Hunger by Krishen Singh Dhodi

IT WAS THE SILVER jubilee week of 'The Blood of the Lover' at the Nishat; the film had drawn a packed house for every showing of the preceding twenty-five weeks. That was not uprising as everyone has at one time or the other been in love; and everyone loved the film because they found their own life-story projected on the screen. The producer decided to celeberate the success by taking out a triumphal procession through the streets of the city. The publicity campaign was entrusted to a contractor, Sundar Singh.

Sundar Singh was a pleasant man of about forty-five. He lived in a house close by the Nishat. He lived alone because he did not have a relative in the world to share his home. He had employed a fifteen year old lad, Bachana Singh, to cook his meals for him. Bachana Singh gave his master the morning and the evening meal! and spent the rest of the day parading through the streets sandwiched between cinema placards. For this he was paid Rs. 25 per month- all of which he gave to his widowed mother who lived in a refugee encampment.

The procession of the film 'The Blood of the Lover' started from the Nishat cinema at 8 a.m. Sundar Singh wore a bright red turban with starched plumes flaunting in the air. He carried a flag in his hand and ran up and down the procession shouting instructions. Heading the procession was Master Raja Lal's brass band. Following the band was a muck bearing mammoth-size portraits of the stars of the film; one picture showed a fountain of blood pouring out of the heart of the lover and falling at the feet of his sweet- heart. Following the truck were a row of bullock-carts decorated with hoardings; following the bullock-carts were sandwich-men; and last of all were little urchins carrying placards.

Bachana Singh wore a clean shirt and pyjama- he had even polished his shoes. But there was no sign of joy on his face. He trudged on silently in the last rank with this downcast and an age-old melancholy in his drooping visage. And there was his employer Sundar Singh strutting about with the airs of a Field -Marshall now commanding the band to play another air; now ordering the bullock cart drivers to keep in line; and again bellowing at the little boys to march fast.

It was a grand spectacle. Although the procession had been organised by the rich, the people who marched in it were poor, people who had agreed to tramp through the dusty streets to be able to fill their bellies. Anyone pausing to see their pale, emaciated faces would have concluded that the procession was intended to advertise poverty _poverty which had celebrated a hundred thousand silver and golden jubilees.

The procession entered the city. It went along the main thoroughfare, the Mall, past the city's biggest bakery. The one with the legend 'delbis'. Bachana Singh's eyes fell on the picture; his mouth filled with saliva; he ran his tongue over his lips. He stopped in front of the bakery and stood entranced gaping at the board. Sundar Singh's harsh voice pierced through his ear-drum.

"Oi Bachania oi, you son of a witch keep moving".

Bachana Singh ran to catch up with his rank. But his thoughts stayed behind with the loaf of bread. He marched on with the procession; his mind stuck to the hoarding; his feet went one way, his heart the other. He pondered over the hard life he led.

Bachna Singh got up at six every morning to give his master breakfast consisting of tea, toast cut out of a small loaf of Delbis and half a pat of butter. Sundar Singh used butter and the bread leaving only the crust of toast for his servant "this Bachana washed down with his own cup of tea". It was Bachana Singh's dream that one day he would eat a whole loaf of Delbis with a pat of butter. Since he gave his wages to his mother, there was nothing to spare for luxuries such as these. Once when Sundar Singh had felt little under the weather, he taken taken only one toast and given the rest of the loaf to his servant. Bachana still cherished the memory of that day and prayed that his master would again be indisposed and the entire loaf and the pat of butter would fall to the servant's share. The picture in the bakery made him so ravenously hungry that he imagined himself swallowing the entire loaf in one big gulp.

After breakfast Sundar Singh used to stroke his paunch and repeat: "Great Guru, Emperor True" I thank Thee a hundred thousand times- Guru Gobind, Lord of the Plumes, all that Thy humble servant gets is but Thy gift; Thou givest and Thy humble servant's hunger is appeased". And then Sundar Singh would emit a long, satisfied belch.

Bachana heard these words of thanksgiving every morning- How strange, he wondered, that the True Emperor should give to some and not to others! That He should give Sundar Singh a whole loaf with butter every day and him only the left-over crust! Silk shirts to Sundar Singh and tattered rags to Bachanal And then poor Bachana Singh would resume his breakfast of dry crust dipped in tea.

Sometimes Bachana asked himself why he had never thanked the Guru, the True Emperor. So one day he blurted out: "Great Guru, True Emperor! For what I have received I thank Thee a hundred thousand times!" And immediately after he had uttered the words he felt a little silly, what had he to thank the Guru for? Just for the dry crust of bread? The thanks were due from Sundar Singh because he did get a whole loaf and butter every day. If he (Bachana) gave thanks for the crust, that's all the Guru would ever give him!

Once Sundar Singh went off toast for a few days; he began to take milk instead for his breakfast. Poor Bachana was deprived even of his scrap of toast. No wonder the mere picture of a loaf of bread made him drool at the mouth. He resolved to buy the bread and the butter; but where was the money to come from?

When he returned home after parading the streets, he was very tired. His limbs ached; and the longing for bread and butter gnawed at his inside. His master, Sundar Singh came back, changed into a suit and left to go to a reception given by the producer of the 'The Blood of the Lover'.

Bachana Singh had no means of raising a loan, he had asked his companion on the parade to give him eight annas but no one would lend the money; perhaps they were as hard up as he. Or did they suspect, he would never be able to return the loan? Bachana tried to get a loaf and butter from the cinema restaurant, that also failed. Sundar Singh had given instructions that nothing was to be given on credit to his servant. Bachana Singh lay down on his charpoy. He was hungry.

Before he fell asleep, Bachana said a short prayer-his heart was too full for more. He hadn't asked for a million rupees or motor cars or bungalows-only a small loaf of bread and half a pat of butter. Even that was denied hind He prayed fervently. "Great Guru, True Emperor, I have forsaken others and come to your door. People say you are the Great Giver. I too have seen your generosity towards the proprietor of the Nishat cinema and to contractor Sundar Singh. But why give you not to me and a hundred thousand others like me? Who else can we turn to? If you really are the Great Giver, then give your servant a loaf of bread. Otherwise I will conclude that you are the Guru of the chosen few and I shall find a new Guru of my own ". Bachana Singh's eyes closed in sleep.

...Late in the night he awoke with an eerie feeling. His room was lit with strange effulgence. A bright glittering figure dismounted from a horse and entered his room. A white hawk fluttered on his hand. Of course, it was Guru Govind Singh himself Bachana rushed and bowed his head to the Guru's feet and then offered the Guru his humble three-legged stool. The guru embraced Bachana.

"My son, You thought of me in your prayers!"

"Yes Father"! replied Bachana folding the palms of his hands and dropping his eyes:

"why did you think of me, Son?" asked the Guru with great kindness.

"Emperor Truel You know the innermost secrets of our hearts; you know of my sufferings"

"Son, ask what you wish and it will be granted." Bachana remained silenL

"Son, be not shyl Ask for what your heart wills most".

"Emperor Truel Will you really give me what I ask?"

"Yes Son; You thought of me in the truthfulness of your heart. For this whatever your heart wills will be granted."

"Give me a small loaf of Delbis and half a pat of butter", blurted Bachana smacking his lips.

"A loaf of Delbis and half a pat of butter! Four and three - that is only seven annas worth per day! Son, know the status of the one who gives and then ask. Ask for happiness in this life and the life to come; ask for dominion over the globe and I shall grant it to you; I can make you King of the three worlds".

"No my Lord! I do not want dominion or power. It was different in your age; today Kings, heads roll in the dust and are kicked about by common people. All I need is a loaf of bread. And many who are as poor as I also need bread. I do not wish to own a kingdom; but I also do not want to spend a lifetime in hunger and want. Appease my hunger in this life; I will not bother about life here after".

"You will get all you want and quite soon; in the life to come you will have everything in full measure. I will have to come back to this world again; not to save India from the perils of a foreign invasion but to give every Indian bread and butter. Wait for my return".

"True Emperor! I have waited long. Don't take more time; come as soon as you cant.

"I will not be long."

The effulgent figure remounted the horse and vanished.

"Oi Bachania! Get up you lazy lout! Its almost afternoon and you are still in bed. Get up and get my Delbis and butter".

Bachana had gone to bed very late; then there was that strange dream! When he heard the word Delbis, he rose with a start-but still in his dream world.

"True Emperor! You have really come-and sooner than you promised! Where is my Delbis and my pat of butter?"

Sundar Singh gave the boy a quizzical glance. "Oi, whose father are you talking to? You didn't drug yourself with hashish, did you? Do I get the breakfast for you, or you for me? Hurry up you slug-a-bed and get my Delbis and butter".

Someone there is who is going to get Delbis and butter for me; soon, very soon".

Bachana Opened his eyes. Sundar Singh stood glowering over him. Bachana quickly shut his eyes and stretched himself on the charpoy again. Sundar Singh picked up the charpoy from one end and tilted it over. Bachana rolled off and fell on the floor.

Quotations .
Written in Punjabi by Sardar Krishen Singh Dhodi
Translated by Sardar Khushwant Singh ji
published in an excellent book named
Selected Stories by Khushwant Singh Land of five rivers
by Orient Paperbacks Madarsa Road, Kashmere Gate Delhi 110006