Hindi literature can be an extremely daunting subject to a 12 year old. That’s exactly how I saw it when we were being taught Kabir’s couplets or short stories by Prem Chand. While researching the next post that I wanted to share with you, I stumbled upon an unlikely and an unusual story – Gulli Danda by Prem Chand. You see Prem Chand is not glamorous, he does not have the appeal that charms the millennials like us, there is no drama. What he does have is a sense of home, of an untiring-childhood spent on dusty roads, playing our make-shift games with the friends that held promise of an eternal friendship. His stories remind me of power-cuts, of my grand mother calling me to come back indoors lest I end up with a sun-burn, of my brother and his friends going to the local carpenter to get custom-made gulli-danda only to be scolded by our parents for playing a game that can easily injure our fragile skins. When they taught Prem Chand in school, I hated it like my many other classmates. We were young, our brains too infantile to understand the glory of our childhood, to fathom the depths of the games we used to play. Today, sitting in Germany in sub-zero temperatures, my heart is warm and fuzzy from the wooly softness of memories of my childhood, and I hope you feel the same after reading this story.
by Prem Chand
Our English-knowing friends may or may not agree, but I must say that gulli-danda is the king of sports. Even today whenever I see boys playing gulli-danda I start rolling in delight and feel like joining them. No need of a lawn, or a shinguard, or a net, or a bat. Just cut a small branch from a tree and chip a small piece off it to make a gulli, and you begin to play even with just two people. The problem with Vilayati games is that their kits are very expensive. Unless you spend at least a hundred rupees you can’t be counted as a player. And here is gulli-danda for which you spend nothing, yet can have all the fun. But we are so enamoured of English things that we have lost all interest in our own. In the schools they charge three to four rupees each year as games fees. But no one thinks of introducing Indian games that can be played without spending anything. The English games are meant for those who have money. Why force these on the poor? True, that a shot of gulli-danda can smash your eye. In the same way a cricket ball can break your head, or damage your ligament, or break your leg. If I still carry a scar on my forehead from gulli-danda, many of my friends have exchanged their bats for crutches. Well, it all depends on your interest. For me it is gulli-danda, and some of my sweetest memories are associated with this game: To come out early in the morning, to climb a tree to cut a few branches and chisel out the gullis and dandas, that excitement and involvement, that drove of players, that batting and fielding, those fights, that innocence in which differences between the touchable and untouchable, between the rich and the poor disappeared, where there was no room for pretension, or display of one’s wealth, or pride – all this would be forgotten only… The family are angry; father is expending his anger on food; mother, who cannot think beyond the household, is of the view that my bleak future is rocking like a sinking boat. And here I am busy sending my opponents on a gulli chase, not caring to wash myself, or eat. A gulli is so small, but it is packed with the sweetness of all the sweets and pleasures of all the shows of the world.
Among my playmates was a boy named Gaya. He was elder to me by two-three years ⎼ thin, tall, fingers like a monkey’s, and also its quickness and restlessness. The gulli might be of any shape, he pounced upon it like a lizard at an insect. I didn’t know whether his parents were alive, or where he lived or what he ate but he was a champion player of our gulli-danda club. The team for which he played was sure to win. On seeing him come we would dash towards him and urge him join our team.
One day I and Gaya were playing. He was batting and I was fielding. Isn’t it strange that we can enjoy batting the whole day but don’t like to field even for a minute. I tried all the tricks to wriggle out, all those that are excusable in such a situation, though being outside the rule book. But Gaya was not willing to let me go without completing his batting.
When my requests were of no avail I deserted the field and ran homewards. Gaya ran after and caught me; and flourishing the danda, said, ‘Go only after I have completed my batting. You were enjoying while I was fielding, and now you are running away when it is my turn to bat.’
‘If you keep batting the whole day, should I keep fielding?’
‘Yes. You’ll have to go on for the whole day.’
‘And without food and water?’
‘Yes, you can’t go until I have had my turn.’
‘Am I your slave?’
‘Yes, you are.’
‘I’m going home. Let me see how you stop me.’
‘How can you go home? It’s no joke. You have had your turn. Now I must have mine.’
‘Ok, yesterday I had given you a guava to eat. Give it back to me.’
‘That’s gone into my tummy.’
‘Take it out. Why did you eat it?’
‘I ate it because you gave it. I didn’t ask for it.’
‘I won’t field until you return my guava.’
I thought the justice was on my side. I must have given him that guava out of some selfish motive. No one does anything without self-interest. People give even alms out of selfishness. So if Gaya had eaten my guava he had no right to ask me to field. People can suck your blood after bribing you. And this fellow has eaten my guava without wanting to give anything in return. I had bought five guavas for one paisa; which even Gaya’s father won’t be able to afford. He was being unjust through and through.
Gaya dragged me towards himself and said, ‘I want my turn. I don’t care about your guava or whatever.’
I had justice on my side and he was bent upon being unjust. I wanted to run away but he won’t let me go. I swore at him and he retorted with a dirtier swear word, and even slapped me. I bit him with my teeth. He hit me with the danda. I stared crying. Gaya couldn’t stand against this weapon of mine and ran. I wiped my tears quickly and forgot the hit and went home laughing. I the son of a thanedaar was beaten up by a low caste boy! I felt humiliated but I didn’t talk about it to anyone at home.
Then my father was transferred out. I was so thrilled at the idea of seeing the new place that I felt no regret at losing my companions. Father was unhappy. Here the income was good. Mother was unhappy because everything was cheaper here, and she had become friendly with the neighbourhood women. But I was happy. I was bragging to my friends. There the houses are different, touching the skies. There if a teacher in the English medium school beat up a boy he would be sent to jail. The wide-open eyes and wonderstruck faces of my friends were telling me how high I had gone up in their esteem. The power the children have to turn the fanciful into he real can’t be appreciated by us who can change a truth into falsehood. The poor fellows were feeling envious of me and seemed to be saying: You are lucky, bhai. Go. We have to live and die in this wretched place.’
Twenty years passed by. I was an engineer now. I came to the same town for inspection and stayed in the dak bungalow . My very presence in that place brought back the sweet memories of my childhood. I picked up my stick and came out to walk through the town. My eyes searched restlessly, like a thirsty traveller, for my childhood haunts, but here there was nothing familiar except the name of the town. Where there was wasteland once I found pucca houses. Where there was a banyan tree I saw a beautiful park. The place had undergone a metamorphosis. Had I not known the name and the location I wouldn’t have recognized it. The undying memories of my childhood were opening their arms to meet my old friends, but this world had changed. I wanted to embrace the place and cry, and complain that it had forgotten me. I longed to see its old face.
All of a sudden I saw two-three boys playing gulli-danda in an open space. For a moment I forgot who I was: a big officer, with my officer-ship, power and authority in full show.
I went close to them and asked a boy, ‘Son, does a man by the name of Gaya live here?’
One of the boys answered, somewhat overawed, ‘Gaya? Gaya, the chamar?’
I said, ‘Yes, yes, the same. If there’s a man called Gaya, he might be the same.’
‘Yes, there is.’
‘Can you call him?’
The boy ran and in a short while I saw him coming back accompanied by a dark, gigantic man. I recognized him from a distance and wanted to take him in my embrace but stopped for some reason. I said, ‘Gaya, do you recognize me?’
Gaya bowed down to salute me. ‘Yes, malik. Why wouldn’t I ? How have you been?’
‘Oh fine. And you?’
‘I’m deputy sahib’s syce.’
‘Where’re Mattai, Durga and Mohan? Do you have any news about them?’
‘Mattai’s dead. Durga and Mohan have become postmen. And you?’
‘I’m the district engineer.’
‘Sarkar, you were always very bright.’
‘Do you play gulli-danda now, sometimes?’
Gaya looked at me with surprise, ‘How can I play, sarkar? I get no time off.’
‘Come, let’s play today. You bat. I’ll field. I owe you a turn. You can square it today.’
Gaya agreed only after great persuasion. He was a petty labourer. I a big officer. There was no match. He was feeling embarrassed. So was I. Not because I was playing against Gaya but because I felt that people would treat this as a great tamasha and assemble in a big crowd. I won’t enjoy with that crowd watching us, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to play. We decided that we would go and play far away from the habitation at a lonely place. No one would be there to watch us and we would relive the sweet memories of our childhood. I brought Gaya to the dak bungalow and both of us sat in the motor car and drove to an open spot. We carried an axe too. I was very serious about it but Gaya was still treating it as fun. There was no trace of excitement or pleasure on his face. Perhaps he was lost in thinking about the divide that now existed between us.
I asked, ‘Gaya, tell me honestly, did you ever think me?’
Gaya replied, somewhat bashfully, ‘How should I remember you, hazoor? I’m worth nothing. It was my good luck to play with you for a few days. That’s all.’
I said, saddened a bit, ‘But I always remembered you. Your danda, with which you had hit me hard. Don’t you remember it?’
‘That was out of boyishness. Don’t remind me of that, sarkar.’
‘What! That’s the best memory of my childhood. The enjoyment that I get remembering that incident, I find nowhere; neither in the respect I get, nor in the money I have. There was something in that which is still sweet.’
By this time we had driven nearly three miles away from the town. There was silence all around. Towards the west was the marshland spreading for miles across, where we sometimes used to come to pick the lotus flowers and fasten them on to our ears like earrings. The evening of the month of Jeth was drenched in a crimson light. I quickly climbed up a tree and came down after cutting a branch. And a gulli and danda were ready in no time.
The game began. I positioned the gulli on the small boat-shaped hole, the starting point, and struck it with the danda. The gulli flew right in front of Gaya. He raised his hand as if to catch a fish, but the gulli fell just behind him. It was the same Gaya in whose hands the gulli would land of her own will as if. He might be waiting to the right or to the left, the gullis would just land into his hands, as if he had spellbound them. The new gulli, the old gulli, the big gulli, the small gulli, the sharply tapered gulli, the untapered gulli – all would defect to his side, as if drawn by some magnetic power. But today the gulli showed no love for him. Then I sent him on a gulli chase. I broke all the rules, substituting cheating for my lack of practice. I kept on playing even when I had missed hitting the gulli; though according to the rules it should have been Gaya’s turn to bat. Whenever I failed to drive the gulli far I ran to pick it up it and start again. Gaya was watching all these violations but he said nothing, as if he had forgotten all the rules. His aim was so perfect that the gulli would always hit the danda with a clatter. The gulli’s only purpose after release from his hand was to hit the danda. But today it refused. It went either left or right or fell short, or went across.
After he had fielded for half an hour the gulli hit the danda. But I cheated saying it hadn’t, had gone past missing it narrowly.
Gaya didn’t protest.
‘It might have missed.’
‘Had it hit I won’t have denied.’
‘No, bhaiya, why should you lie?’
During our childhood he wouldn’t have spared my life had I cheated like this. He would have caught me by the neck, but today I was cheating so openly. The donkey! He had forgotten everything.
Suddenly the gulli hit the danda like a bullet. Against this clear proof I couldn’t cheat, yet once again I thought of changing the truth into falsehood. What would I lose? If he agreed it would be great but if he didn’t there was no harm in fielding for a while. I’ll wriggle out appealing for bad light. Who would come again to field!
Gaya shouted in a victorious mood, ‘It has hit! It has hit! With a clatter.’
I pretended. ‘Did you see it hit? I didn’t.’
‘It made a clattering noise, sarkar.’
‘It might have hit a brick.’
How such a sentence came out of my mouth, surprised even me. To turn this truth into falsehood was like calling the day night. Both of us had seen the gulli hit the danda, yet Gaya accepted my version.
‘Yes, it must have hit a brick. Had it hit the danda it wouldn’t have made such a clattering noise.’
I began to bat again. But after such blatant cheating I began to pity Gaya’s naivetty. So when the gulli hit the danda a third time I agreed to field, out of generosity.
Gaya said, ‘Now it’s dark, bhaiya, let’s play tomorrow.’
I thought for a moment: Tomorrow he would have too much time and God knows how long he’ll make me field. It was better to call it quits today itself.
‘No, no. There’s plenty of light. You take your turn.’
‘We won’t be able to see the gulli.’
Gaya started batting. But he was terribly out of practice. He tried to strike the gulli twice but failed each time. His turn was over in less than a minute. I tried to be generous.
‘You can have another turn. You have missed your very first shot.’ I said.
‘No, bhaiya, it’s already dark.’
‘You’re out of practice. Don’t you play now.’
‘There’s no time, bhaiya.’
Both of us got into the car and were back in the town before darkness. As he was going away Gaya said to me, ‘Tomorrow there’ll be a match here. All the old players would come. Would you come? I’ll call them when you are free.’
I agreed and came there in the evening to watch the match. There were ten players in all. Some of them were my boyhood companions. Majority of the players were young, whom I did not know. The match began. I was watching sitting inside my car. Today I was astonished to see Gaya’s skill. When he struck the gulli it flew into the sky. There was no trace of yesterday’s hesitation, reluctance or lack of interest. What was once boyishness had acquired a maturity. Had he made me field like this yesterday I would have cried. The gulli travelled two hundred yards when he struck it with his danda.
One of the fielders tried to cheat. He thought he had caught the gulli. Gaya said that the gulli had first hit the ground. They were about to come to blows. But the young boy backed out when he saw Gaya’s face flushed with anger. Had he not backed out there would have been a fight. I was not playing, yet I was enjoying it all, reminded of the good old days of boyhood. Now I realized that yesterday Gaya only pretended to be playing. He had taken pity on me. I had cheated but he didn’t lose his temper, because he was not playing but only kidding. He didn’t want to torture me by making me chase the gulli endlessly. I was an officer and this officer-ship had become a wall between us. Now I could get his respect or his favours but not his companionship. During our boyhood we were equals. There was no distance between us. But now in this position I was an object of his pity. He didn’t recognize me as his equal. He had grown taller and I had grown smaller.
Munshi Premchand (31 July 1880 – 8 October 1936) (real name Dhanpat Rai), was an Indian writer famous for his modern Hindi-Urdu literature. He began writing under the pen name “Nawab Rai”, but subsequently switched to”Premchand”, Munshi being an honorary prefix.
Premchand worked as a teacher until 1921, when he joined Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Noncooperation Movement. As a writer, he first gained renown for his Urdu-language novels and short stories. Except in Bengal, the short story had not been an accepted literary form in northern India until Premchand’s works appeared. Though best known for his works in Hindi, Premchand did not achieve complete fluency in that language until his middle years. His first major Hindi novel, Sevasadana (1918; “House of Service”), dealt with the problems of prostitution and moral corruption among the Indian middle class. Premchand’s works depict the social evils of arranged marriages, the abuses of the British bureaucracy, and exploitation of the rural peasantry by moneylenders and officials.
Much of Premchand’s best work is to be found among his 250 or so short stories, collected in Hindi under the title Manasarovar (“The Holy Lake”). Compact in form and style, they draw, as do his novels, on a notably wide range of northern Indian life for their subject matter. Usually they point up a moral or reveal a single psychological truth.
You can watch some of the dramatizations of his works on Youtube, one of my favorite is this one-