“ From the government orphanage I went straight to the Army`s Recruitment Office”.This is the opening sentence of the story of Asad , an Afridi tribesman in what is now known as the Af-Pak region and what was known as the “frontier”till very recently – still is locally – as told by Premchand in a lesser-known short story titled Fatiha.
Like all of us I too while knowing that revisiting classic writers is always a newly rewarding experience , keep putting it off for some later, better, times – also knowing, like all of us, that there never ever will be later, better, times. But lately I somehow managed to pick up on Premchand for a while.
I mean his short stories, since nearly all his novels are tedious and preachy and full of his understandable nationalist proselytising zeal – fit only for the Hindi Literature Ph.D mills. Premchand was , after all , writing between the two world wars when India`s national freedom movement was peaking. Even Tagore`s novels , except Shesher Kobita, have this weakness of being essays in disguise. And many many stories – perhaps half of them – of Premchand too are propaganda material for his “congressi” zeal of those frought times and are today practically unreadable. But his purer, central corpus, his unique gaze into Indian society and culture is a Grand Prix trophy for all mankind, the foundational waters of Indian ethos and , I suggest, a necessary refreshment in these globalised times.
“Fatiha” is set somewhere in the “frontier” region of Af-Pak around Peshawar in the 1920s when Imperialist armies of Europe – mainly Britain and Russia – were intruding for territory into those perennial borderlands under the schoolboyish, romantic name of “The Great Game”and which in its resources-grabbing American Mark II continues till date. Here is the outline of the story , following the structure – which is the best – used by Premchand himself.
Asad is speaking. He is an orphan brought up in a government orphanage in a village called Kulaha 80 miles east of Peshawar. He is 6 feet 9 inches tall , well-built – known in his platoon as “dev” – and he looks like one of tribal descent. Since joining the army in his platoon, commanded by Major Sardar Himmatsingh, he has shown outstanding bravery, learnt the basic 3Rs and some social graces; but he knows that he could be from any of the frontier tribes like Afridis, Gilzais, Mehsoodis, etc. He knows the nature of the war going on between the tribals and the much superior British-India army, and that his own daring battles against them have made him their prime enemy.
One afternoon during a lull in the battles brought about by burning down of many tribal villages by the army Asad was walking to the house of Maj. Himmatsingh, when he saw an old Afridi man attack and kill a soldier on the road and run away with the soldiers` rifle. Asad ran after him and after many skirmishes( graphically described – was Premchand in the army ever?) managed to kill the old man and retrieve the rifle. The town people who saw the whole thing gathered and applauded him. But sitting later in Himmatsingh`s house and recounting the events , Asad`s heart was heavy. Maj. Himmatsingh, who was a father figure for Asad , was consoling him when a young and beautiful tribal woman suddenly appeared at the verandah where they sat and glared at both of them with fierce eyes. Himmatsingh was startled and afraid and seemed to know her. After many pleadings by Asad and much hesitation Himmatsingh told his story as the old Afridi`s corpse was being dragged away.
Himmatsingh speaking. Five years back he was 40 and did not look so old as did now. He had fought the Germans in the German War ( as WWI was known in the Indian army) and had killed many. He was rewarded after the war and made a Major in the “Kali Paltan” ( Native Platoon ) for subdueing the frontier tribals . He had had great success in this , and his exploits included thwarting the kidnapping of the wife of Colonel Hamilton himself! He was married and lived with his beautiful wife and two children.
One night his camp was attacked by Afridis and he was about to be stabbed to death, when he bargained that he be kidnapped and ransomed for money. The tribal chief agreed and took him away to put him in a mountain dungeon. Some food and water was lowered to him by a woman , who got attracted by his songs which he sang to keep his sanity. Weeks passed and no ransom came in response to the ransom note for Rs.2000 that he was made to write to Col. Hamilton. In the meantime he got himself transferred up out of the dark dungeon at the intercession of the woman and was kept with his feet fettered between two logs. He sang to her every day. They talked. She was Toorya, the daughter of the chief. Himmatsingh told her he was married and had two children but for some reason he said his wife was dead.
Himmatsingh wrote another letter to Hamilton , but no ransom came. Soon it became clear that no ransom would come. He was to be killed. One night when the tribesmen were away on a raid Toorya freed him and told him to go back to Peshawar and send the ransom money , or her life will be in danger.
When he returned to his platoon everyone rejoiced and welcomed him. Col. Hamilton came to see him told him that he had thought Himmatsingh was dead and the ransim notes were forged. Himmatsingh thanked Hamilton, came home and sent Rs. 2000 from his own money , and cursed Hamilton – if he had been a white Major and not a native one dozens of tribal villages would have been torched to retrieve him.
Life continued as before. Toorya never appeared. Months passed. Then years. One day she barged into Himmatsingh`s house , saw his wife , and enraged stabbed her to death. His life changed after that. Even now Toorya suddenly appears , leaves some toys and sweets for the children, and goes away without ever speaking to him. Like today.
That night as Asad lay awake in his bed thinking about all this, he sensed someone come into the room about to attack him with a gleaming dagger. It was the same woman, carrying also a lantern. She sprang upon him. Asad struggled to save his life. Then she suddenly gave up her attack , staring at Asad`s right wrist which had a tattoo. She showed him her wrist which had a similar tattoo. They were overcome.They talked, and discovered that she was his sister and the old man killed by Asad that afternoon was their father. Asad had been seperated from the family when he was a baby, during an attack by the army. His given name was Nazir.
The next morning Asad called Maj. Himmatsingh home, tod him the whole story and applied for his father`s body for proper burial. Toorya appeared. She forgave Himmatsingh , who asked Asad – now Nazir – for her hand in marriage. Nazir joked that he was a Sikh , how could he marry a Muslim? Himmatsing sais that Paltanias – armymen – had no religion ! But Toorya refused , and offered to be a mother to his children if he sent them to live with her. The sun was setting, and Nazir and Toorya were reading the prayer of Fatiha over the grave of their father.
A smashing yarn. Bollywood can and should go to town with it – if it has sense, whatever is left after it started to let its creative impulses be determined by asset-management teams , not by the good old “dream merchants”.
But there is something more, something uncanny going on here. Premchand is often like that.
It captures a locale of British Imperial expansion towards and beyond the Hindu Kush mountains; it is totally at one with life in the subaltern and semi-regular native-armiies often created and then disbanded by the regular army; its human drama is superb, operatic; it is fully aware of the natives` clear-sighted practicality in the face of racism of the British like Hamilton; in everything it is exactly real , down to the minutest detail of tribal methods of fettering prisoners, and the tribal`s military need for new weapons like rifles and guns, and so on and on of so many aspects of life then. All this so artfully woven into the yarn as if artlessly.
Well, okay , it is a great story, and Premchand is a great writer – I am just the zillionth chap to say this. So what is new ? I humbly wanted to point out a unique and astonishing thing about his good stories – about how they are written out. Okay, what ?
It is almost as if Premchand was actually there , recording what was happening in real life, not just writing about it at his plain writing table.
Is it just writers` imagination ? It looks like the all seeing 3rd-Eye which only the greatest gods may possess.
In short, gentle reader, read Premchand now, not later.
[ Premchand stories are best read in Hindi. Thankfully many publishers have published them in many kinds of editions . His collected stories – nicely named Maansarovar – have been published in a cheaper edition by Hans Prakashan , Allahabad.]