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. Needless to say, Munshi Premchand can’t be reproduced.


My brother was five years elder to me, but only three grades ahead. Not that his tryst with schooling began late, it was his devotion to learning that dissuaded him from making 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 proceed to caution me in his inimitable style.

“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. Isn't that anarchy?

So you see, my darling brother, you have a long way to go. learn to remain grounded; else 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. His ghastly picture of higher grades made me lose my appetite.

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 failed miserably…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 let go 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.

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, frantic and fast...

I followed suit, pacing after him.


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

Flush in a flash

My ancient toilet flush is on a weeping spree again. The floor is irritatingly wet every time I go in for my tryst with nature. If this is not enough, the hiss of the leaking water from the sullen outlet teases my ears. I step out of my matchbox flat reluctantly fighting the temptation to roll back in those crumpled sheets.My eyes look for that big burly figure, my harbinger of rest room peace – Arun. He is the local doctor for any plumbing chore. He has a way with toilets I must say. Choked sinks, wet washers, tight taps, and loose nuts… he can mend in minutes. He is lazying under the pump room shade as usual. If the neighborhood had not known his skill, he would have passed for the local goon – the one you consult in life-and-death situations that threaten your middle-class dignity. Arun never believes in wasting time. He rushes to my place and attends to the ailing patient.

“It’s the handle again” he murmurs and leaves the scene.

15 minutes pass and he’s back with a plastic wrapped brand new handle in his rough palm. I am in the hall when I hear the familiar sound of the water gushing out in a jiffy. Like an overjoyed expectant father waiting outside the labour room, I rush to the loo with another admiring look towards Arun. He has done it again and for the umpteenth time, he carefully explains the dynamics of the flush.

“See, when you push this handle, water begins to fill in the pan. When the level crosses the top of the trap here, the flow starts and gradually, a bubble in the top creates a siphon. It is this siphon, my friend, which pulls the water out of the pan and we say the toilet has flushed”

This extempore invariably flows in chaste English with a tone best-suited to address a classroom. I thank him as I always do and he rushes back to the pump room shade.

Arun is my next-door neighbor. He lost his job as a solution architect with Flow Soft- a flow-modeling software firm - following an allegation of irrational behavior at the workplace. Arun’s magnum opus, a thesis on “Intricacies of fluid dynamics and flow engineering” lies buried in his cupboard.


His half-smile was unforgettable. That was the only memory of Mujawar I carried back to Mumbai. He was the driver on rolls for the sugar factory that I visited as a consultant. The Mahindra Commander jeep was at the guesthouse promptly at three in the morning. He was dressed in khaki; probably his uniform, and a bright red woolen monkey-cap hid most of his face. The front door was left ajar for me. I hopped in, wearing an over-done grin that you usually reserve for chauffeurs, especially when they see you off at odd hours. It was December and I didn’t mind his strong odor in the chill of the wee hours. There was a certain warmth in it.

“So, are you happy with your job” I asked him on our way to the station.

“No”, was his matter-of-fact reply.

“It must be hard work, driving all night “.

Again the terse response “I sleep most of the time”

I had no idea what to ask further. It was the typical situation we often face in life – when you strike a conversation for the heck of it …the journey is short, you don’t know the guy, you want to keep mum, he wants to keep mum, and yet you end up opening your mouth.

“Do you grow sugar cane” “I made another feeble attempt

“I don’t own any field” pat came the reply. His answers were bundled with huge full stops, bringing further questions to a grinding halt… Suddenly, I remembered his very first reply.

“Why don’t you try some other job? “Like?”

He croaked with a cold look. “Er, like..”

I just could not come up with anything. This time, I was glad that he didn’t care. He was so close to me but his nonchalance made him invisible. “Station”, he announced precisely. I jumped out of the jeep and waved my hands in the universal gesture of a good-bye. As expected, no reaction echoed from the other side. As I walked up the stone-strewn path of the tiny railway station, I heard his voice.

“Hello, over here” Now what’s wrong with him?

I wondered even as I turned back. “Your... Look below, down there” he said pointing his rough, scarred middle finger.

Now, he had a half-smile on his face.Goodness, my fly was undone. I had left in a hurry, more worried about missing the 4.45 morning train. In the effort to pull myself out of the guesthouse, did I forget to pull up the zip…. Phew…a scene flashed in my mind instantly…several years back, my classmate, a cute girl I much fancied, had caught me with my zip down. How embarrassed I was. I never imagined this iceberg, of all people, would remind me of my childhood crush at the end of our sojourn.“Thanks, what’s your name,” I asked, my fingers on the zipper just to reconfirm.

“Mujawar”, he said softly. This was followed by the loud roar of the jeep that left behind an ugly cloud of dust and smoke for company. As it cleared, like a dream sequence from a Hindi film, only one image danced before my eyes – his half smile.

Platter off the coast

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Books forever - Fantastic Four

Sacred Waters by Steve Alter

I have yet to read a better account of a spiritual journey. Not that the Char Dham Yatra has not been captured in literature before but the author (brother of the illustrious actor Tom Alter) treads a different path. Rather than meeting all expectations that his readers may have thrust on him, he raises them to a level only apt for a spiritual journey.

Whether it's the physical hardship of the journey or its psychological effect, Alter avoids the popular route employed by many - that of glorifying every event. The rich and varied mythology of India, the nuances of its cultural diversity, the tug of war between environmentalists and the establishment, the sanctified commerce of the temple economy, the demi-gods of the country - Alter's essays on the umpteen aspects of his pilgrimage reflect an unique devotional detachment. And he hints at his own spiritual experience not as any enlightenment, but only as a natural course of the travel - devoid of loud adjectives and heavy jargon. And more importantly, without losing the innocent wonderment of an honest pilgrim.

In doing so, he also raises some fundamental issues - buried under the carpet by vested interests from every sphere. The spirit of adventure travel, he believes, is entwined with a disturbing paradox. For centuries, journeys of this kind have been wrongly labelled as "War against nature" rather than an attempt to find one's roots in the green mysteries. He also exposes some of the ridiculous beliefs of the typical travel freak - like the craze to capture every scene through the view-finder of a camera - more in proof of individual glory rather than an appreciation of nature. Such obsession only proves self-defeating, especially in a journey that's a rare treat to the human eye.

A traveller with his heart and mind in the right places - Steve Alter was destined to go places -Char Dham being four of them- I am absolutely sure of that!


Business Blunders by Geoff Tibballs

For journalist-turned-full time author Geoff Tibballs as he points out in the preface, the biggest business blunder has been choosing the wrong lottery numbers week after week. But his highly entertaining book captures a rich variety of business blunders across the globe spanning different industries. As the beautiful preface by the legendary Sir John Harvey- Jones remarks, the fine balance of business is in making affordable mistakes and avoiding the atomic explosion of the true business blunder. But Sir John’s best compliment to the book is in his hope to make his own contributions to the ensuing volumes. Though Tibballs never makes the claim that this is an educative book, the humorous collection of blunders is indeed a ready reckoner for valuing the spirit of enterprise and innovation. Tibballs divides the blunders under clearly defined categories – that makes for very interesting reading.

Under Flawed concepts, we have the New Coke experiment that failed to click and the ill- famed IBM lethargy that made Microsoft speed away with all the glory in personal computing business. There are also some lesser-known blunders like the AC Gilbert Toy story or the Irish Canal experiment. Under Bankers’ Errors, we have the Barings collapse covered in great detail. The Sting covers tales like the fake Hitler diaries and biography of Hollywood producer Howard Hughes.

Do not miss the Sale of the Eiffel Tower and The Day The Circus didn’t come to Town. Truly hilarious accounts, of course they seem so only in retrospect. Missed opportunities is devoted to stories like that of Dick Rowe who turned down the Beatles and Napolean’s unfulfilled dream due to the sale of Louisiana state. Money Down The Drain is a wonderful collage of stories like The Advanced Passenger Train, The Hoover Flights Fiasco, The Montreal Olympics Ruin, Raise the Titanic movie disaster and a life time holiday – thanks to a computer error.

Throughout the pages, Tibballs’s narrative is rich in humour and precise to the point. And he tells each story with exceptional flair – whether a popular blunder or a lesser known chaos. In the process, he strikes a chord with the reader. This is a great tribute to the spirit of business. As Sir John Harvey- Jones puts it, this book makes for fun reading and yet carries a subliminal message for us all.


The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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The stories are commonplace but not the pathos.Little events and ordinary things- these are the ingredients that Roy employs with remarkable authority and style – the humour is poignant, the language bears a fresh appeal, the metaphor is strikingly outstanding, and the meticulous detail is at its inventive best. Bit by bit, the story unfolds through the eyes of the hapless twins – Estha and Rahel and yet, Roy makes each character come alive only through their spectacles. In the innocent surveillance of the delightful twins is packed a wealth of human insight, and refreshingly devoid of arid psychology.You can see every character influencing the twins’ lives in true splendor - their nagging grand aunt Baby Kochchmma; their privileged cousin Sophie Mol; her proud father Uncle Chacko; her determined, over-protective mother Margaret Kochamma; the convenient morals of their grand parents Mammachi and Pappachi, their indifferent father Baba far away from their reach; their unfortunate mother Ammu – fighting a losing war on her terms and last but not the least; Velutha – the untouchable rustic lad whose death is clearly one of the most poignant in literature till date and of course, the kids themselves – Rahel, the girl with her devil-may-care adventurous spirit and Esthapen, her brother with his quiet resignation .

Long after you have kept the book aside, the words continue to haunt you in a delightful trance. There have been few before Roy who have seen nights suffused with sloth and sullen expectation; hot brooding months with long humid days; gardens full of whisper and scurry of small lives; the queer compassion of the very poor for the comparatively well-off; religions seeping into places like tea from a teabag; society’s circus in railway stations inviting despair with the rush of commerce; long, oiled hair of the morally upright who lay down laws who should be loved and how. And how much.

Yes, this is a sad book that fills the reader with some innate joy – the elation is clearly beyond words.


Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray

This is Satyajit Ray's first and only book in English on cinema and should be part of every film buff's library. As the title suggests, the author discusses the characteristics of Western films (pre-dominantly Hollywood, and some Italian and British movies) and Indian films to throw light on the art and science of film making, nuances of his own craft, his choice of artists, his thoughts on cinematography and music. Besides, the book also carries excerpts from his personal experience.

The first section is devoted to Indian films where the author highlights the need for developing skill and temperament in creating works of art under conditions of deprivation. Obviously, he found it lacking among Indian film makers who were either busy peddling muddled notions of the so-called indigenous art form or blindly copying the Western style, however out-of-place in the Indian environment.Few diary-like chapters capture moments of ecstacy, tension and hectic schedules while shooting for films like the Apu trilogy and Jalshaghar. He also discusses at length the life and times of three international figures – all masters in their own right – Akira Kurosawa, Charlie Chaplin and Jene Renoir. In elaborating on the Italian neo-realism cinema, he remembers a few Italian movies including the celebrated Bicycle Thieves – a film that inspired Ray to make his first film Pather Panchali. He advises Indian film makers to study Vittorio Desica – the director of the film – to grasp the nuances so very tailored for the Indian scene – where finances and resources are always in scarcity.

Ray beautifully summarizes the commercial characteristics of the bustling Bombay film industry with a special tribute to the innovative spirit of Hindi film numbers in recreating popular Western music into convincing desi versions with amazing regularity. Among the offbeat Indian films, Ray discusses at length four features films including M. S. Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, Shyam Benegal’s Nishant and Mani Kaul’s Duvidha. The book is a great reference book, a travelogue, a collection of essays and film reviews and a diary – all in one- much like the genius of the great director who had his stamp of creativity in every sphere including direction, music, cinematography, screenplay, writing and illustrations.