At the door of the hut father and son sat silently by a burnt-out fire; inside, the son’s young wife Budhiya lay in labor, writhing with pain. And from time to time such a heart-rending scream emerged from her lips that they both pressed their hands to their hearts. It was a winter night; everything was drowned in desolation. The whole village had been absorbed into the darkness.
Ghisu said, “It seems she won’t live. She’s been writhing in pain the whole day. Go on – see how she is.”
Madhav said in a pained tone, “If she’s going to die, then why doesn’t she go ahead and die? What’s the use of going to see?”
“You’re pretty hard-hearted! You’ve enjoyed life with her for a whole year – such faithlessness to her?”
“Well, I can’t stand to see her writhing and thrashing around.”
It was a family of Chamars, and notorious in the whole village. If Ghisu worked for one day, then he rested for three. Madhav was such a slacker that if he worked for an hour, then he smoked his chilam for an hour. Thus nobody hired them on. If there was even a handful of grain in the house, they both swore off working. When they’d fasted for a couple of days, then Ghisu climbed trees and broke off branches, and Madhav sold the wood in the market; and as long as that money lasted, they both spent their time wandering idly around. *When their hunger grew intense, they again broke off branches, or looked for some work.* There was no shortage of work in the village. It was a village of farmers; for a hard-working man there were fifty jobs. But people only sent for those two when they were forced to content themselves with getting out of two men the work of one.
If only the two had been ascetics, then they wouldn’t have needed any exercises in self-discipline to achieve contentment and patience. This was their very nature. Theirs was a strange life. Except for two or three clay pots, they had no goods at all in the house. Covering their nakedness with torn rags, free from the cares of the world, laden with debt – they suffered abuse, they suffered blows too, but not grief. They were so poor that without the smallest hope of repayment, people used to lend them something or other. When peas or potatoes were in season, they would dig up peas or potatoes from the fields and roast and eat them, or break off five or ten stalks of sugarcane and suck them at night. Ghisu had spent 60 years of his life in this pious manner, and Madhav, like a dutiful son, was following in his father’s footsteps – or rather, was making his name even more radiant.
This time too, both were seated by the fire, roasting potatoes that they had dug up from somebody’s field. Ghisu’s wife had passed away long ago. Madhav’s marriage had taken place the year before. Since this woman had come, she had laid the foundations of civilization in the family. *Grinding grain, cutting grass, she arranged for a couple of pounds of flour,* and kept filling the stomachs of those two shameless ones. After she came, they both grew even more lazy and indolent; indeed, they even began to swagger a bit. If someone sent for them to work, then with splendid indifference they demanded double wages. That woman was dying today in childbirth. And these two were perhaps waiting for her to die, so they could sleep in peace.
Pulling out a potato and peeling it, Ghisu said, “Go see what shape she’s in. We’ll have the fuss over a ghost-witch – what else! And here even the exorcist demands a rupee – *from whose house would we get one?*”
Madhav suspected that if he went into the hut, Ghisu would finish off most of the potatoes. He said, “I’m afraid to go in.”
“What are you afraid of? I’m here, after all.”
“Then you go and see, all right?”
“When my wife died, for three days I never even left her side. And then, won’t she be ashamed in front of me? I’ve never seen her face – and today I should see her naked body? She won’t even have bodily ease: if she sees me, she won’t be able to thrash around freely.”
“I’m thinking, if a child is born – what then? Dried ginger, brown sugar, oil – there’s nothing at all in the house.”
“Everything will come. If Bhagwan gives a child – those people who now aren’t giving a paisa, will send for us and give us things. I’ve had nine sons. There was never anything in the house, but this is how we managed every time.”
A society in which those who labored night and day were not in much better shape than these two; a society in which compared to the peasants, those who knew how to exploit the peasants’ weaknesses were much better off – in such a society, the birth of this kind of mentality was no cause for surprise. We’ll say that compared to the peasants, Ghisu was more insightful; and instead of joining the mindless group of peasants, he had joined the group of clever, scheming tricksters. Though indeed, he wasn’t skilful in following the rules and customs of the tricksters. Thus while other members of his group became chiefs and headmen of villages, at him the whole village wagged its finger. But still, he did have the consolation that if he was in bad shape, at least he wasn’t forced to do the back-breaking labor of the peasants, and others didn’t take improper advantage of his simplicity and voicelessness.
Pulling out the potatoes, they both began to eat them burning hot. They had eaten nothing since the day before. They were too impatient to wait till the potatoes cooled. Both burned their tongues repeatedly. When the potatoes were peeled, their outer parts didn’t seem so extremely hot. But the moment the teeth bit into them, the inner part burned the tongue and throat and roof of the mouth. Rather than keep that ember in the mouth, it was better to send it quickly along inward, where there was plenty of equipment for cooling it down. So they both swallowed very fast, although the attempt brought tears to their eyes.
Then Ghisu remembered a landowner’s wedding procession, in which he had taken part 20 years before. The repletion that had been vouchsafed to him in that feast was a memorable event in his life, and even today its memory was fresh. He said, “I’ll never forget that feast. Never since then have I had that kind of food, or such a full stomach. The girl’s family fed puris to everyone. As much as they wanted! Great and small, everyone ate puris – ones made with real ghi! Chutney, raita, three kinds of green vegetables, a flavorful stew, yoghurt, chutney, sweets. How can I tell you now what relish there was in that feast! There was no limit. Whatever thing you want, just ask! And however much you want, eat! People ate so much, ate so much, that nobody could even drink any water. And there the servers were setting hot, round, sweet-smelling pastries before you! You refuse, saying you don’t want it. You push away the tray with your hand. But that’s how they are – they just keep on giving it. And when everybody had wiped their mouths, then everybody got a pan as well. But how could I be in any shape for a pan? I couldn’t stand up. I just staggered off and lay down on my blanket. He had a heart as big as the ocean, that landowner!”
Enjoying the story of these grand festivities, Madhav said, “If only somebody would give us such a feast now!”
“As if anybody would feast anybody now! That was a different time. Now everybody thinks about economy – ‘don’t spend money on weddings, don’t spend money on religious festivals!’. Ask them – what’s this ‘saving’ of the poor people’s wealth? There’s no lack of ‘saving’. But when it comes to spending, they think about economy!”
“You must have eaten 20 or so puris?”
“I ate more than 20.”
“I would have eaten up 50.”
“I couldn’t have eaten less than 50. I was hale and hearty. You’re not half of what I was!”
After eating, they both drank some water, covered themselves with their dhotis, curled up, and went to sleep right there by the fire, as if two gigantic serpents lay coiled there.
And Budhiya was still moaning.
In the morning, when Madhav went into the hut and looked, his wife had grown cold. Flies were buzzing on her face. Her stony eyes had rolled upward. Her whole body was covered with dust. In her stomach, the baby had died.
Madhav came running to Ghisu. Then they both together began loudly lamenting and beating their breasts. When the neighbors heard the weeping and wailing, they came running. And following the ancient custom, they began to console the bereaved.
But this wasn’t the occasion for an excessive show of grief. They had to worry about the shroud, and the wood. Money was as scarce in their house as meat in a raptor’s nest.
Father and son went weeping to the village landlord. He hated the very sight of their faces. A number of times he had beaten them with his own hands – for theft, or for not coming to work as they had promised. He asked, “What is it, Ghisua, why do you weep? Nowadays we don’t even see you around. It seems that you no longer want to live in the village.”
Ghisua fell prostrate on the ground, and said with tear-filled eyes, “Master, I’m in great trouble! Madhav’s wife passed away last night. All day she was writhing in pain, Master; we two sat by her bed till midnight. Whatever medicines we could give her, we did. But she slipped away. Now we have no one to care for us, Master – we’re devastated – our house is destroyed! I’m your slave. Now who but you will take care of her final rites? Whatever money we had at hand was used up on medicines. If the Master will show mercy, then she’ll have the proper rites. To whose door should I come except yours?”
The Landlord Sahib was a compassionate man. But to show compassion to Ghisu was to try to dye a black blanket. He felt like saying, “Get out of here! *Keep the corpse in your house and let it rot!* Usually you don’t come even when you’re called – now when you want something, you come and flatter me! You treacherous bastard! You villain!” But this was not the occasion for anger or revenge. Willingly or not, he pulled out two rupees and flung them down. But he didn’t open his lips to say a single word of consolation. He didn’t even look in Ghisu’s direction – as if he’d discharged a duty.
When the Landlord Sahib gave two rupees, then how could the village merchants and money-lenders have the nerve to refuse? Ghisu knew how to beat the drum of the landlord’s name. One gave two paisas, another gave four paisas. In an hour, Ghisu had collected the sum of five rupees in ready cash. Someone gave grain, someone else gave wood. And in the afternoon Ghisu and Madhav went to the market to get a shroud. Meanwhile, people began to cut the bamboo poles, and so on.
The sensitive-hearted women of the village came and looked at the body. They shed a few tears at its helplessness, and went away.
When they reached the market, Ghisu said, “We’ve got enough wood to burn her, haven’t we, Madhav?”
Madhav said, “Yes, there’s plenty of wood. Now we need a shroud.”
“So let’s buy a light kind of shroud.”
“Sure, what else! While the body is being carried along, night will come. At night, who sees a shroud?”
“What a bad custom it is that someone who didn’t even get a rag to cover her body when she was alive, needs a new shroud when she’s dead.”
“After all, the shroud burns along with the body.”
“What else is it good for? If we’d had these five rupees earlier, we would have given her some medicine.”
Each of them inwardly guessed what the other was thinking. They kept wandering here and there in the market, until eventually evening came. [Sometimes they went to one cloth-seller’s shop, sometimes to another. They looked at various kinds of fabric, they looked at silk and cotton, but nothing suited them.] The two arrived, by chance or deliberately, before a wine-house; and as if according to some prearranged decision, they went inside. For a little while they both stood there in a state of uncertainty. [Then Ghisu went to the counter and said, “Sir, please give us a bottle too.”] *Ghisu bought one bottle of liquor, and some sesame sweets.* [After this some snacks came, fried fish came]. And they both sat down on the verandah and [peacefully] began to drink.
After drinking a number of cups in a row, both became elevated.
Ghisu said, “What’s the use of wrapping her in a shroud? After all, it would only be burned. Nothing would go with her.”
Looking toward the sky as if persuading the angels of his innocence, Madhav said, “It’s the custom of the world – why do these same people give thousands of rupees to the Brahmins? Who can tell whether a reward does or doesn’t reach them in another world?”
“Rich people have wealth – let them waste it! What do we have to waste?”
“But what will you tell people? Won’t people ask where the shroud is?”
Ghisu laughed. “We’ll say the money slipped out of my waistband – we searched and searched for it, but it didn’t turn up. [People won’t believe it, but they’ll still give the same sum again.]”
Madhav too laughed at this unexpected good fortune, *at defeating destiny in this way*. He said, “She was very good, the poor thing. Even as she died, she gave us a fine meal.”
More than half the bottle had been finished. Ghisu ordered two sers of puris, a meat stew, and spiced liver and fried fish. There was a shop right next to the wine-house. Madhav ran over and brought everything back on two leaf-plates. The cost was fully one and a half rupees. Only a few paise were left.
Both then sat eating puris, with all the majesty of a tiger in the jungle pursuing his prey. They had no fear of being called to account, nor any concern about disgrace. They had passed through these stages of weakness long ago. Ghisu said in a philosophical manner, “If my soul is being pleased, then won’t she receive religious merit?”
Madhav bowed his head in pious confirmation. “Certainly she’ll certainly receive it. Bhagwan, you are the knower of hearts – take her to Heaven! We’re both giving her our heartfelt blessing. The feast I’ve had today – I haven’t had its equal in my whole life!”
After a moment a doubt arose in Madhav’s heart. He said, “How about it – we’ll go there too someday, won’t we?”
Ghisu gave no answer to this childish question. *He looked reproachfully at Madhav.* [He didn’t want the thought of heavenly matters to interfere with this bliss.]
“When she asks us, there, why we didn’t give her a shroud, what will you say?”
“Oh, shut up!”
“She’ll certainly ask.”
“How do you know that she won’t get a shroud? Do you consider me such a donkey? I’ve lived in this world for 60 years – and have I just been loitering around? She’ll get a shroud, and [a very good one] – *a much better than we would have given*.”
Madhav was not convinced. He said, “Who will give it? You’ve gobbled up the rupees! [It’s me she’ll ask – I’m the one who put the sindur in the parting of her hair.]”
Ghisu grew irritated. “I tell you, she’ll get a shroud. Why don’t you believe me?”
“Who will give the money – why don’t you tell me?”
“The same people will give it who gave it this time. But they won’t put the rupees into our hands. *And if somehow we get our hands on them, we’ll sit here and drink again just like this, and they’ll give the shroud a third time.*”
As the darkness deepened and and the stars glittered more sharply, the tumult in the wine-house also increased. One person sang, another babbled, another embraced his companion, another pressed a glass to his friend’s lips. Joy was in the atmosphere there. Intoxication was in the air. How many people become "an ass with a glass"! *They came here only to taste the pleasure of self-forgetfulness.* More than liquor, the air here elevated their spirits. The disaster of life seized them and dragged them here. And for a while they forgot whether they were alive or dead – or half-alive.
And these two, father and son, were still sipping with relish. Everyone’s eyes had settled on them. How fortunate they were! They had a whole bottle between them.
After he had finished eating, Madhav picked up the leaf-plate of leftover puris and gave it to a beggar who was standing there looking at them with hungry eyes. And for the first time in his life he felt the pride and delight and thrill of giving.
Ghisu said, “Take it – eat your fill, and give her your blessing. She whose earnings these are has died, but your blessing will certainly reach her. Bless her with every hair on your body – these are the payment for very hard labor.”
Ghisu stood up, and as if swimming in waves of joy he said, “Yes, son, she’ll go to Heaven! She never tormented anyone, she never oppressed anyone; even while dying, she fulfilled the greatest desire of our lives. If she doesn’t go to Heaven, then will those fat rich people go – who loot the poor with both hands, and go to the Ganges to wash away their sin, and offer holy water in temples?”
This mood of piety too changed; variability is the special quality of intoxication. It was the turn of despair and grief. Madhav said, “But the poor thing suffered a great deal in her life. Even her death was so painful!” Covering his eyes with his hands, he began to weep, [and sobbed loudly].
Ghisu consoled him: “Why do you weep, son? Be happy that she’s been liberated from this net of illusion. She’s escaped from the snare; she was very fortunate that she was able to break the bonds of worldly illusion so quickly.”
The whole wine-house was absorbed in the spectacle, and these two drinkers, deep in intoxication, kept on singing. Then they both began to dance – they leaped and jumped, fell down, flounced about, gesticulated, [strutted around]; and finally, overcome by drunkenness, they collapsed.
This story was translated by Frances W. Pritchett and has been republished from her website with permission.