Today we are celebrating 135th anniversary of Munshi Premchand (31 July, 1880), an Indian writer well renowned for his modern Hindi-Urdu literature. I am pleased to share a heart touching story written by him.
The story has been originally written under the Hindi title “Sadgati” which literally means a good death. But the title is quite ironic and through the story Premchand has been successful in criticizing and satirizing Hindu society and its prejudiced norms.
Dukhi, the tanner was sweeping the door front, and his wife, Jhuria, was plastering the floor with cow dung. After they were done with their chores, the chamarin said, ‘Go now and speak to Pandit Baba, lest he should go somewhere else.’
Dukhi said, ‘Yes, I’m going, but think where we would seat him.’
Jhuria said, ‘We’ll borrow a cot from someone. Get it from the Thakurs.’
‘Sometimes you say things that make my blood boil. Why would the Thakurs lend me a cot? They don’t lend us even fire for lighting, and you expect them to lend us a cot! If I ask for water at the house of a Kaistha, I won’t get it. No question of getting a cot. It’s not like our dung cakes, reed stems, straw and wood; which anyone one can pinch. Let’s wash our own cot. Being summer, it’ll dry up before he comes.’
‘Why would he sit on our cot? Don’t you know how strict he is in his observances?’
Dukhi replied, a little worried, ‘That’s true. It’ll be better if I make a leaf-plate from Mahua leaves. All big people eat in those plates. These are clean and taint less. Get me the stick. I’ll bring down some leaves from the tree.’
‘I’ll make the leaf-plates. You go. Oh yes, we’ll need some offerings too him. Shall I put them in our thali?’ (thali means a plate)
‘Don’t be mad. We shall lose the offerings. And the thali too! Baba will hurl the thali away. Gets wild in no time. When angry, he doesn’t spare even the panditayan. He thrashed his son so badly that he still has a broken hand. Put the offerings on a leaf-plate. And, don’t you touch anything.’
Jhuria nodded her head in assent.
‘Take the Gond’s daughter with you and buy the offerings from the grocer’s. They should be plentiful. One seer flour, half seer rice, a quarter of lintels, ghee, salt, turmeric. And put a four-anna coin in one corner of the leaf-plate. And if the Gond’s daughter is not around, request Bhujin. Don’t touch anything, or we’ll be in serious trouble.’
Repeating all that once again, Dukhi picked up the stick and a big bundle of grass, and started on his way to panditji’s. How could he go empty-handed? But he had nothing else for a gift. If Baba saw him empty-handed, he would drive him away from a distance.
Pandit Ghasi Ram was a man of God. As soon as he woke up, he would begin his devotions. It would be eight by the time he washed himself, and then the rituals began in the right earnest. First of his acts was to grindbhang leaves and soak them in water. Then he would grind some sandalwood into paste; after which he would stand before the mirror and put two long paste marks on his forehead with a thin stick. And then, a vermilion dot between the lines. Then he would draw, with the paste, roundish shapes on his chest and arms. Then he would take out God’s image, give it a bathe, put sandalwood marks on it, offer flowers, and recite the aarti, tinkle the bell. It would be ten when he completed his daily rituals. Finally, he would filter the bhang-brew, and come out. By then a few clients would be waiting at his door, an immediate reward for his devotions, this being his vocation. Today when he came out of his prayer room, he saw Dukhi chamar sitting at the door with a bundle of grass. Dukhi got up as soon as he saw him, made his obeisance by lying down flat on his chest in front of him, and then stood up folding his hands. Watching the glorious face in front, Dukhi’s heart was filled with great reverence. What a godly image! Small round and plump body, shining head, full cheeks, and eyes radiating godly refulgence! The sandalwood paste and vermilion further heightened this glory. Turning towards Dukhi, the radiant-faced pandit said, ‘Why have you come, Dukhia?’
Dukhia said, bowing his head, ‘It’s about my daughter’s engagement. I want you to suggest a propitious time and day. When will you be pleased to come?’
‘Dukhia, I’m not free now. I would come by the evening.’
‘Maharaj, come early. I have kept everything ready. Where shall I put this bundle of grass?’
‘Put it in front of the cow. And take the broom and sweep the door. The sitting room hasn’t been plastered for many days. Plaster it with dung. By then I shall finish my food, then after resting for a while I shall come. And yes, chop this log of wood into small pieces. And there’re four sacks of straw in the field. Bring those also and put them in the hay store.’
Dukhi at once set himself to obey the commands. He swept the door-front, plastered the sitting room. By then it was noon. Panditji had gone in for his food. Dukhi had eaten nothing since morning, and he too was hungry, but there was nothing for him to eat. His home was a mile away, and if he went there panditji would get angry. The poor fellow suppressed his hunger and began to chop the wood. The piece of wood had a thick knot which had defeated many a devotee, and was now ready for battle again. Dukhi was good at cutting grass, but had no experience of chopping wood. Grass would always bow its head before him, but here he attacked the knot with all his force yet it refused to yield even a bit. His axe would slip again and again. He was sweating profusely. He gasped for breath and sat down, rested a while and got up again. He was unable to lift his hands, his legs were shaky, his back would not straighten. Darkness clouded his eyes and his head reeled. Even then he continued his labours.
A chillum of tobacco could give him some strength, he thought. But where would he get it? This was the brahmin habitation, and brahmins don’t smoke like us low-castes. Then he thought of the Gond. He would surely have tobacco, and he ran towards his home. He was lucky. The Gond gave him a chillum and also tobacco, but he had no fire to light the chillum. Dukhi didn’t worry, for he said he would borrow fire from panditji’s, where food was being cooked. He came back and went straight into panditji’s house and said, ‘Master, could I get some fire to light my chillum?’
Panditji was eating at that time. Panditayan questioned, ‘Who’s asking for fire?’
“It’s the same silly Dukhia chamar. I’ve asked him to chop some wood. Give him some fire.’
Panditayan folded her eyebrows, and said, ‘Haven’t you thrown overboard all the taboos of your dharma ? Anyone may come in freely, whether he’s a chamar, or dhobi or passi. Is this the home of a Hindu, or a sarai? Ask him to get out of here, or I shall singe his face with this burning piece of wood. How dare he ask for fire?’
Panditji tried to pacify her. ‘What if he has come in? He hasn’t touched anything here. And he’s working for us. If I had called a wood-cutter to do this, he would have charged at least four annas.’
Panditayan thundered, ‘Why did he enter the house?’
Panditji was irritated , ‘His evil day, what else!’
Panditayan said, ‘All right, I shall give the fire this time. But if he enters the house like this again, I shall burn his face.’
Dukhia was listening to all this. He was regretting that he ever came in. She’s right. How can a chamar enter a brahmin’s house! They are so pure, these people. That’s why the world worships them. That’s why they’re revered so much. They aren’t chamars. I have grown old in this village, and yet I did not have this much sense.
When panditayan came out, he felt he was in heaven. He folded both his hands and bent down and put his head to the ground and said, ‘O mother panditayan, I made a great mistake by entering the house. It’s because of my follies that I’m punished again and again.’
Panditayan had brought a piece of burning wood held in tongs. She threw it towards Dukhi from a distance. A splinter from this fell on his head, and he began to shake it off. This is the retribution, he thought, for polluting a brahmin’s house. God has sent it so fast. That’s why the world is afraid of brahmins. Everyone can be cheated of his money. But just you try to cheat a brahmin! You’ll be destroyed. Your feet will begin to rot, and then fall off. He came out and smoked his chillum, and then began to ply the axe again. Pandityan heard the khut-khut of the axe. Realizing that she had been too harsh in throwing the burning piece of wood at Dukhi, she softened a bit. After panditji had finished eating, she said, ‘Give this chamar something to eat. He has been working for so long. Must be hungry.’
Panditji, treating the suggestion as impractical, said, ‘Do you have any rotisto spare?’
‘Only a few,’ she said.
‘A few won’t do. He’s a chamar, and would consume at least a seer of flour.’
‘O God, a seer! Then, forget it.’
Now panditji became aggressive. ‘If you have some bran, mix it with a little flour and make two thick rotis. That will fill his stomach. Thin rotis made from wheat flour can’t fill their stomach. These menials need thick ones made from barley.’
Panditayan said, ‘Then leave it. Who would go out in the heat?’
Having smoked his chillum, Dukhi began plying the axe. Resting had restored some of his strength. He kept on plying the axe for another half an hour, and then he sat down with his hands on his head, gasping for breath. In the meantime the Gond came there. He said, ‘Why’re you killing yourself, old man? This knot will not crack. You’re wasting yourself for nothing.’
Dukhi wiped the sweat off his forehead and said, ‘I have to bring a cartful of straw, too.’
The Gond said, ‘Did they give you anything to eat? They know only to extract work. Why don’t you go and ask for food?’
‘Chikuri, what’re you saying? Will I be able to digest a brahmnin’s food?’
‘Yes, you will be able to, but first you should get it. He has eaten to his fill, and is sleeping peacefully, having ordered you to chop this log. The landlord at least gives something to eat. The officer makes you work, yet he too gives you something. And these ones have beaten them all, and they call themselves men of God!’
‘Don’t shout, brother. He’ll explode, if he hears all this.’
Dukhi got up and began to attack the wood. Chikuri took pity on him. He snatched the axe from him and plied the axe with all his force for half an hour, but the knot refused to yield. Then he threw away the axe, and walked away saying: ‘This knot will not crack, even if you die trying it.’
Dukhi was wondering why Baba had kept this log that refuses to split. How long shall I go on? I have a hundred things to do at home. We are preparing for our daughter’s engagement. I have so much to do. But why should this man care? I’ll go and bring the straw. I’ll tell him I could not chop the wood and do it tomorrow.
He picked up the sack and went for the straw. The field wasn’t less than two furlongs from here. If he had stuffed the sack to its fill, he could have completed the task faster, but then he wouldn’t have been able to carry it. So he only half filled the sack, and was able to bring in the whole load gradually by four o’clock.
By this time Panditji had woken up. He washed his face, stuffed a paan into his mouth and came out. He found Dukhi sleeping with the sack on his face. He shouted, ‘O Dukhia, you’re sleeping. The log is lying uncut. What have you been doing all this time? You have wasted the whole time hauling a handful of straw. And on top of it, you’re sleeping. Get up, pick up the axe and chop the wood. You can’t chop this small piece of wood! Don’t blame me if I follow your way to determine the propitious day for the engagement. People are right when they say that the moment a menial has food in his house, he turns a dodger.’
Dukhi picked up the axe once again. He forgot everything. His stomach was beginning to touch his back. He had eaten nothing the whole day, for he hadn’t got time for this. He was unable to stand up, yet he argued with himself: He’s a brahmin, and if he fixes an inauspicious day, all will be ruined. That’s why people respect them. Everything depends on them.
Panditji came close to him and began to egg him on: ‘Come on, hit hard, still harder…don’t you have strength in your hands? Hit harder. What’re you thinking of. It’s about to crack. Hit into that opening.’
Dukhi was now out of his senses. He did not know what mysterious force was driving him on. Weakness, exhaustion, hunger – all were gone. He was wondering at his own strength. Each of his strokes came down like a thunderbolt. He kept on hitting at the wood for half an hour, and then the knot gave way and the axe fell off his hands. His head reeled and he too fell down. The hungry, thirsty and exhausted body had given way.
Panditji shouted, ‘Get up, a few strokes of the axe. Chip the log into small pieces.’ But Dukhi didn’t get up. Panditji didn’t want to trouble him any further. He went inside, readied his bhang, answered the call of nature, bathed, wore his pandit’s dress and came out. Dukhi was still lying on the ground. He shouted loudly, ‘O, will you keep lying there? Get up.I’m going to your home. Is everything ready?’ But Dukhi still did not get up.
Now panditji became apprehensive. He went close and saw that Dukhi’s body had become stiff. Horrified, he ran in and told panditayan, ‘It looks Dukhi is dead.’
She said, frightened, ‘But he was chopping wood just now.’
‘Oh yes. He died while chopping. What shall we do now?’
Panditayan said in a calm voice, ‘Nothing. Send a message to the chamars. They will carry away the body.’
The news spread in the village in no time. The village belonged to the brahmins, except for the house of the Gonds. People stopped using this pathway. The way to the well led through this path. How shall they draw water? Who will go to the well passing by a chamar’s dead body? An old woman said to panditji, ‘Why don’t you have the corpse thrown away? How shall we drink water?’
On the other side, the Gond warned the chamars not to touch the body. ‘The police have to investigate,’ he said. ‘It’s not a joke. He has killed a poor man. He may be a brahmin. If you touch the corpse, you too will be in trouble.’
Panditji came to the chamars’ habitations, but no chamar was ready to lift the body. Dukhi’s wife and his daughter came to panditji’s door crying, and began to beat their heads. A number of chamar women accompanied them. A few of them cried; others tried to console. But not a single chamar came there. Panditji, threatened, argued, pleaded, but the chamars were frightened of the police, and none agreed. At last he gave up and returned home.
The women kept weeping and wailing till midnight. It became difficult for gods to sleep. Yet no chamar came to carry away the corpse. And how could a brahmin touch a chamar’s corpse! The shastras and purans forbade this.
Panditayan said in exasperation, ‘These she-devils have licked our heads. Their throats don’t dry up.’ Panditji said, ‘Let them cry, these chudels. How long will they go on! When he was alive, no one cared. Now that he’s dead, they’ve come here to hue and cry.’
Panditayan said, ‘A chamar’s crying is unpropitious.’
‘Yes, very much so.’
‘The body is beginning to stink now.’
‘I wonder whether he was a chamar. These fellows see no difference between what to eat and what not to eat.’
‘They don’t even feel any repulsion.’
‘They’re all renegades.’
The night passed somehow, but no chamar came there in the morning. The chamar women had also gone away, ending their crying and wailing. The stink had begun to spread. Panditji took out a rope. He made a loop at one end and slung it round the corpse’s feet and pulled it to tighten it. It was still dark. Panditji caught the rope from the other end and began to pull the corpse. He dragged it out of the village. Then he came home and bathed, recited the prayer to goddess Durga and sprinkled the Ganges water all over in the house.
Out there in the fields, jackals and vultures, dogs and crows were tearing at Dukhi’s corpse. This was the reward for a life-time of devotion, service and steadfastness.
(Hindi, Premkunj, a Collection, 1930)