Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Prem Chand's story 'Subhagi' in English translation

Read this story, ‘Subhagi’, to know Prem Chand the feminist and supporter of inter-caste marriage!

                                     Subhagi  (सुभागी)

Whatever others might be doing, Tulsi Mehto loved his daughter Subhagi no less than he loved his son Ramu. Although grown up, Ramu remained a simpleton. But Subhagi was so clever at household work and such an accomplished farm hand that her mother, Lakshsmi, feared the gods might not cast covetous eyes on her, for even God loved good children. To prevet people from praising Subhagi she would, off and on, find fault with her. She did not fear that Subhagi would be spoiled by praise but she feared the evil eye. The same Subhagi had now become a widow at eleven.

The whole house fell into disarray. Lakshami was falling down unconscious. Tulsi was beating his head. Watching them Subhagi also cried. She repeatedly said to her mother, ‘Stop crying, I won’t desert you.’ Her mother was broken-hearted listening to Subhagi’s naïve talk. She wondered: O God, You play strange games, inflicting pain on others like this. Only a mad person does this. If a man goes mad he is sent to the madhouse. But there is no punishment for Your madness. Why play games that amuse You but hurt others? People call You compassionate. And this is Your compassion!

And what was Subhagi thinking? Had she a boxful of money, she would hide it somewhere. And then one day she would go to the market and buy good clothes for amma. And if dada came to ask for money she would quickly take out some and give it to him. How happy they would be!

As Subhagi grew into adulthood people started urging Tulsi Mehto to marry her off. It wasn’t proper to let a young girl move around like this. When their community did not object to remarriage why should he hesitate?

Tulsi replied, ‘I’m ready, but Subhagi isn’t willing at all.’

Harihar said to her, ‘Beti, we’re saying all this for your own good. Your parents are old. How long would they live? You can’t go on like this for ever.’

Subhagi replied, with her head bowed down, ‘Chacha, I understand what you say. But my heart is not in marriage. I don’t think of my own life. I can face anything. Ask me anything else,  and I shall do it willingly, but not this. And if you ever find me transgressing the bounds, cut my head off. I give you my word. But who am I to make such claims? It is for God to protect my honour.’

Ramu spoke out rudely, ‘If you think I shall toil to feed you for your life time you’re mistaken. I’m under no obligation to feed you for a life time.’

Ramu’s wife spoke still more rudely. She said, ‘We aren’t under any obligation to feed you for a life time. You want to eat well and dress well. This is beyond our means.'

Subhagi replied in a dignified manner, ‘Bhabi, I have never sought your protection, and, God willing, I shall never do so in future. Take care of yourself and don’t worry about me.’

When Ramu’s wife realized that Subhagi won’t take a husband, she started nagging her continuously, finding fault with her. She enjoyed hurting her. Subhagi would get up early in the morning and get busy pounding-grinding, cooking-washing, making dung cakes, and then she would go and work in the field. She would come back in the afternoon and cook for everyone and feed them. At night she would oil her mother’s head and massage her body. Tulsi loved to smoke his chillum and she would keep filling it. She would try her utmost not to make her parents work. But she wouldn’t spare her brother. He was young and if he did not work how would the household run.

But Ramu did not like that Subhagi should let amma and dada sit idle and force him to work. So much so that one day he burst out. He said to Subhagi: ‘If you love them so much, go and start living with them apart from us. Only then you will realize whether serving someone was a pleasure or pain. To earn praise by living on others’ toil is easy. He alone is brave who lives on his own labour.’ 

Subhagi didn’t answer back, fearing that things would come to a breaking point. But their parents were listening. Mehto couldn’t control himself. He said, ‘Ramu, why’re you quarrelling with that poor girl?’

Ramu came close to him and said, ‘Why’re you jumping in? I’m talking to her.’

Tulsi retorted, ‘So long as I am alive you can’t speak to her like this. After me you can do whatever you like. You have made her life hell.’

Ramu said, ‘If you love your daughter so much, tie her round your neck. I can’t stand her any more.’
Tulsi said, ‘All right, if this is what you want, so be it. Tomorrow I shall call the village elders and ask for division. I’m willing to lose you but not Subhagi.’ 

At night when Tulsi lay down to sleep he remembered something. When Ramu was born he had borrowed money to celebrate, but when Subhagi was born he had not spent a penny even though he was not short of money. He had regarded the son as a diamond and the daughter as a punishment for their sins in the previous life. And now the diamond had proved too hard and the punishment so propitious!

The next day Mehto called the villagers in and said, ‘Members of panchayat, now I and Ramu cannot live together. I want you to make a just division and allocate me whatever is my share. I can’t stand the daily bickering anymore.’

The village headman, Babu Sajan Singh was a sensible person.  He spoke to Ramu, ‘Tell me, do you want to break with your father? Aren’t you ashamed to break with your parents just because your wife wants it? O Ram!’

Ram replied brazenly, ‘When you can’t live together, it’s better to part.’

‘What’s your problem living together?’

‘There’re many.’

‘Tell me something.’

‘In one word. I can’t live with them. That’s all I know.’

Saying this Ramu walked away.

Tulsi said, ‘Look at his temper. You may allocate him three-fourths of what we have, but I can’t live with this wretched fellow. God has been unkind to my daughter; otherwise I won’t have cared about the land. I could have managed to live by my labour anywhere. Such a son shouldn’t be born even to my worst enemy. A caring daughter is far better than such a son.’

Suddenly Subhagi arrived at the scene. She said, ‘Dada, I’m the root cause of this division. Why don’t you separate me? I’ll live by my labour and help you as far as I can. But I shall live alone. I can’t stand this division of the family. I can’t live with this blot on my name.’

Tulsi said, ‘Daughter, we won’t let you go, even if we lose our life. I don’t want even to see Ramu’s face. Living with him is out of the question.’

Ramu’s wife retorted, ‘If you don’t want to see our faces, we too aren’t dying to serve you.’

Mehto, gnashing his teeth, rose to thrash his daughter-in-law but people stopped him.

After the division Lakshmi and Mehto became a retired couple. Before this, in spite Subhagi’s protests, they would keep doing something or the other but now they were fully at leisure. Before this they used to crave for ghee and milk. Now Subhagi had purchased a buffalo after saving some money. Good food is the ifeblood of old people.  If they have to go without good food life doesn’t mean much. Mehto opposed the purchase saying that she was overburdening herself with this additional work. Subhagi put him off saying she loved milk. Lakshmi said, laughing, ‘Beti, don’t tell lies. You don’t even touch milk and force us to drink all.’

In the village everyone praised Subhagi. She is not a woman but a goddess. She works like two men, and more than that, she takes care of her parents.

However, Mehto was not destined to enjoy this state of well-being for long. He had been down with fever for more than a week. He didn’t allow even a thin layer of clothing on his body. Lakshmi was sitting close by crying. Subhagi was there holding a vessel of water. A moment ago he had asked for water, but just as she had brought it, Mehto’s heart had sunk and his body had gone cold. Realizing this grave situation, Subhagi ran to Ramu’s house and said, ‘Bhaiyya, dada’s condition is very serious. He has been down with fever for a week.’

Ramu, who was lying on his cot, said, ‘Am I a doctor that I should go and see him? So long as he was hale and hearty you were hanging round his neck like a garland, and now when he is dying you have come to me.’

Just then Ramu’s wife came out and asked, ‘What’s wrong with dada, didi?’    
Even before Subhagi could speak Ramu spoke out, ‘Oh nothing. He’s not dying.’

Subhagi said nothing. She went straight to Sajan Singh. After she was gone, Ramu said to his wife laughing, ‘This is what you call female trickery.’

‘What trickery? Why don’t to go?’

‘I won’t go. Let them manage on their own. I won’t go even if he dies.’

His wife said laughing, ‘If he dies you will have to light his pyre. You won’t be able to run away then.’

‘Never. His beloved Subhagi would have to do everything.’

‘Why would she do it when you’re there?’

‘Because he broke with me, preferring her to me.’

‘No, this is not right. Let’s go and see him. After all he’s your father. You won’t be able to show your face in the village.’

‘Keep quiet. Don’t preach to me.’

On the other hand, the moment Babu sahib learnt about Mehto’s condition he at once came to see him. Mehto’s condtion had worsened. His pulse had become weak. He realized that Mehto’s time had come. He could read the fear of death on his face. He called out gently, ‘Mehto, how’re you feeling?’
Mehto spoke as if awoken from sleep. ‘I’m fine, brother. It’s time to leave.  Now you’re Subhagi’s father. I’m leaving her in your care.’

Sajan Singh replied, crying, ‘Mehto, don’t worry. God willing, you’ll get well. I have always treated Subhagi as my daughter and shall continue to do so in future. Don’t worry, so long as I am alive no one would dare to trouble Lakshmi and Subhagi. And you can say whatever you have on your mind.’
‘I’ll say no more. May God keep you ever prosperous.’

‘Shall I call Ramu? You should forgive him for his follies.’

 ‘No, brother. I don’t want to see his face.’

After this they began to prepare for godaan.

The whole village urged Ramu but he refused to perform the last rites. He said, ‘He refused to see my face at his deathbed. How can I regard myself as his son?’

Lakshmi lighted the funeral pyre. God knows how Subhagi had saved so much money but when the preparations for the thirteenth day began the villagers were astonished. Utensils, clothes, ghee, sugar – all these things were arranged easily. Ramu was feeling jealous and Subhagi was showing all this to people to make Ramu still more jealous.

Lakshmi said, ‘Beti, don’t go beyond your means. There’s no bread earner in the family. We have to live by whatever we can earn.’

Subhagi replied, ‘Amma, we shall perform Babuji’s thirteenth day rites with great pomp, whatever happens. Babuji isn’t going to come again. I want to show to bhayyia what a woman can do. He must be thinking that these two women can do nothing. I want to touch his pride.’

Lakshmi kept quiet. On the thirteenth day brahmins from eight villages were feasted. Everyone applauded.

It was afternoon. People had feasted and gone away. Lakshmi, tired, had gone to sleep. Subhagi was winding up. Just then Sajan Singh came in and asked her to rest.

Subhagi said, ‘Dada, I’m not tired. Have you added up? How much does it come to?’

Beti, why do you ask?’

‘No, I just want to know.’

‘It must be about three hundred rupees.’

Subhagi said with hesitation, ‘I owe this amount to you.’

‘I won’t ask you to pay. Mehto was my friend and brother. I too have some duty towards him.’
‘It is enough that you have trusted me. Who would have lent me three hundred rupees?’

Sajan Singh marvelled at the wisdom this woman possessed.

Lakshmi was one of those women for whom springs of life dry up with the death of their husbands. Her loneliness after a fifty year long companionship looked like an uphill struggle. She felt that her mind, her bodily strength, her good sense all had taken leave of her.

Many a time she prayed to God to take her life away along with her husband’s, but God did not accept this prayer. One has no control over one’s death. Does it mean one can’t control one’s life?

Lakshmi who was respected in the village for her wisdom, to whom people came for advice was now a witless woman. She would not understand even the simplest of things.

From that very day Lakshmi stopped eating. She would go to the kitchen on Subhagi’s pleading but she wouldn’t eat anything. For fifty years she had never even eaten once before her husband had eaten. How could she break this practice now?

She began to have coughing bouts. And soon she became bed-ridden because of weakness. Subhagi was helpless. She had to work hard to pay back Thakur sahib’s loan. Now amma had fallen ill. If she went out she had to leave her mother alone and if she stayed at home she was not able to attend to work in the field. Subhagi realized that the messengers of death had come for amma too. After all dada  also had the same kind of fever.

No one in the village had time to run about for her. Sajan Singh would call twice every day, to see Lakshmi, to give her medicine, to advise Subhagi. But Lakshmi’s condition was deteriorating. So much so that she left this world fifteen days after her husband. During her last moments Ramu came to touch her feet but she rebuked him so hard that he could not come near her. She blessed Subhagi saying that she had found fulfillment in having such a daughter.   She asked her to perform her last rites. She prayed to God that she should be born to her in her next life.

After her mother’s death Subhagi had just one objective in life – to pay off Sajan Singh’s debt. She had spent three hundred rupees on her father’s funeral and now two hundred on her mother’s. She had to pay off this debt of five hundred rupees all with her own efforts. But she did not lose courage. For three years she worked day and night. People were astonished to see her working prowess and toughness. After attending to her fields during the day she would grind four seers of flour. At the end of every month without fail she would come to Sajan Singh’s house to pay back fifteen rupees.  
Now she began to receive proposals for marriage. The house where she would go would be very fortunate. But Subhagi said that the day had not yet come.

 She was wild with joy the day she had paid off the last instalment of her debt. Her life’s hardest trial had ended.

When she was about to go Sajan Singh said to her, ‘Beti, I have one request to make. Shall I ? Promise that you won’t refuse.’

Subhai replied gratefully, ‘Dada, who else should I obey except you? I am so indebted to you.’

‘If you have this feeling then I won’t say anything. I did not ask you because so far you had thought yourself indebted to me. Now you have cleared your debts. You are no longer under any obligation to me. Not a bit. Shall I ask?’

Subhagi said, ‘What’s your order?’

‘Look, don’t refuse. Otherwise I shall never show my face to you.’

‘Your order?’

‘It’s my wish that you should come to my house as my daughter-in-law. I believe in caste. But you have broken all my chains. My son worships you. You too have seen him. Do you accept?’

Dada, I shall go mad receiving so much honour.’

‘God himself is honouring you. You are an incarnation of goddess Bhagwati.’

‘I regard you as my father. What ever you do will be for my good. How can I refuse to obey your order?’

Sajan Singh put his hand on her head and said, ‘Beti, may your husband live for ever. You have accepted my proposal. No one can be more fortunate than me in this world.’                                                                                                               (Hindi, Madhuri, March 1930)