This is the translation of "Dak Munshi", a story by Fakir Mohan Senapati, the nineteenth-century story-teller from Odisha. I had read this one when I was only a teenager and had received well in my impressionable mind then. This particular story is special to me in many ways. In the first place, I consider Fakir Mohan is not only the first modern fiction writer in Odisha but also one of the doyens of literary renaissance in entire India. At a time when the zeitgeist was renaissance and patriotism, he had successfully harnessed the power of literature to bring change in the society--be it women's education or remedying alcoholism, criticising feudal exploitation or parodying the emergence of new social divide in the name of English education. Secondly, in this story he had dealt with post office, something I, too, have based all my thirty stories on in my book "Virasat". Thirdly, I love the narrative style: short and sweet, unadorned and unpretentious. What is more, the message it conveys is important and ever-green--every father must know what to expect from the sons and daughters. We should not expect more than they can give, or maybe, we should not expect anything at all. Last but not the least, Fakir Mohan was born in the district I was born though the period between these two events is whooping one hundred and sixteen years. It is the district of Balasore in Odisha that we both are born at different time of history. Good! I could translate his story for my blog. It's a great feeling.
Hari Singh worked
in the Postal Department. He was the head peon in the General Post Office of
Cuttack. Initially he joined the department as an ordinary mail peon and thereafter
worked for a long time in the rural post offices. It was only ten years ago that
he became a regular peon. At present his salary was nine rupees per month.
He used to manage
his family somehow in a state of utter indigency. His wife and his son stayed
in the village and, as for him, he lived in Cuttack renting an accommodation.
He used to send a sum of four rupees to his village every month. His only son
Gopal was pursuing his study in the upper primary school in his village. He
used to incur an amount of two annas [ 12 pice] every month towards the tuition
fee of his son. Besides, he would purchase slate, books and paper every now and
then. That involved additional expenditure. When there was the burden of such extra
expenditure, Hari Singh was compelled to somehow manage his own expenses with
difficulty. It was the city of Cuttack where everything of daily necessary had
to be purchased. Yet he used to adjust his needs within five rupees. It was his
dream that with proper education, his son Gopal would become a successful
person. Hence Hari Singh did not mind the difficulties that came his way but he
did not discontinue Gopal’s schooling. And his precise dream was that one day
Gopal, after completing his education, would become a postmaster somewhere.
But one day the
Head Postmaster, after examining the service records of Hari Singh, said, ‘Ah!
Hari Singh! You’ve already reached your age of superannuation. And so you can’t
continue in service.’
The words of the
postmaster made Hari Singh brood over the issue seriously. He had been thinking
of bringing his son to Cuttack and giving him English education. But, now, with
his service about to finish, he dipped into remorse at the prospect of
discontinuance of his son’s the education.
was full of compassion for Hari Singh. The latter used to visit the house of
the postmaster every evening after completing his government duty. He used to
perform some work there to help the postmaster. At the end of the office hours
when the postmaster used to take an armchair in the evening and pored over the
English newspaper, it was Hari Singh who would prepare a smoking pipe for his
boss with sweet and strong stuff and hand it over to him. [So, the
postmaster of a GPO used to take ganja those days! Italics mine.]
One evening the
postmaster was reading newspaper. As was his wont, Hari Singh prepared the
smoking pipe and proffered it to his boss. The latter drew a couple of deep puffs
out of the pipe. The smoke came out of his mouth, involuntarily in steady
streams. And he dosed off. His mood became relaxed. Hari Singh thought –Aha! It
was the right moment. He lay prostrated before the postmaster and implored that
the education of his son would be discontinued if he was asked to retire. The
postmaster listened to his prayer. His eyes still closed, he said, ‘Well,
submit your application and I’ll see.’
had good rapport with the senior officers of the department. When they paid
visit to the post office they used to stay and dine in his house. The
postmaster had seen to it that the officers were kept happy by treating them
well. As long as such senior officers stayed in the house of the postmaster,
Hari Singh used to be present there. He had a reputation of being a very serviceable
fellow. Besides he knew the likes and dislikes of the visiting officers. On
such occasions Hari Singh used to get detained in the house of the postmaster
until it was midnight. Then he used to go to his house and cook his meal.
Sometimes the visiting officers would fall ill suddenly and it was Hari Singh
who used to be the first to reach there. He would give lemon water to such
ailing officers. [Did they booze? Italics mine.] After they went to
sleep, he used to go home. This was precisely the reason why all the senior
officers knew Hari Singh well and liked him too.
Hari Singh wrote
an application and handed it over to the postmaster. The latter recorded his
recommendation and sent the same to the senior officer. Then favourable orders
were received from the headquarters and Hari Singh was allowed
to continue in service. The news made Hari Singh very happy and he wrote a letter to his
family to inform them about the development.
But Hari Singh’s
happiness was short-lived. His wife suddenly caught pneumonia. Hari Singh took
leave and rushed home. By the time he reached his village, his wife was at the
terminal stage of her life. Seeing her husband she raised her hands and saluted
him for the last time. She also motioned to get the dust from her husband’s
feet. Hari Singh complied with the last request of his wife and then she closed
her eyes for ever. In this way Hari Singh’s family got devastated. He finished
the funeral of his wife and came back to Cuttack with his son Gopal.
After a few days
Hari Singh superannuated. At that time Gopal was studying in the middle school.
Hari Singh got a very small pension. How could he have managed his expenses at
such a meagre pension? He had to dispose of the utensils from his house to meet
occasional expenses. While in service, he had saved some money in a bank. Now
he had to withdraw the amount and spend it. He harboured a belief that when his
son would get a job, he would be out of poverty. Even Gopal used to endorse his
father’s belief, saying, ‘Father, borrow something and allow me to study. I’ll
repay them as soon as I get a job.’ In this way Hari Singh managed to continue
the study of his son, eking out a miserable living himself.
In time Gopal
Singh passed his middle school examination. Hari Singh contacted his old
bosses. He beseeched them to give a job to Gopal. The senior officers of the
department bestowed their kindness on Hari Singh. As a result, Gopal Singh got
a job in the department to become the sub postmaster in the post office of
Makrampur. His starting salary was twenty rupees a month. At first he was to be
on probation at a post office in Cuttack and learn its work for four months.
The day Gopal
got the job, Hari Singh quite wistfully remembered his wife and shed a lot of
tears. He thought—her son had become an officer after finishing his study. If only
the old lady were alive! She would have been so very happy at that hour of
success. She was not a lucky soul. And she had to leave this world even before
her son was happily settled in life. Then Hari Singh prayed God to give long life to
At the end of
the first month of his job, Gopal came home with his salary of twenty rupees
and gave the entire amount to his father. Wow! In his entire life Hari Singh
had not seen so much an amount at a time and so he counted it again and again.
He was only too happy to realize that his son was getting such a fat salary. He
realised his son was now an officer. He needed a good pair of shoes and a set
of decent dress. With the amount in his hand he rushed to the market. And he
bought a new shirt, a dhoti, a pair of socks and shoes. He also bought a few
other things that he thought Gopal might need.
was known as Dak Munshi in the post office even though his full name was Babu
Gopalchandra Singh. Now he got a circle of officers to socialize. He had
started writing everything in English these days. But in contrast when he used
to return home after his office hours, he would find his scantily clad dirty
old father busy in household chores. In fact, these days Hari Singh remained ever
busy at home, all the while bothered how to make his son live in comfort. He
was not only cooking good meals for his son but also accomplished all other
jobs at home.
Days passed. Now,
Gopal the Dak Munshi had long started to think that the old fellow, his father,
was a fool. Such was the attitudinal change of the son! Obviously he had no
love left in his heart for his old father. Whenever he saw the old fellow loitering
around, he would be overtaken by anger. Thus, with no knowledge of
English, the dirty unlettered old fellow wearing uncivilized clothes turned an object of Gopal’s hatred. He got increasingly apprehensive that his
reputation would be ruined if he ever addressed the old fellow as father.
One day it so
happened that some ladies, clad in fashionable gowns, were standing in front of
the post office. They all were educated ladies. And Hari Singh, clad in his usual dirty
clothes, passed in front of them. What is more, he was then half naked. From the
corner of his eyes Gopal Babu could witness the scene. In his mind he got greatly
embarrassed. ‘What a shame! It’s very shameful. Now I must drive this chap out
of my house. Or else my prestige will go this way.’
Then one day
Gopal said it unambiguously to his father, ‘You’ll not come out in the open when
gentlemen come to my house. What the hell do you think you are? Better be
informed: You haven’t done any favour to me. Stay here if you like, or else get out
of my house.’
Listening to his
son giving him an ultimatum, Hari Singh’s head reeled. In a fit of
speechlessness he sat down. As for him, it was like a wound in an inconvenient
part of his body: he was neither in a position to see it for himself nor able
to show it to anybody. Whom should he share his pain with? Very wistfully, he
remembered his wife and shed a few drops of silent tears. Then he feared, ‘Ah!
What am I doing? It’s going to bring misfortune to my son if I shed tears.’ And
so he wiped them and became silent.
Since then Gopal
talked but only rarely to his father. It was his idea that his father was
purely empty-headed. In contrast he was an officer himself. So, what was there to
talk to father who did not know English?
A spell of four
months elapsed in the meantime. Gopal completed learning his work during that
spell. Now was time he started for Makrampur, his new place of posting. He did
not say a word about that to his father. On the day of departure, he got up
early in the morning and finished his routines. Then he dressed himself to get
out. While leaving, he commanded his father, ‘Father, listen to me carefully.
I’m going to Makrampur. Bring all these things—they’re not much. And be warned—don’t
engage a coolie. If you engage any, I’m not going to pay.’
Gopal carried an
umbrella under his armpit and began to walk wagging his stick. Old Hari Singh
prepared a bundle of the belongings and followed his son. Streams of tears
rolled down his cheeks. Weak as he was, he was not in a position to walk fast. After
taking halts at least at five to six places, he ultimately reached at Makrampur
post office. By then Gopal had already reached there. On arrival of his father
he rebuked him for the delay. The old fellow sulked but remained silent over
A few days
passed in this way. Since Hari Singh had
spent long time in the town, a purely rural area such as Makrampur proved unhealthy
for him. Soon he was down with cough and cold. To add to its severity he got a
fever too. At night the bout of cough became more severe. He had fits of cough
all through the night. As a result Gopal Singh could not sleep peacefully. One
night he got so angry that he called a peon and ordered, ‘Take this old man and
throw him on the thorny fence of screw pine.’
The peon who was
ordered like that had no education and, more importantly, possessed no
knowledge of English. Yet the fellow had his conscience intact. He knew what
was good and what was not. He came near Hari Singh and found that the old man
was running high fever…and gathered that the fellow was even without food for
the previous three days in a row. The peon was moved by compassion and did not
carry out the orders of his boss.
The night wore
on and it became midnight soon. The old man's fit of cough reappeared more severely.
As he went on coughing incessantly, Gopal became extremely furious. He came
rushing to his father and boxed twice on his chest. Then he threw his bed
outside. Now it proved to be the final assault and so Hari Singh chose to go back to
his village by that very night.
It was a dark
night but Hari Singh managed to traverse the distance up to his village. He had
two acres of landed property which he entrusted to a farmer on sharecropping.
Whatever produce he received in his share took care of his needs for the food
grains. Besides he was getting some pension. The amount was enough for his pocket
expense. In this way Hari Singh lived in his village happily thereafter.
A. N. Nanda