My Seven Favorite Hindi Stories: Part 1

July 30, 2008




This article is on my favorite 7 Hindi short stories. I have no illusions of being a literary critic, so you will not find any great critical evaluation of these masterpieces. What you will find is a fan’s tribute to the stories. I have read these stories many years ago, many times over. Each has touched me in its own way, and even after several decades I still remember all of them, including many key phrases and dialogues.


When I was thinking of writing this article I wondered why. I have no new literary avenues to explore, nothing to add to. I am sure a considerable body of erudite work exists on these stories. Also, I am writing this article in English! The simple reason why I wrote this is because I wanted to list down the stories I like. Many who read this piece will be conversant with written Hindi, to them I suggest they read each one of them as these to my mind are simply the best stories ever written in Hindi. To those who cannot read Hindi, please do look up translations in whatever language you are comfortable in.


Any listing of favorites is a heart-breaking proposition, especially if you set yourself a finite number for the list. You invariably end up leaving out several gems. Also, each individual’s lists will differ. Do let me know if there are some glaring drops from my list.


One caveat. My Hindi reading has nearly stopped since the early 80’s so please do excuse me if you spot some misses from recent writings.


1. Kafan (Premchand)


The father and son duo of Gheesu and Madhav are from the low chamar caste and are extremely poor. Despite their poverty these good-for-nothing fellows shun work and do just enough to get by. Many a time they survive on stolen potatoes and sugarcane from the village fields. The story opens with Madhav’s wife wailing in intense pain caused by pregnancy complications as the two men are sitting outside their hut ignoring her misery and busy eating roasted potatoes which they have stolen. None goes to help her fearing that the other would eat away all the potatoes in his absence from the scene. The morning after Madhav discovers his wife is dead. They now need to arrange for a shroud (kafan) and wood for cremation. They have no money and go around the village begging. They collect Rs 5 and set off to the market place to buy a shroud. In the market place, Gheesu and Madhav meander around looking for a suitable shroud, but not wanting to buy one. They rationalize that since the deceased hardly had any decent clothes to wear during her lifetime, and the shroud would anyway be consigned to the flames it would not be worth buying one. They end up at a liquor shop and blow up all the money they had collected on liquor and eatables. They bless the deceased profusely for giving them an opportunity to have a good drink and a sumptuous meal. The story ends with the duo singing and dancing and then dropping down in drunken stupor.


How abject poverty can be inhumanly degrading is the theme of this story. Poverty which is a common theme in many of the author’s over 300 stories and 14 novels has never been seen through this angle by the author. The two protagonists have assumed that poverty is their lot and they do not struggle to make ends meet and are focused on survival of the self and self-gratification. Poverty has bred utter callousness and insensitivity to their surroundings. Even a dead woman lying in the house awaiting cremation can wait as they make good the opportunity which has presented itself and gorge on food and drinks ignoring the task at hand. Rather than hating the two, you feel a deep sorrow for their abject degradation.


This last story of the greatest of Hindi writers, Premchand, was written in 1936. It is considered by many to be his finest story and is perhaps the best Hindi stories ever.


2. Usne Kaha Tha  (Chandradhar Sharma Guleri)



Two pre-teen kids, a boy and a girl meet occasionally at a market place in Amritsar circa 1890’s. Each visit the boy asks the girl whether she is married, she replies in the negative each time till one day she says that she is indeed married. The boy walks home deeply dejected.


Fast forward 25 years to 1910’s to a battleground during World War 1 in the numbingly cold war theater of France/ Belgium. The boy has now grown up to be Lehna Singh, a jamadaar in 77 Sikh Rifles of the British Army. His platoon has been on bunker duty for 4 days, another 3 to go before they are relieved. One of their fellow soldiers, a young lad Bodha Singh is ill and Lahna Singh is taking care of him. He not only gives the soldier his woolens but also does additional guard duty for him. Enter an enemy soldier in disguise who tricks the subedar, Hazaara Singh, into leading a bulk of the men into an ambush leaving only a skeletal group behind. Lahna Singh, one of those who is left behind, sees through the ploy and sends a fellow soldier to alert the subedar. In the meanwhile the enemy soldiers attack the bunker. Lahna Singh holds on valiantly till subedar and his group return. The Germans are annihilated, bulk of the Indians survive, but Lehna Singh is grievously injured.


Lehna Singh is dying and his mind goes to the time when he is about to leave his village for the front. He has gone to meet up with his subedar who is to join him on the trip. The subedar’s wife turns out to be girl who left Lahna Singh broken-hearted 25 years ago. Subedar’s son, Bodha Singh, is also part of the same regiment. The wife beseeches Lehna Singh to take care of her husband and her only son in the war. Lahna dies in the effort to save the lives of his childhood sweetheart’s husband and son.


Chandradhar Sharma Guleri wrote this story in 1916, more than 90 years ago. Hindi as a language for creative writing was just about taking roots then. Remember, Devakinandan Khatri’s “Chandrakanta” was hardly 15-20 years old when this was written. “Chandrakanta”, the story for which people were motivated to study Hindi to read the book. The story is full of romance, magic, Raja and Rani stories etc. The readers of this book would remember tilism and aiyyars. Hindi story-writing was in its infancy, with only a handful of stories being written. In this background, Guleri ji wrote this story with a powerful plot and with great style. Reading the story you feel that Guleri ji had in mind the screenplay as well. The vignettes from Amritsar bazaars, the battle field, the interactions of Lahna and Bodha, flashback to the fields of Punjab, the encounter with the Germans. And then the poignant ending with the death of Lehna.


A story of love, valour, sacrifice and of unspeakable sadness.  Written with tremendous skill and understanding of readers’ emotions. The repetition of the phrase “Usne kaha tha” though a bit melodramatic touches my heart deeply whenever I read the story. The greatest love story ever told.


Guleri ji wrote just 3 stories in his lifetime, “Sukhmay Jeevan”, “Buddhu ka Kanta”, and “Usne Kaha Tha”. But this one story, “Usne Kaha Tha”, is enough to keep him in the galaxy of best all time story writers.


 To be continued

Link to Part 2:

Link to Part 3:




Booze Stories: Two

July 26, 2008

My earlier piece posted 3 weeks ago had a couple of pieces from my Andhra Pradesh days. Part two has some stories from Punjab.


The milkmen and their source of nourishment:


Punjab was a part of my beat during my days the sales manager in the North. While I was based at Delhi, Punjab being a big market, was a significant part of my travel routine. Punjab those days was still largely a disturbed area. Traveling was not advisable after sunset and the safest place to be in after 6 pm was in the confines of you hotel room. One could travel inter-city only in the early hours of the morning, well before sunrise. So to cover the distance between, say Chandigarh and Amritsar, to be in time for the field work starting at 10 am or so, one would commence one’s journey at around 4.30 am. (One had to budget some time for the surprise checks at multiple points along the route.)


Pre-dawn traffic was mild, one could spot some tractors moving in the foggy countryside. Others regulars were milkmen with large milk vessels slung all across their bicycles. I am sure they would have got up much earlier and after feeding and milking their cattle would hit the road to deliver milk to the local milk-processing centers. What they did on the way back is the topic of interest in this little story.


One common sight during a visit to Punjab is the country liquor shops dotting the state. “Theka Sharab Desi” they are called, written in bold Gurmukhi across the shop frontage. Even at this very early hour the thekas would be partially open, the front shutter up maybe 9-10 inches or so. The theka sales person would be perhaps taking a snooze behind the semi-opened shutter.


On the return journey these milkmen would stop at the thekas. After parking their cycles, they would pull out the lid of one of the empty milk vessels. These lids typically are a couple of inches deep. The upturned lids would be slid through the semi-open shutter and out came the lid filled with the desi daaru. One deep gulp off the lid contents and the customer’s upturned palm would slide into the shutter opening again and pulled out quickly, this time with a handful of salt. Some quick licks off the salt-coated palm and some more deep gulps off the lid. (Now on hindsight, I am apretty sure this must be the origin of tequila. Maybe the lemon was given a miss as it would curdle the milk!) And then the milkmen were off. Off, I am sure to a well deserved siesta after concluding their early morning chores!


A most nourishing start to one’s day, I’m sure!


Patialas in Patiala-land:


During my North sales manager days, drinking after work with colleagues was mandatory. And the preferred choice of all was whisky, “Director’s Special” whisky.


Around eight pm or so, the local sales team would land up in my room, one of them carrying the bottle. Someone would carry a black polythene bag filled with chunks of paneer. The paneer was fresh and soft, but the taste was marred by the packaging which perhaps was extruded from third- generation recycled plastic.


The team would settle in and someone would take control and order stuff. Some soda, some chicken kabab, some masala papad (“with lots of tomato and onion slices on top, please”) and some Coke. Yes, Coke! The Punjabis love their whiskeys with Coke! I forgot, the key thing to have with drinks was a plate of salad, “salaaaaad”, as it was called. And some extra glasses and a bucket of ice cubes.


Shortly thereafter the paraphernalia would arrive. The process was always slow in my companions’ opinion. The wait for the waiter would be punctuated by several calls to the room service threatening to cancel the order as they were taking an inordinate length of time to service it. Anyway, sanity would prevail and by-and-by the waiter arrived balancing the goodies on a tray precariously placed on the upturned palm of his raised left hand. The right hand clutched a  greasy-looking jug of water.


The drinking process began; one Patiala after another. Someone would grab the salad plate and squeeze the lemon slices (dirt-lined finger-nails and all ) all over the mix of onion/tomato/kheeera slices. I remember one guy in the team who besides being the most enthusistic tippler was also the master of ceremonies. He would start the drinking process by dipping his right forefinger into his glass of whiskey, ceremoniously pulling it out and flicking the drops clinging to his finger against an unknown space as if in an offering. To Bacchus? It was only then we would all say “cheers” (some would even use the Punjabi transliteration, “Cheeriaaan…”) and start.


Much stories would be told, most of them repeats. But the guffaws and the waah-waahs would continue unabated. The reputation of many an ex-manager was ripped apart, the mysteries of many a distributor and their family narrated. Then, of course, came the turn on bawdy jokes which had a certain ring attached to it when narrated in Punjabi! Amidst all this merry-making someone would realized the DSP bottle had run dry. A quick hunt began to get a replenishment. The junior-most among the revelers was dispatched to fetch another bottle with suitable instructions from the others about the likeliest place to get a bottle at that time of the night. Sure enough the chap appeared carrying a bottle. (The source was nearly always a liquor store near the railway station. ) And the party would continue.


After the demolition of bottle no. 2 many were already rolling on the floor, eyes closed as if deep meditation (eyes wide open if in deeper meditation) and a plateful of kababs next to them. Then someone got the great idea to “drive the spirits away” (“Bhoot bhagana” as it was called). A burning match stick would be lowered into the empty whiskey bottle and cheers would go up all around when the matchstick caused the alcohol vapor to ignite inside the bottle. The process would be repeated till all the alcoholic fumes would be exhausted. Someone then would throw a challenge whether more such flames could be coaxed out of the barren bottle. Bets would be placed and a contest would be on way! The competitors would rub the bottle along their thighs against their trousers trying to coax out the “spirit” to participate in the revelry. A few minutes later, the bottle would give up and a minutes after that even the hardiest of men would follow suit as they pulled out cushions from all over the room and settled down into a deep, inebriated slumber.


The Versatile Rubber Band

July 26, 2008

It is amazing the services which a humble rubber band provided to us when we were kids. These would enter home via unobtrusive ways. Some came wrapped around boxes of sweets while some came holding together a roll of brown paper or chart paper. Very rarely were these bought; probably they were considered inconsequential and luxury items. They came in various avatars, the plain vanilla black ones cut from old cycle tubes (sometimes if you were unlucky you got one with a bit puncture repair rubber piece still affixed to it!). There were also the slightly refined-looking red ones. And then the thicker and longer gorgeous-looking dark pink ones.


We would find many ways to put the rubber bands to good use. These were ideal “toys” to play around with when one had nothing to do. You would, for example, just take one of these, stick your thumbs at either end and twist them around into various shapes as you were idling time. In case the time on hand got too much and the itch to “do something” took over the rubber bands would be an effective way to give a little “nudge” to the neighboring kid in the classroom. You would pull a rubber band taut and release it close to the earlobe of an unsuspecting kid sitting next to you. The sharp “zing” the poor kid felt for a few seconds and the startled look on his face was such a joy to behold. If you were adventurous enough you could even “target” someone sitting diagonally across the classroom. A “bullet” fashioned out of a torn strip from a notebook page and a rubber band twirled around the forefinger and thumb of the left hand. The “bullet” placed on the rubber band and pulled taut. You would take aim at your target and let the “bullet” go flying across. The poor chap would never know what hit him, and from where! If you were dexterous enough and had access to a few accessories, you could even fashion out a “gun” with the help of a few empty matchboxes, matchsticks and a couple of strong rubber bands.


There were other constructive uses too for the rubber band. For example, fixing droopy socks. A string rubber band slipped over the toes across the sock-clad foot, would be fixed an inch before the sock ended. The top of the sock would be rolled over to conceal the rubber band, and there we had the ‘’no-droop” sock. Never mind the neat ring around the ankle at the end of a school day. A somewhat similar application was fixing the errand end of the belt if it drooped for want of a suitably placed loop along the trouser waistline. A twined rubber band slipped on to the belt before it was worn would solve the problem! “Cheap and best” as they say in the North.


The uses of rubber band extended to multiple areas like girls using it to tie their braids. Or, when you were a real kid, wrapping a rubber band or two along the left wrist and posing as if one was wearing a watch! Lost your eraser? No problem! Just twirl a rubber band around non-writing end of your pencil and you got a passable erasing power. Just the right reply to those amongst us who would carry those expensive eraser-tipped pencil. A couple of larger rubber bands knotted together would even serve as a handcuff while playing cops-and-robbers!


Ah, the joys of the versatile rubber band!


My Seven Favorite Ogden Nash Poems

July 23, 2008

Ogden Nash (1902-1971) was an American poet known for his humorous poems. Many poems are short, many long, but common to all is Nash’ quirky humour, keen observations on life, misspelt rhyming words which are sure to draw chuckles and laughs. Ogden Nash of the “Candy is Dandy but liquor is quicker” fame.


A critic, Morris Bishop, said the following on Ogden Nash style:


Free from flashiness, free from trashiness

Is the essence of ogdenashiness.

Rich, original, rash and rational

Stands the monument ogdenational!


Many an evening I have spent reading and rereading poems of Ogden Nash. They have never failed to make me laugh.


Selecting the favorite 7 of Ogden Nash is a rather foolish task I set myself, a number like 70 would have been preferable. Anyway, here is my list. The source is my treasured copy of “Candy is Dandy” The Best of Ogden Nash (Mandarin Paperbacks, 1993). This has a most delightful introduction by Anthony Burgess and has been edited by Linell Smith and Isabel Eberstadt.


1. Reflection on Babies 

A bit of talcum
Is always walcum. 

2. The Cow 

The cow is of bovine ilk; 
One end is moo, the other is milk. 


3. The Ant 

The ant has made himself illustrious 
Through constant industry industrious. 
So what? 
Would you be calm and placid, 
If you were full of formic acid? 


4. Biological Reflection 

A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain’t. 



5. The Perfect Husband  

He tells you when you’ve got on 
too much lipstick 
And helps you with your girdle 
when your hips stick. 


6. The Lama

The one-l lama.

He’s a priest.

The two-l llama.

He’s a beast

And I will bet

A silk pajama

There isn’t any

Three-l llama.


7. The Cobra

This creature fills its mouth with venum

And walks upon its duodenum.

He who attempts to tease the cobra

Is soon a sadder he, and sobra.









Flight to Heaven

July 20, 2008

The trip to see the Himalayas during the recent trip to Nepal was a roller-coaster of emotions. The initial excitement and enthusiasm gave way to feelings of nagging doubt about the safety standards of Yeti Airlines, a name none of us had heard of. A story narrated by a colleague during drinks the evening prior to the flight about a plane crash doing the Himalayan route was hardly helpful!


That's the Yeti

That's the Yeti

We reach the Kathmandu airport early in the morning for our flight. And then we are handed over the boarding pass for Yeti Airlines’ flight OY-302. The pass says in big and bold, Destination: “MOUNTAIN”! I thought we had paid for the return trip to Kathmandu from the mountains. That does it! In a crazy moment I even wonder which mountain was destined for each one of us by the Yeti. We are also handed over a small brochure highlighting how safe the aircraft was and this brochure also has a visual depiction of what we are going to see on our trip, peaks labeled with their Nepalese names with the height of each.


We are driven in a coach to the tarmac, 45 minutes behind schedule, to our aircraft. This is a Jetstream-41 which, I discover from the brochure, is a state-of-art British Aerospace built machine. Looks good, I think to myself as I step on to the aircraft. The seating configuration is 1+2 but the seating is 1+1. The aisle seats have no occupants and hence each one of us has a window seat to ourselves. Reasonably generous-sized windows with a reasonably clear vision. The air hostess dressed in a traditional Nepalese uniform serves us some cotton wool and Yeti lozenges and we are set to take-off. A very smooth take-off I think to myself as I gaze outside taking-in the lay of the Kathmandu suburbs and then the view changes quickly to the countryside. Then the moment where we climb above the clouds on our way to the “Mountains”. The aircraft in its cruise mode stabilizes at around 23,000 feet.


In the distant horizon I can see a cluster of mountains, all hazy through the clouds. I hear cameras go click-click, I pull out mine as well. Just a mad series of clicks trying to capture all what I see. Clouds are now playing the spoil sport, appearing in thick white cotton-wool like piles and then disappearing again. And then the peaks appear, one by one, looking just as they have been depicted in the brochure. How could that be, I wonder. The next moment I admonish myself, of course it ought to be the same, the brochure has photographs of the peaks. There are no real-estate developers in these mountains to alter the topography of the mountains.


And then the big moment, I am now seeing the great Mt Everest, Sagarmatha in Nepali language! The near perfect conical form looms clear in the horizon, flanked by the Lhotse peak to the East and Nuptse to the West. Both these counterpoints to Mt Everest are like flattened plateaus and much shorter than the great Everest itself. There is a thin horizontal cloud slicing through the peaks, but what the hell, I see and I recognize Mt Everest as clear as the day! A lot of white streaked with strands of black. Rising majestically at 8.848 km, the highest point in the Earth’s lithosphere. Nearly at my eye level, just 4-5 km away! I strain my eyes to spot the flag planted on the summit by Hillary/ Norgay duo. And then suddenly I feel so silly!


Mt Everest

Mt Everest

There is a quick invitation from the air hostess to each of us to visit the cockpit and view the peaks from the driver’s seat, as it were. The cockpit window is made of clear material and the view from there is incredibly sublime. Back to my seat, I look down to the gorges below and the trickles of rivers though the gorges.


We are now on out return leg. A succession of peaks follow; Cho-oyu, Chugimago, Melungtse and Gaurishankar. And then the descent below the clouds and a smooth touch-down at Kathmandu airport.


The air-hostess offers to see us a coffee table book on the Himalayas. “Only 25 dollars each”, she says. Most of us decline the offer, the ticket to the “Mountain” has already cost us around 110 dollars each! Not that she minds as she hands us certificates stating that we had, indeed, taken the “Everest Express” flight, “one of the world’s most exclusive tours”.


Captain and the "Mountaineers"

Captain and the "Mountaineers"

Grateful for the wonderfully smooth and awe-inspiring flight, we seek a group photo on the tarmac with the Captain. A quick request to the air-hostess and we have Flying Officer Ms Lyngden amongst our midst! The petite lady not only gave us a memorable flight but has an equally memorable smile as well! The photos on  my laptop bear testimony!

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: A Review

July 13, 2008

It takes a story-teller with prodigious skill and supreme confidence in it to assemble a diverse group of characters, draw stories around each one of them- some intersecting while some independent- slowly bringing them together aboard a ship and letting them adrift in the Bay of Bengal.


This is a story of victims. The once-widowed village woman and her low-caste husband, victims of their gender and caste respectively in their Eastern UP village. The urbane English-spouting Raja from Bengal, victim of his family traditions of extravagance. The gutsy and erudite young French woman victim of fate and sexual exploitation by her guardian. The Hindu clerk in the service of an English trader in Calcutta victim of his intense devotion to Lord Krishna. The man from Canton, a victim of his opium addiction. Victims all, their lives criss-crossing each other and inexorably drifting towards Ibis, a ship being prepared to ferry them across the oceans towards an uncertain and scary future.


The story is set in early 19th century, a couple of decades before the first war of independence in 1857. Against the backdrop of the early consolidation of the British empire, and the forced cultivation of opium in the Gangetic plains of Eastern UP and Bihar the stories of the individuals are told with unbelievable detail and empathy for the situation they get into. The story centers around Ibis, a massive ship which is being prepared to transport indentured labourers to the sugarcane fields run by the English in far-off countries across the “black waters”. The ship is owned by a self-made trader, Burnham, who uses his religious beliefs to justify anything from forcing the cultivation of opium to attacking China for preventing the trade of opium, right down to his sexual tastes. The ship prepared for sailing, loaded with the labourers and a couple of convicts is assigned to an aging captain on his last sailing mission. The captain is assisted by a foul-mouth and vicious first mate while the second mate is a mulatto American. The crew consists of sailors from various parts of the world including Rohangyas from Burma.


As this motley group sets sail, there are tales of torture, killings, confessions, intrigues and yes, even an on-board wedding complete with song and dance. The laborers may be victims in their home-land and maybe sailing away to a land which no one knows anything about except for stray rumours like how they would be slaughtered once in the distant Mareech (Mauritius), hung upside down and oil extracted from their heads. But they are determined to forge a new future for themselves, away from the rigid social shackles of India. As they share their limited physical space and limited resources they form new bonds of jahaj bhais and jahaj bahins breaking the centuries old shackles of caste system.


The author clearly has done some intense research on the time. The description of the opium making process and the factory, the sailors’ language and terminology, the functioning of a ship in those days, the English language used in those times, even the marriage rituals and songs of the Bhojpuri region people. The use of various languages is something which may overwhelm the reader. Sample this from the Rohingya sailor Serang Ali. “No hab see? Mistoh Oc-tuh-puss eight hand hab got. Make heself too muchi happy inside. Why Malum not so-fashion do. Ten finger no hab got?” And this from Mrs Burnham, “This mate-his name was Texeira I recall- was from Macao, a Portuguese, and as chuckmuck a rascal as ever you’ll see: eyes as bright as muggerbees, smile like a xeraphim.” You nearly want to pull out your copy of Hobson Jobson to decipher this!


One quibble which I have is the author’s portrayal of the Englishmen as ultra-evil, they nearly look like card-board characters.


The end of the book leaves you wanting for more as the author leaves the story mid-way with some key characters try to escape the ship. We are told that this volume is the first in what is called Ibis trilogy. We will await the next installment eagerly.







Five Star Stories 4: The Intricacies of Electric Circuitry

July 12, 2008

Dinner done, and a few pages read of a book, you decide it is time for a shut-eye. You turn around towards the hive of switches next to the bed. These days the “hive” has got transformed into a neat “switch-board” with multiple soft-touch buttons. You select a switch which you think would do the job. The entire room goes into darkness. But for the pedestal lamp and the study table lamp and the aisle lamp. You try once again, this time another switch and then the aforementioned three go off but the remaining come on. Then you try a third switch. This switches off all save the aisle lamp. Still not good enough, and you try once again. This time all go off but the mirror lamp and the study table lamp come on. And so on and so forth till you feel fatigued and sleepy enough to ignore an extra light or two and bury your head in the blanket and go to sleep!


Have you, dear traveller, ever had a good night’s sleep in your hotel without bothering about the air-conditioning being set too high or too low. If you have had this luck, I envy you. It has been a rare night in which I have not found the a/c set to near freezing conditions. Never mind if the display of the a/c control panel shows you 23 degrees centigrade, with the fan at the lowest speed. It always seems to be 8 degrees. I am sure it always is. No matter in which direction you turn the knob to, the temperature refuses to budge into a more comfortable 20’s. So you get up in the middle of the night from under the blanket and with a resolute gesture switch off the a/c. The source of discomfort now smothered you get back to sleep till somewhere towards very early morning, when the sleep is at its deepest and the most cherished, you wake up sweating profusely; the room has become too hot! You switch on the a/c hoping to get a few hours of sleep but no sooner you have closed your eyes, it is the time for the morning wake-up. And that is the end of your sleep and time now to brush your teeth and admire yourself in the convex mirror!


I have always been wanting to suggest to the hotels to give their guests a ready reckoner for the lights as well as the a/c!