Catastrophe (Vidhwans) by Munshi Premchand

In Banaras District there is a village called Bira in which an old, childless widow used to live. She was a Gond woman named Bhungi and she didn’t own either a scrap of land or a house to live in. Her only source of livelihood was a parching oven. The village folk customarily have one meal a day of parched grains, so there was always a crowd around Bhungi’s oven. Whatever grain she was paid for parching she would grind or fry and eat it. She slept in a corner of the same little shack that sheltered the oven. As soon as it was light she’d get up and go out to gather dry leaves from all around to make her fire. She would stack the leaves right next to the oven, and after twelve, light the fire. But on the days when she had to parch grain for Pandit Udaybhan Pandey, the owner of the village, she went to bed hungry. She was obliged to work without pay for Pandit Udaybhan Pandey She also had to fetch water for his house. And, for this reason, from time to time the oven was not lit. She lived in the Pandit’s village, therefore he had full authority to make her do any sort of odd job. In his opinion if she received food for working from him, how could it be considered as work done without pay? He was doing her a favour, in fact, by letting her live in the village at all.

It was spring, a day on which the fresh grain was fried and eaten and given as a gift. No fire was lit in the houses Bhungi’s oven was being put to good use today. There was a crowd worthy of a village fair around her. She had scarcely opportunity to draw a breath. Because of the customer’s impatience, squabbles kept breaking out. Then two servants arrived, each carrying a heaped basket of grain from Pandit Udaybhan with the order to parch it right away. When Bhungi saw the two baskets she was alarmed. It was already after twelve and even by sunset, she would not have time to parch so much grain. Now she would have to stay at the oven parching until after dark for no payment. In despair she took the two baskets. One of the flunkeys said menacingly, ‘Don’t waste any time or you’ll be sorry.’

With this command the servants went away and Bhungi began to parch the grain. It’s no laughing matter to parch a whole maund of grain. She had to keep stopping from the parching in order to keep the oven fire going. So by sundown not even half the work was done. She was afraid Panditji’s men would be coming. She began to move her hands all the more frantically.

Soon the servants returned and said, ‘Well, is the grain parched?’

Feeling bold, Bhungi said, ‘Can’t you see? I’m parching it now.’

‘The whole day’s gone and you haven’t finished any more grain than this! Have you been roasting it or spoiling it? This is completely uncooked! How’s it going to be used for food? It’s the ruin of us! You’ll see what Panditji does to you for this.’

The result was that that night the oven was dug up and Bhungi was left without a means of livelihood.

Bhungi now had no means of support. The villagers suffered a good deal too from the destruction of the oven. In many houses even at noon, cooked cereal was no longer available. People went to Panditji and asked him to give the order for the old woman’s oven to be rebuilt and the fire once more lighted, but he paid no attention to them. He could not suffer a loss of face. A few people who wished her well urged her to move to another village. But her heart would not accept this suggestion. She had spent her fifty miserable years in this village and she loved every leaf on every tree. Here she had known the sorrows and pleasures of life; she could not give it up now in the last days. The very idea of moving distressed her. Sorrow in this village was preferable to happiness in another.

A month went by. Very early one morning Pandit Udaybhan, taking his little band of servants with him, went out to collect his rents. Now when he looked toward the old woman’s oven he fell into a violent rage: it was being made again. Bhungi was energetically rebuilding it with balls of clay Most likely she’d spent the night at this work and wanted to finish it before the sun was high. She knew that she was going against the Pandit’s wishes, but she hoped that he had forgotten his anger by then. But alas, the poor creature had gown old without growing wise.

Suddenly Panditji shouted, ‘By whose order?’

Bewildered, Bhungi saw that he was standing before her.

He demanded once again, ‘By whose order are you building it?’ In a flight she said, ‘Everybody said I should build it and so I’m building it.’

‘I’ll have it smashed again. ‘With this he kicked the oven. The wet clay collapsed in a heap. He kicked at the trough again but she ran in front of it and took the kick in her side. Rubbing her ribs she said, ‘Maharaj, you’re not afraid of anybody but you ought to fear God. What good does it do you to ruin me like this! Do you think gold is going to grow out of this small piece of land! For your own good, I’m telling you, don’t torment poor people, don’t be the death of me.

‘You’re not going to build any oven here again.

‘If I don’t how am I going to be able to eat!’

‘I’m not responsible for your belly.’

‘But if I do nothing except chores for you where will I go for food!’

‘If you’re going to stay in the village you’ll have to do my chores.

‘I’ll do them when I’ve built my over?. I can’t do your work just for the sake of staying in the village.

‘Then don’t, just get out of the village.

‘How can I! I’ve grown old in this hut. My in-laws and their grandparents lived in this same hut. Except for Yama, king of death, nobody’s going to force me out of it now.

‘Excellent, now you’re quoting Scripture!’ Pandit Udaybhan said. ‘lf you’d worked hard I might have let you stay, but after this I won’t rest until I’ve had you thrown out. ‘To his attendants he said, ‘Go get a pile of leaves right away and set fire to the whole thing; we’ll show her how to make an oven.

In a moment there was a tremendous racket. The names leapt towards the sky, the blaze spread wildly in all directions till the villagers came clustering around this mountain of fire. Hopelessly, Bhungi stood by her oven watching the conflagration. Suddenly, with a violent dash, she hurled herself into the names. They came running from everywhere but no one had the courage to go into the mouth of the blaze. In a matter of seconds her withered body was completely consumed.

At that moment the wind rose with a gust. The liberated flames began to race toward the east. There were some peasants’ huts near the oven which were engulfed by the fierce flames. Fed in this way, the blaze spread even further. Panditji’s barn was in its path and it pounced upon it. By now the whole village was in a panic. They began to band together to put out the fire but the sprinkle of water acted like oil on it and the flames kept mounting higher. Pandit Udaybhan’s splendid mansion was swallowed up; while he watched, it tossed like a ship amid wild waves and disappeared in the sea of fire. The sound of lamentation that broke out amidst the ashes was even more pitiful than Bhungi’s grievous cries.

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