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The Shroud

(This is a feeble translation of Kafan, a story by Munshi Premchand. Ghisu and Madhav are sitting outside their hut and eating potatoes, which they had stolen from somebody's field. Inside the hut, Madhav's wife is writhing in agony from labour pains. The father and son are certain that the woman will not survive. Yet, they remain sitting outside eating potatoes; Ghisu even narrates wistfully about a marriage feast he had attended twenty years ago. He describes in detail the food that was served at the feast. The father and son, after eating the potatoes, go to sleep. The woman dies and so does the child in her womb. The father and son collect money for the woman's funeral, but they spend the money on liqour. They bless the woman for providing them with a feast even in her death!

A very dark story that is sure to make the reader feel uncomfortable. It felt horrible when I first read this story in my school textbook many decades ago. What did the author wish to convey by writing such a dark story. I don't know. But it needs to be noted that this story was written in the pre-Independence era; those were the days of poverty, divisiveness, and inequality in the society. The author, at some point, even sympathizes with Ghisu and Madhav by stating that it was not surprising for such a mentality to germinate and grow in a society where despite working hard people could scarcely earn a better living than these two. It was not the farmers, but those who exploited the weaknesses of the farmers who were wealthy. The author goes on to say that Ghisu had more wisdom than the mindless farmers, and, so, instead of becoming a farmer had chosen to join the despicable group of idlers. But he lacked the skills of the idlers; so, while others from his group went on to become leaders and village heads, he was detested by the whole village. But, although he had to wear rags, he at least had the consolation that he did not have to slog like the farmers, and nobody could exploit him and take advantage of his helplessness.

Perhaps, that was the intention of the author - to make the readers feel uncomfortable, and to make them crave and strive for change.)

Father and son sat silent by a dying fire in front of their hut. Inside, the son's young wife lay writhing in agony of labour pains. Time and again she cried out in pain - heart-rending cries which caused the two outside to squirm. It was a winter's night, quietness permeated the atmosphere, and the whole village was engulfed in darkness.

"Seems like she will not survive," Ghisu said. "We have spent the entire day running around; go and see how she is coping."

"If she has to die, why doesn't she die soon? What is the use of going to see her?" Madhav said. The annoyance in his voice was apparent.

"You are heartless! This is terrible betrayal of someone with whom you have spent the whole year in happiness!"

"What can I do? I cannot bear to see her writhing in pain."

They were cobblers, and notorious in the whole village. Ghisu worked for a day and rested for three days. Madhav was so lazy that if he worked for half-an-hour, he spent the next hour smoking his "chillum (pipe)". The two therefore found employment only rarely; nobody wanted to hire them. They hardly thought of work if perchance there was even a handful of grains in the hut. When that got over, Ghisu climbed a tree and cut off the branches; Madhav sold the wood in the market. The two roamed around aimlessly as long as the money lasted.

There was, of course, no dearth of work in the village. It was a farmers' village, and those willing to put in hard work had plenty to do. But these two were called only when the employer could find no one else, and had to be content with the work completed by the two of them together which, otherwise, could have been done by one man.

If the two had chosen to be ascetics, they would not have been required to practise rigorous rituals to reach the desired levels of contentment and patience - these qualities were second nature with them. They led a strange life - other than a few earthen utensils, there was nothing else in their hut. They concealed their nudity in rags. They had not a care in the world! They were steeped up to the neck in debts! The creditors abused them, and sometimes even thrashed them; but the two held no grudge. They were so poor that people gave away something or the other to them, although well aware that the loans were unlikely to be ever repaid.

They stole peas and potatoes from people's fields, which they roasted and ate. Else, they pulled out sugarcane and sucked at them contentedly in the night. Ghisu had spent 60 years of his life in this way, and Madhav, like a good son, was following in his father's footsteps - rather, he was doing more credit to his father's name.

The two, as usual, were roasting potatoes which they had dug from somebody else's field. Ghisu's wife had died long ago. Madhav had married only last year. Upon her arrival, the woman laid the foundations of some discipline in the family and looked after the two miserable men. The two had become lazier since her coming; in fact, they had become slightly arrogant - if someone offered them a job they demanded double wages. The same woman was today writhing in agony from labour pains, and these two were perhaps waiting for her to die so that they could sleep in peace.

Ghisu said while peeling a potato, "Go and see how she is. She must be under a witch's spell, what else! Here, even the exorcist charges one rupee."

Madhav was afraid that if he went inside, Ghisu would eat up a larger portion of the potatoes. So he said, "I feel scared to go there."

"Why are you afraid? I am here if you need me."

"Then go and see her yourself."

"When my wife was on the death-bed, I did not leave her side for three days. If I go, won't your wife feel embarrassed? How can I see the bare body of a woman whose face I have never seen! Besides, she will feel uncomfortable in my presence and will not be able to express her distress freely."

"I was thinking what will happen if there is a child? There is nothing in the house - no ginger, no jaggery, no oil; nothing at all."

"Everything will come. God provides! The same people who refuse to lend us any money today will offer us money on their own tomorrow. I had nine sons, there was nothing in the house, yet by God's grace I could overcome all obstacles."

It was not surprising for such a mentality to germinate and grow in a society where despite working hard people could scarcely earn a better living than these two. It was not the farmers, but those who exploited the weaknesses of the farmers who were wealthy. In fact, we would say that Ghisu had more wisdom than the mindless farmers, and, so, instead of becoming a farmer had chosen to join the despicable group of idlers. But he lacked the skills of the idlers; so, while others from his group went on to become leaders and village heads, he was detested by the whole village. But, although he had to wear rags, he at least had the consolation that he did not have to slog like the farmers, and nobody could exploit him and take advantage of his helplessness.

Father and son devoured the hot potatoes hungrily - they had not eaten anything since yesterday. Their hunger was so great that they could not wait for the potatoes to cool. The potatoes scorched their tongues. After peeling the potatoes did not appear to be very hot, but once inside the mouth and when bitten by the teeth the hot core singed the tongue and the palate. The only wise thing to do was to gobble up the burning embers as fast as possible so that they quickly reached the innards where there were enough materials to cool them. The two were, therefore, gobbling up the potatoes although the effort brought tears to their eyes.

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