The Shroud: Premchand
Outside the hut, father and son sat before the dying embers in silence. Inside, the son’s young wife, Budhiya, was thrashing about in labor. Every now and then, a blood-curdling shriek emerged from her mouth and they felt their hearts stop. It was a winter night, the earth was sunk in silence and the whole village had dissolved into the darkness.
Ghisu said, “Looks like she’s not going to make it. She’s been like this all day. Go take a look.”
Madhav replied irritably, “If she’s going to die, why doesn’t she do it quickly? What’s the point of taking a look?”
“You’re pretty harsh. You’ve had a good time with her all year, and now? Such callousness?”
“Well, I can’t stand to see her suffer and throw herself about like this.”
This clan of cobblers was notorious in the village. If Ghisu worked a day, he would rest for three. Madhav was such a shirker that if he worked for half an hour, he’d smoke dope for one. Which was why they were never hired. If there was even a fistful of grain in the house, they took it to mean they didn’t have to work. When they’d been starving for a few days, Ghisu would climb a tree and break off some branches and Madhav would sell them in the bazaar. As long as the money lasted, they’d loaf around here and there. And when the calamity of starvation came upon them again, they would break off more branches or look for work. There was no shortage of work in the village, it was a village of farmers and there were at least fifty jobs for a hard-working man. But these two were called in only when you had to be satisfied with two men doing the work of one.
Had they been renunciants, they would have had no need to exercise control or practice discipline in order to experience contentment and fortitude. Theirs was an unusual existence – apart from a few mud pots, there were no material possessions in their house. They went on with their lives, covering their nakedness with rags, free of worldly cares, burdened with debt. They’d suffer abuse, they’d suffer blows, but they had not a care in the world. They were so wretched that even though there was no hope of being repaid, people always loaned them something. During the potato harvest, they’d pull up peas or potatoes from other people’s fields, cook them in some fashion and eat them. Or, they’d uproot a few stalks of sugarcane and suck on them at night. Ghisu had lived out sixty years with such supreme detachment and now Madhav, his worthy son, walked in his father’s footsteps, determined to become even more illustrious.
At this moment, too, they were roasting potatoes, which they had dug up from someone else’s field, in the embers. Ghisu’s wife had died many years ago. Madhav had married only the previous year. After the woman had come, she had laid the foundations for some kind of discipline in the household and managed to fill those shameless stomachs. And since she’d arrived, the two had become even more inclined to relax and had even started acting pricey. If someone called them in to work, they’d ask for double wages without batting an eyelid. Today, that woman was dying in childbirth and it was quite likely the pair were waiting for her to die so that they could get a good night’s sleep.
Ghisu pulled out a potato and, peeling it, he said, “Go and see what’s happening to her. There’ll be the business of a witch, you can bet on it.”
Madhav was afraid that, if he went into the hut, Ghisu would grab a larger share of the potatoes. He said, “I’m scared to go in there.”
“What’s there to be scared of? I’m right here.”
“So why don’t you go and see, then?”
“When my wife was dying, I didn’t move from her side for three days. This one, she’ll be embarrassed in front of me, won’t she? I’ve never even seen her face. Now to look at her uncovered body! She’ll be uncomfortable. If she sees me, she won’t be able to throw her arms and legs around so freely.”
“I’m wondering what will happen if there’s a child – ginger, jaggery, oil – there’s nothing in the house.”
“Everything will come, when god is good and ready. This lot, who aren’t giving us any money now, these same people will call us tomorrow and give us cash. I’ve had nine sons, there was never anything in the house, but god got us through the mess somehow.”
In a society where people who toil day and night are not much better off than these two, and instead of farmers it’s those who exploit them that grow rich, it’s no surprise that attitudes like this develop. Let’s say that Ghisu was cleverer than the farmers, that instead of joining those simple-minded peasants, he’d joined the company of conmen. Of course, he did not have the capacity to follow that company’s rules and regulations, which was why others of his ilk had become chiefs and headmen in the village while he remained the one at whom fingers were pointed. Still, he had the consolation that, however badly off he was, he didn’t have to work as achingly hard as the others and that people could not take undue advantage of his simplicity and helplessness.
The two of them pulled out the potatoes and devoured them, hot as they were. They had eaten nothing since the previous day. They didn’t even have the patience to let them cool so, every now and then, they scalded their tongues. When it was peeled, the outer part of the potato did not seem that hot but, as soon as it was bitten, the inner part burned the tongue, the throat and the palate. Instead of holding that burning coal in one’s mouth, it seemed wiser to send it down as soon as possible to where there was more to cool it. That’s why they were swallowing so quickly, although the effort made their eyes water.
Ghisu thought back to a landlord’s wedding feast that he had been to twenty years ago. The contentment he had felt at that feast was worth remembering for a lifetime and, even today, the memory was fresh. He said, “I’ll never forget that meal. I’ve never eaten that kind of food – or that much of it – ever again. The girl’s family fed everyone as many puris as they could eat. Everyone. The rich, the poor – everyone ate those puris. And they were made with pure ghee, mind you. Chutney, raita, three kinds of greens, one curried vegetable, curds – I can’t tell you how delicious that food was. There was no holding back. Ask for whatever your heart desired, eat as much as you want. People ate and ate, so much that they couldn’t even drink water. But those who were serving, they kept putting freshly cooked, perfectly round, fragrant kachoris onto our plates. We refused, we covered our plates with our hands, but they just kept serving! And when we were done, we even got paan and cardamom. I was in no shape to take the paan, I could barely stand. I went off immediately and wrapped myself in my blanket and lay down. That’s how big-hearted he was, that landlord. Like an ocean!”
Madhav savored those delicacies in his mind and said, “No one gives us a meal like that now.”
“There’s no one to feed us like that anymore. That was a different time. Now everyone’s counting pennies – don’t spend on weddings, don’t spend on religious festivals. Ask them, where will they stash all the money they take from the poor? There’s no problem stashing the money, but when it comes to spending, then they think of thrift.”
“You must have eaten about 20 puris, no?”
“I ate more than 20.”
“I would have eaten 50.”
“I ate no less than 50. I was pretty sturdy those days. You’re not half of what I used to be.”
They ate the potatoes, drank some water, curled up, covered themselves with their dhotis and fell asleep right there, by the embers, like two enormous pythons that had eaten their fill.
And still, Budhiya moaned.
In the morning, when Madhav looked inside the hut, his wife lay there, stone cold, flies buzzing around her face, her expressionless eyes rolled upwards. Her body was covered with dust, the child had died in her womb. Madhav ran to Ghisu. They started to wail loudly and beat their chests. The neighbors heard the weeping and wailing and came and, as was customary, began to console the two unfortunates. But this was not the time for full-throated lament, the shroud and the wood had to be considered. Money disappeared from that house like a piece of meat in a kite’s nest. Father and son went, wailing, to the village landlord who could not stand the sight of them. He’d beaten them himself often enough, for stealing, for not showing up for work after they had promised to. He asked, “What is it, Ghisua, why are you crying? I don’t see you around much these days, seems like you don’t want to live in this village anymore.”
His eyes filled with tears, Ghisu touched his head to the ground and said, “Master, I am ruined. Madhav’s wife died last night. She suffered all night, Master. The two of us sat by her side half the night, we gave her all the medicines we could. But she has abandoned us. And now there’s no one to give us even a piece of bread, Master. We’ve been destroyed, our home has been uprooted. I am your slave! There’s no one but you – who will organize her funeral? Who else can I turn to except you?”
The landlord was a compassionate man but having pity on Ghisu was like trying to dye a black blanket. In his heart, he felt like saying, “Get away from here! You don’t come when you are called and now, when you need me, you come here and flatter me! Bastard! Rascal!” But this was not the moment for anger or for retribution. He tossed a reluctant two rupees at him but not a single word of consolation escaped his lips. He did not even look at Ghisu, as if he’d rid himself of a burden.
Once the landlord had given two rupees, how could the village merchants and traders have the courage to refuse? And Ghisu knew how to use the landlord’s name to his advantage. Some gave two annas, others gave four. Within an hour, Ghisu had collected the healthy sum of five rupees. Grain came from one place, wood from another. In the afternoon, Ghisu and Madhav went off to the bazaar to buy the shroud. People began to cut bamboo poles and the soft-hearted women of the village would come and stare at the corpse and shed a few tears at Budhiya’s misfortune.
What a sad custom, that the woman who didn’t even have rags to cover her body while she was alive now needed a shroud. After all, the shroud burned with the body. And then what’s left? If the same 5 rupees had come earlier, there might have been some medicine. Ghisu and Madhav were trying to gauge each other’s thoughts. They wandered around the bazaar, from this cloth shop to the next. They looked at all kinds of fabric, from silk to cotton, but nothing seemed right. Eventually, it became evening. And who knows by what divine inspiration the pair landed up in front of a bar and, as if they’d planned it earlier, sauntered in. They stood around uncertainly for a while. Then Ghisu went up to the counter and said, “Mister, give us a bottle.” Soon, snacks arrived and then some fried fish, and the two of them sat on the porch, drinking calmly. After knocking back a few rather quickly, their spirits rose.
Ghisu said, “What’s the point of the shroud? It only gets burned, it’s not as if goes with her.”
Madhav looked at the sky, as if calling the gods to witness his innocence, and said, “It’s the way of the world. Otherwise, why would people spend thousands feeding brahmins? Who knows whether you benefit in the other world? Rich people have money, let them blow it. What do we have to waste? But we’re still answerable to others. They’re sure to ask, ‘Where’s the shroud?’”
Ghisu laughed. “Let’s say I dropped the money. That we looked and looked but could not find it anywhere. They won’t believe a word, but the same lot will give again.”
Madhav also laughed at this unexpected good luck. He said, “She was a good woman, poor thing. She’s dead, but she’s given us food and drink.”
More than half the bottle was gone. Ghisu ordered two rounds of puris and chutneys and pickles and liver. There was an eating place just in front of the bar. Madhav leapt across and brought all the food back on two leaf plates. Another one and half rupees well spent. There was only a little change left. The two of them sat eating their puris, as grandly as if they were lions hunting in the jungle. They were not afraid of being responsible to anyone, nor did they worry about their reputations. They had conquered those virtues long ago.
Ghisu said philosophically, “We’re feeling good. She’ll get some credit for that, won’t she?”
Madhav bowed his head piously and said, “Of course. Definitely. Lord, you are present in each of us, let her go to the highest of heavens. We’re both blessing her from the bottom of our hearts. The meal we’ve had today! We’ve never eaten like this in our lives.”
A moment later, a tiny doubt rose in Madhav’s mind. He said, “We’ll go there one day, too, won’t we father?”
Ghisu ignored the naive question. He wasn’t going to ruin the pleasure of the moment with thoughts of the world beyond.
“She’s there. If she asks us why we didn’t provide her with a shroud, what are we going to say?”
“We’ll say, go to hell!’
“She’s sure to ask.”
“And you’re sure that she’s not going to have a shroud? You think I’m an ass? You think I’ve spent 60 years on earth just digging up grass? She’ll have a shroud. And a finer one than this.”
Madhav was still doubtful. He said, “Who’s going to give it? You’ve spent all the money. And I’m the one she’ll ask, I’m the one that married her.”
Hotly, Ghisu said, “I’m telling you, she’ll have a shroud. Why don’t you trust me?”
“Why don’t you tell me who’s going to give it?”
“The same people who gave us this one! Though, this time, we’re not going to see the cash.”
As the darkness deepened and the light of the stars grew brighter, so the bar grew more radiant. Some sang, some prattled, some embraced their companions, some pressed a cup to their friends’ lips. The atmosphere was heady, the air intoxicating. So many came here and got high on a single sip. More than the drink, it was the air that got them drunk. They came, drawn there by the drudgery of living and, for a short while, they forgot whether they were alive or dead. Or neither.
Meanwhile, father and son tippled away happily. Everyone was staring at them. How favored by fortune they were – they had an entire bottle between them. Having eaten his fill, Madhav gave the left-over puris to a beggar who had been watching them with hungry eyes. And, for the first time in his life, he felt the pride, the pleasure, the exultation of giving.
Ghisu said, “Here. Eat it all. And bless us! The one who earned this is dead. But your blessings will surely reach her. Bless her with every part of your being, this is hard-earned money.”
Madhav gazed up at the sky again and said, “She’ll go to heaven, father. She’ll be the queen of heaven!”
Ghisu stood up and, swimming as he was through waves of joy, said, “Son, she’s going to heaven. She never bothered anyone, never hassled anyone. She’s fulfilled the biggest wish of our lives by dying. If she doesn’t go to heaven, you think those fat cats will, those guys who loot the poor with both hands and then bathe in the Ganga and make offerings of holy water in temples to wash off their sins?”
But this rush of piety soon passed, for impermanence is the essence of intoxication. Sadness and despair crept in. Madhav said, “But father, she suffered a lot in her life. She endured so much before she died.” He covered his eyes with his hands and began to weep, shrieking more and more loudly.
Ghisu reassured him, “Why are you crying, son? Be glad for her – she’s been freed from this world of illusion, she’s been released from the cage. She’s the lucky one, she’s already broken the bonds that tie us to the world.”
And then, they stood there, both of them, and started to sing loudly, “Liar! Why do you lower your eyes, you liar?” They began to dance. They leaped, they jumped, they wriggled their hips, they even fell. They expressed emotion with their eyes, they acted out feelings and, finally, they surrendered to their drunkenness and slumped down in a heap.
(Translation: Arshia Sattar)