Thursday, July 13, 2006

Short Story by Munshi Premchand

Munshi Premchand, the great writer from India, is my all-time favorite. Throughout his lifetime, he served timeless pathos in all flavours. This is my humble attempt to translate his "Bade Bhai Sahab" (Big brother) a gripping and moving tale of an hapless elder brother gradually getting unnerved by the rapid yet casual academic strides of his happy-go-lucky younger sibling. Each time he builds a wall of defense in a desperate attempt to prove his might, he finds it unknowingly crushed by the little one. Lurking in this simple story are umpteen shades of human emotions. Here it goes...


My brother was five years elder to me, but only three grades ahead. Not that his tryst with schooling began late, it surely must been his keen devotion to learning that dissuaded him from any hasty progress. How could the great monument of knowledge stand tall without a strong foundation? Hence the motto of spending more than a year in each division.

My upbringing was solely his responsibility and for me, his was obviously the final word. How could I ever think of defying him? He was so studious … always engrossed in books. I often found fancy cats, dogs and birds drawn on few pages of his note books…. could well have been his idea of taking a break perhaps.

Many a times he wrote a single name several times over, or scribbled few sentences that didn’t make any sense to me. For instance, once I found the following etched in his notebook:

Special, Ameena, brothers, because, Radheshyam, Mr. Radheshyam, one hour…

At the end of this trail was the image of a man. I broke my head over this creation but failed to unravel the mystery. Nor did I dare to ask him. He was in the ninth standard; I was only in the fifth grade…how could I attempt to dissect such intricate stuff?

I never lost a single chance to rush to the playground, throwing pebbles in the air; flying paper butterflies. Climbing up and down the stairs, riding the hostel gate like a motorcar….I had great fun, but back in the hostel room, an eerie silence invariably unnerved me.

My brother would fling the first question rudely “Where were you?”

My answer was a meek silence, conveying the acceptance of my crime. He would then caution me in a flurry of kind and rude words.

“Learn English in this fashion, and you had it. This is no child’s play dear. Slog for months and you barely get to reach the shore, even scholars never take it easy.

And I ask, do you not see me toiling , poring over books, if you fail to see, that’s your fault. There are umpteen plays, fairs, cricket matches everyday, have you ever seen me taking a break. And despite this devotion, I spend more than two years in each grade. It takes me two years, you will probably spend a lifetime. If you want to waste your life thus, better go home and play Gulli danda* to your heart’s content. Why blow Dada’s** hard –earned money for nothing?”

I would burst into tears after this, guilty that I was. He would hurt me with such choicest words. For a second, I would be tempted to give up…why not go home... I was happy being a dullard but god save me from this struggle…

But all tension vanished the next moment to make way for some fresh resolve.... to burn the midnight oil, a new time table sans fun and frolics....

Get up at 6 sharp, finish breakfast… 6 to 8 English, 8 to 9 Math, 9 to 9.30 History, followed by lunch and school. Back home at 3.30, half an hour rest, 4 to 5 Geography, 5 to 6 Grammar, stroll round the hostel half an hour, 6.30 to 7 English composition, followed by dinner, 8 to 9 translations, 9 to 10 Hindi, 10 to 11 revision and then retire to bed.

Making a time table is one thing, sticking to it is another. The breach began from day one. The bouncing football, the fervor of Kabbadi, and the pace of volleyball all pulled me back to the playground. And gone were all oaths, all resolve …

The annual results were out. I stood first, he failed to clear. Now just two grades separated us. For a second, I was tempted to confront him right away. “And whatever happened to your penance? What do we see?”

But his crestfallen face made me think otherwise. Rage made way for compassion. But yes, now I had a newfound confidence and the guilt was gone for good. Probably, he had guessed it.

Yet, he got his chance one day at the lunch table.

“So you feel you have conquered the world. My dear fellow, this is just the beginning. History is replete with stories of pride getting the better of the best. Remember what happened to the might of Ravana – the invincible demon king. What did you learn from his story? "

"Clearing an exam is one thing, knowledge is another. You were lucky this time, but it can’t happen every time. Don’t judge me by my score, wait till you reach my grade. Algebra and Geometry will drive you crazy and god save you from the atrocities of British history. Just try remembering emperors by names …there have been eight Henries alone. Mention Henry the VII as VIII and you lose all marks… And we have dozens of James and Williams, and countless Charles…where are you dear? And every name troubles you again with I, II, III, and IV…

Had they asked me for options and I would have thrown up countless names. Why stick to the same name again and again?

"Geometry is another torture…. write A, B, C as A, C, B and you get a big zero. I just don’t get the point…Daal, Rice, Chapati or Rice, Daal, Chapati…is it not the same...Then why kill poor students for the goddamed sequence? But if you want to clear exams, you better suffer this nonsense. Write an essay on “the value of time” in not less than 400 words. What kind of a joke is that? Common sense has it --- say what you have to in 3-4 lines and move ahead in life. But no, 400 words please. This is nothing but anarchy.”

”So you see, my darling brother, you have a long way to go. Don’t float in the air; you will soon land with a thud. Yes, I have flunked but I am still your elder brother and I know the world better.”

I was getting late for school, waiting for this painful discourse to end. I simply lost my appetite over his ghastly picture of higher grades.

Somehow, I tugged along, my daily routine intact. Annual exams were round the corner again. I cleared again, he flunked again…I had no idea how, but I had topped again. And he had miserably failed…This time, he was in real bad shape…face devoid of color, eyes sunk deep…I felt sorry for him. And then a wicked thought crossed my mind. One more year and we could end up in the same grade. no no… How could my mind be so devilish? I crushed the nasty thought.

But now he was no more the same brother I knew. He would pass off all opportunities to pull my ears and generally kept off me. May be, he realized he had lost the right. This made me even more independent and I roamed about at will all day long.

One pleasant evening, I set about running after colorful kites. I was one among the army of 10-12 lads carrying bamboo sticks as weapons. Our mission was to collect as many fallen kites as we could. We were oblivious of the surroundings when I suddenly bumped into my brother. He was probably on his way back home from the bazaar. He caught me by the wrist and asked tersely

“Are you out of your mind? Roaming like a vagabond with these hooligans. If not anything, have some respect for your grade. I know of several eight-graders of yester years who made name as magistrates, collectors, editors, leaders and scholars. And look at yourself? You are intelligent no doubt, but where's your self-respect?”

“I can read your mind all right. You feel you have caught up with me and that I have no right to question you. But you are wrong. I am five years elder to you and will always remain so…This truth will prevail and even God can’t challenge it...whether you get into my grade or even move ahead. "
"And, thanks to the kind of examiners we have these days, that's indeed possible. . ." he added with a wry smile.

"I have loads of worldly knowledge that’s way above academic grades. Did our Amma*** and Dada ever go to school? The government in America, constellations in space, wives of Henry the VIII, they may not know, but can we ever match their wisdom in worldly matters. Tomorrow, if I fall sick, you will surely panic and send a telegram to Dada, but Dada in your place, would never react like that. He will first try some home remedy, only if it fails, will he call for a doctor."

"Leave health issues" , he paused for effect to resume again, "those are grave matters, can we plan our monthly budgets? Every rupee that Dada sends us, does it not vanish by the 22nd of the month? Are we not left waiting for the next remittance? Did you know that Dada raised a family of nine in less than half of what we blow up?"

"Look at our headmaster. He has an MA, that too from Oxford. He earns a handsome Rs. 1000 as salary. But who runs his house? His aged mother. There goes his degree to the bin.

"So you see, do away with that false pride. You are nowhere near me.” He then raised his hand consumed by rage

“And I will not hesitate to thrash you if need be. I know you’ll hate me for this”

I was speechless and an intense, queer feeling swept over me. I could not bear the sight of my poor brother, shaking nervously, and losing his mind with every word he uttered. As tears trickled down my cheeks, I only managed to say,

“No, I don’t hate you, it’s all my undoing. Every word of what you say is true. Please forgive me”
He hugged me instantly. His shaky voice was now barely audible.

“I am not against flying kites, my love. Even I am tempted, but I am helpless. If I take it easy, who will look after you?’

Just then, we saw a kite above us, utterly helpless, cut reins hanging in shame, on its mournful journey down. Tall that he was, my brother caught the twine and ran towards the hostel, hapless but fast…...

I followed suit, pacing after him.

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* Popular Indian game played with wooden sticks & billet with conical ends
**Short for father
***Short for mother