Friday, May 15, 2015

Prem Chand's story 'Boodi Kaki' in translation


Old Kaki (बूढ़ी काकी)

Old age is generally a relapse into infantilism. Old Kaki had lost all interest in life except her craving for food; and was left with crying as the only means of attracting others’ attention towards her suffering. Her senses, her eyes, her hands and feet had fallen into decrepitude. She would stay lying on the floor the whole day; and if the householders did something against her wishes, or she did not get her meal at the appointed time or in adequate quantity, or she was not given a share of the eatables brought from the market, she would break into wailing. Her crying was no ordinary thing; it was a full-throated outburst. 

Her husband had died long ago. Her sons had died in their youth. She had no one except her nephew to depend upon, and she had transferred all her property in his name. The nephew made tall promises at that time but they turned out to be imaginary green pastures. Although the income from the property was not less than hundred fifty to two hundred rupees per annum, old Kaki seldom got enough to eat.  It is difficult to say who was at fault here; her nephew Pandit Budhiram, or his other-half Shrimati Roopa. Budhiram was gentle by nature, but only up to the point his own pocket remained untouched. Roopa was sharp-tongued, but she was God-fearing. Old Kaki didn’t mind her harshness so much as Budhiram’s gentleness.

Budhiram sometimes regretted his cruel behaviour, knowing well that he was able to wear the cloak of respectability only because of this very property. He wouldn’t have minded if, through empty assurances and verbal sympathies, he had been able to make Kaki’s life a little more bearable, but the very thought of incurring any additional expense supressed his good intentions. So much so that if Kaki opened up her tales of woe within the earshot of a visitor he would get inflamed and go inside and give her a dressing-down.

Boys seem to have a natural propensity to dislike old people; so Bhudhiram’s sons, taking their cue from their parents, continually harassed Old Kaki. One would pinch her and run away, the other squirt a mouthful of water at her. Kaki would cry out, but since it was well-known that Kaki complained only when she was hungry, no one took notice of her outcries. And whenever the enraged Kaki started cursing the boys, Roopa appeared on the scene to silence her. Fearing this Kaki seldom used the tongue-lash, although this was a more effective means, than crying, to put an end to the boys’ misdemeanour.

In the whole family it was Budhiram’s little daughter Ladli who alone empathized with Kaki. Ladli, fearing her brothers, ate her sweets or roasted corn sitting beside Kaki; and although this strategy cost her dear because of Kaki’s lust for food, this was the best protection against her brothers’ injustices. This mutual self-interest had sown the seeds of sympathy between them. 


It was evening time. Shehnai was playing at Bhudhiram’s doorsteps. A group of children were enjoying the music with wonder-struck eyes. Guests, relaxing on charpais, were having their bodies kneaded and toned up by barbers. A balladeer was reciting the family’s genealogy, and the appreciative applause from some admiring guests gave him the mistaken feeling that he himself was the object of their admiration. Two English-educated young men were indifferent to these goings-on. They considered it below their dignity to participate in such activities.
The occasion was Budhiram’s son Sukhram’s engagement. A celebration was on. Women were singing inside the house. Roopa was busy supervising food preparations for the guests. Big kadais were placed on open-air fireplaces. Puris and kachoris were frying in one. In another, yet other dishes. In one cauldron a spicy curry was cooking. The aroma of ghee and spices was in the air all around. 

Old Kaki was sitting in her unlighted room in a mood of dejection. The pleasing smell of cooking was unsettling her.  She was wondering whether she would get her share of the puris. It was so late. No one had brought her any food. It seemed everyone had eaten and there was nothing left for her. She wanted to cry but fearing that this would be inauspicious she controlled herself.

Aha...what an appetizing smell! But no one cares for her. When she can’t even get enough rotis, how can she hope to eat a stomach-full of puris? Her heart swelled with anguish. She was again on the verge of crying, but the fear of Roopa’s temper stopped her.

Kaki remained lost in these disturbing thoughts for a long time. The fragrance of ghee and spices was making her lose control over herself. Her mouth was watering and the very thought of the taste of puris was sending ripples of joy in her heart. Whom should she call? Even Ladli had not come today. Even the two boys, who were always harassing her, were nowhere to be seen. At least she would have known what was going on.

Images of puris began to dance in her eyes: so brown, swelled-up, soft. Roopa must have eaten to her fill. The kachoris must be giving ajwain and cardamom flavours. If only she could take one puri in her hands to feel it! Why shouldn’t she go and sit close to the kadai? She could imagine the crisp and sizzling puris being transferred from the kadai on to a tray. Flowers can be smelled even at home, but the pleasure of smelling them in the garden is very different. Having made up her mind thus, Kaki, crouching on her hands and feet, began to move slowly; and with great difficulty she crossed the threshold and crept close the kadai and sat down. Once there she felt the same satisfaction that a hungry dog feels while seated in front of someone eating.

At that time Roopa was over-stressed with work. Now she was in this room, now in that, now near the cooking area, then in the store. Someone came and said, ‘The head cook is asking for “thandai”.’ She handed that over.  Another came and said, ‘The balladeer has come. Give him something.’ She was taking out some uncooked ration when a third came and asked, ‘When would the food be ready? And help me with the drum and manjeera.’ The poor woman was running everywhere, getting irritated, exasperated, yet unable to burst out. She was afraid that the neighbouring women might accuse her of losing her temper over small matters. Her throat was dry with thirst and her body scorched with heat yet she had no time to have a drink of water or fan herself for a moment. And she was afraid that if she relaxed her watchfulness for a moment there would be no end to pilfering. It was in this state of mind that she saw Old Kaki sitting close to the kadai. She was infuriated and could no longer control her temper. She forgot that the neighbouring women were watching, or how the men sitting around would react. Just as a frog jumps upon an earthworm, Roopa pounced upon Old Kaki and shook her with both hands and shouted: ‘Shame on such a stomach. Is it a stomach or a furnace? Why couldn’t you sit back in your room? The guests haven’t eaten yet, no offering has been made to God, and you couldn’t wait, and have come riding on our chests. Let such a tongue burn up. Had we not been feeding you every day I wonder what you would have done. Looking at you the villagers would accuse us of starving you. You torment us like an evil spirit and refuse to die. You’re bent upon bringing us a bad name and shaming us. You eat so much and no one knows where it turns to ash. Go back to your room. You will eat when the family eats. You’re not a goddess who should be fed before all others.’

Old Kaki lifted her head. She neither spoke nor cried. Quietly she crept back to her room.


The feast was ready. Leaf-plates were laid on the floor. The guests began to eat. The women started singing the song of the feast. The barbers and retainers of the guests were also eating, but they were seated at a distance from the guests. The custom required that no one should rise until the whole party had finished eating. A few educated guests were getting irritated for they thought the retainers were eating too much and taking too long to finish. They regarded this custom as meaningless.

Back in her room Old Kaki was ruing her conduct. She was not angry with Roopa but was regretting her own hasty behaviour. How could the householders eat before the guests had eaten? Why couldn’t she restraint herself? She was insulted before everyone present. Now she won’t go until she was called.

Having thus made up her mind she sat waiting to be called. But the pleasant smell of ghee was severely testing her patience. Each moment felt like an eon. The leaf-plates have been laid. The guests have arrived. The barbers are helping them wash their hands and feet. Now they have started eating. The song of the feast is being sung. Visualizing all this she lay down to console herself. Gradually she began to hum a tune. Then she felt she had been singing for too long. Were people still eating? She couldn’t hear a sound. They must have gone away, having eaten. And no one has come to call her. Roopa must have been annoyed with her and won’t send for her, assuming that she would come by herself. She was not a guest.

Kaki got ready to go. The belief that in a short while she would be served puris and spicy curry sent her taste buds humming. She weighed many options. ‘First I would eat puris with curry, then with curds and shakkar; kachoris would taste lovely with raita. They may like it or not, I would feel no shame and ask them to serve me again and again. They might say I have no shame. Let them. I was getting to eat puris after so long. I wouldn’t stop after eating only a mouthful.’

She came creeping into the courtyard. But what bad luck! Desire, as is its nature, had disoriented her sense of time. The guests were still seated. Some were licking their fingers, some arching their eyes to see if others were still eating. Some were eyeing the puris lying uneaten on their plates, regretting they had not eaten them up. One was smacking his lips after eating curds but was too shy to ask for more. Just then Kaki came creeping amongst them. When they saw her some guests rose from their seats in a state of shock. They began to shout: ‘Who’s this old woman? Where has she come from? Be careful, she may not touch anyone.’

The moment he saw Kaki, Pandit Budhiram became red with anger. He dashed to the ground the trayful of puris he was holding; and just as a heartless money lender catches a dishonest and renegade debtor by his neck, he caught Kaki by her hands and dragged her into her unlighted room. The garden watered with hope was scorched dry with just one gust of hot wind. The guests had eaten. The family had eaten. The musicians, the washer men, the chamars - all had eaten, but no one thought of Kaki. Budhiram and Roopa had decided to punish her for her shameful conduct. They showed no compassion for Kaki’s old age, her wretched existence, or her mental decline. Only Ladli was heart-broken for her. 

Ladli loved Kaki very much. She was a simple minded girl with no trace of childish behaviour or prankishness. She had been dumbstruck when she saw her parents dragging Kaki away. This was too shocking for her. Why hadn’t they fed Kaki? Would she have eaten all the puris? What if Kaki had eaten before the guests had been served? She wanted to go and commiserate with Kaki but couldn’t do it for fear of her parents. She hadn’t eaten her own share of puris, and hidden them in her doll’s basket. She was impatient to carry these for Kaki. Kaki would get up at once on seeing her. She would be delighted to see the puris.  She love her very much for this.


It was eleven in the night. Roopa was fast asleep in the courtyard. Ladli had been unable to sleep. The sweet pleasure of seeing Kaki eat puris wouldn’t let her sleep. Her doll’s basket lay by her side. When she was convinced that her mother was fast asleep she decided to get up. It was dark all around except for some light from the fireplaces. A dog was sleeping close by. Ladli looked up towards the neem tree. She felt as if Hanumanji was sitting up there. She could see his tail and mace very clearly. She shut her eyes out of fear. In the meantime the dog got up and ran off. This gave her some courage. She picked up her basket and walked towards Kaki’s room.


The only thing Old Kaki remembered was that someone had dragged her by her hands and that she was being carried across a mountain. Her feet were repeatedly hitting against stones. Then someone had thrown her from atop the mountain and she had lost consciousness.

When she regained her senses she heard no sound of any movement. She realized that everyone had gone to sleep after eating. With this her own destiny had also been put to sleep. How would the night pass? Oh Ram, what should she eat? Her stomach was churning with hunger. No one cared for her. Would they get rich by keeping her hungry? These people had no compassion for an old woman who was going to die anytime. Why hurt her? All she does is eat a few rotis. Such treatment just for this! She was blind, disabled, deaf and deranged. If she had gone into the courtyard, Budhiram could have told her to wait till the guests had eaten. She was dragged and pushed. And just for these puris! Roopa insulted her before all; and even after such ill-treatment their hearts did not melt. They had fed everyone except her. And when they didn’t feed her then, why would they do it now?  With all these thoughts in her mind Kaki lay down. Her heart was filled with anguish but she didn’t cry, thinking of the guests. All of a sudden she heard a voice. ’Get up, Kaki, I have brought puris for you.’ Kaki recognized Laldli’s voice. She got up at once, groped for Ladli with both hands and made her sit in her lap. Ladli gave her the puris.

‘Has your Amma sent these?’ Kaki asked.

‘No, this’s my share.’

Kaki pounced upon the puris. The basket was empty in five minutes. Ladli asked, ‘Kaki have you had your fill?’

Just as a light shower aggravates rather than mitigates the heat, the few puris spiked Kaki’s craving, and she said, ‘No, my daughter. Go to your mother and bring some more.’

Ladli said, ‘Amma’s asleep. If I wake her she would thrash me.’

Kaki fished around in the basket again. She found a few crumbs that were left there, and as she licked them she smacked her lips.

She was becoming desperate to eat some more puris. When the floodgates of patience are breached the gush of desire becomes uncontrollable.  Just as the very thought of liquor sends the drunkards reeling, Kaki’s ungratified heart was carried away. She forgot the distinction between what was proper or improper. Having lost her self-restraint she said to Ladli, ‘Take me to the place where the guests were eating.’

Ladli could not guess her motive. She caught Kaki by her hands and took her there and made her sit among the leaf-plates on which lay the food leftover by the guests. The miserable, starved and unhinged old woman began to devour the leftovers from the leaf-plates lying scattered all over. Oh how tasty was the curd! How crisp, soft and well-salted were the kachoris! Although mentally unsettled, the old women knew that she was doing something that must never be done, that she was licking the leaf-plates left by the guests. But old age is the terminal stage of the sickness called insatiety where all the unfulfilled desires converge at one point. In the case of Old Kaki that point of convergence was her craving for food.

Just then Roopa woke up. She did not find Ladli by her side. She looked for her beside the cot fearing she might have slipped and fallen. When she looked around she saw Ladli standing beside the sullied leaf-plates and Old Kaki picking crumbs from there and eating. Roopa was stunned. She felt like someone watching a cow-slaughter. Nothing could be more shocking than to see a brahmin woman sifting through leftovers. Her husband’s cousin’s mother-in-law was behaving so despicably just for a few crumbs of puris! It was a terrifying sight. It was as if the earth had stopped spinning and the sky was reeling above them. Something cataclysmic was about to shake the world. Roopa did not get angry, for anger had no place in this state of shock. Her eyes were filled with compassion as well as fear. Who was responsible for this sinful act? She lifted her hands towards heaven with a penitent heart and said, ‘God, take pity on my children. Punish me for this sinful act, or I would be ruined.’ Roopa had never before realized her own selfish and unjust behavior with such clarity. She began to tell herself: How cruel I have been. Oh merciful God, forgive me. Today was my son’s day of engagement. Hundreds of people feasted. I obeyed their commands like a slave. I spent hundreds of rupees to earn a good name for myself but could not feed the woman because of whom I have spent thousands of rupees. It is because of me this old woman is helpless. Roopa lit a lamp and went into her store room. She laid all the eatables in a tray and took it to the old woman.

It was already midnight. The sky was filled with stars and the gods were sitting there with heavenly dishes laid before them. But they wouldn’t have felt the kind of pleasure Old Kaki felt when she saw the food laid before her. Roopa said to her with tearful eyes, ‘Kaki, get up and eat. I committed a great blunder today. Don’t take it ill. Pray to God to forgive me for my transgression.’

Just as innocent children forget neglect and thrashing after receiving a gift of sweets, Old Kaki was eating, forgetting everything. Good wishes were flowing out from every pore in her body, and Roopa was enjoying this heavenly sight.

                                                       (Urdu, Kehkashan, July 1920)                                                                     ----

My note:
The story presents a stark contrast to ‘Doodh Ka Daam’ (The Price of Mother’s Milk’) which I had posted before this story.  In that story the untouchable boy, Mangal,  feeds on leftovers (joothan) from the zamindar’s family everyday, and the family of the zamindar consider it a generous act on their part to allow the boy to eat the joothan. The horror of seeing someone feeding on joothan just does not occur to them. It is something normal for them. In this story, 'Boodi Kaki', the upper caste family treat the old family member, Old Kaki, shabbily, they almost starve her. But when the house lady Roopa sees the old woman eating Joothan she is shocked beyond her imagination. A brahmin woman eating joothan! Look at her reaction, highlighted by me in the translated text above. It is as if the heavens would collapse if a brahmin woman ate joothan. An untouchable eating joothan is normal for them. How forcefully Prem Chand is able to convey this contrast!