Thursday, June 16, 2016

Prem Chand's story 'Ram Lila' in English

Read  Prem Chand's short story 'Ramlila' translated by me. 








I haven’t gone to watch the Ramlila for a long time. Now I only smile, don’t enjoy, watching men wearing ungainly monkey masks, wearing half pajamas and short black kurtas  and running around screaming ‘hu hu’. The Ramlila at Kashi is world famous. People from far and wide go there to watch it. I also went there once. But I could see no difference between that and the Ramlila in any village. But, of course, some costumes used in the Ramnagar Ramlila are very good. The masks worn by the monkeys and rakshasas are made of brass; their maces too are made of brass. And may be the crowns worn by the exiled brothers are of real gold or silver. However, except for the costumes, there is nothing much besides ‘hu hu’. Even then lakhs go to watch it.

Yet there was a time when I loved watching the Ramlila. Love is no word. It was sheer madness. By a coincidence the ground where the Ramlila was enacted was not far from my residence then. And the house where the actors were dressed and made-up was just in my neighbourhood. The making-up of the actors would begin at two o’clock. I would always be present on that occasion, and the enthusiasm with which I helped in small things then I don’t show even when I go to collect my pension now. In one small room the princess would be readied up. Her body would be painted with yellow mud, her face powdered and printed with small red, green and blue dots. The forehead, the eyebrows, the cheeks, the chin – all were adorned with dots. All the three actors were made up in this way, one after the other. It was my job to provide water for the colour bowls, grind the yellow mud, and pull the fan. When, after these preparations, I seated myself in the rear of the vimana, the vehicle carrying Ramchandraji, I felt such pride and elation as I won’t feel today even if I was seated in the Viceroy’s chair. Once when the Home Member had seconded my proposal in a meeting I had felt a similar pride, elation and surge of emotion. And yes, when my son had been appointed a naib-tehsildar, I had felt the same upsurge in my heart. Yet there is a great difference between these and that childhood intoxication. Then I had felt as if I was in heaven.  

It was the day on which the crossing-the-river with Nishad was to be enacted. Coaxed by a few friends I went away to play gulli-danda and did not go to watch the actors being made-up. The procession was out on the streets and still I did not give up playing. It was my turn to bat. To give up my turn required a renunciation I was incapable of. If I had to field I would have deserted long back, but to make others field is something different. At last my turn was over. I could have continued to bat for some more time by cheating, but now there was no time. I ran straight towards the nala. The vimana carrying the actors had reached the bank of the waterway. From a distance I saw that the boatman was rowing the boat towards the bank. I tried to run but it was not possible to run through the crowd. At last, wading through the crowd, I reached the ghat. By that time Nishad had untied the boat. I had such devotion for Ramchandra that, without caring for my own lessons, I used to teach him so that he might not fail. Even though he was elder to me by a few years he was stuck in a lower class. But the same Ramchandra, seated in the boat, had turned his face away from me as if I was a stranger. Often while impersonating someone, one begins to behave like the real one. Why would he whose eyes were now fixed on his devotees take notice of me? I was so upset that I ran riot like a young ox that has been put under the yoke for the first time. Now I ran towards the ghat, now backwards for some help; but everyone was singing his own tune and turned a deaf ear to my screaming. Since then I have faced many misfortunes but I have never experienced that kind of pain. 

I decided that I shall never talk to Ramchandra and never share any eatable with him. But the moment he returned after crossing the nala and sat in the vimana I ran and sat in its rear, forgetting everything. 


Ramlila was over. It was time for Ramachandra’s coronation, but somehow it was being postponed. Perhaps the offerings had been below expectations. These days no one cared about Ramchandraji. Neither was he allowed to go home, nor properly fed. Some food came from Chowdhry sahib’s home at about three o’clock. For the rest of the day no one cared. But my devotion was steadfast. In my eyes he was still Ramchandra. Whatever I was given to eat at home I brought it and gave it to him. I enjoyed feeding him more than feeding myself. Whenever I got any fruit or sweet I at once carried it to the chaupal and if I could not find him there I looked for him everywhere and would not rest until I had offered it to him. 

Finally, the day of coronation came. A large shamiana was put up in the Ramlila ground and decorated profusely. A ring of prostitutes also walked in. In the evening Ramchandraji was taken out on a round and at every door he was welcomed with aarti. Everyone made their offerings, matching their devotion; some offering rupees, others coins. My father, being a policeman, performed the aarti without making any offering. I can’t describe the humiliation I felt then. By chance I had a rupee with me, saved from the money given to me by my uncle as a gift for Dussehra. I took out that rupee and put it in the plate in which offerings were being collected. My father glared at me with disapproving eyes. He said nothing but from his eyes it was clear that my impudence had lowered his consequence. It was ten o’clock in the night when this round was completed. The plate containing the offerings was full. I can’t be sure but it contained anywhere between four to five hundred rupees. Chowdhry sahib had spent somewhat more than this. He was anxious to collect at least another two hundred rupees, and the best plan he thought of was to do it with help from the prostitutes: When people are seated and the show is at its climax, Abadijaan should move around and hold the playboys’ wrists and seduce them to yield up something. Abadijaan and Chowdhry sahib were parleying. By chance I was listening to their conversation. Chowhry sahib must have thought that I would not understand what they were discussing but by God’s grace I had a lot of sense and was able to see into the heart of the matter. 

Chowdhry sahib said, ‘Listen Abadijaan, this is too much. This is not our first dealing. And God willing, you’ll keep coming here. This time the donations have fallen short, otherwise I won’t have insisted.’ 

Abadi was saying, ‘Why do you play these zamindar’s games with me? This won’t work,  hazoor. What a joke! I collect the money and you twirl your mustache up. What a way to make money! In this way you’ll become a raja in no time. Your zamindari will fall flat. Start a brothel, and, by God, you’ll roll in riches.’

Chowdhry said, ‘Here, I’m struggling for a rhyme, and you’re making light of it.’ 

Abadij retorted, ‘And you’re playing con tricks with me. I make many swindlers like you dance on my fingertips everyday.’

Chowdhry asked, ‘All right, what do you want?’

Abadi said, ‘Whatever I collect should be divided equally between us. Come on, give me your hand.’

Chowdhry replied, ‘Let it be like this.’

Abadi said, ‘Well, first give me my hundred rupees. Later on you’ll back out.’

Chowdhry retorted, ‘What! You’ll take that, and this too?’

Abadi responded, ‘O, did you think I would give up my wages? What an idea? And why not?  The mad man talks nonsense, the dervish is full of wisdom!’

Chowdhry asked, ‘So you will charge a double fees?’

Abadi said, ‘Yes, if you want to use me. Otherwise, no one can deny me my hundred rupees. Am I bitten by a mad dog I should pick people’s pockets for nothing?’

Chowdhry lost the argument and had to accept Abadi’s terms. 

The dance began.

Abadijaan was an exceptionally bold performer. She was young, she was beautiful. Her seductive charms were so enthralling that even I was coming under her spell. And she had great talent for sizing up men. She would not budge until she had extracted something from the man in front. No one gave less than five rupees. Then she came and sat in front of my father. I lowered my head in shame. And when she caught hold of his wrist I was alarmed. I was sure father would wrest his hand from her grasp and even upbraid her. But look what is happening. My God! Are my eyes deceived? Father is smiling under his mustache. I had never seen such a sweet smile on his face. His eyes were overflowing with pleasure and his whole body was filled up with romance. But perhaps God had listened to my prayer. See, how gently he has withdrawn his wrist out of Abadijaan’s delicate hands. But, look, what’s happening now! Abadijaan has put her arms round his neck. Father is sure to thrash her now. The chudel has no sense of shame. 

A sethji smiled and said, ‘Abadijaan, you’ll go empty handed from here. Knock another door.’

What he said was sensible and to my liking. But I don’t know why father looked at him with disdain and began to twirl his mustache. He did not utter a word but the contemptuous look on his face was screaming aloud: ‘You bania, what do you think of me! I can stake my life on such occasions. Money is of no consequence here. I dare you. If I don’t offer twice the amount you give, I won’t show you my face.’ How amazing! What horror! Why doesn’t the earth tear asunder? Why don’t the heavens fall? Why am I alive? Father is putting his hand into his pocket. He has taken out something and after showing it to sethji handed it over to Abadijaan. Oh! This is an ashrafi.  There was clapping all around. Sethji stood ridiculed. I can’t say whether father too felt he had overdone it. All I saw was that father had handed over one ashrafi to Abadijaan. At this moment he was feeling so proud and elated that it seemed he had kicked at Hatim’s grave. It was the same man who had looked at me with devouring eyes when I had placed one rupee in the plate. My good deed then had lowered his standing, and now he was feeling on top of the world after doing this despicable and reprehensible act. 

Abadijaan salaamed my father with an endearing smile and moved to the next man. But I could not sit there. I left the place, my head hung in shame. Had I not seen it with my own eyes I would have never believed it. It was my habit to give amma a report of whatever I would see outside but I dared not report this incident to her. I did not want to hurt her feelings. 

The singing went on the whole night. I could hear the beat of the tabla. I wanted to go and watch the show but could not summon the courage. I won’t be able to show my face. Suppose someone started talking about father.

Early in the morning Ramchandra was to depart. I woke up and, rubbing my eyes, ran towards the chaupal, fearing that he might have already gone. When I reached there I saw that the prostitutes were about to leave. They were surrounded by many men looking at them with concupiscent eyes. I didn’t look at them and went straight to see Ramchandra. Laxman and Sita were crying and Ramchadra, a stringed lutia slung over his shoulder, was trying to console them. There was no one there except me. With a bitter heart I asked Ramchandra, ‘Have they given you the send-off?’

Ramchandra said, ‘Yes, they have. What send-off? Chowdhry sahib said  “go” and we’re going.’

‘Didn’t you get any money and dresses?’

‘No. Chowdhry sahib says there was no saving. You come later.’

‘You got nothing?’

‘Not a paisa? They say they didn’t save anything. I had thought I would buy books with the money I get. I didn’t get any. Not even the fare. He said it’s so close, so we could go walking.’

I was furious and wanted to take Chowdhry sahib to task. Money for the prostitutes, everything for others, and nothing for Ramchandra and his troupe! All those who had given ten or twenty rupees to Abadijaan didn’t have even two rupees or four annas for them. His own father had given a gold coin to Abadijaan. Let me see what he can give to these people. I ran home to see father. He was readying himself to go on an investigation. When he saw me he said, ‘Where have you been? You’re loitering when you should be studying.’

I said, ‘I had gone to the chaupal. Ramchandraji was leaving. Chowdhry sahib didn’t give them anything.’

‘Why do you worry about it?’

‘How would they go? They don’t even have the fare.’

‘They were not given even the fare? That’s unfair on Chowdhry sahib’s part.’

‘Give me two rupees. That should be enough for them to reach home.’

Father looked at me sharply and said, ‘Go and look at your books. I don’t have any money.’

Saying this he rode away on his horse. From that day onwards I lost all my respect for father.  Never took his rebukes and admonitions seriously. He had lost his right to preach to me. His very face repelled me. I would always act contrary to his instructions. This created problems for me but at that time my heart was filled with revolt.

I had saved two annas. I took them out and gave them to Ramchandra, feeling ashamed of this petty offering. The joy Ramchandra felt on receiving that small amount was a great moment for me.

The three actors walked away carrying these two annas. I was the only person to see them off to the outskirts of the town.

When I returned home my eyes were wet but my heart was filled with joy.
 (Hindi, Madhuri, October 1926)

My comments
It is a delightful story. Look at the felicity, delectable humour  and irony  with which Prem Chand is able to expose the hypocrisy and religious pretensions of the dominant classes of the rural India of his times. It is for the reader to decide if things have changed for the better or worse.
Copy editing would have certainly improved the story. Alas this is a problem with many of Prem Chand's stories.Was he too preoccupied to have a second/ third look at his stories, or it is something else? Serious research students of Prem Chand would know this. For my translations I only use the texts available to me on the internet or in published book form.  T C Ghai