Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lottery, a short story by Premchand

Please find here my translation of Premchand's short story 'Lottery' (लौटरी). 






Lottery

                                                                    
1

Who isn’t hungry to get rich quickly? Those days when the lottery tickets came in vogue, my friend Vikram’s father, uncle, mother and brother purchased a ticket each. Who knows whose luck would shine! Whosoever won, the prize money would remain within the family.


But Vikram was not happy. The money would come in someone else’s name. No one would care for him. At most he would get five-ten thousand. This amount was too small for him who had envisioned grand plans for himself. First of all, he intended to travel the whole world, its each and every corner. Peru, Brazil, Timbuktu and Honolulu – all these were in his itinerary. He was not one who would rush through the world like a whirlwind in one or two months. He would stay at each place for days, study its manners, its traditions, for he wanted to write an encyclopedic account of his world travels. And then, he had to build a huge library in which he would stack the world’s best books. He was ready to spend up to two lakh rupees; compared to which a bungalow and car would be commonplace acquisitions.  If the money came to his father or uncle he would get at most five-ten thousand, twenty if it came to his mother, but not half a pice if it came to his brother. He was a self-respecting person. He thought it demeaning to accept any gift or benefit even from any member of his family. He used to say, ‘It’s better to drown oneself in a pond than to beg from anyone. If one cannot make a place for oneself in this world then it is better to quit the world.’


He was on tenterhooks. Who in the family would give him money for a lottery ticket? And how could he ask? After much reflection he said to me, ‘Why shouldn’t we jointly buy a ticket?’


I liked the proposal. Those days I was a school teacher, with a salary of twenty rupees. It was hard to make both ends meet. Buying a ten-rupee ticket was for me like buying a white elephant. Yes, it might be possible to save five rupees by cutting down on milk, ghee and sundry expenses. Even then I was not sure. It would be much better if I could get this amount from some other source.


Vikram said, ‘I don’t mind selling my ring. I’ll tell them that it slipped off my finger.’


The ring was certainly worth ten rupees. A ticket could be bought for both of us in this way. So where was the harm if I could become a fifty-fifty partner without spending anything?


But Vikram said, ‘Brother, you’ll have to pay in cash. I won’t make you a partner without your paying five rupees.’


Now I realized the impropriety of the proposal. I said, ‘No, bhai, this is wrong. If your lie is caught, we’ll both be shamed. And I too would be taken to task.’


Finally, it was decided that we’ll sell our old books to a second-hand book-seller and buy the ticket with the money we get. We had nothing else that was less unwanted than the books. We two had passed the matriculation examination in the same year, and seeing that those who had obtained degrees by ruining their eyes and wasting money were now wearing out their shoes, we decided to put the full stop.  I became a school teacher and Vikram an idler. Our old books were now only food for white ants. We had sucked their essence as much as we could and now we didn’t care whether rats or white ants ate them up. We took them out of the garbage dump, dusted them and tied them in a bundle. Being a school teacher I felt ill at ease going to a book-seller to sell books. All of them knew me; so this task was given to Vikram, who returned with a ten-rupee note in half an hour. I had never seen him so full of joy. The books were worth no less than forty rupees but we felt as if we had picked the ten-rupee note from the ground. Now the ticket would be shared fifty-fifty. The prize would be worth ten lakhs. Out of which both of us would get five lakhs each.


I expressed my satisfaction, ‘Five lakhs is no small amount.’


But Vikram wasn’t as contented. He said, ‘Brother, not to speak of five lakhs, at the moment even five hundred are more than enough. But I am forced to change my plans. I can’t postpone my travel plans, but the library will have to go.’


I objected, ‘After all, you won’t need more than two lakhs for your travels.’


‘No sir. That’s budgeted for three and a half lakhs. It’s a seven-year project. So it works out to only fifty thousand a year.’ 


‘That is four thousand rupees per month. I think you can live comfortably with two thousand a month.’


Vikram retorted, ‘I want to live in style, not like a beggar.’


‘You can live in style even in two thousand.’


‘Unless you let me have two lakhs out of your share, I won’t be able to set up a library.’


‘There’s no reason why your library should be the best in the city.’


‘But I shall build only the best.’


‘That’s for you to decide, but I won’t give you anything out of my share. Your family has a lot of property. There’s no burden on you. But I have a big responsibility. Two sisters to be married, two brothers to be educated. And I have to build a new house. I have decided to put all the money in the bank and live on the interest. And I shall ensure that no one after me touches that money.’


Vikram responded sympathetically, ‘Yes, in that case it would be wrong to ask you for help. I shall face the problem all by myself. But the interest rates at the banks have fallen quite a lot.’


We checked the interest rates at many banks, both for fixed deposits and savings accounts. Yes indeed the interest rates had fallen. It would be a waste of money to invest it at two or two and a half percent. Why not start the money-lending business? Vikram would not go on his world tour immediately. Both of them would run the business jointly and he would go on his tour when they have earned some money. They would earn a good interest by lending money and in this way they would become quite influential too. They would not lend money on a bond unless a person was trustworthy. But why should they lend money on a bond? They would do it only on a property mortgage. In that case there would be no risk.


This issue was settled. Now we had to decide in whose name to buy the ticket. Vikram insisted on having his name on the ticket, saying he won’t buy the ticket unless his name was on the ticket. Finding no way out, I accepted, without any written agreement; as a result I was put to a lot of trouble later on.  


2


We waited eagerly for each day to pass. Every morning the moment we woke up our eyes went for the calendar. My house was adjacent to Vikram’s. Before and after my school hours we would sit together and chalk out our plans in such quietness that no one could hear us. We wanted to keep the purchase of our ticket secret from all. Everyone would be wonder-struck when this secret plan of ours would bear fruit. We didn’t want to miss the joy of that dramatic moment.


One day we came to discuss the issue of marriage. Vikram said, with philosophic seriousness, ‘I don’t wish to get into this trap of married life. Needless worries, and hues and cries. A lot of money would be wasted pleasing a resentful wife.’   


I disagreed, ‘You may be right, but life isn’t enjoyable unless you have someone to share your good and bad times. I’m not so apathetic to the idea of a married life. But yes, I would like a companion who stays with me for the life time. And only a wife can provide such companionship.’


Vikram retorted with unusual sarcasm, ‘Well, we all have our own views. You’re welcome to your married life, to follow your wife like a dog, to regard children as the greatest possession and gift from God. I shall remain a free man, sojourn whenever and wherever I like and return home at will. It won’t be as if you were being watched all the time. If you were even slightly late, you would be confronted with ‘where-were-you’. The moment you stepped out you would be immediately asked ‘whereto’, and if through misfortune your wife decided to accompany you, it would be the death of you.  No brother, I won’t be able to sympathize with you. The child catches a cold and you dash to the homoeopath. You slide a bit into ripe age, and the boys wish for your quick exit so they can go on the spree. If they got a chance they would poison you and spread the news that you died of cholera. I won’t fall into this trap.’


Vikram’s younger sister, Kunti, about eleven, studying in class six and often failing to get through, talkative and mischievous, suddenly pushed the door open with such force that we both stood up startled.


Vikram shouted angrily at her, ‘You’re such a nuisance, Kunti! Who has called you here?’  


Kunti ran her gaze all around the room like a spy and said, ‘What’re you doing here with doors shut? We see you sitting here all the time. You neither go out for a walk, nor to watch a show. Are you doing some black magic?’


Vikram caught and shook her by the neck and said, ‘Yes, we are casting a spell, so that you get a husband who would give you five whiplashes one after the other everyday.’


Kunti rode on his back and said, ‘I shall marry a man who will wag his tail in front of me. I shall cast the leaf-plate before him after eating sweets and tell him to lick it clean. And if he frets and fumes I shall pull and hot up his ears. If Amma wins the lottery she will give me fifty thousand, and I shall be content. I pray to God morning and evening. She says that prayers offered by virgins never go unanswered. My heart tells me that Amma will surely get the money.’


I remembered something. I had gone to my maternal grandparents’ village during a drought. It was the month of bhadon, the rainy month, and yet not a drop of rain. The villagers raised a pool of money and gave a feast to all the virgins of the village, and lo, the rains came pouring down heavily on the third day. Undoubtedly prayers by virgins do work miracles.


I and Vikram looked at each other meaningfully. And we came to a conclusion at once without exchanging a word. Vikram said to Kunti, ‘All right, if we tell you something, would you keep it secret? I’m sure you are such a good girl, you would keep our secret. This time I shall help you in your studies and make you get through the exams. The fact is we two have also purchased a lottery ticket. You should pray for us also and if we win we shall buy a lot of jewllery for you. Right!’


Kunti didn’t believe it. We swore. She became too demanding. Only when we promised to cover her in gold from head to foot, did she agree to pray for us.


However, she who could digest tons of sweets could not digest this small thing. She ran into the house and in no time the secret was out. Now everyone began to rail at Vikram – his mother, his uncle, his father – for his recklessness, whether out of concern for Vikram or with some other motive, one cannot fathom. ‘You have spilled money like water. Why did you have to buy one when so many others had bought lottery tickets? Wouldn’t you have got a share? And you, master sahib, are an utter fool. Instead of teaching something good you are leading him to his ruin.’


Vikram was their favourite son. They couldn’t berate him too much. If he was piqued and did not eat for a day or so, there would be trouble. It was I who drew the ire of the family, and the charge of misguiding the boy.


But the saying: ‘It’s easy to preach than practice’ was before me. I remembered a childhood incident. It was the day of Holi. My mamu, maternal uncle, was on a visit with us then. A bottle of liquor had been arranged. I went quietly into the backroom and poured some liquor in a glass and drank it off. My throat was still stinging and eyes were red when I was, as if, ambushed and caught red-handed by mamu. He gave me such a dressing-down that my heart shrivelled like a desiccated date. My mother upbraided me, my father upbraided me, and I had to quench the fire of their ire with tears. And soon, after noon mamu got drunk and began to sing. Then he wept, and then cursed my mother, and when my father tried to stop him he tried to rough him up. In the end he vomited and fell down unconscious.



3


Vikram’s father, the elder Thakur sahib, and his uncle, the younger Thakur sahib –  both were materialists, full-blooded atheists who used to ridicule religious rituals. But these days they had become staunch believers and devotees of God. The elder Thakur sahib went for a dip in the Ganges every morning, visited all the temples and returned home, his body daubed with sandalwood paste. The younger Thakur sahib would bathe in warm water at home, and start writing and repeating on and on god Rama’s name, even though he was suffering from gout. And as soon there was sunshine he would go out into the park to feed the ants. And in the evening both the brothers would go to their temple and listen with rapt attention to the Bhagwat till midnight. Vikram’s elder brother had great faith in sadhus and mahatmas. He wandered through mathas, akharas and kutias of sadhus; and his mother had nothing else to do from morning till midnight except bathe, pray and fast. Even at this age she loved making herself up, but these days she acted like an ascetic. People are wrong when they denigrate desire. I believe that all the devotion and faith, love of religion we display is just a manifestation of our desire and lust. Our selfishness is at the root of our dharma. That greed can seep into our intellect and heart so much was something new to me. We too felt elated or sad after consulting astrologers or pandits. 


As they day for the draw of the lottery was drawing closer, our peace of mind was evaporating. Our minds were riveted only on one thing. And for no reason I began to wonder what I would do if Vikram refused to part with my share. He might make an about-turn and say I had never been a partner. There was no written agreement, nor any proof. If Vikram reneged it would be the end of me. I won’t be able to appeal to anyone, or open my mouth. If I said something now it would be no use. If his head has already turned he would straight away refuse to have any truck with me; and if he hasn’t he would be deeply hurt by my suspicious behaviour. He is not the type but it is difficult to remain honest after acquiring wealth. At the moment there is no money; so it is easy to pretend to be honest. The real test would come when he has ten lakh rupees in his hands. Then I searched my own conscience: if instead of Vikram the ticket had been in my name, would I have handed over his share of the money without dithering. Who knows? But the greater possibility was that I would have made excuses – that he had loaned me those five rupees, and offered him ten or a hundred rupees. But no, I won’t have acted so dishonestly.


The next day we were browsing through the newspaper when Vikram suddenly said, ‘If our ticket wins the prize, I would regret that I ever agreed to share it with you.’


 He smiled innocently but this gave me a peep into his innermost feelings which he was trying to camouflage under this light-heartedness.


Startled I replied, ‘Really! But I too might be regretting.’


‘But the ticket is with me.’


‘So what!’


‘All right, suppose I refuse to share the money with you.’


My blood froze and darkness invaded my eyes.


‘I don’t think you are so dishonest.’


‘But it’s possible. Five lakhs. Think of it. It boggles your mind.’ 


‘Then, as all’s well now. Let’s sign a contract and remove all doubts.’


Vikram said laughingly, ‘You’re very distrustful, friend. I was only testing you. Is it ever possible? Even if it were five crores I would never go back on what is agreed.’


But I was not convinced.


I said, ‘I know that you can never break your word. Yet what’s wrong in making a written agreement?’


‘It’s a waste.’


‘Let it be.’


‘In that case it shall have to be on a court paper. The court fees on ten lakhs would come to seven and a half thousand. Have you thought of this?’


I reflected: It was true I won’t be able to proceed against him on the basis of a plain paper agreement, yet I would get the opportunity to humiliate him and characterize him as dishonest publicly. And people would go to any length, were it not for the fear of public disgrace. The fear of ignominy was no less effective than the fear of the law. So I said, ‘Agreement on a plain paper would assure me.’


Vikram retorted, ‘Why waste time in signing an agreement that would have no legal value?’


I was convinced now that Vikram had already decided to renege on the deal. Otherwise why should he have objected to signing the agreement on a plain paper? I said angrily, ‘You already have a bad conscience.’


He retorted shamelessly, ‘Do you want to prove that in this a situation you wouldn’t have broken the deal?’


‘I don’t have such a bad conscience.’


‘Drop it. Your good conscience! I know many like you.’


‘You’ll have to commit it to writing just now. I have lost faith in you.’


‘If that is so, I won’t commit to writing.’


‘So you think you can swallow up my share of money?


‘Whose money? And what money?’


‘I warn you, Vikram. This won’t only be the end of our friendship, but something worse would happen.’


A surge of violence arose in my heart.


Suddenly my attention was diverted by a fracas from the sitting room. Both the Thakurs used to relax there. Their affection for each other was a model of brotherly love, almost like that between Ram and Lakshman. I had never heard them argue, not to speak of quarrel. The word of the elder Thakur was the law for the younger Thakur, but the elder Thakur never said anything that was not to the liking of the younger one. We were surprised and went and stood at the door of the sitting room. Both the brothers were up from their chairs, had even advanced towards each other, their eyes red, faces distorted, brows contracted. It seemed they were about to raise their hands against each other.


The younger Thakur drew back as he saw us and said, ‘Whatever is there in a joint family, wherever it may come from and in whosoever’s name, it has to be shared equally by all.’


The elder Thakur, as soon as he saw Vikram, advanced and said, ‘Never. If I commit a crime I shall be liable, not the joint family. I shall be punished, not the family. It involves an individual.’


‘This will be decided in the court.’


‘You are free to go to the court. If I or my wife or my son win the lottery it will have nothing to do with you, and in the same way, if you win the prize, I, my wife and son would have nothing to do with it.’  


‘Had I known your intentions I too would have purchased tickets in the name of my wife and children.’


‘That was your mistake.’


‘That was because I trusted you as a brother.’


‘This is gambling. Winning or losing in gambling doesn’t put any onus on the family. Tomorrow if you lose a few thousand in racing, the family won’t be liable.’


‘But you can’t have peace of mind by appropriating your brother’s share.’


‘You’re neither Brahama, nor God, nor a mahatma.’


When Vikram’s mother came to know that the brothers were at each other’s throats she came running to bring about peace between them.


Displeased, the younger Thakur said angrily, ‘Why do you come down on me? Ask him who is holding on to four tickets. What do I have? Just one ticket! He has four times more chance than me to win the prize. If his conscience begins to fail him, it is a matter of shame and unhappiness.’


The Thakurain tried to console him, ‘All right. I shall give one half of my share. Are you happy now?’


The elder Thakur forcefully negated his wife, ‘Why should he be given one half? I won’t give him a single paisa. Even if we act out of decency and kindness he won’t get more than one fifth. How can he claim one half? It is neither rational, nor dharmic, nor moral.’


The younger Thakur retorted, ‘You alone know everything of the law.’


‘Yes I do. I haven’t practiced law for thirty years for nothing.’


‘You will forget your law when I confront you with a barrister from Calcutta.’


‘To hell with your barrister, whether he is from Calcutta or London.’


‘I shall take half, just like my share in the family property.’


Just then Vikram’s elder brother, his head and hands in bandage, his clothes sullied in blood and a smile on his face came in and collapsed into the arms chair. The elder Thakur, upset by what he saw, asked, ‘What’s this? How did you get hurt? Did you have a fight?’


Prakash sprawled himself on the chair, let out a groan then smiled and said, ‘It’s nothing. It’s not a serious injury.’


‘What do you mean? Your head and hand are swollen. Your clothes are blood-stained. What’s the matter? Has there been an accident?’


‘It’s a very mild injury. It will heal in a few days. There’s nothing to worry.’


There was a gentle, hopeful smile on his face. Of anger, shame or revenge there was no trace.


The elder Thakur asked with greater anxiety, ‘But why don’t you tell us what happened? If you had a fight, should I lodge a complaint with the police?’


Prakash said in a very casual manner, ‘There was no fight, sir. The fact is I had gone to see the Jhakhad Baba. You very well know that he hates the very sight of people and runs after them with stones in his hands. And anyone who is frightened fails. And he who follows him even after he has been hit succeeds.  That is his way of testing a person. Today when I went to him there were about fifty people, some carrying sweets, some carrying precious gifts and others carrying rolls of cloth. Jhakhad Baba was sitting in meditation. All of a sudden he opened his eyes and saw the crowd of people. He picked up stones and ran after them. There was a stampede as people began to run to safety. All of them disappeared. Not one stood his ground. I alone stood there firm as the clock tower. And he hurled a stone at me. As he is a good shot the stone hit me on the head. My head reeled and blood trickled down. Yet I didn’t budge. Babaji hurled another stone. That one hit me on the hand and I fell down unconscious. When I regained consciousness there was silence all around. Babaji had vanished. As you know he becomes invisible. There was no one whom I could call for help. My hand was in great pain and I was still bleeding from the head. I stood up somehow and went to the doctor. He said I had fractured a bone and he dressed my wounds. He has asked me to apply warm water fomentation. He will come again in the evening. No doubt I’m hurt but now I am sure to win the lottery. There’s no doubt at all. All who have been battered by the Baba have always had their wishes fulfilled. The first thing I shall do will be to build a cottage for the Baba.’


The elder Thakur became relaxed now. A cot was at once spread and Prakash lay down on it. The Thakurain began to fan him. She too looked happy. To get ten lakh rupees in exchange for this injury was not a bad bargain.


The younger Thakur was fidgeting nervously. As soon as the elder Thakur went away to have his food and the Thakurain got up to bring food for Prakash, he said to Prakash, ‘Does he hit very hard? I don’t believe so.’


Prakash sensed his intention and said, ‘Sahib, he doesn’t hurl stones but bombs. He has the body of a god and is so powerful that he can kill a tiger with one blow. A lesser man would fall flat with just one stone. Many have lost their lives but no case has ever been filed against Jhakhar Baba. And he doesn’t stop after hurling a few stones. He keeps on pelting until you fall down and lose consciousness. But the truth is the more you are hurt the closer you are to your objective.’ 


Prakash painted such a hair-raising scenario that Thakur sahib was terrified and could not summon up the courage to face the stones.

4


And finally the fateful day arrived – twentieth of July, the night of assassinations. When we woke up in the morning we were drowned in the tension between hope and fear. Both the Thakurs had bathed in the Ganga and were sitting in the temple praying. Today I too awoke to the need for devotion. I went to the temple and began to silently plead with God: ‘Don’t You know the difficulty with which we have bought the ticket. You are omniscient. Who other than us is deserving of Your benevolence?’ Vikram came to the temple dressed in his best clothes and signaled to me that he was going to the post office and he flew away. Soon after, Prakash came out of the house carrying a thali full of sweets and started distributing it among the paupers who were crowding round the place. And both the Thakurs were sitting at the feet of God with their heads bowed, their eyes closed, immersed in intense adoration.


The elder Thakur raised his head and looked towards the pujari and said, ‘God really loves his devotees, isn’t it so, pujariji.’


The pujari endorsed, ‘Yes, Sarkar. God had come running from the Ksheer Sagar, the Ocean of Milk, to save Gajaraj, the elephant from the jaws of the crocodile.’


The next moment the younger Thakur sahib raised his head and said to the pujari, ‘Isn’t God omnipotent and omniscient, and knows what is passing in everyone’s mind?’


The pujari agreed, ‘Yes, Sarkar. Had he not been omniscient how would he know people’s wishes. He understood Shabri’s love and fulfilled her heart’s desire.’


The prayers ended. Aarti was said. Both the brothers said the aarti in a loud voice and the elder Thakur made an offering of two rupees. The younger Thakur put four rupees in the thali. The elder Thakur cast an angry look and turned away his face.


The elder Thakur asked the pujari, ‘What do you say, pujariji?’


Pujari said, ‘You will be victorious.’


The younger Thakur asked, ‘And what about me?’


‘You also win.’


The elder Thakur, filled with devotion, came out of the temple singing a bhajan: 

O my compassionate lord of mysterious ways, don’t let me down.


I came out after him wanting to help Prakash in distributing the sweets. But he disallowed me, saying, ‘Please don’t. I’ll do it myself. After all there aren’t many left.’


Turned down, I moved towards the post office only to find a smiling Vikram cycling down. Everyone became restive on seeing him. Both the Thakurs were there in front. They swooped on him like eagles. There were still some undistributed sweets in Prakash’s thali. He dropped the thali on the ground and ran towards Vikram. And overcome with euphoria, I lifted him up in my lap. No one questioned him, all were shouting as if victorious.


The elder Thakur looked at the sky and said, ‘Victory to Raja Ramchandra!’


The junior Thakur went a step ahead, ‘Victory to Hanumanji!’


Prakash clapped and shouted, ‘By the grace of Jhakhad Maharaj!’


Vikram burst out into ringing laughter. Then he stood aside and said, ‘I’ll charge one lakh to disclose the winner’s name. Do you agree?’


The elder Thakur caught him by the hand and said, ‘But first let us know.’


‘No, I won’t disclose for free.’


The younger Thakur said angrily,’ Wonderful! One lakh just to reveal the name!’


Prakash also showed his resentment, ‘Don’t we know where the post office is?’


‘All right. Then get ready to hear the name of the winner.’


All stood still like soldiers at attention.


‘Don’t lose your composure.’

All gazed intently at him.


‘All right, listen with your ears open. This city is a washout. Not only this city, the whole of India is a washout. The winner is a habshi from America.’


The elder Thakur was irritated, ‘You’re lying, lying.’


The younger Thakur changed tack, ‘Impossible. Three months of devotion gone waste!’


Prakash thumped his breast and said, ‘Is it a joke? Did I have my head smashed and hands battered for nothing?’


In the meantime, dozens of people passed by, their faces drooping in dejection. These fellows were returning from the post office cursing their fate. A habshi from America has beaten them hollow. The miserable wretch, the evil spirit, the wicked fellow!


Now there was no way except to accept the truth. The elder Thakur went into the temple and dismissed the pujari, ‘Have we been feeding and fattening you for this? You live off us, and do nothing?’


The younger Thakur behaved as if his back was broken. He beat his head a few times and then sat down. Prakash’s anger became uncontrollable. He picked up a thick stick and ran to thrash Jhakhad Baba.


The Thakurain said only this, ‘All have acted dishonestly. I'm sure.  What can our gods do? They can’t snatch from others’ hands.’


No one ate in the evening. I was also sitting disconsolate when Vikram came and said, ‘Let’s go to a hotel to eat. The fireplace remains unlit here.’


‘Why did you wear such a happy look when you returned from the post office?’ I asked him.


He said, ‘When I saw thousands of people crowding round the post office, I laughed at our utter folly. If there were thousands of people in our city there must be many more thousands in other cities of India and hundreds of thousands in the world. The mountain of hope that I had raised in my heart suddenly shrunk to a mustard seed and I laughed at myself. It was as if a philanthropist should get hold of a few crumbs and invite lakhs of people to a feast. And here in our household each one is ...’


I also laughed ‘Yes. This is the truth. And we two were fighting to sign a written agreement! But tell me honestly, didn’t you want to back out of the agreement?’


Vikram smiled and said, ‘Where’s the need to know now? Let it remain curtained.’ 
                                                                         
(Hindi, 'Hans' November 1935)
     
My comments
Another very interesting story, though not very popular among anthologists. Undoubtedly the plot is rather thin and trite: The hopes that people entertain on purchasing a lottery ticket and how those hopes collapse like a punctured balloon. However, Premchand uses this thin plot to enter into people’s minds to show how strong the desire for wealth can be and how that desire totally distorts human behavior and   human relationships. Family relations and friendships break up, brothers turn against each other, friends become suspicious of each other; atheists turn believers, and religious faith is shown to be nothing more than a manifestation of human greed and hypocrisy; superstitions thrive and faith in godmen’s miraculous powers blooms as the desire to get rich quickly takes centre stage in the human heart. Premchand draws a very delightful caricature of this human condition simulated in the story through the purchase of lottery tickets. In one sense, one may hazard, that the story becomes a playful meditation on how desire for wealth can distort and disrupt stable human relationships and awaken blind faith and hypocrisy. Story as meditation? Or, meditation as story? May be!

Some objections can be raised against the story. Premchand seems to have presented a very poor image of drinking and seems guilty of excessive moralizing. And his use of the word ‘habshi’ for the African-American who wins the lottery may raise some eyebrows and even bring accusations of racism. However, in Premchand’s time the word had more a descriptive connotation (like the word ‘Negro’ in America and Europe then) and less an ‘insulting’ one. The Hindi dictionary defines ‘Habshi’ as one who is from the ‘land of Habesh, and of very dark complexion’. The word itself came to India with the Muslims in its Arabic form and was used for African and Abyssinian (Abyssinia being a Latinized form of Habesha) slaves brought by them to India. The slaves were valued for their physical prowess and loyalty, and interestingly some of them rose to high offices, and many of them were merchants. Two conspicuous examples are Malik Ambar of Ahmadnagar who became an independent chief of a small state in Western India; and another, Jamal-ud-Din Yakut, an African Siddi slave turned nobleman and a close confidant of Delhi’s only female ruler, Razia Sultana (1205-40), and speculated to have been her lover.

 I wonder whether Premchand was even aware that the word might be considered offensive. But why did he bring an African slave into the story? My conjecture is that Premchand, more than wanting to insult an African-American, was mocking at his own characters who hypocritically and foolishly believed that they alone were deserving of the lottery prize. Premchand perhaps wanted to drive home the point that Nature’s or God’s bounty can fall to anyone including the most marginalized and denigrated individual, and he hits out at the pretensions of his characters who are shocked and horrified to hear that an American ‘habshi’, has won the lottery. For them it is an ill-deserved prize, but Premchand thinks otherwise. In fact he seems to delight in the discomfiture of his characters. 

Premchand’s usual banter and caricature of human behavior enliven the story from beginning to end.  

There is a similar short story called 'The Lottery Ticket' by Anton Chekhov. I wonder whether Premchand knew this story. There is another short story, 'The lottery', by an American writer, Shirley Jackson, but that is altogether a very different kind of story.
                                      
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Monday, October 31, 2016

Balbir Madhopur'si poems in translation

Here are four poems of  Balbir Madhopuri, a Punjabi poet translated by me. The poems have been accessed from his collection 'Meri Chaunvi Kavta' (My Selected Poems) (2011).The poems are posted here with permission from the poet.


Balbir Madhopuri
(Born: 1955)

BalbirMadhopuri, Punjabi writer, poet and translator, was born in 1955 in a Dalit family in Madhopur, a small village in district Jalandhar, Punjab. His trials began at a tender age when he began working as a child labourer and an agricultural worker. Despite his humble origins he managed to acquire a post graduate degree in Punjabi literature. His writings are primarily focused on the issues related with the oppressed and depressed classes, especially the Dalits. Madhopuri has published three collections of poetry. His autobiography 'ChhangiyaRukh' (The Lopped-off Tree) was first published in 2002 and has gone through seven editions. Its translation in English by Tripti Jain, 'ChhangiyaRukh: Against the Night' An Autobiography was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. It has also been published in some Indian languages including Hindi and Shahmukhi (in Pakistan in 2010). It has been serialized by eight Punjabi, Hindi, Shahmukhi magazines and certain chapters have been published in some English magazines and newspapers. Madhopuri is one of the pioneering Dalit writers in Punjabi literature.  
(Image and bio details are from the poet's Website)


1. My Caste

My caste is always with me
like my complexion
like my shadow.
We are so rolled into one
I’m nothing
except my caste,
wherever I am
in the city or in the village
here or across the seas.

I try very hard to hide,
wear a hundred masks
but it shows itself
again and again
like the white hair
after the dye has worn off
or like the body showing
through tattered clothes

I wish to be rid of it
like someone wanting a divorce
but they tell me,
this bond  stays on
birth after birth...
nothing to think about.

Finally
the bow is strung
with arrows of contention,
which pierce both past and present.
Blood boils within, like an earthquake
and then
divisions  come in the open
up-down, right-left.

My caste is always with me
like my complexion
like my shadow.
We are so rolled into one
I’m nothing
except my caste,
wherever I am
in the city or in the village
here or across the seas.
---


2. Tsunami Waves

The tsunami waves
washed away many things;
rocky shores,
living creatures
fishes and tortoises
trees and humans
beautiful natural landscape

The waves
wrecked the houses
where God was segregated,
where people
would step in or pass by
 shivering, in fear

And in no time
the land became water
and death ruled all over.
One recalled:
‘Death is a great leveller.’
Yet the survivors sang a different tune.
The living labelled the dead
as high or low
touchable or untouchable .

In this way
on the sea shore
the ‘not humans’ were left
hungry, thirsty,
and without hope
by the demonic laughter
of the ‘humans’.
The tsunami waves
that altogether demolished
the rocky shores
could not knock down
the high walls of hatred
that stood in the human hearts.

In the aftermath
let someone,
on the now calm sea’s wide shore,
reflect, and say:
Let us push our boat
into the sea of humaneness
embrace each other like the waves
merge into each other
destroy the poisonous fish.
Come let us play this game.
 ---


3. Come, My Friend

Come, my friend,
let’s meet again
just as two pathways meet,
merge into each other
like a river in the sea.

Come, my friend,
let’s sing, in the marketplace,
the death song
for the Sanatani culture
that has divided mankind again and again,
that has no reason to be.

Come, my friend,
Let’s bury deep
the ’living words’
that stink,
that don’t let you forget
‘the dead mother’
and lacerate  so many hearts.

Come, my friend,
Let’s give up the kissa tradition
give up the culture of ‘culture’
let’s load with stones and sink the boat
in which life is a living death

Come, my friend,
let’s fight another Mahabharat
write another  sixteenth chapter
dam  the river of fire
drive the black spotted pigeon
across the dividing lines

Come, my friend,
let’s bring under the shade
the life that is a desert,
 plant flowers in barren lives
and fulfill the duty of words

Come, my friend,
let’s find words
that bring sunshine, air and the sea
that are charged with the energy of a warrior
that make the whole sky fragrant

Come, my friend,
let’s meet again
just as two pathways meet,
merge into each other
like a river in the sea.
 ---

4. My Culture

Now
even the deserts
have become green.
The barren lands too
are blooming
The natural landscape too
has changed
Yet my culture
drenched in caste
still remains unchanged.

Now
even the unbounded space
has shrunk
The seven continents too
have become one
like the colours of the rainbow
in the sunlight
The Berlin wall
has come down like a house of glass
and is a heap of sand now
Yet no key can unlock
the stony doors of my culture
that refuses to open up

Now
even the glaciers 
are melting
The waters in the oceans
are warming up
And hot winds too
are blowing at places
Yet my culture
like the consumer culture
still sticks different labels
on human beings
---
5 The Sunshine’s Journey
                 (ਧੁੱਪ ਦਾ ਸਫ਼ਰ)

The break of day
is like a siren for her
As soon as she wakes  
she begins to water the plants
and the flowers big and small
bloom and spread their fragrance

And I
while slurping  my tea 
turn over the pages of the newspaper
in search of state-of-the-nation news ⎼
how one faction 
has battered the other
and I am reminded
of some slokas of Tulsi and Manu

That’s how 
her morning turns into noon
and she spreads the shade of her being
on the blooming flowers
and the difference 
between the tall mulberry tree
and her 
seems to disappear

That’s how her noon 
mellows
That’s how her noon 
has mellowed 

Whenever I return home
riding my mare
through dark and narrow lanes
she standing at the door 
catches the mare’s rein
and the tidal wave 
surging through her heart
recedes
A light shines in her eyes
and the earth 
seems peaceful to her



That’s how 
her morning begins
That’s how 
her noon descends 
That’s how
her noon mellows
That’s how  
her high noon has mellowed

---