Translated from Hindi by Anurag Sharma
Premchand is the pen name adopted by the Indian writer, Dhanpat Rai Srivastava (31 July 1880- 8 October 1936). He was a pioneer of modern Hindi-Urdu literature which focused upon contemporary social issues including caste, the treatment of women, day labour and other socio-political concerns. He remains one of the most heralded writers in South Asia. His oeuvre includes more than a dozen novels, about 300 short stories, numerous essays as well as translation of foreign literary works into Hindi.
Balak or the Child
All the servants greeted me from afar, as soon as they saw me. Gangu being the only exception, he never greeted me. He probably expected a palagan  salute from me. Everyone said he was a Brahmin. I bet he was because he never touched my dirty utensils . Even in the hot and sweaty summer, I never dared to ask him to fan  me. When Gangu saw that I was sweaty and there were no other servants around, he picked up the fan on his own. But his posture made clear that he was doing me a favour and I snatched the fan away from his hand.
Gangu could not tolerate disrespect from anyone. He had few friends. He didn’t mix with my other servants. He couldn’t socialise easily either. He was full of contradictions. Unlike my other servants, he neither smoked, nor drank. On the other hand, despite being called a Brahmin, he seemed illiterate. I never saw him worship like most Brahmins do, nor take a vacation to visit pious rivers. He still expected the respect generally offered to a Brahmin, which seemed reasonable. When non-Brahmins have rights to material assets inherited from their ancestors as if they had earned those themselves, then why would Gangu renounce the prestige and honour that was earned by his forefathers through selfless dedication and sacrifices of many generations? That was his proud legacy.
Being an introvert, I spoke very less to my servants. I didn’t want them to approach me without being called. And I didn’t like calling them for simple tasks. It was much easier to pour water from a pitcher myself, light a lamp, put on my shoes, or take out a book from the shelf without waiting for a servant. My servants had also become accustomed to my personality, so they didn’t approach me without need.
They generally came to me for advance payment of wages, occasionally to complain about another servant. I despised both actions. I paid everyone’s salary on the first day of the month. I hated anyone asking for something extra in the middle; I couldn’t keep an account of two or four extra rupees. Besides, when a person had a full month’s wages, he had no right to spend it in fifteen days and beg for a loan or an advance? I was equally disgusted by their complaints. I considered these complaints to be a sign of weakness, or the petty gesture of toad-eating.
So, one morning when Gangu entered my room and stood in front of me, it made me unhappy.
Shrugging my shoulders, I asked, “What’s wrong? I didn’t call you.”
I was struck by the unexpected humility, and hesitation on Gangu’s normally sharp and arrogant face. It appeared as if he wanted to answer, but he couldn’t find the right words. I paused, and asked again, with a little humility this time, “What is the matter? Speak up. You know that I am getting late for my walk.”
Gangu sounded disappointed, “No problem, sir, please go and enjoy fresh air, I will come later.”
His response worried me. If he told his story then and there, I could ask him to finish quick as he knew that I was in a hurry. Postponing it to another occasion could cause a disturbance in my writing and reading later since the servants may not even have considered that as serious work. They may have just considered my thinking time, which is the most difficult practice for me, as my rest time. I didn’t want him to come and irritate me while I was working on a plot. Considering all these consequences of delaying the discussion, I relentlessly said, “If you come to ask for advance payment, the answer is no.”
“No sir, I never asked for an advance payment.”
“Well, do you want to complain about anyone? I hate complaints.”
“No sir, that’s not my nature.”
Gangu stood up straight. It was clear from his gestures that he was gathering all his strength to make a move. He paused and spoke in a faltering voice, “Let me leave you sir. I can no longer work here. I want to quit.”
His proposal surprised me. It hurt my ego. I considered myself a reflection of humanity, I never insulted my servants, I tried to be as humble as possible. I was shocked at this proposal. I asked in a curt voice, “Why? What’s your complaint?”
‘I have no complaints sir. You have got a good temperament. You are the best master a servant can get. But I can’t work here anymore because I don’t want you to feel upset because of me.”
I got confused. My curiosity flared up. I sat on a porch chair and asked with a sense of surrender, “What’s going on? Speak up clearly?”
Gangu said very humbly, “The thing is… that… Gomati Devi, the woman, who has just been expelled from the widows shelter home …”
He paused. I got impatient and said, “Yes, she was fired, then what? What does she have to do with your job here?”
Gangu paused for a moment as if he was trying to remove some heavy burden from his head, “I want to marry her sir!”
I stared at him with astonishment. This illiterate Brahmin of antiquated ideas, who never caught the breath of modern civilisation, was going to marry a woman of such questionable character that she would not even be allowed to enter any gentleman’s home.
Gomati had caused a bit of a stir in the peaceful atmosphere of her locality. After her husband’s death, she was moved to the shelter housing widows. She was made to marry by the staff of the shelter thrice, but each time she returned within 10-15 months. The last time she returned to the shelter, the minister of the home for widows threw her out. After being banished from the shelter, she lived in a closet in the neighbourhood. She soon became the centre of gossip for the loners of the entire locality.
I was angry after hearing about Gangu’s poor choice. This idiot couldn’t find another woman in the whole world to marry. I also felt sorry for his simplicity. I was sure that the woman who ran away from three comparatively rich husbands wasn’t going to stay for long with him. Had he been wealthy, the relationship would probably have lasted for six months. This naïve man didn’t even have a chance for a week.
“Do you know the life story of this woman?” I asked him with a sense of warning.
“All lies sir, people slandered her,” Gangu replied with the confidence of an eyewitness.
“What are you talking about, didn’t she run away from three husbands?”
“What if they kicked her out of their homes?”
“Are you foolish? Why would a man who comes to the shelter to marry abandon the woman after spending thousands of rupees?”
Gangu said passionately, “No woman can live in a place where there is no respect for her. A woman deserves some love and affection, not just bread and clothes. Those men would think that they had done a great favour by marrying a widow. They wanted to own her body and control her mind. They don’t understand that you can’t enslave other humans. To make others your own, you need to surrender first. Moreover, she has some health issues too. Sometimes she passes out suddenly. Those men considered her a burden because of her sickness.”
“Do you really want to marry such a woman?” I shook my head, “Understand that such a marriage would make your life bitter.”
Gangu said excitedly like a would-be martyr, “I understand everything sir, God willing!’
I insisted, “So you have made up your mind?”
“In that case, I will accept your resignation.”
I was not afraid of futile conventions. But keeping a servant who married a wicked woman was a complicated problem. Every day could throw up new issues, new problems, and possibly police cases, and lawsuits. There could also be an accusation of domestic violence, or theft. It would be good to be away from this swamp. Gangu appeared to act like a monkey jumping at the sight of bread without realising that the bread was greasy, stale, dry, and completely inedible. I explained him the situation, but he didn’t care. It was difficult for him to work with thought and intelligence.
Five months had passed since Gangu married Gomati. They lived in the same locality in a tiny house. Whenever I saw him in the market, I checked to ask how he was. I had developed a curiosity about his new life. It was a test of psychological as well as social issues. I wanted to see the result of his bold action. I always found him happy. He appeared to be careless, somewhat prosperous, and confident. He had a daily sale of 20 to 25 rupees resulting in a saving of approximately 10 rupees. This was a meagre livelihood; But he certainly had a boon of some God. Because he had no sign of poverty, shame, or disgrace. There was a glimpse of self-development and joy on his face, a reflection, perhaps, of his peace of mind.
One day, I heard that Gomati ran away from Gangu’s house. I was strangely delighted. Not that I was jealous of Gangu’s contented and happy life. But I was waiting for something to happen to him – a bad thing, a catastrophe, a shameful event. I warned him earlier because I had my own doubts. Now my fears had been confirmed. Gangu had to bear the brunt of his short-sightedness. He, then lunged as if he was getting a rare substance. As if the gates of paradise had opened for him. Alas, now he would realise that those who tried to prevent this marriage were his true well-wishers. We warned him about that woman’s character. We reminded him that she had not been faithful in her earlier relationships, and he too would be cheated ultimately. But he didn’t pay any attention. I was eager to meet Gangu and remind him of his mistake in confusing this woman with a boon from the Goddess.
By chance, I ran into Gangu in the market that same day. He appeared depressed, anxious, and totally lost. On seeing me, he started crying. He didn’t cry out of embarrassment when he saw me; he cried out of grief. “Sir,” he said when he approached me, “… Gomati left me.”
“It’s your fault Gangu. You didn’t listen to my advice. I warned you, but you didn’t care. Now tell me, what can you do except bearing the pain patiently?” I showed him superficial sympathy, “Did she take all your money or left something?”
Gangu placed a hand on his chest as if my question pierced his heart.
‘No sir! Please don’t say that … she took nothing. She left everything behind, even her personal belongings. No idea what evil she perceived in me. I guess I was not worthy of her. She is educated, and I am as illiterate as a buffalo. I am fortunate that she stayed with me for so many days. Had she lived with me for some more time, she would have turned me into a fine man. I will be indebted to her forever. She was like a divine blessing of a deity to me. I must have done something seriously wrong because she always ignored my everyday mistakes with grace. After all, I am a man with no status. She managed the home so well with my petty earnings.”
I was deeply disappointed to hear these words. I thought he would tell the story of her infidelity and I would get a chance to express sympathy for his blind devotion. But the fool’s eyes had not opened yet. He was still reciting her mantra. Of course, he was still in shock.
“Are you certain she didn’t steal anything from your house?” I teased him.
“Not even a rag, sir,” he replied.
“But she left you…. And you think she really cared about you?”
“You’re right, sir; I’ll cherish her love until I die.”
“She abandoned you despite all the love?”
“That’s the mystery I can’t decipher, sir. “
“Have you ever heard the term ‘Triya-Charitra’ ?”
“Hey sir, don’t say that. I will sing her praise even if someone puts a knife on my neck.”
“Then go and find her.”
“Yes, sir. I am not going to give up until I find her. I’m confident that once I find her, I can convince her to come back to me. And sir, my gut tells me she will return to me without a doubt. She didn’t run away from me out of rage. I will go and look for her, even if it means wandering for several months. I will search for her everywhere –the woods, the mountains, and the deserts. I’ll come back to see you if I succeed in my mission.”
Before I could reply, he quickly walked away from me.
After a few days, I had to go to Nainital for a month-long assignment. I had just returned from Nainital when Gangu approached me holding a new-born infant in his lap. He exuded fatherly pride and joy in every aspect of his appearance, including his walk, posture, face, and eyes.
I asked, “Maharaj , you went to find Gomati, did you find her?”
“Yes Sir, with your blessings, I found her in a maternity hospital in Lucknow. Before leaving, Gomati instructed a girlfriend of hers to keep checking if I started getting too nervous about her absence. That friend told me where Gomati was. I ran to Lucknow and met her in the hospital, where she gave birth to this adorable child.” He raised the child with pride and came closer to me. As if a player is displaying the trophy after winning the match.
I asked sarcastically, “Well, she gave birth to this boy? Perhaps that’s why she ran away from here. Is this your child?”
“This is God’s gift for me.”
“So, he was born in Lucknow, right?”
“Yes Sir, he is just a month old.”
“How many days have you been married exactly?”
“… nearly seven months sir.”
“So, he is born within sixth month of your marriage?”
“And you think of him as your son?”
“Have you lost your mind?”
He either ignored, or completely missed my intention. He exclaimed, “She had almost died sir. For three days and three nights, she kept on suffering. I can’t tell more but it’s like a new birth for her.”
I got a bit sarcastic now, “This is first time that I saw a child born in six months.”
He got my point this time, and smiled, “Okay, I understand! I did not even notice it earlier. Gomati ran away from home because of this fear only. But I told her not to care about what people say.”
He continued, “I told her she was free to leave me if she got tired of me. I would leave so as not to bother her ever again, but I would always be available should she require assistance. I told her that I had married her because I loved her and believed she wanted me, not because she was a Goddess. I am the parent of this child. He was born to us after our marriage.” saying this, he laughed loudly.
My eyes started to shine. I forgot how exhausted I was after the long trip. All my inherent hatred was suddenly washed away by a fresh shower of love. I kissed that little boy as I held him in my lap. Probably I didn’t show that much affection to my own children as I did to the helpless child in my lap.
“Sir, you are a wonderful gentleman.” Gangu continued, “I keep mentioning you to Gomati. I’ve asked her to come here with me so we can meet you once. But she is hesitant to meet new people.”
Me and gentleman? The innocent demeanour of Gangu had just opened my eyes. I was ashamed of my narrow-mindedness, my voice was filled with devotion towards him as I uttered, “No, I am not a gentleman, you are one. And this child is the fragrant flower that results from your kindness. Why would Gomati come here to meet a shallow man like me? Come on, I’m coming with you to see her.”
I walked towards Gangu’s house, holding the child close to my chest.
 Palagan was a common respectful greeting offered to the brahmins in Hindi belt of North India
 Indian culture is very particular about purity of kitchen and observance of cleanliness of food and utensils. Any utensil that has been used once for serving or eating food or touched by someone is considered unfit for use until washed and cleaned properly.
 Except for a few princely states like Mysore, most Indian homes didn’t have access to power supply during British rule. Hand fans were commonly used during summer months in every household.
 Triya-Charitra – Complex character of a women, as discussed in Indian literature.
 Maharaj – Literally king of kings, a respectful address for the brahmins throughout India and Nepal
Anurag Sharma is a writer and the co-founder of Radio Playback India. Anurag has been instrumental in podcasting over 300 short stories, radio dramas and Vinoba Bhave’s lectures on Gita. He is the editor-in-Chief of Setu, Pittsburgh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles