The Shroud (Kafan) by Premcand, 1936

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by Premcand, 1936

Published in 1936, just months before Premcand's death, "The Shroud" ("Kafan") is generally thought to be the author's best, blackest, and most powerful short story. Set in an Indian village, the milieu of Premcand's best works, on a dark, chilly winter night, it is the story of a father, Ghisu, and his son, Madhav, who sit at the door of their hut roasting potatoes stolen from a neighbor's field. Budhiya, Madhav's young wife of one year, is inside groaning in childbirth. Neither man responds to her moans. In fact, Madhav is annoyed. His father urges him to look in on the girl, but he asks, "If she's going to die why doesn't she get it over with? What can I do by looking?"

Lazy, dishonest, and superstitious, Ghisu and Madhav are members of the untouchable leather worker caste, the poorest and lowest in India's highly structured social hierarchy. Both father and son refuse to do farmwork that is readily available in the community. Instead, they prefer to take handouts or to cheat others to maintain themselves at a subsistence level. Though Budhiya has been a good wife and had established some order in the men's chaotic lives, neither wishes to spend money to get her help. Believing her to be "possessed by some ghost," they will not enter the hut. Moreover, they believe that "God will provide," as he always seems to have done in the past. Speaking editorially, the author notes that Ghisu is smarter than most Indian peasants, for he has managed to earn himself the lowest reputation in the village and yet survive without engaging in honest working.

As if to negate the horror of the woman dying in childbirth, Ghisu recalls a sumptuous wedding feast he attended 20 years before. Yearning for the old days, he complains, "Nobody feeds us like that now." Instead, people are taken with "economizing and hoarding." Finishing their potatoes, they curl up and fall asleep, "just like two enormous coiled pythons."

The next morning Madhav goes into the hut and finds his wife dead, the baby having died inside the womb. Both men go about the village beating their chests and wailing "according to the old tradition." They receive consolation from the other villagers, and, to get money for the shroud and firewood needed to cremate the dead woman, they go the the village's major landowner and beg. Though the landowner knows them to be cheats, he reluctantly throws them a few rupees. They then make the rounds, collecting money for the cremation from other people, and they end up with five rupees in addition to other gifts of grain and wood.

The men decide that they have enough wood, but since no one will see the corpse when it is taken from the hut at night, they have second thoughts about purchasing a shroud, Moreover, they ask why they should spend money on something that is going to be burned anyway. Wandering through the market, the two find themselves "by some divine inspiration or other" in front of the village liquor store. They order a bottle and some food. As they drink and eat "in the lordly manner of tigers enjoying their kill in the jungle," which is the second allusion to their animal-like behavior, they gradually sink into drunkenness. They initially have qualms about not purchasing a shroud, but they rationalize their decision with praises for the dead woman: "Even dying she got us fine things to eat and drink." When they are about to leave the tavern, Ghisu magnanimously offers a famished beggar their leftovers, asking him to bless the dead woman through whose bounty he will eat.

Their mood then changes again, this time to grief and despair. Sounding like priests at a cremation, they console one another by saying that they should "be glad she's slipped out of this maze of illusion and left the whole mess behind her" and that she "was very lucky to escape the bonds of the world's illusions so quickly." They start to chant a religious song that decries the "deceitful world" of illusion, and, "intoxicated right to their hearts," they start to dance frantically until "finally they collapsed dead drunk."

Aside from a few editorial comments about the Indian caste system, "The Shroud" shows Premcand's prose at its most succinct and leanest, with the author at his most disillusioned and vulnerable. The narration is fast paced, and the dialogue bristles with anger and irony, as it does in many of the stories Premcand wrote toward the end of his life. The solution the two men find for their sadness is only a temporary one. The next morning both will have to face the problem of not having a shroud for cremating a woman whose goodness they seem to acknowledge only at her death. Little will have changed in their lives except that now Madhav, too, will have a fond memory of a feast, not as grand as the one his father tells of earlier in the story but a feast all the same.

The story is Premcand's final salvo against what he considered India's most intractable problems: poverty and ignorance. The two leather workers are despicable not from inherent evil in them but because Hindu society has made them that way. The social system, which is buttressed by religion, sharply circumscribes their lives and dictates the roles they must play. They have rejected the basic social norms that demand that they live out their lives in poverty and oppression. Instead, they seem to take every opportunity to "beat the system." In doing so they have become heartless and annealed to the suffering of others. Unable to bond with anyone but each other, they can think only of themselves and behave selfishly. They rationalize their behavior with corrupt religious rhetoric that, in fact, runs counter to the true message of Hinduism. In short, Hindu society is responsible for the perversion of this great religion, a theme that is found in many of Premcand's stories and novels.

Thought by many critics to contain a Marxist subtext, "The Shroud" has been adapted for radio and theater performances in various Indian languages by several prominent Marxist writers. It was translated into English as the title story of a 1972 collection.

—Carlo Coppola