Munshi Premchand’s character portrayals are of the stuff of legend – Hori and Dhaniya in Godan, and Nirmala in the eponymous story being among the most memorable.
They reflect his extraordinary sense of observation, of human situations, human moods.
It is only recently, while re-reading his Do Baelon Ki Katha, that I realised what a sensitive observer he also is of animal behaviour. His description of the ass in that story was gripping and, having gone over it many times, I decided to do a free translation of it in English for the delectation of my little grand-daughters. But on completing my exercise I found that they should wait a bit to read them. They have subtleties that may be too much for a child’s mind. I give below an excerpt from that description.
“Among animals, the ass is taken to be the dumbest. When we want to dub someone ‘the ultimate in dumbness’ we call him an ass. Whether the ass is really dumb, or whether its innocence and its credulous forbearance have given it this epithet, cannot be said for sure. Cows can gore, suckling cows can, for sure, take on the colours of a lioness. And that poor wretch, the dog, can also on occasion turn angry. But no one has ever heard of an angry ass. Beat the poor fellow as much as you want to, throw before it as spoilt and stale a bundle of grass as you wish to, the ass will not let as much as a trace of discontent cross its face. Nor does it betray joy. During the season of Vaishakh it may gambol a bit but never ever can we catch happiness, real happiness, lighting up the ass’s face. Melancholy is what its face reflects, in a permanent, unchanging expression. Pleasure and pain, loss and gain, make no difference to that static, un-changing mood of the ass. The equanimity of rishis and munis may be said to have reached its very summit in that animal.”
The portraiture was quite entrancing and I thought I should look out for more Premchand animal studies. I was not disappointed. Here is a bit on “man’s best friend” from Poos Ki Raat, in my rendering of it:
“It was a night in December. A cold night, frozen cold. Even the stars in the sky seemed to be shivering. Crouching on a cot in the lookout stall of sugarcane leaves in one corner of his millet field, Halku shivered too…When he could bear it no longer, he lifted Jabra up, slowly, carefully, and put him to sleep on his lap. Jabra’s limbs stank but, plastered on Halku, the dog gave his master a sense of peace, of contentment, that Halku had not known in months…In that bitter, biting cold, man and dog had locked each other in an embrace of the purest warmth. This unique bonding had opened the doors and windows of Halku’s soul. In that cold, and dark, it was aglow.”
And, to conclude, two cameos from Godan itself:
“Turning, Hori saw the speckled cow going away with others of her kind following. Her tail whisked flies away as she made her way, nodding as she walked free of all care, the very picture of contentment. Swaying in her measured gait she was, verily, a queen among her female slaves. What an auspicious thing it will be, Hori thought, if this Kamadhenu were to be tethered to my hearth.
The cow sat herself down in deep gloom. Like a bride that has just entered her in laws’ home. She wouldn’t as much as put her mouth to the new trough. Hori and Gobar brought portions of their own half-eaten rotis for her but she would not even sniff at them. This of course was not something new or unique. Animals can withal go into depression on being moved from what has been, to them, their home.
All three of them came rushing out into the night. They carried tapers with them. Sundariya was frothing at the mouth. Her eyes had glazed over, the abdomen was swollen. And all four legs were stretched out. Dhaniya beat her head. Hori ran to Pandit Datadin, the village’s authority on animal health cures. Within minute the entire village had gathered at the spot. Someone had given the cow something. Clearly, some poison.”
These are just a few samples. The reader may turn to that master story-teller for more, to understand the web of life in which we, with our animal kin, are so inextricably caught.