Saturday, September 4, 2010

Plot for a Story
Shivpujan Sahay

I am not a story writer. Nor do I have the talent for it. A story writer should naturally be an art connoisseur, and I am not even an art novice. But I have come across a ‘plot’ for gifted story writers, and hope they can erect an impressive structure on this ‘plot’.

There is a small hamlet near my village. It has a very vulgar name. You will detest to hear it. An old Munshiji lived there – who is no longer in this world. His name also was peculiar – mixed up letters, with neither sound nor sense, – that is why I hesitate to reveal it to literary persons. Any way, he had a daughter, who is still alive. Her name ? Don’t ask; what use will it be to you. Nor will I disclose it. For the sake of convenience only, let’s give her an imaginary name. Say, it’s ‘Bhagjogani’. As it all happened in a village, so a rustic name will be quite in order. Well, then, let’s proceed further –
Munshiji’s elder brother was a police inspector – in those days when the number of English-knowing persons was hardly as many as the number of people knowing the inner meaning of the holy scriptures nowadays. Only Urdu-knowing persons could get higher jobs. The amount of money the inspector sahib had earned on the basis of the rudimentary Urdu learnt from karima-khaliqbari costing hardly eight or ten paise, was far more than that earned by the lawyers today who have lapped up whole libraries in colleges and the courts.
But whatever he earned, he burnt merrily as warm his hands. He left behind merely a mare which, though originally worth only seven rupees, was more than a match even for the best Turkish breed – indeed, a real keg of gunpowder. Big shots among the British officers had their eyes on her, but he dodged them all. In fact, his promotion itself hung in balance on that account, but he never fell into their trap. And though, in every way, he was efficient, hard-working, honest, clever, brave and vigilant, yet he never rose above the rank of an inspector – for his sheer love of the mare.

But the mare also did not let him down. It repaid his love by providing for a marvellous funeral feast after his death. Had he sold the mare also, not a single Brahmin could have been fed in his funeral feast..Only thus was Munshiji able to repay his brother’s largesse after selling the mare to a white officer for a handsome price.

Many a ghee-lamp had he liberally burnt while his brother, the police inspector, lived. He would rub the best perfumes into the ganja he smoked – and the chillum would never go cold. A single meal would mean at least thirty two quails and fourteen chapattis. He would easily beat even his brother in courtesan deflowering ceremonies. They were annual events for him – these ceremonies.
But when the flood waters receded, it was all bare and barren. The death of his brother sent all his opulence up his arse. Not only the chillum, but even the kitchen went cold. The tongue which never tired of slurping quail-curry, was now compelled to sing the praises of gram-powder paste. The teeth that always chewed chapattis soaked in ghee were now content with grinding gram only. People started saying – living on ill-gotten wealth of a police job and warming your hands on paddy straw are all the same.

The person who deflowered a fresh virgin courtesan every year was now treated with disdain by all and sundry. Even those who would rub palmfuls of Munshiji’s perfumes on their clothes, found him longing for drops of mustard oil to soften his parched skin. Perhaps, there is no darner for the torn sheet of misfortune.
But behold the double stroke of bad luck!. When his brother was alive, he was blessed with three or four sons, but they had all passed away. Poor fellow – when he was at the top of the world in life, none remained even to share a meal with him, and when his old age burdened his shoulders, he found both his legs caught in the morass .of direst adversity, as a daughter was born to him, like an itch added to a leper. As if, already, the misfortune were no less abiding than his brother’s beautiful mare!
To tell you the truth, it’s a great folly to beget a daughter in this age of dowry. But what is the remedy against the norms of the age, in which infirm females themselves have become all important : in truth, man himself –poor creature - is being chased off by the all-powerful woman..So, why to blame poor Munshiji? When he feasted on ghee and relished costly spices, he brought forth sons only, but now this gram powder – how can he produce sons with such miserable stuff. True it is – the grass of poverty growing on the grave of prosperity is extremely lethal.

Bhagjogni was born in his days of penury, and because the mother died in giving birth to her, everyone started calling her an orphan. But although she proved for the Munshiji an emblem of his misfortune, her beauty truly burnt like a lamp in his dark abode. Comeliness and charm of her kind had never been seen till then by anyone.

As it is and, as ill luck would have it, I had myself seen her radiant beauty. I had first seen her when she was only eleven or twelve. But, to tell you the truth, looking at her incomparable beauty set in her terrible poverty, my heart cried. Had some sentimental story writer or a sensitive poet seen her, a stream of commiseration would surely have oozed out of his pen. But my feeble pen doesn’t have the strengrh ro draw a true picture of her appalling poverty from its fearful image stuck in my heart.* Nor can I recount her story in moving or artful language, as it is, indeed, a true story. As a matter of fact, language does not have the power to depict poverty in its actual hideous form, even though it may paint a dazzling picture of the great opulence and splendor of royal palaces.

Ah, Bhagjogni, even in that tender age, would just have a rag wrapped round her waist hardly able to cover her shame. Her hair, dry and knotted for want of oil, would look awful. Her large black eyes would always give a dismal look. As if, the demoness of poverty with its cruel fingers had strangled the beauty of that little soul.

It is said that natural beauty does not need any elaborate make-over, because Shakuntala, embellished with the forest flowers, leaves and tree-barks, looked evermore lovely than she did after all her royal cosmetic makeup in the palaces of King Dushyant. And Shakuntala was surely not brought up in an atmosphere of misery and vexation. The demon of hunger had never ever howled into her ears. She had grown up always swinging in the lap of peace and contentment. That is why Kalidas’ simile of her being ‘like a lily entangled in water grass’ is so befitting. But how could Bhagjogni’s beauty bloom while she was mercilessly being ground in poverty’s mill. She suffered the pangs of hunger for every grain of food, craved for rags to cover her shame. She could never even dream for a palmful of linseed oil to rub into her tangled hair. Not even for a day in a month could she have a proper meal. How could the goddess of beauty live in a cage of bare bones?

Ah, my heart broke into pieces the other day when Munshiji started telling his tale of woe through his tears. He said –
“How can I tell you my story about the days gone by; it makes my head reel. The sting of my penury becomes all the more unbearable when I look at this girl. Look at her hair – how dry and matted they have become. Had her mother been there, at least it wouldn’t be such a lice-infested nest . My own eyesight is now so weak that I can’t pick them out myself, and not even a drop of oil is there for her hair. If there were even a palmful of oil, she could have gone to a neighbour’s house and got her hair combed and done properly; she wouldn’t at least have this ruffled birdnest on her head. You know that this is a very small village, and only when in some family a child is born, good fortune would return to her dry and dirty hair.
“When well-fed boys in the village would come out of their homes carrying and munching on grams or nuts, she would wait for them and follow them everywhere, for an occasional fistful or two of the eatables she would be given.out of pity. If she goes to some neighbours’ home during meal time, people would just try to shoo her off for her inauspicious presence. Brother, it is an endless story of my woes, She doesn’t even have a piece of cloth or anything on her, even to receive the alms given out of sympathy. She has to satisfy her hunger with whatever she can hold in her tiny palms. At times, she will bring a fistful for me, too, which will make my heart bleed.

“Some times she would come back in the evening after roaming around neighbours’ homes for the whole day, and whisper to me in a faint voice – Babuji, I feel very hungry; can I have anything? – and then, I tell you honestly, I feel, I should just go hang myself, or jump into a well. But then soon the thought will come – without me, who in this wide world will look after my poor child. Had her mother been alive, she would have been able to find some food for her by serving in neighbours’ homes, doing odd jobs or grinding their grain for them. She would have brought her up somehow. And had my elder brother been alive, he would have held her as a blooming flower in his palms. He would, surely, have married her into some big landlord’s family. I, too, was purblind enough to spend my days in unbridled wastefulness on my brother’s ill-gotten wealth, and had no inkling of my coming days of misfortune. My brother also was such a wild squanderer of his fortune that he would not leave even a single cowrie behind to meet his funeral expenses. He sold out every single piece of land for his pleasure’s sake, and only cultivated animosities with everyone in the village, and, as a result, there’s none today to have pity on me. On the contrary, everyone would just treat me with utter disdain. There was a day when lamps would burn with my brother’s piss, and there is this day when my bones would burn and melt away like candles in the fire of penury.

“Far and near in the vicinity, I have made scores of visits to all those of my fraternity for accepting the hand of this girl as a bride. And falling on their feet, even begged and bared my teeth, for showing pity on me. Leaving aside all sense of shame, I have even implored them to make my daughter stand in a row with the choicest-looking daughters of big lawyers, deputy magistrates and even zamindars, and see if she does not easily outshine them all. I have said, they could reject her as their ward’s bride if any single girl matches her in beauty. But, to my misfortune, in spite of all my beseechings on bended knees, no single heart has melted so far.. I would find that one dismisses my plea, saying - the boy’s mother wouldn’t agree for the marriage for the simple reason that the girl has neither her mother nor a brother in her home , or that there is no capacity for a good reception for the marriage party; and another would say that a girl from such an indigent family would be both greedy and stingy, and would pollute the entire family culture..Most of them boasted that their son was getting so much of dowry and all, and still they were unwilling to accept; so how could they even talk about where there was absolutely no possibility of any dowry. There were as many pretexts as there were different tongues. Indeed, my luck is so deplorable that I am forced to countenance the ‘behinds’ of people even whose faces I wouldn’t prefer to look at.

“It so irritates me, and fans my anger, to find even the most ordinary of them asking for a dowry of five hundred or a thousand. But my poverty has broken off my wings to such an extent that I cannot even flutter them. How bizarre are these customs of the whole of our Hindu society?. Those who haggle so hard to barter their sons for exorbitant dowries still get respect in society, whereas those, poor fellows, who are compelled by poverty to sell their daughters are considered so depraved. Had I thought of doing so, I would have exacted such a price for my daughter which could have given me a life of ease and comfort for the rest of my days. But in my life, I would never take even a fly in lieu of my child– whether she remains unmarried or brings shame upon me by the sins of her youth. And, as you can well see, youth is not very far off from her. Only the blight of hunger has smothered her growth, her blooming into youth. Had she been in some well-to-do family, by now she would have blossomed into full youthfulness.- in fact, youthfulness shines only through a full-bloomed body. And, as you know, girls attain it much faster than boys, too.

“Babu Saheb, what more can I say. I am only reaping what I have sown. Cataract, arthritis and asthma have ruined my health. Even my tears of repentance have lost their power of melting God’s heart. To tell you the truth, at this moment, I am only hanging by a slender thread of hope – one gentlemen, after great persuasion, has promised to marry this girl, although I still have my doubts whether the villainous among my villagers will succeed in dissuading him, or allow my leaking boat across to the shore. The groom is a little older for her – around forty-forty one years of age, but there is no other option for me, except this. With this load of a heavy stone on my chest, I will have to give away my little nightingale to….”

Munshiji could hold himself no longer and broke into heart-rending sobs, as poor Bhagjogni sat quietly in his lap. I failed to stop him from crying, or to give him any assurance in this context. It’s not easy to console someone who is constantly hounded by destiny itself.

After hearing Munshiji’s story, I appealed to many of my unmarried friends to rescue a destitute brother by marrying his poor though exceptionally beautiful daughter, and enjoy the bliss of marriage. But all of them ignored my pleas. Among them were also such persons who would vainly spill lots of ink on various issues of social reform. Even middle-aged widowers would shy away.

At last, that same gentleman took the girl on a covered dola and had the marriage rituals performed in his home; thus rescuing poor Munshiji from the morass of his worries.

Thus though the heavy stone of misery was taken off poor Munshiji’s chest at last, but there was no one now even to give him a glass of water. The only crutch on which he could lean in his old age was gone, and his health declined so rapidly that within the passage of a year he kicked the bucket. His co-villagers tied a pitcher to his neck and threw him into the river…..

Bhagjogni lives today – a woman in full bloom, glowing in a fully developed, graceful body – a heavenly boon for her present youthful husband. Her first husband is now no more. But the present one is – her own stepson!

© Dr Mangal Murty
A transcreation of the short story ‘Kahani ka Plot’ by Shivpujan Sahay (1893-1963)by Dr Mangal Murty. The original Hindi short story was first published in a literary monthly ‘Saroj’ (July, 1928). * There is a reference to this magazine in this line of the story which, translated literally, means “My pen does not have the power to transfer the fearful picture of her poverty from the canvas of my heart on to the soft petal of the ‘Lotus’ (‘Saroj’)”. The short story was based on a real story known to the author, and was much later, coincidentally, corroborated by a similar story told to the author by a literary friend which he has mentioned in his diary. The diaries of the author are published in two volumes of a 10-volume set of his Collected Works ‘Shivpujan Sahay Sahitya-Samagra’ published by Anamika Prakashan, 21A, Nepal Carrier Bldg, Ansari Rd, New Delhi-2, (Ph. 011-23281655) and edited by Dr Mangal Murty (Mob. 09451890020). Email: The two photos are from a dramatic adaptation of the story performed at Kalidas Rangalaya, Patna in 1993, as part of the Centenary Celebrations of Acharya Shivapujan Sahay, with Bhagjogni (Kranti Bhatt) and Munshiji, her father.