Daisy Rockwell is a writer, painter and translator living in the United States. Her publications include The Little Book of Terror and Hats and Doctors, translations of Upendranath Ashk’s short stories, and Taste, a novel.
Translation: ‘The Soaking of Sardar Jagdish Singh’ by Upendranath Ashk
[This excerpt is from Upendranath Ashk’s 1947 Hindi novel Girti Divarein (Crumbling Walls). The novel has a meandering plot and goes off on numerous tangents to tell stories and stories within stories that only slightly relate to the main story. In this passage, the protagonist, Chetan, is reporting to his friend back home in Jalandhar about how he has managed to find an excellent new apartment for himself and his older brother and his older brother’s family in Lahore, where they have all gone for work.]
One morning in summer Chetan was writing Anant a letter:
“We’ve moved. The new house is in Changar Mohalla as well. Luckily it’s not in Pipal Vehra. It’s very nice. You know how there’s lovely tasty fruit inside the ugly bumpy skin of a chikoo? It’s the same with this beautiful, tasteful house in our filthy, dirty neighborhood. There’s not a lot of space—just one room divided in two by a wooden partition. There’s no bathing room, but the kitchen is so spacious, the washing area in the corner can be used for bathing. There are windows set in the back walls of the rooms, and the walls are whitewashed, with the doors painted a nice yellowish green shade. There’s also an electric fan fixed in the ceiling of the larger room. Anant! Whenever I open the windows, turn on the fan, and lie down on the charpoy, my heart is filled with such joy. It’s hard to explain just how wonderful it is to live in a spacious, light, breezy room after living in such a dirty, musty, dark place.
“You’re probably wondering how I got such a nice place in Changar Mohalla. This is actually the home of Sardar Jagdish Singh (Landlord and House Proprietor). This Sardar Jagdish Singh is the gentleman who gave away a large portion of his property in the form of parties, concerts and socializing in an effort to win the love of one Mrs. Radharani. You may have read in the paper that Sardar Singh has now sued Mrs. Radharani’s husband and three of his own friends for cheating him out of sixteen thousand rupees….”
The thing of it was that Sardar Jagdish Singh was ‘blessed’ with friends who were particularly ‘trustworthy’ and ‘faithful.’ Most of them had beautiful wives and they thought nothing of bringing these wives with them to the parties of their bon vivant friend Sardar Jagdish Singh. Two of Sardar Jagdish Singh’s friends in particular, Harcharan Singh and Balbir Singh, noticed that he was quite smitten with Mrs. Radharani, and resolved to ‘help’ their friend as best they could. They explained to him that he would get nowhere with her by just throwing parties. He would see her, but that’s it! And if it was she that he really wanted, why spend so money much trying to win her? If all he wanted was to see her, he could go for evening strolls in Lawrence Gardens—he’d see her there and it wouldn’t cost a thing. Less money spent and the thing is done.
As Harcharan Singh said to him, “Arré, brother, what will you get by just looking at her? You have the most fun when your lover is by your side, and…” and he winked at him and grinned through his whiskers.
This thought thrilled Sardar Jagdish Singh and his eyes sparkled from within the dense jungle of his beard and moustaches.
Then these two great so-called friends of his advised him to send Mrs. Radharani gifts on holidays and so on, instead of giving parties, and that this was what would draw her closer to him. For the sake of their friend they agreed to take this burden upon their own ‘weak’ shoulders and deliver the gifts to Mrs. Radharani themselves.
Sardar Jagdish Singh did not delay in following the advice of these ‘devoted’ friends. Of course it goes without saying that the gifts never reached Mrs. Radharani, ending up instead at the homes of his friends. And with this ruse, along with whooping it up at Sardar Jagdish Singh’s parties, they made good on outstanding requests from their wives, weighing them down with jewelry and clothing.
Then one day these friends of Sardar Jagdish Singh’s told him that Mrs. Radharani was in need of six or seven thousand rupees, and that if he could secretly arrange for that, she would become his slave.
“She needs money for her surgery,” Harcharan Singh said, “And I’m telling you’ll not find a better opportunity for winning her hand.”
“Ray Sahib Bhavani Dayal is prepared to place his entire property at her feet,” said Balbir Singh, building his case, “But she won’t go anywhere near him.” And then he added in a mysterious tone, “But your parties, your gifts, your silent love and most of all your manliness have won her over. Do this for her, then leave it to us to bring her to you and seat her by your side.”
“And then, once she’s come to you,” said Harcharan, “it all depends on your courage to make her yours.”
“Women,” said Balbir, winking, “want just one thing—men! And I swear to Wahe Guru that when it comes to manliness, that jerk Bhavani Dayal has nothing on you.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” said Sardar Jagdish Singh (Landlord and House Proprietor), as he twirled his moustaches. His eyes sparkled with an unholy gleam. Then, suddenly steadying himself, he asked suspiciously, “But how do I know you’re telling me the truth?”
At this the two friends took Sardar Jagdish Singh to Amritsar, where they visited the Golden Temple and took an oath, and swore that they would help him in this matter. And so, right then and there, Sardar Jagdish Singh mortgaged his last house (with a moneylender in Amritsar) and gave his friends the seven thousand rupees that would allow him to lay his hands upon Mrs. Radharani’s curvaceous figure. The remaining two or three thousand rupees from the mortgage he set aside to spend on that happy day when she would become his.
When a third friend of his, an advocate, saw how the others were soaking Sardar Jagdish to their hearts’ content, he thought he might also try his hand at a bit of soaking. But he had arrived on the scene a bit late. By this point there was not much left to soak up. He did not lose heart, however, and he too thought of a way to get a little more soaking accomplished.
This advocate friend got his own beautiful and educated wife to spur Mrs. Sardar Jagdish Singh into asking her husband just how it was that so much of his money had gone and fallen down a well. And it was then that Sardar Jagdish Singh confided in his advocate friend the story of the dastardliness of his friends, and the advocate, struck with sorrow at his plight, replied:
“I will get every paisa back from those bastards and return it to you!” Overwhelmed with rage, he cried out, “Scoundrels! Why don’t you file a suit against them?”
When Sardar Jagdish Singh (who was now no longer Landlord and House Proprietor) looked at him questioningly and asked under which section of Indian law a suit could be filed, the advocate assured him that when it came to Indian law, he was a veritable puppet master; he could easily bring a case.
“Those bastards aren’t going to just spit the money back now they’ve swallowed it, are they?” he pointed out, adjusting his elegant glasses on his nose and looking to his beautiful wife for support, “We will have to make them wretched in court.” And he added softly, “You just arrange for the money to bring the suit. I will set up such a case that in the very first hearing a warrant will go out for the arrest of those scoundrels.”
But the former Landlord and House Proprietor told him that all he had left in terms of property was his residence, and even if everything were resolved in the first hearing, money would still be needed for that. Where would it come from?
And so the advocate explained to Sardar Jagdish Singh how he could get money from the house where he lived, thus enabling him to bring the case to court.
“You have one wife and two children. There are four of you. Why do you need such a big house? Why don’t you divide it up and get some tenants in? That way you’ll still enjoy your house, your wife can see her friends and your children can see their friends, and you’ll easily get enough money to pay for the case. It won’t be any trouble at all.”
Giving the abridged details of this incident in his letter, Chetan wrote:
“To get money for his case Sardar Jagdish Singh divided up his living space so there would be room for tenants. Thus he again became at least a house proprietor, if not a landlord. We are among these tenants, and live in the section next to Sardar Jagdish Singh. His daughter is growing up and he doesn’t want any suspicious characters in this section of the house. And so we are set up very handsomely with Sardar Jagdish Singh (former Landlord and current House Proprietor). A partition of plywood separates his part of the verandah from ours and we are offering up prayers of thanks to the spirit of his advocate friend…”
Although Chetan did not explain in his letter what kind of case the advocate had mounted, those who heard Sardar Jagdish Singh’s petition in court couldn’t help but heartily praise the advocate’s cunning, as well as the ‘good sense’ of Sardar Jagdish Singh.
In brief, the petition (which was written in English) went something like this:
“One day I saw my friend Balbir Singh in a gathering of socialists outside Mori Gate. I went and stood near him for a few moments. The next day, when I was out, a police officer came twice to my home and asked about my whereabouts, saying he had a warrant for my arrest. That same evening another friend of mine, Harcharan Singh, told me that the gathering of socialists had been declared illegal, and that I had no right to take part in it. He said there was also a warrant out for Balbir Singh’s arrest.
“Now what you should do is flee to Amritsar,” he told me. “If you don’t, you’ll be arrested here, and you won’t get off with anything less than seven years of hard imprisonment.”
I fled to Amritsar. There I also saw Balbir Singh. He told me, “Mrs. Radharani’s husband knows the magistrate and he’s also friends with Harcharan. You write to Harcharan and ask him to give some money to put an end to this case.”
I wrote to Harcharan. He came and told me that the case could not be settled for less than ten thousand, as it was a very serious offense, and the magistrate wouldn’t talk to us for less than eight thousand. He said I’d also have to give two thousand rupees to Mrs. Radharani’s husband.
Then Balbir Singh wept, and told me, “I only have my house, I’ll mortgage it, but I won’t even get one thousand for it.”
I also felt anxious, and in my anxiety I decided to take out a mortgage on my Model Town home. Harcharan Singh told me he’d arrange things such that no one would ever hear of it. After just four days, I met with Harcharan Singh, the money lender, the lawyer and Mrs. Radharani’s husband. I mortgaged my house. All of them took an oath at the Golden Temple that they would protect me and Balbir Singh from the humiliation of jail. The priest at the Golden Temple is my witness that they all took an oath there. Other witnesses were also present.”
At the end of this petition Jagdish Singh also said that he came from a very good family and that he was also a long-time supporter of the government (here he also enumerated the names of his brothers, many of whom bore distinguished titles). He feared besmirching his family name. To this day he had never taken part in any political meeting. Far from taking part in political meetings, he had never even read a newspaper. His friends had taken improper advantage of his simplicity, lack of awareness and fidelity to the government.
Chetan wrote at the end of his letter:
“As soon as the case began, on the insistence of his wife, Sardar Jagdish created a small temple on the verandah by erecting a second partition there. Here he installed a copy of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib could help him win the case, he realized, and he himself and his son and his daughter spend all day raking in donations hand over fist from worshippers coming to their doorway. One complete three-day reading of the book has already taken place, and they are preparing for a second. And Mrs. Radharani’s admirer bustles about as if all of this was being done not save him from ruin, but to prepare for his own wedding.
Translated from Hindi.