Fair Play by Munshi Premchand

Jumman Shaikh and Algu Chowdhry were good friends. So strong was their bond of friendship that when either of them went away from the village, the other looked after his family. Both were greatly respected in the village.

Jumman had an old aunt who had some property. This she transferred to him on the understanding that she would stay with him and he would look after her. The arrangement worked well for a couple of years. Then the situation changed. Jumman and his family were tired of the old relative. Jumman became as indifferent to her as his wife who grudged even the little food that the old lady wanted every day. She swallowed these insults along with her food for a few months. But patience has its limits. One day she spoke to Jumman, “My son, it is now obvious that I am not wanted in your house. Kindly give me a monthly allowance so that I can set up a separate kitchen.”

“My wife knows best how to run the house. Be patient,” said Jumman shamelessly. This made his aunt very angry and she decided to take her case to the village panchayat.

For many days, the old lady was seen talking to the villagers explaining her case and seeking their support. Some sympathized with her. Others laughed at her and a few others advised her to make it up with her nephew and his wife.

At last she came to Algu Chowdhry and spoke to him. “You know, Chachi, Jumman is my best friend. How can I go against him?” Algu said. “But is it right, my son, to keep mum and not say what you consider just and fair?” pleaded the old lady. “Come to the Panchayat and speak the truth,” she said. Algu didn’t reply. But her words kept ringing in his ears.

The panchayat was held the same evening under an old banyan tree. Jumman stood up and said, “The voice of the Panchayat is the voice of God. Let my aunt nominate the head Panchayat. I will abide by her decision.”

“The Panchayat knows neither friend nor enemy. What do you say to Algu Chowdhry?” the old lady announced.

“Fine,” replied Jumman hiding his joy over this unexpected piece of luck.

“Chachi, you are aware of my friendship with Jumman,” said Algu.

“I know that,” replied the aunt, “but I also know that you will not kill your conscience for the sake of friendship. God lives in the heart of the Panchayat and his voice is the voice of God.” And the old lady explained her case.

“Jumman,” said Algu, “you and I are old friends. Your aunt is as dear to me as you. Now I am a Panchayat. You and your aunt are equal before me. What have you to say in your defense?”

“Three years ago,” began Jumman, “my aunt transferred her property to me. I promised to support her as long as she lived. I have done all I could. There have been a couple of quarrels between my wife and her but I can’t stop it. Now my aunt is claiming a monthly allowance from me. This is not possible. That’s all I have to say.”

Jumman was cross-examined by Algu and others. Then Algu announced, “We have gone into the matter carefully. In our opinion, Jumman must pay his aunt a monthly allowance or else the property goes back to her.”

Now, the two friends were seldom seen together. The bond of friendship between them was broken. In fact, Jumman was Algu’s enemy and wanted his revenge.

Days passed and as ill luck would have it, Algu Chowdhry found himself in a tight spot. One of his fine pair of bullocks died and he sold the other to Samjhu Sahu – a cart driver of the village. The understanding was that Sahu would pay the price of the bullock in a month’s time. It so happened that the bullock died within a month.

Several months after the bullock’s death, Algu reminded Sahu of the money he hadn’t yet paid. Sahu got very annoyed. “I can’t pay you a penny for the wretched beast you sold me. He brought us nothing but ruin. I have a bullock. Use it for a month and then return it to me. No money for the dead bullock,” he said angrily.

Algu decided to refer the case to the panchayat. For a second time in a few months preparations for holding the panchayat were made and both the parties started meeting people seeking their support.

The panchayat was held under the old banyan tree. Algu stood up and said, “The voice of the Panchayat is the voice of God. Let Sahu nominate the head Panchayat. I will abide by his decision.”

Sahu saw his chance and proposed the name of Jumman. Algu’s heart sank and he turned pale. But what could he do?

The moment Jumman became head Panchayat, he realized his responsibility as judge and the dignity of his office. Could he, seated in that high place, have his revenge now? He thought and thought. No, he must not allow his personal feelings to come in the way of speaking the truth and doing justice.

Both Algu and Sahu stated their cases. They were cross-examined and the case was considered deeply. Then Jumman stood up and announced, “It is our opinion that Sahu should pay Algu the price of the bullock. When Sahu bought the bullock, it suffered from no disability or disease. The death of the bullock was unfortunate. But Algu cannot be blamed for it.”

Algu could not contain his feelings. He stood up and said loudly over and over again, “Victory to the panchayat. This is justice. God lives in the voice of the Panchayat.”

Soon after, Jumman came to Algu and embraced him and said, “Since the last panchayat, I had become your enemy. Today I realized what it meant to be a Panchayat. A Panchayat has neither friend nor enemy. He knows only justice. Let no one deviate from the path of justice and truth for friendship or enmity.”

Algu embraced his friend and wept. And his tears washed away all the dirt of misunderstanding between them.

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