Sunday, January 25, 2015

Prem Chand's short stroy 'Jhanki' (A Reverie)



Read this Prem Chand short story 'Jhanki' in translation by me. This is among his less known stories and it is in fact in some ways uncharacteristic of Prem Chand art of story-telling. It is almost devoid of Prem Chand's genial humour and gentle irony, and hope. The atmosphere is sombre and joyless, positing a yawning gap between one's fantasies and reality. The ending leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions. The theme of the story, the strife between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in which the husband is caught, may seem old-fashioned in today's literature where, with the breakdown of the joint family and the emergence of the new self-conscious woman, the focus has perhaps shifted to conflict between husband and wife, yet Prem Chand weaves into the story  a few things that remain relevant today. The atmosphere of pessimism surprises one. Had this something to do with the failure of his first marriage? But it depends on how one reads the story.   




A Reverie (Jhanki)



For many days the house was torn apart by strife. Both my mother and my wife sat with their faces turned away. The atmosphere within the house seemed poisoned. No food was cooked yesterday evening. In the morning I made some khichdi but no one ate. Even the children didn’t feel hungry. My little daughter shuttled back and forth among us but no one had a word of affection for her. No one took her into their lap, as if she had committed a crime. When my son returned from school no one offered him food, no one talked to him. Both the boy and the girl sat listless in the verandah wondering why everyone had become heartless. Brothers and sisters often quarrel, shout at each other, come to blows but people don’t stop cooking and become dumb because of that. They just didn’t know why this quarrel showed no sign of ending. 

There was nothing much at the root of the quarrel. The list prepared by my mother of the gifts to be sent to my sister’s house on Teej seemed to my wife to be beyond our means. Mother was understanding enough and had already trimmed it, but my wife thought that it needed to be trimmed further. It could have been three saris instead of five. Where was the need for so many toys and so many sweets? Her argument was that since their income was declining and they had to cut down on their day-to-day expenses, there was no sense in being liberal on Teej. No one lights a lamp at the mosque while their own house is in darkness. That is how the quarrel between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law began; and then new branches sprouted up. Old complaints were raked up; then came innuendos, then sarcasms, and finally it settled on dead silence.

I was in grave distress. If I sided with amma my wife raised a storm and began to curse her fate; if I sided with my wife I was called henpecked. As a result I sided now with amma and now with my wife. But out of selfishness my sympathies were with my wife. My cinema budget had gone awry. I was forced to reduce expenses on my paan and I had stopped my trips to the market. I could not say anything openly to amma but in my heart I felt that she was more at fault. The shop wasn’t doing well at all. I was unable to recover money from my debtors. So I did not want to court more trouble by following these worn-out customs.

Caught up again and again in these domestic tangles, I was feeling helpless. We were just three of us and yet there was no love lost among us. To hell with such domestic life! At times I thought of running away from all this. When they are forced to run the household without me they would realize their folly. Had I known life would become so distressful, I wouldn’t have ever married. My mind was filled with all kinds of unpleasant thoughts. How am I to blame if the daughter-in-law doesn’t press her mother-in-law’s feet or massage her head? I haven’t stopped her from doing all this. I would be happy if there was real affection between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law, but this was not within my power. If amma had washed her mother-in-law’s saris, pressed her feet or faced her ire, why should she want to settle the score on her daughter-in-law? Why doesn’t she see that the times have changed? The daughters-in-law these days don’t like to be treated as slaves. You may make them do anything out of love, but you can’t rule over them by show of authority.

The whole city was celebrating the festival of Janamashtmi, and my house was in a state of war. It was evening and the whole house was in darkness. Inauspiciousness reigned all over. I lost my temper at my wife. Fight if you like but why keep the house in darkness. I went to her and said, ‘Won’t we light any lamps?’

My wife retorted, ‘Why don’t you do it yourself. Don’t you have hands?’

I was inflamed, ‘Do you think this house was in darkness before you stepped in here?’

Amma added fuel to the fire, ‘No, we all lived in darkness before she came.’

My wife lost all control over herself. ‘Yes, you must be burning earthen lamps. I have been here for ten years now and haven’t seen a lantern.’

I shouted at her, ‘Now shut up. Don’t go too far.’

‘O, you’re shouting at me as if you have bought me in a sale.’

‘I say shut up.’ 

‘Why should I shut up? You will get it back two fold.’

‘Is this what you call wifely devotion?’

‘One gets a paan the size of one’s mouth.’   

Defeated, I came away and sat down in the unlit room and began to curse the day I had married this wretched woman. Even in this darkness my ten-year long married life flashed before my eyes like a film in which there was no brightness, no affection.



2

All of a sudden my friend Pandit Jaidevji called. ‘Oh, why this darkness? I can’t see anything. Where’re you?’

I made no reply. Why had he come to bother me?

‘Oh, man, where’re you? Why don’t you answer? Is there anyone at home?’

He got no reply.

Jaidev shook the door with such force that I thought the door would come apart. Even then I made no reply.

Jaidev went away and I breathed easy. Good riddance; or the devil would have bored me stiff for hours.

But just after five minutes I heard the noise of footsteps, and soon my room was flooded with torch light. When Jaidev saw me sitting there he asked in surprise, ‘Where were you? I shouted for hours and no one answered. What’s the matter? The whole house is in darkness.’

I evaded. ‘I don’t know. I had a headache and went to sleep as soon as I returned from the shop.’

‘And slept like a log, betting with a corpse!’

‘Oh yes, dear, I was so sleepy.’

‘But a lamp should have been lit. Or have you stopped doing that?’

‘Today everyone is fasting. They wouldn’t have found time.’

‘Forget it. Let’s go somewhere to watch a tableau. The tableau in Seth Ghoorey Lal’s temple is a special treat. Your eyes are dazzled looking at the workmanship of mirrors and electric lights. Ashoka pillars bedecked with red, green and blue lights! And right in front of God’s throne a fountain spraying rose water all around! My dress was drenched in fragrance. I have come straight to you. You might have seen many sights, but this is something special. They say it is the creation of a workman specially brought from Delhi.’

I responded in an indifferent tone, ‘Bhai, I don’t want to go. I have a severe headache.’

‘In that case you must come. Your headache would vanish in no time.’

‘You’re too insistent. That’s why I was lying quietly, wanting to avoid you. Why do you pester me? I said I won’t go.’

‘And I say you have to come.’

 My friend has a very simple trick to secure victory over me. I can match anyone in fist fighting, wrestling or anything but if someone starts tickling me I surrender at once. I fold my hands. I giggle and even begin to cry. Jaidev used this very trick and he won.

3

Seth Ghoorey Lal is a person the very mention of whose name in the morning would deprive you of food for the whole day. A hundred tales of his fly-sucking stinginess are part of the city’s folklore. Once, it is said, a beggar came to his door and refused to budge without receiving alms. The seth also refused to yield; whatever the cost. The beggar, a Marwadi himself, kept on eulogizing the seth’s ancestors for some time, then he started denigrating them and finally he lay down at the seth’s doorsteps. The seth didn’t care and the beggar too refused to move. He kept lying there the whole day without food and water and then he died there and then. The seth was so moved that he cremated the beggar with great fanfare. He fed one lakh brahmins and also gave one lakh rupees as donation. The beggar’s saytagraha became a blessing for the seth. It was asif a spring of devotion burst forth in his heart and he donated all his wealth for religious causes. 

We reached the temple premises and found it so crowded that people rubbed shoulders with each other. The entrance and exit were clearly marked out but even then we got our turn only after half an hour.  Jaidev went overboard seeing the decorations but I felt that Krishna’s soul had vanished somewhere in this beautification and display. I was overcome with dismay on seeing his diamond-studded image shining in brilliant electric lights. Can love reside in such a form? I wondered. We have seen only hypocrisy and arrogance hidden in gems and diamonds. At that time I forgot that this temple belonged to a millionaire, and that a man of wealth can conceive only of a God rolling in wealth. He can express his devotion only for a wealthy God. One who does not have wealth can only be an object of their pity not devotion.

 Jaidev knew everyone in the temple. A troupe of singers was sitting in the temple courtyard. Acharya Kelkarji was present with his tanpoora and students of Gandharva Vidyalaya. Pakhawaj, sitar, veena and many other musical instruments, unknown to me, lay beside his disciples. They were getting ready for a recital. Kelkar called out Jaidev. I too went and sat among the audience. The singing began and soon it cast a spell all around. The noise that would have muffled even canon-fire was silenced as the flow of sweetness mesmerized everyone present. Spellbound, everyone stayed where he was. My own imagination had never been so vivid and picturesque. I saw neither the dazzle of electric lights, nor the brilliance of diamonds, nor that display of material wealth. I saw before me the bank of the Yamuna veiled behind thick vines, the gentle cows, the same gopis  frolicking in water, the same sweet note of flute, the same moonlight,  and the same playful son of Nanda, whose face reflected the same love and childlike innocence and whose very sight cleansed all hearts.

4

I was lost in this blissful state when the recital ended. Now one of Acharya Kelkar’s young disciples began to intone the dhrupad. The artistes often twist the shape of words in such a way that the listeners are unable to follow them.  I could make no sense of the words of the raga but each note from the singer’s throat left me breathless. I had never realized before that a human voice could be so melodious. My mind began to create a world where there was only bliss, only love, only renunciation. It seemed that pain and suffering were only a state of mind, and bliss was the only truth. Pure compassion began to berate my heart. A feeling arose in my heart that all the people present here were my own, inseparable from me. And then the image of my brother rose from some hidden corner of my mind.

Long ago my younger brother had quarreled with me and run away to Rangoon carrying with him all the valuables at home, and there his life had ended. I used to go mad recollecting his beastly conduct. Had I met him when he was alive I would have sucked his blood. But now my heart was gladdened to see him in my imagination and I longed to embrace him. I forgot all the hateful cruelties he had inflicted on me, my wife, on amma and my children. All I remembered how unhappy he had been. I had never felt such great affection for my brother. After that the very feeling of animosity disappeared from my heart. All the people with whom I had fought, exchanged abuses, or entered into litigation seemed to be laughing, holding me in their embraces. Then my wife Vidya’s image appeared before me – the same ten year-old image. I saw in her eyes the same restlessness, the same trust, and on her cheeks the bashful redness as if she was a lotus from the pool of love. The same love, the same passion, the same eagerness and desire that I had seen on the unforgettable first night on which I had welcomed her. It was as if a reservoir of sweet memories had opened up before me. I felt like going to Vidya this very moment and fall on her feet, and crying go into a swoon. My eyes were filled with tears and all the bitter words I had uttered seemed to be digging into my own heart. In this state, amma took me in her loving lap. The motherly affection that I was unable to experience during my childhood, I experienced now.

The singing ended. People started moving out. I kept sitting there lost in my reverie.

All of a sudden Jaidev asked me to move. 

                                                        (Hindi, Jagran, August 1932)

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