The Shroud: Premchand
Outside the hut, father and son sat before the dying embers in silence. Inside, the son’s young wife, Budhiya, was thrashing about in labor. Every now and then, a blood-curdling shriek emerged from her mouth and they felt their hearts stop. It was a winter night, the earth was sunk in silence and the whole village had dissolved into the darkness. Ghisu said, “Looks like she’s not going to make it. She’s been like this all day. Go take a look.” Madhav replied irritably, “If she’s going to die, why doesn’t she do it quickly? What’s the point of taking a look?” “You’re pretty harsh. You’ve had a good time with her all year, and now? Such callousness?” “Well, I can’t stand to see her suffer and throw herself about like this.” This clan of cobblers was notorious in the village. If Ghisu worked a day, he would rest for three. Madhav was such a shirker that if he worked for half an hour, he’d smoke dope for one. Which was why they were never hired. If there was even a fistful of grain in the house, they took it to mean they didn’t have to work. When they’d been starving for a few days, Ghisu would climb a tree and break off some branches and Madhav would sell them in the bazaar. As long as the money lasted, they’d loaf around here and there. And when the calamity of starvation came upon them again, they would break off more branches or look for work. There was no shortage of work in the village, it was a village of farmers and there were at least fifty jobs for a hard-working man. But these two were called in only when you had to be satisfied with two men doing the work of one. Had they been renunciants, they would have had no need to exercise control or practice discipline in order to experience contentment and fortitude. Theirs was an unusual existence – apart from a few mud pots, there were no material possessions in their house. They went on with their lives, covering their nakedness with rags, free of worldly cares, burdened with debt. They’d suffer abuse, they’d suffer blows, but they had not a care in the world. They were so wretched that even though there was no hope of being repaid, people always loaned them something. During the potato harvest, they’d pull up peas or potatoes from other people’s fields, cook them in some fashion and eat them. Or, they’d uproot a few stalks of sugarcane and suck on them at night. Ghisu had lived out sixty years with such supreme detachment and now Madhav, his worthy son, walked in his father’s footsteps, determined to become even more illustrious. At this moment, too, they were roasting potatoes, which they had dug up from someone else’s field, in the embers. Ghisu’s wife had died many years ago. Madhav had married only the previous year. After the woman had come, she had laid the foundations for some kind of discipline in the household and managed to fill those shameless stomachs. And since she’d arrived, the two had become even more inclined to relax and had even started acting pricey. If someone called them in to work, they’d ask for double wages without batting an eyelid. Today, that woman was dying in childbirth and it was quite likely the pair were waiting for her to die so that they could get a good night’s sleep. Ghisu pulled out a potato and, peeling it, he said, “Go and see what’s happening to her. There’ll be the business of a witch, you can bet on it.” Madhav was afraid that, if he went into the hut, Ghisu would grab a larger share of the potatoes. He said, “I’m scared to go in there.” “What’s there to be scared of? I’m right here.”
“So why don’t you go and see, then?”
“When my wife was dying, I didn’t move from her side for three days. This one, she’ll be embarrassed in front of me, won’t she? I’ve never even seen her face. Now to look at her uncovered body! She’ll be uncomfortable. If she sees me, she won’t be able to throw her arms and legs around so freely.” “I’m wondering what will happen if there’s a child – ginger, jaggery, oil – there’s nothing...
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