The servant fired from employment was pleading, his hands clasping seth Bari Lal’s feet.
“Seth sahib. You fed me for so many years. You did everything for me. Now please don’t deduct this fine from my salary.” Seth sahib was perusing the fresh newspaper with great nonchalance, deaf to reason, and the servant, was saying with tears in his eyes, “Maharaj, this is my entire capital. God knows how many days or months I will have to make do with this, until I find another job. You will not profit anything out of fining me seven rupees from my salary of eight rupees, but the coming months will be full of hunger and deprivation for me. My days will become as dark as the night.” But seth sahib was not moved even to the slightest degree. He said judiciously, “You damaged something of mine costing fifty rupees and I fined you seven rupees. What’s wrong with that?”
Now the tears brimming in Raldu the cook’s eyes began to flow. “Huzoor, where is the comparison between your fifty rupees and my seven rupees? For me the meaning of these seven rupees is going hungry for many months. If nothing else, consider it an offering to a poor man.”
“I have never considered making such an offering.” This dry response throttled the wretched man’s hopes.
After a few months, seth sahib met with a car accident. It was a serious mishap – his leg was fractured, and no one knew who took him to the hospital and left him there. It created a commotion afterwards. A crowd of cars began to form at the hospital doors, and the doctors’ eyes sparkled with joy. Finally seth sahib returned home after recovering.
The doctor’s bill arrived after a few days. Unfolding the bill, the munim was dumbfounded. Seth sahib inquired, “What’s the matter? How much is the bill?” The munim said slowly, “Four thousand rupees.”
“What about it? We will consider it an offering.”
The munim couldn’t believe his ears.
February 1939, Lahore.
Translated by Raza Naeem.
The year 2017 was, and still is, being celebrated as the centennial of Europe’s last great revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It also marked the birth centenaries of two great writers of the twentieth century, part of the same broad tradition – the Englishman Anthony Burgess and the German Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll. Closer home, the bicentennial of the great reformer and modernist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is also being celebrated in Urdu-speaking pockets.
December 29, however, marks the centennial of another gifted son of the soil, the writer and film director Ramanand Sagar, who was born in Lahore and went on to have a very successful film and television career following his migration to India in the aftermath of the Partition. Like some other film-makers of his time, Sagar also wrote short-stories and novels. His enduring literary testament is the partition novel Aur Insan Mar Gaya (And Humans Died) published in 1948 with a foreword by the noted Progressive writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who hailed Sagar’s humanistic voice as a declaration of war rather than an admission of defeat.
Sagar’s short story collection Jwar Bhata (Ebb And Flow), published in 1944, had a critical preface by another legendary writer, Rajinder Singh Bedi. The publisher of the same collection notes that it was no mean accomplishment for a writer like Sagar to have gathered such fame in such a short time – to the extent that a second edition of the collection had to be brought out by the perplexed editors merely a few months after the first.
In the light of these facts, it is perplexing why such a writer, and a “Lahori” to boot, has been forgotten by the literary mandarins who preside over the subcontinent’s literary and cultural festivals, in a year which marks both Sagar’s birth centenary as well as the seventieth anniversary of the Partition of the subcontinent. Perhaps they have no further use for humanists like Sagar, who were not part of any noticeable literary camp or lobby during their lifetime.
I have translated one of his shortest stories, titled Daan (The Offering) from the collection mentioned above, in the hope both of offering a tribute to Sagar’s memory and of introducing his work to the uninitiated. The short story is about the class difference between the rich and poor, of their varying standards of wealth and poverty. Sagar’s non-judgemental style conjures up comparisons with other masters of economy, like Saadat Hasan Manto and Guy de Maupassant. Contemporary and future readers in the subcontinent might realise that Sagar still has a bit more to offer than Jane Austen, the 200th anniversary of whose death was observed with much literary fanfare.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani academic and translator based in Lahore. He is currently translating works by Sibte Hasan, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Abdullah Hussein into English.