"The Shroud" (1935) is the last story by Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav "Premchand" (1880-1936), father of the Urdu and Hindi short-story tradition(s). I think kafan is the best South Asian short story, in any language, that I've ever read. The harshness and bleakness of the story, the utter awfulness of the two characters, balanced against the (sporadic, limited, but genuine) sympathy we're forced to feel for them, and even a sort of morbidly comic effect-- how far beyond the achievements of Premchand's previous stories! And above all there's the extraordinary final scene at the wine-house, in which the whole human condition seems to be held up for reflection in the light of pie-in-the-sky longings, bread-on-the-ground cynicism, touches of (sincere?) compassion, absurdity, and the wild mood swings of intoxication. The scene becomes a stage for Ghisu and Madhav's last drunken dance, under a sky full of coldly brilliant stars, before an audience of desperately poor peasants, as they sing about a murderous beauty and the glance of her eye. Then, of course, they pass out, ending the story abruptly and depriving us of any final authorial interpretation.

Premchand is famous for his village-level "realism," and indeed it's there, but it has its limits. He was notably casual about the exact wording and details of his stories, for theoretical reasons discussed in "The Chess Players: From Premchand to Satyajit Ray" (Journal of South Asian Literature 22,2, Summer-Fall 1986, pp. 65-78). His casualness about detail is a primary reason for the textual discrepancies studied and reconciled in this translation. (It's not the only reason, alas, since even now all too few important Urdu and Hindu stories have texts that have been reliably established and carefully edited.)

As a very small illustration of such casualness, in the present story the list of foods enjoyed by Ghisu at the landowner's long-ago wedding feast includes two separate mentions of "chutney." Larger awkwardnesses also exist: if Ghisu really had nine sons (or anyway a number of them, if we assume that he exaggerates), why don't we hear anything at all about the others? And there are some truly serious implausibilities as well. Why would any village family have given their daughter in marriage to the awful Madhav? And if other villagers lived close enough to hear the funereal "weeping and wailing" and come running, why did nobody hear Budhiya's shrieks and cries during her prolonged agony of labor and death? And above all, why did an admirable woman like Budhiya have no support network among the other women of her neighborhood? Since she worked in the village grinding grain for other families, her pregnancy must have been apparent. Her need of help in her terrible, isolated situation should surely have evoked at least as much compassion and support from the women as her need of funeral rites did from the men.

These questions don't occur at once, of course, and they don't at all vitiate the story; they're beside the point. They just show that Premchand's stories are often highly stylized, and don't depend on literal "realism" for their impact. While we're on the subject of the village women, a further question about their role also lingers in my mind. At the end of section (2), is the description of the women's brief visits to view Budhiya's corpse, and their shedding of a tear or two, meant sarcastically? I tend to think so, but how can we be sure? We also, in that passage, can't tell whether "the sensitive-hearted women of the village" -- gaa))o;N kii raqiiq ul-qalb ((aurate;N (U), gaa;Nv kii narm-dil striyaa;N (D) -- are a subset of the village women, or all of them. And when we look even more closely, we notice that raqiiq ul-qalb is a more ambiguous description than narm-dil ("tender-hearted"), since raqiiq means "thin, fine, delicate, attenuated" (Platts, p.596). The adjective in the Urdu-script version thus looks more likely to be meant ironically than the one in the Devanagari version; so we're brought back again to intriguing (or infuriating) textual questions. Which version did Premchand himself compose; or which did he compose first; or which did he compose with more attention and subtlety?

I'd also like to say a word about Premchand's religious vocabulary in this story. Unquestionably the worldview of the two main characters is Hindu; in both versions, their religious terms and concepts are drawn entirely from the Hindu side. But the same is not true of the omniscient narrator who describes it all for us. In the Devanagari version, this narrative voice uses Sanskritic vocabulary that harmonizes well with the characters' religious views. But in the Urdu-script version, the narrator's religious vocabulary is not Sanskritic, nor is it any kind of neutral description. It's quite overtly Islamic in its associations (e.g., qanaa((at aur tavakkul ke li))e .zab:t-e nafs ). The effect is to make the story feel more general: its satiric barbs are directed not at Hindu religious hypocrisy and exploitation in particular, but at religious hypocrisy and exploitation in general. (And of course they're directed even more forcefully at political and economic exploitation.)

The story has sometimes been attacked by Dalit critics, on the grounds that it paints an unflattering and hostile picture of two anti-heroes who are explicitly identified as Chamars. But of course, throughout the story these two are repeatedly and emphatically depicted as unique, as isolated individuals. Their behavior and attitudes are described as peculiar to them alone; the narrator tells us very clearly that they should be seen as deviants. Everybody else in the story, of every caste and social level, finds them contemptible. So the idea that the story embodies or expresses prejudice against Dalits doesn't seem plausible.



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