Saturday, October 5, 2013

Prem Chand's short story 'Bade Ghar KI Beti'

Given here is my translation of Prem Chand's short story 'Bade Ghar Ki Beti'.




Daughter of a Great House

(बड़े घर की बेटी)

Benimadhavasingh was a landowner, and the revenue officer in the village of Gauripur. His grandfather, once upon a time, was a man of great wealth. The village’s pucca water reservoir and the temple, which now cried out for repairs, were his proud memorials. People say that once an elephant stood at the door where now there is only an old buffalo, which is no more than a skeleton of its old self but which appears to produce a large quantity of milk, judged by the fact that someone or the other from the family keeps hovering around her with a pot. Benimadhava had gifted away more than half of his wealth to the lawyers.  His present annual income was no more than a thousand rupees. He had two sons. The elder one, Shrikanthsingh, had obtained his B.A. degree after long and great hard work, and was employed in an office. The younger son, Lalbiharisingh, was a broad-chested, strongly-built handsome youth. He would drink up two seers of milk every morning soon after waking up. Shrikanth was an exact contrast. He had sacrificed these eye-pleasing qualities to just two words: B.A. These two letters had debilitated his body and robbed his face of all its brightness. That is why he loved books on medicine. He had great faith in the Ayurvedic medicines. From morning till evening one could hear the soft grind of the pestle moving to and fro in the mortar. He was in regular postal contact with vaids in Lahore and Calcutta.

Shrikanth, in spite of holding this English degree, had no special love for English manners and customs; on the other hand, he was their strong critic and held them in contempt. Because of this the villagers held him in great respect. During the Dussehra festival he participated in the Ramlila, taking up the role of one character or the other. He was the founder of Ramlila in the village. The primary object of his religious activities was the promotion of ancient Hindu culture. He was a staunch admirer of the joint family system. For him the lack of interest in joint family seen among women today was harmful for the community and the country. For this reason the young ladies of the village were his strong critics. A few among them did not hesitate to regard him as their enemy. Even his own wife, Anandi, opposed his views on the subject. Not because she disliked her father and mother in-law, or her husband’s brother, but because she believed that if it was not possible to carry on even after many compromises, it was better to part and set up one’s own kitchen than to waste one’s life in needless everyday bickering.

Anandi was a girl from an aristocratic family. Her father was the talukdar of a small state. A huge mansion, an elephant, three dogs, hunter eagles, chandeliers, honorary magistracy, and debts – all the objects of respectability for a talukdar were present here. His name was Bhoop Singh. He was a very generous and talented man, but unfortunately he had no son. He fathered seven daughters and all of them remained alive. In the first flush of enthusiasm he married off three of his daughters, spending generously. But when he realized he had contracted a debt of about fifteen-to-twenty thousand rupees, he withdrew his hand. Anandi was his fourth daughter. She was the most beautiful and talented of his daughters. That is why thakur sahib loved her greatly. All parents have a tendency to love their beautiful off-spring. Thakur sahib faced a great dilemma: Where to find a suitable match for Anandi? He did not want to increase the burden of his debt, at the same time he did not wish to give his daughter the feeling that she had been unfortunate. One day Shrikanth came to him to ask for some donations; it was perhaps for the propagation of Hindi. Bhoopsingh was impressed by his conduct, and married off Anandi to Shrikanth with great pomp and show. 

When Anandi came to her new home she found that things were very different here. There was no trace of any of the trappings of wealth which she had been used to since her childhood. What to talk of an elephant or a horse, there was nothing like even a well-adorned bullock cart. She had brought her silken slippers but there was no garden here. There were no windows, no pucca floors, or no pictures on the walls. Here there was just an ordinary rural household. However, Anandi adapted herself to this new environment with such ease as if she had never been used to the luxuries of life. 


One day at noon time Lalbiharisingh brought fowl meat and told his sister-in-law to cook it immediately, saying he was feeling very hungry. Anandi was waiting for him ready with food. Now she had to make this new dish for him. She looked into the pot. There was not much ghee left. Being the daughter of a wealthy house she did not know how to be thrifty. She poured all the ghee into this dish of meat. When Lalbihari sat to eat he found no ghee in the dal. ‘Why haven’t you put ghee into dal?’

Anandi replied that she had put all the ghee into the meat dish. Lalbihari shouted that they had brought ghee only yesterday. How could it be used up so soon?

Anandi said, ‘Today there was only a quarter seer of it. And she had used it for the meat dish.’
A ravenously hungry man is inflamed as swiftly as a dry stick of wood catches fire. Lalbihari did not like this answer from his sister-in-law and shouted, ‘You talk as if ghee flows like a river at your parents.’

Women can accept abusive language, or even thrashing, but not the denigration of their parental home. Anandi retorted, ‘Even a dead elephant is worth a million. There nais and kahars consume this much ghee every day.’

Lalbihari became red with anger. He overturned the thali and said, ‘I feel like pulling out your tongue.’

Anandi also lost her temper. She said, ‘Had he been here he would have taught you a lesson.’

Now the illiterate and ill-mannered thakur could no longer restrain himself. His own wife was the daughter of a small-time landlordand and he could thrash her at will. He picked up his wooden slipper and threw it at his sister-in-law, saying, ‘I shall settle scores with you, and also him.’

Anandi parried the slipper with her hand to protect her head. But in the process she hurt her finger badly. She rushed angrily into her room, shaking like a leaf in the wind. A woman’s power and courage, her honour and self-respect reside in her husband and she is proud of his strength and manhood. Anandi had no alternative but to swallow this insult.


Shrikanth Singh used to come home every Saturday. This incident had taken place on a Thursday. For two days Anandi locked herself up in her room. She went without food and waited for her husband. He returned as usual on Saturday evening, and sat in the open talking of things in general and of some of the new court cases. This went on till ten o’clock in the evening. The worthies of the village enjoyed this gossip so much that they forgot even to eat. It was difficult for Shrikanth to get rid of them. Anandi spent these few hours in great unease. At last the people moved out and it was time to eat. Just then Lalbihari came to his brother and said, ‘Bhai sahib, just tell bhabhi to be careful with her tongue, or something terrible will happen one day.’

Benimadhavasingh supported his son. ‘Yes, it is wrong for women to talk back to men.’

Lalbihri said, ‘She may be from a great family, but we’re are not low caste kahars or kurmis.’

Shrikanth asked in a worried tone, ‘After all, what’s the matter?’

Lalbihari said, ‘Nothing at all. She got into an argument with me. In her eyes we’re nobody as against her parental family.’ 

After finishing his food Shrikanth went to his wife. She sat filled up with resentment. She said, ‘Are you happy?’

Shrikanth replied, ‘Yes, I’m happy. But what’s this storm and uproar you have raised?’

Anandi’s brow became pitted with lines. She was aflame with anger. ‘I would singe the face of the person who has instigated you.’

‘Why’re you so angry? What’s the matter?’

‘What should I tell you? It’s my fate. Otherwise a village bumpkin who is not fit to be appointed a peon wouldn’t have hurled his slipper at me and threatened me.’

‘Tell me everything plainly. I don’t know anything.’

Anandi narrated the story. ‘The day before your dear brother asked me to cook a meat dish for him. There wasn’t much ghee in the pot. I used the whole of it in the meat. When he sat down to eat he asked why there was no ghee in the dal. And he started cursing my parental home. I couldn’t control myself and said that there this much ghee was consumed by nais and kahars, and no one even notices this. At this the tyrant hurled his slipper at me. Had I not stopped it with my hand it would have hit me on the head. Ask him if what I have said is a lie.’

Shrikanth’s eyes became red. He said, ‘Has that boy dared to do this?’

Like all women Anandi began to cry. Shrikanth was a very gentle and forbearing person. He seldom lost his temper. However female tears work to add fuel to a fire. He kept tossing in his bed. His anger did not let him shut his eyes even for a moment. In the morning he went to his father and said, ‘Dada, I won’t be able to carry on here any longer.’

Shrikanth had denounced many of his friends for letting off such rebellious ideas, but today he himself had to do it. How easy it is to preach to others!

Benimadhavasingh was upset. He said, ‘Why?’

Shrikanth replied, ‘Because I also care for my self-respect. Your house is becoming a place of injustice and boorishness. He who should be respectful and courteous to their elders misbehaves with them. I am in service elsewhere and don’t stay at home. And in my absence slippers and shoes are hurled at women. Harsh words are fine. I won’t mind them. But I can’t keep quiet if someone hurls kicks and blows at me.’

Benimadhavasingh made no answer. Shrikanth had always been respectful towards him. The old thakur was speechless before such an outburst of temper. He only said ‘Son, you’re a sensible person and yet you talk like that. Women destroy their households like this. It’s not proper to give them so much latitude.’

Shrikanth replied, ‘With your blessings, I’m not such a fool. You yourself know that many homes in the village have been saved with my intervention, but I can’t accept such unjust and inhuman conduct towards the woman for whose honour I’m answerable to God. The truth is that I don’t want to punish Lalbihari.’

Now Benimadhavasingh got worked up. He could not hear anything anymore. He said, ‘Lalbihari is your brother. If he does something foolish you can catch him by the ear but…’

‘I no longer regard Lalbihari as my brother.’

‘For a woman?’

‘No, sir. For his cruelty and lack of sense.’  

Both of them became quiet for some time. Thakur sahib wanted to pacify his son but was not willing to admit that Lalbihari had done something wrong. In the meantime many worthy men of the village came there under the pretext of smoking the hookah. Many women were very happy when they came to know that Shrikanth was willing to break with his father for the sake of his wife. They were dying to hear the exchange of sweet words between the two sides. There were many wicked persons in the village who were secretly jealous of the orderly and peaceful tenor of life in this family. They often said that Shrikanth was very timid and afraid of his father. He was educated, so he had become a bookworm. Benimadhavasingh did not do anything without consulting his son, but this, they thought, was nothing but his foolishness. The wishes of these great people, it seemed, were about to be realized. Some among them came on the pretext of smoking the hookah, others to show the payment receipt for the land revenue. Benimadhava was an old hand and could sense their thoughts. He decided that he would not give them any chance to rejoice. Very quickly he spoke in a very gentle voice, ‘Son, I’m not against you. Do what you like. The boy has indeed committed a crime.’

The inexperienced graduate from Allahabad could not take any clue from this. From the debating club he had acquired the habit of sticking to his argument, and he could not follow the tactics employed by his father. He said, ‘I cannot live in this house with Lalbihari.’

Benimadhava said, ‘Son, the wise don’t take such follies seriously. He lacks understanding. He has made a mistake, but you, being his elder, should forgive him.’

Shrikanth replied, ‘I can never forgive him for this misconduct. If you love him so much, you let me go. I shall take care of myself. If you want me to stay then tell him to go away wherever he likes. This is my final decision.’

Lalbihari stood at the door listening to his brother. He had great respect for his brother. He had never had the courage to sit on a cot facing his brother, or smoke the hookah or chew paan in his presence. He respected his brother even more than his father. Shrikanth also had great affection for him. He did not remember having ever rebuked him. Whenever he returned from Allahabad he would always bring some gift for him. It was he who had gifted the pair of dumbbells to him. Last year when Lalbihari had floored a wrestler far stronger than him, he had gone right into the ring to embrace him and had distributed five rupees. Hearing such harsh words from his brother, Lalbihari felt ashamed of himself. Tears welled up in his eyes. Undoubtedly, he was regretting what he had done. A day before his brother was to return he was nervously debating within himself how he would react to the incident: How he would face him, how he would respond to his questioning and how he would look in his eyes. He had thought that his brother would just admonish him, but he found his brother going ruthlessly against his wishful thinking. And in his heart he believed that his brother was being unfair to him. If Shrikanth had called him aside, rebuked him or even given a few slaps he wouldn’t have been so hurt, but Lalbihari was totally shaken to hear that his brother wouldn’t even like to see his face. He went into the house crying. He went into his room, dressed up, wiped his eyes so that no one should notice that he had been crying. He came and stood at Anandi’s door and said, ‘Bhabi, bhaiya has decided that he does not wish to live with me in this house. He does not want to see my face, so I’m going away. I would never show my face to him. Forgive me for my misconduct.’

Lalbihari’s throat choked with emotions as he said these words.

As Lalbihari stood in front of Anandi with bowed head, Shrikanth came in, his eyes red with anger. When he saw his brother waiting there he turned his eyes and walked away, as if running away from even his shadow.

Anandi had complained against Lalbihari, but now she was regretting it. She was generous by nature. She had never imagined that things would go that far. She was irritated at her husband for having lost his temper. And she was afraid he might ask her to go with her to Allahabad. What would she do then? And when she heard what Lalbihari had just said, all her anger against him disappeared. She started crying. There is nothing better than tears to wash off the bitterness in one’s heart.

When Anandi saw Shrikanth she said, ‘Labihari is crying.’

Shrikanth said, ‘So what?’

‘Call him in. My tongue should singe. Why did I raise this quarrel?’

‘I won’t call him.’

‘You’ll regret. He is completely broken down. He might go away.’

Shrikanth did not get up. In the meantime Lalbihari said again, ‘Bhabhi, say my goodbye to bhaiya. Since he does not wish to see my face, I won’t show it to him.’  Saying this Lalbihari moved towards the door. Anandi walked towards him and caught him by the hand. Lalbihari turned his face towards her and said, ‘Let me go.’

‘Where would you go?’

‘Where no one would see my face.’

‘I won’t let you go.’

‘I’m not fit to live with you people.’

‘In my name, don’t take even one step.’

‘I won’t stay in this house until I’m sure bhaiya has forgiven me.’

‘I swear by God that I harbour no ill-will towards you.’

Now Shrikanth’s heart also melted. He came out and embraced his brother. Both the brothers began to cry like children. Lalbihari said, ‘Bhaiya, never say again that you won’t see my face. Except that, I shall happily accept any punishment from you.’

Shrikanth replied in a trembling voice, ‘Lallu, forget all this. Such an occasion would never arise.’

Benimadavasingh was coming in. He was overjoyed to see the brothers embracing each other.

Joyfully, he said, ‘That’s what the daughters from great houses are like. They set things right.’

Everyone in the village who heard this story began to shower praises on Anandi. ‘Daughters from great houses are indeed like that.’

(Zamaana, Urdu, December 1910. First story published under the adopted name Premchand)                                                                                           ---       

My Comments

‘Bade Ghar Ki Beti’ is among Prem Chand’ earliest stories. It was published in 1910 in ‘Zamana’ and was the first story he published under his adopted name Prem Chand. As is usual with Prem Chand, the subject of the story is a social question, the joint family in this case. It is very interesting to note that the threat to the joint family was already an issue at the beginning of the last century. But in the story, as it must have been in contemporary life then, it remains only a threat and the story’s resolution saves the family in question from disintegration. And that seems also Prem Chand’s message. The joint family is under threat but it would be a bad thing if it broke up. That’s why the title, ‘Bade Ghar Ki Beti’. But now, a century after, the issue has gone overboard and the breaking up of the joint family has gone very far, for good and bad. It still remains a violently contested issue. Although this story is among his earliest ones, the great hallmarks of the writer’s art of story-telling are clearly in evidence: his tongue-in-cheek humour, the constantly flowing under-current of irony that spares no one, his moralizing tone and idealistic endings, and his very powerful awareness of the decline of the Indian zamindari. Both the families portrayed in the story are far gone in their decline, mired in litigation and debt. The opening lines of the story symbolize this decline beautifully. But, of course, Prem Chand is yet a long way from seeing the most devastating and the blatantly unjust aspects of life in the rural and traditional India. He has yet to encounter the Bolshivek Revolution, Gandhi and the Indian National Movement. He is yet to write about men and women like Hori and Dhania, Ghisu and Madho, Dukhia and Jhuria, Jokhu and Gangi, the thakurs, the nawabs, the banias and pandits, and many others like them.