Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Premchand's short story 'Bade Bhai Sahib' in English
Here is Premchand'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, Amina, brothers-brothers, in reality, brother-brother, Radheyshyam-Shriyut Radheyshyam, 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 my brother’s red face petrified me. 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 walking in the street would have become a scholar of English. One has to strain your eyes day and night, burn oneself out, only then can one learn it. 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 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, so 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 map or a set plan? 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 only in front of the hostel; then English composition from six-thirty to seven-thirty, then food, then 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.
Annual examinations were over. 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 clan survived to give him even 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 Paradise 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 by chance nab a partridge. But this can happen only once. Not again and again. 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 Englistan! 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 point of learning things that are without a head or feet? 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 this dumb thing. 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 life, 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.
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 sorry 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. A malicious 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 one after the other 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. 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 disembodied soul descending from heaven to assume a new identity. 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 are now deputy magistrates or a superintendents. Many of them are our leaders, or newspaper editors. Many scholars work under them; and here you are running about in the company of this riff-raff 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)
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. Premchand brings to the centre of his story these questions only to dissolve them into fun and banter. And look at Premchand’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 Premchand, 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 Premchand’s much loved stories.
Incidentally, this is the seventh Premchand story in English translation posted by me on this blog. Students of Premchand 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 Premchand 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 Premchand 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 Premchand come to my blog accidentally while surfing for Premchand. This gives a fair indication what they are searching for the most, out of Premchand’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.
Posted by tcghai at 11:17 AM