My Seven Favorite Hindi Stories: Part 3

August 31, 2008

6. Mare Gaye Gulfam (Phanishwar Nath Renu)

Hiraman, is a bullock-cart driver operating in the northern districts of Bihar, the parts abutting Nepal. He became a widower shortly after marriage. He has remained single ever since. He ekes out a living transporting all kinds of stuff (including, once, a circus tiger). One day he gets a passenger, Hirabai, a young and pretty nautanki performer who is traveling to join her new troupe. An immediate bond gets struck between the two due to the common root of their names (“Hira”). It is a long journey which Hiraman tried to make pleasant by singing village songs to her and also telling her stories about the region. His simplicity and the concern he shows for her through the two day long journey endears him to Hirabai. Hiraman in turn is completely taken in by her beauty, her voice, wafts of perfume emanating from her. Hiraman thoughtfully buys for her the rural repast of chiwda and dahi, and she asks him to have it along with her much to his embarrassment. They arrive at their destination and now is the time for them to part. Hirabai wants him to stay for a few more days and organizes free passes for Hiraman and his friends for the nautanki she is performing in. The nautanki experience is the first time ever for Hiraman. In the initial minutes of the commencement of the nautanki, a villager in the audience makes some vulgar remarks about Hirabai. Hiraman can not bear this and he beats up the guy. The show gets suspended as the mayhem spreads and the police is called in. It is then Hiraman tells the show manager that they are here as guests of Hirabai and hold special passes. Peace is restored. Hiraman watches this show for ten nights continuously enraptured by the aura of Hirabai. He has even decided to tell Hirabai not to work in the nautanki company but find a job elsewhere to avoid people from gossiping about her. The suddenly on the tenth day, he is informed by a friend of his that Hirabai is has summoned him at the railway station. He discovers that she is quitting the town and returning to here old nautanki company. There is an emotional farewell before the train leaves. Hiraman is totally shattered by this development. The story ends with Hiraman setting off to return to his village as he finds no charm in staying back when Hirabai is not around.

This story was written sometime in the late 50’s/ early 60’s by Phanishwar Nath Renu. A warm and at-once a heart-breaking story of a platonic relationship between two unlikely protagonists, a bullock-cart wallah and a nautanki dancing star. The way Renu develops the relationship, tentative initially, and then getting warmer; the bond which develops between the two. There is a lot of respect for each other, and mutual affection. She is more demonstrative of the two, calling him Mita, Ustaad, Guruji etc. She even places her hand on his shoulder to emphasize a point. He is ever respectful, but totally captivated by her. You cannot but help feel the deep anguish of Hiraman when he has to bid the final good-bye to Hirabai at the railway platform. You can nearly feel his eyes misting with the thought that she will not be around. Another beauty of this story is the evocative use of the language of the region. Here is what goes through Hiraman’s mind when he sees Hirabai having chiwda and dahi: “laal hothon par goras ka paras. Pahadi totay (parrot) ko doodh bhaat khatey huey dekha hai?” And his description of Hirabai’s voice: “Bachchon ki  boli jaisee maheen, phenugilaasi boli.” One could go on-and-on.

PS: This story was made into a movie- “Teesri Kasam”- starring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman. While it was a failure at the box office, it won the best feature film award in 1967. It had some great songs as well: “Sajan re jhooth mat bolo”, “Chalat musafir moh liya re pinjarey waali muniya”, “Mare gaye gulfam”, “Sajanwa bairi ho gaye hamaar”, “Paan khaye saiyan hamaar”. The first two kasams referred to in the story are: One: Not to ferry contraband goods across the India-Nepal border as he got into some trouble doing this. Two: Not to ferry bamboo as he had got involved in an accident involving a horse-cart which was damaged due to the long bamboos being carried in his cart. And the third kasam he makes: Never again to take a nautanki dancer as a passenger in his bullock-cart.

7. Parda (Yashpal)

Choudhari Peerbakhsh, is the head of a large lower middle-class family. His forefathers were relatively well-to-do though the Choudhari’s immediate family has to survive with his meager salary of Rs 18 as a low-paid clerk in an oil mill. The salary has progressively risen in the past fifteen years from Rs 12 but this rise has not been enough to take care of the ever-growing family of an old mother, the couple and their five offspring. They stay in a rented house in a run-down working class locality with cobblers, washermen and laborers as neighbors. Choudhari is respected in his neighborhood thanks to his white-collared job and the fact that there is a parda (curtain) at the entrance door to his house. The parda is what protects the dignity of the Choudhari household, both literally and figuratively. Over generations the quality of the parda has degenerated, but a parda is a parda, irrespective of the material it is made of. The Choudhari is forever in penury, his salary refuses to keep pace with the growth in his family and the rising cost of living. His employer is loathe to give him advances and loans and consequently he takes recourse to the Pathan money-lender (“kabuli wallah”). The Pathan is easy with the loan but is tough on recovery. When Choudhari misses an installment, the Pathan makes a big ruckus and haunts the Choudhari day and night to recover it. The Choudhari tries to escape the visits of the Pathan till one morning he is accosted for the dues. The Choudhary pleads helplessness which the Pathan does not unbelieve. Thanks to the parda which hangs on the main door, the Pathan believes that the Choudhari is well-to-do and has assets hidden inside the house. Finally, in desperation, the Pathan tugs at the parda which falls off exposing the near naked female members of the household who have only this parda to take care of their modesty. The neighbors, who have been watching the going-on turn their heads away, the Pathan walks away in shame while the Choudhari faints in abject humiliation. When he regains consciousness he has no motivation to reinstall the parda as he now stands totally defeated and realizes that the parda, which concealed the household’s penury has no purpose left to serve anymore.

Yashpal’s easy style of narration accentuates Choudhari’s plight even more. The authors description of the ruses the Choudhari employs to fob off the money-lender may read a bit comical but you cannot but help a deep sense of sympathy for him. Reading this story even now even decades after it was published you can still empathize with the Choudhari. Even today you can still find many Choudharis around you while the credit card companies serve as the Pathans. The middle-class’ attempts to maintain the veneer (parda) of respectability and the lenders attempts to take back their dues.

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Here are links to the other two pieces:

Link to part 1:

https://santoshojha.wordpress.com/2008/07/30/my-seven-favorite-hindi-stories/

Link to part 2:

https://santoshojha.wordpress.com/2008/08/02/my-seven-favorite-hindi-stories-part-two/

Those, dear readers, were my seven favorite Hindi stories. As I said earlier, such lists are very personal and you may have a different list of your own. Please share your selection with me. And do comment on how you found my piece. You could either post your comment here on this blog or you could mail me at santoshojha@gmail.com. Nothing like a comment from a reader to encourage a writer!

Here is a link to a site which has 5 of the 7 I have discussed here. Unfortunately, I could not locate Parda and Eidgah on the net, I am sure some diligent Googling would unearth these too.

http://www.abhivyakti-hindi.org/gauravgatha/

Thank you for you patience.

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My Seven Favorite Hindi Stories: Part 2

August 2, 2008

3. Waapsi (Usha Priyamvada):

 

A station master at a small location keenly awaits his retirement day. He looks forward to spending time with his wife and now grow-up children who stay in a city for their education and a stable life undisturbed by the transfers the station master himself has faced in the 35 years of his railway career. Sadly for him, his reemergence unsettles the rhythm of the family. He is allotted a temporary place to sleep in, his efforts to have a say in the family matters are met with resistance. His daughter-in-law sulks as she is asked to cook to curtail expenses on domestic help, his daughter sulks as he urges her to study instead of wasting her time gossiping with friends. He feels so marginalized and out-of-place in his own family that he decides to take up a job outside his hometown and leaves.

 

The station master’s plight is deeply moving. His alienation within his family, his family’s non-acceptance of his status, his wife’s tacit agreement with the family’s stance and finally his reluctant reconciliation with his persona non grata status. It seems so cruel that as a father he sacrificed his happiness for the sake of his family and the family ultimately rejects his presence forcing him to return (waapasi) to a life in isolation all over again. Even his wife does not join him. The return is handled with great skill and sensitivity by the author who does not make it maudlin but just a sense of resignation. His feelings at this time is contrasted with the elation in the family who hurriedly make plans to see a movie the same day after his departure. The point is driven home searingly when his wife instructs her son to remove his cot from her room saying that it was cluttering up the place. The cot, of course, is a metaphor for the station master himself.

 

4. Chief ki Daawat (Bhisham Sahni):

 

Shamnath is a middle-level executive eager to ingratiate himself with his boss to climb the corporate ladder. He has invited his American boss and some senior colleagues for dinner at home. He and his wife are busy making preparations for the perfect evening. Shamnath is a fastidious person and wants to make the most perfect arrangement for the party. However, there is a problem. His mother. Shamnath thinks she is backward, inarticulate, clumsy and he is keen to altogether avoid any contact of his mother with the guests. He thinks it would be severe embarrassment for him and a dampener on the party if the guests, specially his American boss chance upon her. Elaborate instructions are given to her on where she could “hide” during specific times during the evening depending on where the guests would be at that time. She is forbidden to go to her room and sleep as her snores would disturb the party. As her misfortune would have it, despite all her efforts she falls asleep and hence does not adhere to the hiding script authored by her son. The chief sees her and engages her in small chat about Punjabi folk traditions, music and handicrafts. He is specially interested in Phulkari, the traditional embroidery from Punjab. Mother feels very guilty at having come in the way and she regrets spoiling the chances of Shamnath’s career with her rustic ways. Shamnath smells an opportunity here to ingratiate himself with his boss makes his mother promise a piece of Phulkari to the boss.

 

This story by Bhisham Sahni (also known for his novel “Tamas” ) was written in the 50’s. Even after 50 years you can still closely identify with the characters, the upwardly mobile executive and the simple (perhaps unlettered) mother. The story is simply told and entirely believable. Amar takes the mother for granted throughout even in the end when he nearly forces her to commit to the phulkari. The mother is clueless on how to handle herself but her overwhelming feeling is that she is worthless and should not come in the way of Amar’s guests, She even contemplates shifting permanently to Haridwar. The mother’s initial shock, then confusion on how to react to the chief in their chance encounter is feelingly narrated. The “how-do-you-do”, the handshake, the request for a song and then the request for a piece of phulkari, you cannot help but feel an outpouring of sympathy for the mother. Shamnath, of course, is back to his usual self when his guests depart when he bamboozles his mother yet again to ensure that the chief’s request is complied with.

 

 

5. Eidgah (Premchand)

 

Hamid, a 5 year old orphan, stays in a village with his grandmother who barely makes ends meet by doing odd jobs in the village. Hamid joins a group of kids going to the city with their parents for Eid prayers. The kids are relatively well-to-do and they indulge in expensive toys at the fair after the prayers are over. They also have various drinks and snacks. Hamid is tempted by the array of toys and the snacks but his grandmother has given him only three paise from the eight paise she has with her. Hamid sees a hardware stall at the fair and thinks of his grandmother making rotis. Her hand gets singed as she bakes the rotis over the flames. Hamid buys a pair of tongs (chimta, in Hindi) for her with the three paise he has. The other kids laugh at Hamid at this ridiculous purchase. Hamid argues that his is the most sensible buy as it would would survive till much after their toys get damaged or destroyed. He convinces them that the tongs is a multi-purpose tool; placed on his shoulder it becomes a gun, handled appropriately it becomes a musical instrument, wielded with skill against the enemy it can be used as a weapon of destruction as well. The kids are now very impressed by Hamid’s arguments and they desperately want to buy one for themselves. But it is too late by then as it is time to return to their village. They are jealous of Hamid’s purchase and they exchange their toys in turn with Hamid to play with his tongs. Hamid returns home and gifts his grandmother the tongs. Her initial anger at this seemingly ridiculous purchase turns to deep love and then she begins crying at the kid’s thoughtfulness.

 

Your heart goes out to Hamid, innocent and at once mature, who defends his purchase with his friends. Premchand’s handling of the conversation among the kids when they set out for the eidgah and then as they make their purchases is a joy to read. He seems to have total command over understanding of child psychology. I have read this story several times in the past but it never fails to move me; specially the ending where the author says that the overwhelmed grandmother becomes a kid as she cries over the gift in front of the “grown-up” and mature Hamid.

 

To be continued

Link to Part 1:

https://santoshojha.wordpress.com/2008/07/30/my-seven-favorite-hindi-stories/

Link to Part 3:

https://santoshojha.wordpress.com/2008/08/31/my-seven-favorite-hindi-stories-2/


My Seven Favorite Hindi Stories: Part 1

July 30, 2008

 

Introduction:

 

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:

https://santoshojha.wordpress.com/2008/08/02/my-seven-favorite-hindi-stories-part-two/

Link to Part 3:

https://santoshojha.wordpress.com/2008/08/31/my-seven-favorite-hindi-stories-2/