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: