a past master at the art of sermonizing. He would make such pointed comments, shoot such aphoristic arrows as would pierce my heart and demoralize me altogether. I was unable to summon any great energy from inside to work hard like him, and I would sink into hopelessness and think of going home. Why should I waste my life doing something that was beyond my powers? I was content to remain ignorant rather than labour so much! My head would reel, but after a few hours I would overcome this state of despondency, and pledge to devote myself heart and soul to studies. In no time I would work out a timetable. How could I begin without a plan or a set programme? The timetable would have no provision whatsoever for play: Get up at six in the morning, wash, have breakfast and sit down to study. English from six to eight; arithmetic from eight to nine; history from nine to nine-thirty; then food and to school. Return from school at three-thirty; relax for half an hour; geography from four to five; grammar from five to six; a half-hour stroll in front of the hostel; then eat;  translation from eight to nine; Hindi from nine to ten; miscellaneous subjects from  ten to eleven; then sleep.

However, to make a timetable is one thing, to put it into practice another. The default would begin on the very first day. The green fields, the gentle breeze, the run and chase in football, the manoeuvres and counter manoeuvres in kabadi, the speed and quickness in volleyball, all these would drag me out insidiously and I would forget everything. That killer timetable, those eye-destroying books would be forgotten. And Bhai Sahib would get his opportunity to admonish and sermonize. I would try to run away from his shadow, escape his notice and enter the room tiptoeing. The moment his eyes fell upon me, my heart would sink. I felt a fully drawn sword always hanging over my head. Even then after so much of dressing-down and threats, I was not able to give up sports, much like a person who can’t give up his worldly possessions even in the moments of acute distress or on his deathbed.  

2

The annual examinations ended. Bhai sahib failed; and I passed, securing the first position in the class. Now he was just two classes ahead of me. For a moment I thought of giving him a piece of my mind: ‘Why didn’t your ascetic’s hard work pay? Look at me. I enjoyed myself playing, and have stood first in my class.’ But he was so heart-broken that I sincerely sympathized with him, and the very idea of lacing his wounds with salt looked despicable. Yet, I began to feel proud of myself and gained a certain amount of self-esteem. Now I was no longer under Bhai Sahib’s tutelage. I began to participate freely in games and sports. I was determined. If he tried to meddle I would tell him plainly: ‘What have you achieved by sweating blood? I have obtained the first position even while playing and having fun.’ Even though I had not the courage to speak out with such insolence, it was clear from my demeanour and actions that I no longer felt terrorized by him. Bhai Sahib saw through this with his acute common sense. And one day when I  returned  at lunch time  after spending the whole morning playing gulli-danda, Bhai Sahib pounced upon me,  as if with a drawn sword: ‘I can see you have become too cocky because you have passed this year and also secured the first position. But, my brother, pride has not served well even the greats. And what are you? In history you must have read about the fate of Ravan. What have you learnt from his story? Or have you just read it and passed over? To have passed an examination is not enough; the real thing is the acquisition of wisdom. To internalize whatever you study. Ravan was the master of the whole earth. Such a king is called a Chakravarti, the Universal King. These days the British Empire is so vast, yet it cannot be called a Universal Kingdom. Many countries of the world don’t accept British supremacy and are fully independent. Ravan was a Universal King. All the kings of the world paid taxes to him. Many great gods were his humble servants. Even the gods of love and rain were his slaves. And yet, what was his end? Pride totally destroyed him. None of his lan survived to give him a drink of water.  One may commit any sin, but that of pride? Commit this sin and lose everything.

You must also have read about the fate that Satan met. He claimed that no one was a greater devotee of God than him.  And he ended by being expelled from heaven and cast into hell. The emperor of Rome too was puffed up with pride. He died a beggar. You have passed only one class and your head has turned. In this way you won’t go very far. You must realize that you did not pass through your hard work. It was a fluke. It was as if a blind man should nab a partridge. But this can happen only once. Sometimes even in Gulli-danda a person plays a big stroke by chance, but that does not make him a great player. A great player is one who never misses his target. Don’t think of my failures. You will know when you come to my class: You will sweat between your teeth when you will have to crack the tough nuts of geometry and algebra. And study the History of England! It is not easy to remember the names of the kings. There have been no less than eight Henrys. Do you think it is easy to remember whether a certain event took place in the reign of this or that Henry? If you mistook Henry the Eighth for Henry the Seventh, you would lose all the marks, absolutely. You won’t get even a zero, not even a zero! What do you think? There have been dozens of Jameses, dozens of Williams, and any number of Charleses. It is mind boggling. These wretches couldn’t think of new names. They kept on affixing first, second, third, fourth, fifth after the same name. If they had asked me I would have suggested a million.

And Geometry! God alone save you from geometry. If you wrote ACB for ABC, you would lose all the marks. No one cares to ask these cruel examiners as to what is the difference between ACB and ABC, and why they torture students for these worthless things. How does it matter whether you eat dal-bhat-roti or bhat-dal-roti? But these examiners don’t care. They see only what is written in the books. They want students to cram everything word for word, and this cramming has been called education. After all what is the use of learning such poppycock? If you draw a perpendicular on this line, the base will be twice the perpendicular. How does it matter if it is four times or even one half! But since you have to pass the examination you have to remember all this. They ask you to write an essay on The Importance of Punctuality which should not be less than four pages in length. Now you open your notebook and hold your pen and pour your heart on this topic. Who doesn’t know that punctuality is a good thing? It brings discipline in your life, people begin to love you and you progress in your business. How to write four pages on such a simple issue? Why waste four pages on something that can be said in one sentence? I call it insanity. Far from being a proper use, it is misuse of time to stretch a thing too far. I think a man should say what he wants to say quickly and go his way. But no, you will have to blacken four pages, whatever you may write. And four foolscap pages, nothing smaller!  If this is not being cruel to students, then what is? The worst part is you are told to be brief. Write a short essay on Punctuality in not less than four pages. Four pages in brief, otherwise they might have asked you to write one or two hundred pages. Run fast, but slowly. Isn’t that funny?  Even a child can understand, but these teachers have no sense. And on top of it, they proudly proclaim they are teachers. My boy, when you come to my class, you will have to perform these soul- grinding tasks. Don’t float in the air just because you have secured the first position in this class.   I might have failed many times, but I am elder than you and more experienced. So mark my words. Or you will regret later.


It was time for school, or God knows when this chain of sermons would have rounded off. I had lost all my taste for food. If I was being run down like this after having passed, I might have been made to give up my ghost, had I failed. The fearful image that Bhai Sahib had drawn of the studies in his own class had terrified me. I am surprised why I didn’t flee homewards, but even after all this running down I couldn’t overcome my distaste for books. I wouldn’t miss any opportunity for sports; I studied too, but not much. Only this much, that I should complete my daily tasks, to avoid any humiliation in the class. The self-confidence I had attained now disappeared, and I was obliged to live like a malefactor.  

3

The annual examinations.  And it so happened that once again I got through and Bhai Sahib flunked. I hadn’t worked very hard but I don’t know how I stood first again. Even I was surprised. Bhai Sahib had worked till he was nearly dead. He had mugged up every word in the syllabus. Till ten o’clock at night, from four o’clock in the morning, from six to nine-thirty before school. His face had lost its sheen, but still the poor man failed. I felt sad for him. When the result was announced he broke down. I also cried. The joy of having passed was halved. Had I also failed, Bhai Sahib wouldn’t have grieved so much, but who can alter the course of destiny! 

Now Bhai Sahib was just one class ahead of me. An evil thought entered my mind. Suppose he failed once again. Then we would be in the same class, and he would lose the high ground to humiliate me. But I wrenched this despicable idea out of my heart. After all, he upbraids me for my own good. It may look unpalatable to me now, yet it might be that I passed these examinations with good marks because of his sermonizing.

Now Bhai Sahib had softened down a lot. He restrained himself even when there were occasions to upbraid me. Perhaps he had himself realized that he had lost the right to upbraid me, or lost it more or less. I felt far freer. I now began to take an undue advantage of his lenience. I started believing that I would get through, whether or not I studied. My luck would always hold out. Therefore I stopped whatever little I used to study out of fear of Bhai Sahib. I had developed a fondness for flying kites and most of my time was spent in this activity. But still I had a lot of respect for Bhai Sahib, and so used to fly kites away from his prying eyes. To ready the kite string, to balance the kite, to prepare for the kit-flying tournaments – all this was done surreptitiously. I didn’t want Bhai Sahib to even suspect that my respect for him had diminished.

One evening, far away from the hostel, I was running like the mad to capture a free floating kite. My eyes were turned upwards and riveted on the air traveller that was reeling gently towards its downfall, like a disinterested soul descending from heaven to assume a new shape. A whole army of boys carrying bamboo poles mounted with dry twigs was racing to grab it. They were all unmindful of the things around. It was as if they were flying with that kite in a sky that was level and open, and free from cars, trams or any kind of vehicles.

All of a sudden I came face to face with Bhai Sahib, who was perhaps returning from the market. He caught hold of my hand there and then and shouted: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of running after this half penny-worth kite in the company of these street urchins? And you don’t seem to care that now you are in class eight, just one class lower than me. After all, a man should have some sense of his status. There was time when people would become naib tehsildars after passing class eight. I know many a middle-pass who is now a deputy magistrate or a superintendent.  Many of them are our leaders, or newspaper editors. Many scholars work under them; and here you are running about in the company of these street urchins to loot a kite. I am shocked at your lack of good sense. You are intelligent, undoubtedly so, but what use is intelligence if it destroys your self- esteem! You must be thinking that now being just one class higher, Bhai Sahib has no right to admonish me. But you are wrong. I’m five years  elder to you, and even if you come to the same class as I – and in the present  system of examinations it is quite possible you would be my classmate next year, and even ahead of me the year after – but even God cannot close the five-year gap between you and me. I am five years your elder, and shall always remain so. You cannot ever match my experience of the world and life even if you become an MA, or a D.Phil. or D Litt. One becomes wise not by reading books but by seeing the world. Our mother never went to school and our father perhaps didn’t go beyond class five. We might accumulate all the knowledge in the world, yet they will always retain the right to admonish and correct us. Not because they have given us life but because they have, will always have, a far greater experience of the world. They may not know the type of political system America has, or the number of times Henry the Eighth married, or the number of stars in the sky, yet they know a thousand things that we don’t. God forbid, but if I fell ill, your blood would freeze out of nervousness. All you would think of is to send a telegram to father. But if he were in your place, he won’t send any telegram, won’t lose his nerve. First, he would identify the sickness and start the treatment. And if he failed he would call for the doctor. Sickness is something serious. We do not even know how to manage our monthly expenses. Whatever money father sends we use up in twenty-twenty-two days and then feel like beggars. We stop having breakfast, avoid being seen by the barber and the washer-man. Our father spent major part of his life with self-respect and honour on half the money we spend today; rearing a family of nine on that amount. And look at our headmaster sahib. He’s an MA, not from here but Oxford! He earns one thousand rupees. Yet who manages his household? His old mother! Headmaster sahib’s degree didn’t work here. In the beginning he himself used to manage the household, and he would overspend, and remain under debt. Ever since his mother has taken over, it looks as if goddess Lakshmi has come to live there. So brother, forget that you are my equal now, and free. I won’t let you to tread the wrong path. And if you don’t listen I would even use my hand. I know my words are poison to you...’

I capitulated to this new stratagem. Today I really became aware of my smallness, and I began to look upon him with reverence. With tearful eyes, I said: ‘Not at all. Whatever you have said is true, and you have every right to say it.’

Bhai Sahib embraced me and said: I wouldn’t have stopped you from flying kites. I too long to fly them. But I’m helpless. If I were myself to tread the wrong path, how would I stop you? Duty weighs upon my head.

By chance just at that very moment a kite came floating over our heads. The end of its string was dangling just above us. A group of boys was chasing it. Bhai Sahib is tall. He jumped and caught hold of the loose end of the kite-string. Then he flew off towards the hostel. I ran behind him. 

                                                                                          ---
                                                               (Hindi, Hans, November 1934) 



  My Comments
A well-rounded story, with an abrupt but a plausible ending that explodes the inflated balloon of the elder brother’s pretensions and assumptions. In fact Bhai Sahib’s sprint with the kite might also signify his own liberation from the ghosts that haunt him. Bade Bhai Sahib is a light-hearted comic tale overflowing with humour and laced with an undercurrent of irony, satirizing a number of perennial issues - the system of education, teachers and examinations, the problem of learning English, bookish knowledge, learning by rote, and the traditional axiom that a man is qualified to command respect, sermonize and pontificate just because he is older to you.  Prem Chand brings to the centre of his story these questions only to dissolve them into fun and banter.  And look at Prem Chand’s language! How difficult it is to capture in a translation its movement that seems like the flow of a limpid mountain stream dancing down smoothly and uninterruptedly over and through all obstacles en route. It is its volubility, often a flaw in Prem Chand, that makes Bhai Sahib’s verbal onslaughts so pleasing and unconvincing. And so also the pretended seriousness of the narrator, the younger brother!  I think Bade Bhai Sahib is among Prem Chand’s much loved stories.   

Incidentally, this is the seventh Prem Chand story in English translation posted by me on this blog. Students of Prem Chand might be interested in the following statistics: Out of the six stories posted by me, Namak ka Daroga and Thakur Ka Kuan are the most accessed. Namak Ka Daroga seems the most popular with the English readers of Prem Chand and, surprisingly,  Shatranj Ke Khiladi  the least. Just to give the readers an idea: In one month Namak Ka Daroga was accessed 218 times, Thakur Ka Kuan 160 times, Poos Ki Raat 155 times, Kafan 79 times, Sadgati 72 times, and Shatranj Ke Khiladi only 15 times.
These figures of course cannot not be used to decide the relative literary merits, or even the popularity of these stories. I don’t know how the authoritative commentators on Prem Chand would visualize this and explain why one story is more popular than the other, and how far popularity alone can be used as a measure of the literary value of a story, and also how far popularity and literary merit can go together. The data provided here is admittedly inadequate for any definite conclusions. Yet one thing is very significant in these figures. My blog is relatively obscure and very few people, mostly my friends, come to view my blog drawn by my name or forced by me. But most readers of Prem Chand come to my blog accidently while surfing for Prem Chand. This gives a fair indication what they are searching for the most, out of Prem Chand’s stories. And the six stores I have posted here are arguably among the best and most well-known of his stories. This may be enough to generate a discussion on why these days Namak ka Daroga  and Thakur Ka Kuan seem the most popular and Shatranj Ke Khiladi the least.           
 
                                                                   ---                  
  




Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Short Story: Divine Benevolence

For a change from Prem Chand, readers might  read this story of mine  written many years ago  but still, if not more, relevant today.                                                                                                                                                   



DIVINE BENEVOLENCE
by T C Ghai

            Completely fed up with the promises of their rulers the poor of India decided to send a petition to Lord Vishnu.

            At a meeting, a representative assembly of the underdogs from all corners of Bharat resolved, with one voice, to address an appeal to the Lord of Creation. But the question ‘who was the Lord of Creation’ generated much heat. A large number had no doubt about Lord Vishnu being the Supreme Ruler. Some, however, argued that it was Brahma who was the Master of the Universe; others that it was Shiva; some named mother Kali; and yet others Allah or Jehovah. Scores of minor and subservient deities or even demons were also projected, in their turn, as the Lord of Creation.

            Finding the House in a violent disagreement somebody suggested voting and a majority decision. On this a venerable member counselled that, since, in the event of voting, Lord Vishnu was certain to be elected, it would be an act of folly to force a division at such a critical juncture. The advice was generally welcomed. Even then a few members voiced the apprehension that Lord Vishnu, being a deity of the majority community, might discriminate against the minorities. But eloquent protestations of the underlying unity of all the religions and the universality of divine benevolence finally subdued all dissent.

            A charter of demands was prepared, a delegation elected and the august Assembly adjourned after expressing the hope that Lord Vishnu would deliver them from the yoke of the present-day rakshasas, as he had done again and again by coming down to the Earth as an avatar.

            The delegation then set out on its journey towards the abode of Lord Vishnu. But instead of reaching  Ksheer Sagar, the Sea of Milk, said to be the abode of Lord Vishnu, the members of the delegation found themselves at the Gates of Heaven.

            ‘Who’re you?’ one of the guards there asked them sternly. 
          
            ‘Sir, we’re going to the abode of Lord Vishnu, and have lost our way. Please tell us the way to the Sea of Milk.’

            ‘What’s that?’ the guard asked.

            ‘The abode of Lord Vishnu,’ replied a delegate.

            ‘Who told you?’

            ‘We’ve always known it.’

            ‘Then you must all be fools. Where’ve you come from?’

            ‘From Bharatvarsha.’

            ‘Bharatvarsha? We’ve never heard of such a place.’

            The delegates could not believe their ears. Never heard of Bharatvarsha!

            ‘Bharatvarsha is the greatest country on Earth,’ one of the delegates proudly proclaimed.

          ‘It must be really great to have ignorant beggars like you. Somebody has been fooling you there. You’re lucky you have reached here. This is the abode of Lord Vishnu,’ he said, pointing his hand towards Heaven.

            The delegates were overjoyed to hear this. Their leader then moved forward and requested the guards that they should be allowed to go in to see the Lord.

            ‘Why do you want to see Him?’ asked the officer of the guards.

            ‘We’re representatives of the poor in Bharatvarsha. We’ve come to the Lord with a petition on their behalf,’ the leader of the delegation explained.

            The officer’s demeanour hardened at the mention of the word ‘poor’ and he immediately declared, ‘You cannot see Him.’

            ‘Why?’ they asked in one voice.

            ‘Because we can’t allow stinking beggars like you to enter Heaven. Go back wherever you’ve come from,’ the officer retorted harshly.

            ‘But the Lord would not refuse to see us. He’s our Preserver,’ urged the delegates.

            The officer was now red with anger. ‘Get away from here at once, or we’ll throw you away,’ he thundered at them.

            This menacing posture of the officer baffled the delegates completely. They just didn’t know how to appease or circumvent his hostility. They were half inclined to turn back  when they remembered crores of hungry, naked and roofless Indians living without hope. They moved aside to confer. One of them whispered that they should try to win over the guards by offering the silver bangles and anklets worn by the woman delegate. The lady winced at the suggestion. These were borrowed ornaments and she was unwilling to lose them. But her companions prevailed upon her by arguing that her sacrifice would not go uncompensated by millions of their fellow countrymen, whose representatives they were.

            One of the members then went up to the officer of the guards, took him aside and talked to him in whispers. This had its effect. The officer agreed to carry their petition in. He, however, would not let them in because, he told them, no one was allowed to enter Heaven without an express permission from the Lord.

            He directed them to camp at some distance from the gates of Heaven, out of sight of the guards, and wait till a reply was received from within.


            When no one came to summon them even after hours of waiting, a few of them went to the guards to find out if any reply had been brought for them. The officer shook his head and advised them to be patient; they could not hope for such a quick response because their petition would be scrutinized at many stages before it was finally placed before the Lord. It all depended, he said, pointing his finger vaguely towards Heaven, on the officials there who had their own conception of what was important or urgent or otherwise. If they detected urgency in anything, they might allow an appointment in a fortnight, otherwise it took months and sometimes years before any response came from them. A member ventured to point out that nothing could be more desperate than the fate of millions of poor people of Bharatvarsha. At this the officer replied that he could say nothing on the subject, he himself being a total stranger to all that went on inside. He advised them to allow the matter to take its own course; otherwise the officials might get provoked, and misrepresent their case, or just sit on the petition and never forward it to the Lord.

            The members hung their heads in resignation and walked away to their camp, hoping that the sense of urgency expressed in their memorandum would not be lost upon the people inside.

The members of the delegation had set up their camp in the open ground far from the entrance to Heaven. In the evening when a cold wind began to blow they realized that, with the meagre clothing they had with them, they would be frozen to death if they received no help from Heaven. It being too late to ask for help now, they spent the night signing the Lord’s praises and dancing round the fire they had lit to cook their food.

            The next morning they requested the officer of the guards to provide them with food and some protection from the cold. As it was not known how long they would have to wait, they feared they would perish with cold and hunger if left to fend for themselves. The officer simply waved aside their fears. He assured them that they would never die because anyone who ever came there as a supplicant was exempt from death while his petition was being heard in Heaven. He cited an instance where a person had to wait, without food and shelter, for two years before his petition was finally rejected. They had heard him howl and groan, but he had survived the ordeal.

            On being asked why they could not be housed inside and provided with food, the officer replied that it was an iron law that only those who had proved themselves deserving were received within. Some delegates wondered whether it would not be possible for them to enter Heaven by bribing the guards, but since they had nothing with which to inveigle them they kept quiet. All of them, however, became mournfully conscious of their sinfulness that denied them the hospitality of Heaven even for a short while. They resolved to make use of their time to propitiate the Lord through regular prayers.

            Days changed into weeks, and weeks into months. There was nothing to indicate that their petition had been presented before Lord Vishnu. Once that was done, there would be no delay; Lord Vishnu could not be so cruel as to leave them suffering like that. The guards were either unwilling or unable to provide them with any information on the progress of their petition. They could, therefore, do nothing except wait till the officials within were pleased to think of them.

            In the meanwhile, hunger and cold did not prove to be murderous as they had imagined; they were able to endure them quite easily, being no strangers to these hardships on Earth where these were their constant companions. The guards, who had seen other people writhe and howl under similar conditions, marvelled at their capacity to suffer so much without complaint.

            After a hundred days of waiting they were summoned before an official from within. He told them that he had been sent by the most trusted minister of the Lord to receive them and redress their grievances.

            The leader of the deputation told him that they had come to see the Lord Himself.

            ‘I know that,’ replied the official curtly, ‘it is impossible for you to get an audience with Him. He is preoccupied with affairs of great importance and has no time for petty things.’

            ‘But our problems are not petty,’ cried one of the delegates.

            ‘That’s how it may look to you. But think of the Lord. He has to manage the affairs of millions of worlds. You are lucky that we’ve been able to think of your petition so soon. You might have waited and waited. Now at least you can speak out and we shall do our best. It is really unnecessary for you to stay and try to see the Lord. I’m here to help you.’

            The delegates had not come for this. To have come from so far, to have suffered so much, only to be turned away from the gates of Heaven by a small official!  No, they were not prepared for this. But they did not know how to convince this man. Then, all of a sudden, the lady delegate stood up with folded hands and said, ‘Sir, we’re grateful to you. But we’ve come here to see the Lord, and we shall not go away without his darshan, even if we’ve to wait for years. Please go and tell this to the Lord.’

            There was a murmur of approval from all her companions.

The official seemed ruffled by this show of tenacity. He had been asked by his Chief to put these people off. The Chief wanted to prevent their meeting Lord Vishnu because he had admitted to Heaven, through questionable means, a large number of people from their planet and also barred the entry of many who were really deserving of a place there. He feared that the truth behind these dubious transactions would come out if the Earthlings were allowed to meet Lord Vishnu; and that would bring down His wrath upon him. The official, however, felt that he could do nothing against the strong resolution of these people. If they stuck to their word, which seemed likely, the Lord was sure to notice them on one of his visits around the place, and that would create difficulties for him too. Moreover, why should he, he thought, help to cover up the misdeeds of his Chief, who seldom shared with his subordinates the offerings he accepted from all those undeserving aspirants for Heaven.  He even felt some satisfaction at the possible discomfiture of his Chief.

            A broad smile appeared on his celestial countenance as he addressed the Earthlings thus:

          ‘Friends, I’m happy that you have such eagerness to meet the Lord. I was only trying to gauge the depth of your love for Him. How can the Lord refuse to meet His steadfast devotees? You may have to wait for some more time but, rest assured, your devotion will qualify you for His darshan.

            ‘We’re prepared to wait,’ they chanted in voices weak with hunger and choked with emotion. Encouraged by this cheerful prospect, one of them even spoke of the unbearable hunger and cold that was their present lot.

            The official excused himself, saying he could do nothing about it, and walked in through the gates. The Earthlings cast gloomy looks across the Heavenly entrance to see where he went, but everything, except the high gilded domes of Heaven, was clouded in a deep mist. They could form no idea of what went on beyond that thick veil.

            Three weeks later they received, through the officer of the guards, the following note sent by the highest authority entrusted with the affairs of their planet.
           
‘After a careful scrutiny of the petition made by some Earthlings we feel that it is not necessary to bother the Lord with such trivial matters. We appreciate the courage and devotion with which they have undertaken such a hazardous journey to Heaven to acquaint us with the affairs of our subjects in Bharatvarsha. But we hope they realize that it is not possible for us to accept as true, on such a flimsy evidence and without sufficient warrant, all that has been stated in their petition. We have therefore decided to appoint a commission of enquiry to go into the alleged misdeeds of some and miseries of many in their land. The commission will, after its investigations, suggest measures, if indeed they are needed, to ameliorate the lot of our subjects. Nothing can indeed be dearer to us than the perpetual well being of all our peoples. But they must realize that it is impossible for us to accept a handful of people as representatives of crores of our subjects, for we believe that anyone who has a grievance can come on his own to seek justice here. The gates of Heaven are open to everyone.
           
However, in order to compensate for the hardships endured by the members of this delegation we are prepared to reward them suitably. The reward would include the guarantee of a happy life on Earth, freedom from want and misfortune. It may even include acceptance into Heaven later.’

            The note raised a big controversy among the delegates. There were many who were prepared to accept the argument that they could not represent others; so if they had failed to get anything for others, why should they spurn what was being offered to them. Others could not accept this. They argued that, having come here solely as representatives of their brethren, they could not go back with their own pockets filled, but empty-handed for the rest.

            There were two or three who were quite unconcerned with such questions. Their contention was that, having come so far, and having suffered so long, they must not go back without the Lord’s darshan. At least one among them suspected some deep conspiracy to prevent their meeting with the Lord. When others protested that such a thing could never happen in Heaven, he silenced them by saying that if the guards could be bribed, why not others.

            After a prolonged discussion it was decided to make one final attempt to secure an audience with the Lord. Accordingly, they informed the officer of the guards that they would go away only at the bidding of the Lord Himself, otherwise they would prefer to perish there rather than turn back without His blessings. The officers warned them that they might even lose, through their obstinacy, whatever little was being offered to them. They, however, stuck to their resolve.

            Another thirty days passed before they were summoned before the Lord of Creation.

            Lord Vishnu smiled at them as they lay prostrate before Him. ‘Arise, my children. Tell me how are my subjects in Bharat. What has impelled you to seek me through so much hardship? But first, tell me why do you look so lean, so starved, so sullen? Why are you dressed in rags?’

            Tears overflowed their cheeks as they listened to the soothing words of the Lord. They were face to face with Him! He was talking to them so lovingly! Surely all their sufferings would now end. Gradually they raised themselves and stood with their eyes riveted on the Lord’s refulgent glory.

            Some time elapsed before the Earthlings realized that the Lord had spoken to them. Their leader moved his lips in an attempt to answer. But his courage failed him. Lord Vishnu divined his hesitation and commanded: ‘Speak, without fear of anyone.’

            ‘O Lord,’ the leader began, ‘whenever Earth has quaked under the weight of sinfulness, you have always come down to rescue your humble and suffering devotees. Such a time has come once again. Bharat, that was once like Heaven, that was once the land where even gods longed to be born, is in a sad plight. It is groaning under the tyranny and injustice of new rakshasas. Crores of people have nothing to eat, nothing to wear. Our children grow up only to struggle, day and night, for crumbs of bread. Instead of blood, poverty and hunger flow in our veins. It seems we have been hungry for ages. Crores amongst us have forgotten what it is to have a belly-full of food. This had never happened in the worst of times. Never in the past did Bharat have so many people living like worms and insects, and rulers so hard-hearted, so forgetful… They swear by us. They declare that they rule over us with our consent, and work day and night to lessen our sufferings. Yet during the last thirty years our miseries have only multiplied.’

            Lord Vishnu lifted his palm to interrupt him. ‘Peace, my son. I am astonished. People coming from Bharat have told me that all is well there. Everyone has plenty to eat and drink. They live in beautiful palaces, and lack nothing. And you are telling me that crores of people live like worms! I cannot believe this.’

            The words of the Lord hit them like a thunderbolt. The Lord also telling that He did not believe them? How could He be ignorant? He must be putting them on trial.

            ‘Lord,’ their leader moaned, ‘You are all knowing. Nothing can be hidden from You? How can You disbelieve us? Even a straw does not move without Your command. Do not try our endurance and devotion any further. We’ve suffered enough.’ Saying this he broke down completely.

            Deep furrows appeared on Lord Vishnu’s heavenly brow. He closed His eyelids and tried to concentrate on something. A tiny planet swam before Him. A moment’s introspection revealed to Him the entire truth about this miserable little ball. This is what happened, He reflected, with Godly dismay, when one put too many irons into the fire. He had, in His maniacal fascination for creation, gone on creating worlds and beings, leaving them to these agents to mal-administer. And they had messed up the whole thing through their indifference, indolence, greed, and personal jealousies. To satisfy their vanity of being worshipped as gods they had created factions among their subjects; incensed them to wage bloody wars, and perpetrate heinous crimes; infected them with frightful diseases and pestilences; held back rains when rains were desperately needed; caused floods and sent down hails to destroy their crops and cattle; caused earthquakes to raze cities and bury alive thousands of their subjects. They had inveigled the powerful and the cunning among the mortals into inventing falsehoods to deceive the weak and the simple-minded, so that they could accept their hardships and miseries as manifestations of divine displeasure, and offer sacrifices and burn incense at their altar to tickle their godly nostrils. They had even infested Heaven with their toadies and most undeserving scoundrels by receiving the meanest gratifications, and kept out of Heaven the most deserving of men. If only He had not been carried away by His enthusiasm for Creation, these Earthlings would not be here with their silly complaints...

            He was so moved by the spectacle of human misery on this planet that He decided to put an instant end to it by blowing up the whole planet out of existence…but the next moment He remembered that this was after all only a play, a grand play – all this pain and pleasure, hunger and satisfaction of hunger, nakedness and kingly wear, crowded stinking huts and magnificent palaces, Hell and Heaven. No one really suffered, no one was happy; no one fell ill and no one recovered; no one died for no one was born. It was a Fantasy He had created for His own delight.
           
Why not, then, allow this play to go on? Why interfere, and why not allow it to work to its own logical conclusion? It would be fascinating to see the extent to which the perversity of these two-legged creatures could carry them. He decided to keep a constant watch on this planet, but without interfering in all that went on there. However, His immediate task was to reassure and send these people away.

            He opened His eyes, cast a benign look upon the Earthlings and spoke in a  most mellifluous voice: ‘My children, forget all your fears. I know all that is happening in Bharatvarsha. The evil and the wicked cannot escape punishment. They will continue to rule over Earth for some more time, but not for too long. And when the Time comes I shall not fail to deliver the virtuous. Then all your sufferings would come to end.  Now, go back home in peace, and pass your days chanting My name. Do not ever lose faith in Me, even at the worst of times. I shall not fail to rescue you at the appointed hour.’
           
Tears of joy rolled out of their eyes as these words of the Lord fell on their ears. Their mission had succeeded beyond all their expectations. All of them, once again, lay prostrate before Lord Vishnu, murmuring something through their tears. Slowly they got up on their feet and marched out.

Lord Vishnu heaved a sigh of relief.