AfsanaBadosh ep 2: Listen to Premchand's 'Sawa Ser Gehun' | Presented by Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam
AfsanaBadosh, presented by Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam, celebrates the spirit of storytelling through narrations of the greatest Hindi and Urdu stories. This is Episode 2 — Premchand's 'Sawa Ser Gehun', as performed by Vicky Ahuja.
Editorial support, execution and text by Neerja Deodhar | Art by Pinaki De | Episode edited by Akshay Jadhav
afsana (story, legend) | khanabadosh (vagabond, gypsy)
AfsanaBadosh is the coming-together of stories and a vagabond perspective to traversing the world of fiction. It is embodied by the sort of person whose head is always in a book, or who looks for stories in the places they visit and people they meet.
But it is not that cliche of an old man with a long, white beard who trades in legend and cannot rest in one place. AfsanaBadosh is us: ordinary individuals who have experienced the beauty of storytelling in different contexts — as a way to better know the world, to find a sense of solace, and to enrich and entertain. It speaks to an ability to listen to and contend with ideas different from our own; to learn from the past and build a better future.
AfsanaBadosh is Firstpost and Jashn-E-Qalam's celebration of the spirit of storytelling through narrations of fiction written by some of Hindi and Urdu's greatest writers. These include Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hassan Manto, Mannu Bhandari, Krishan Chander and Premchand.
The stories that are part of this project have been chosen for their continuing social resonance, decades after they were published. The foundation of each story is a sense of truth, whether real or imagined.
Episode 2 — Premchand's 'Sawa Ser Gehun', performed by Vicky Ahuja. Listen to more episodes here.
MUNSHI PREMCHAND's name is synonymous with Hindi literature, and even if one's acquaintance with the language is fleeting, it is nearly impossible to be untouched by the simple beauty of his storytelling, marked by realism.
India exists in many centuries all at once, depending on your geographical — and social — location. This means that Premchand's depiction of the underprivileged and middle class in rural and urban parts of the country, as well as his commentary on the injustice of their circumstances and the oppressors who are responsible for it, continue to ring true.
Referred to as 'Upanyas Samrat' (emperor of novels), the writer's best known novels are Godaan and Gaban. He also had a prolific career as a short story writer — 'Kafan', 'Idgah', 'Bade Bhai Sahab' and 'Poos Ki Raat' are among a hundred other stories which have received critical praise, along with being taught in Hindi courses as part of school and college syllabuses. His story Shatranj Ke Khiladi was adapted by Satyajit Ray into a National Award-winning film.
When his literary vision turned more political, he tackled subjects such as the dowry system, political oppression, corruption, child widowhood and colonialism. Among these subjects is zamindari exploitation, with 'SAWA SER GEHUN' laying bare the author's perception of greedy moneylenders who live off the labour of peasants and farmers in an almost parasitic fashion. The author also did not shy away from pointing out how caste is embedded in the evils of money lending.
The story begins with a description of the protagonist Shankar, a simple, poor farmer who is far from being meddlesome or having evil intentions. Neither was he interested in profiting from others, nor was he fearful of being cheated. He is the sort of man who goes about life sans complaint — when he didn't have any food to eat, he would make do with water.
His life is turned upside down after a visit paid by a sadhu (sage). Sages had to be treated well — they were men of God after all — even if they were patrons of the rich and noble and lived comfortable lives. Shankar could not feed him food made out of the ordinary flour at home; he had to procure a meal that befits a sadhu: made of gehun, or wheat. But there was no wheat to be found in the village. The village was made up of mere mortals, after all, not gods or god-men.
Shankar was finally able to find a small amount — sawa ser — of gehun on loan from a vipra (temple priest, who also lent money), which he asked his wife to turn into flour and cook into a meal. The sage devoured all of it, and fell asleep. He woke up in the morning, offered blessings to the family, and left.
Shankar thought to himself, there is no point in returning such a small amount of grain to the vipra, I may as well add it to the amount I am due to pay him as tax. He did not feel the need to make mention of this additional amount while payment, nor did the vipra comment on the transaction or the loan he had given the farmer.
Little did Shankar know that it would take him another lifetime to pay off the debt of sawa ser gehun.
Seven years later, the vipra was promoted, and Shankar was reduced to being a labourer. This labour robbed him of not only his spirit, but his very bones and flesh. At this time, the farmer was accosted by the vipra, who reminded him of the "debt that was due". A clueless Shankar asked him what he was referring to, reminding the vipra of the state of his household. The vipra mentioned the sawa ser gehun he took on loan nearly a decade ago.
The amount was an inflated one, fattened by compounded interest over the years, that would ruin Shankar. He was stunned at the cunning and cruelty of this vipra who he could have paid off instantly when the loan was taken. The weight of the debt owed to a Brahmin weighed heavily on the farmer's shoulders. He reminded the vipra about how he would have to answer for this cruelty to his maker; the vipra laughed off the warning and said all the gods and sages are his kin.
After slaving away for a year, Shankar managed to put together most of the sum demanded by the vipra. The only two things he could afford were meals for his son and tobacco for himself — and he had to give up this one indulgence too, breaking his chillum in a fit of rage and frustration. Disillusioned by this and the realisation that he would never be able to pay off the debt within a year, Shankar lost all motivation to toil like before.
Three years passed, and the vipra did not utter a word. Cunning as he was, he wanted to maim and strike when it would hurt the most. When Shankar offered up everything he owned, the vipra said that he must work on his fields to pay off the debt, adding another clause: that he cannot work anywhere else until the debt is cleared. When Shankar listens to the terms and realises this is slavery, the vipra declares that his son will be engaged in labour if Shankar is unable to work until the vipra is satisfied.
Shankar was a bonded labourer for 20 years until his death. The vipra still demanded Rs 120 of him. Now his son was fated to a life dedicated to paying off this debt.
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