My Elder Brother
Premchand, the famous Hindi writer, always brings home his message by his penetrating accounts of situations and his authentic delineation of characters. In the story that follows, Premchand gives a simple example of our book-oriented and examination-oriented educational system by portraying the interaction of two brothers. The story is told with an abundance of wit, yet contains a serious denunciation of the way in which children in our schools are stifled, how they are denied the real joy of learning and of combining work and play.
The elder brother is a victim of the examination system, and considering the fact that he completes one year s work in the space of two or even three years, we might be tempted to think him a dunce. But can we improve upon his criticism of teaching and learning? Consider his comments on essay writing.
... You are told to write an essay on "punctuality", not less than four pages in length. All you do is, open your notebook, pick up your pen and curse them. Who doesn't know that punctuality is a very good thing? It brings discipline into a man s life. Other people begin to have a regard for him and his business prospers. But how can one write four pages on a little thing like that? What, anyway, is the use of writing four pages on something that can be said in a single sentence? I would call this folly. Overstressing a thing without sufficient reason is not economy but misuse of time....
We cannot help agreeing with him. Indeed, every word the elder brother pronounces on our educational system is poignantly true. The irony of the situation
is that he cannot even think of transgressing the prison walls of the system by going out to play.
The younger brother is intelligent and can afford to play gulli-danda [a simple stick game] without spoiling his examination results. And yet his elder brother's orthodox and conservative attitude towards games and sports is so forcefully expressed that he feels guilty when he engages in those educative activities, although he confesses that he is "not at all interested in studies ". Is it not a simple, candid criticism of the way in which lessons are made so dull that even intelligent students do not take interest in them?
Besides the amusing personal idiosyncrasies of the two brothers, we have in this short story an instructive indictment of an educational system that prevents pupils from becoming good pupils. The comi-tragedy of the elder brother and the tragi-comedy of the younger brother are typical examples of what students experience in their day-to-day life in school and at home, bound as they are in a triple prison of lecture system, syllabus system and examination system. The two brothers both have the potential of becoming good pupils, yet are prevented from growing freely along the lines suitable to their inclinations. The conclusion Premchand seems to draw is that as long as the system smothers and grinds down the students, we cannot expect the flowering of good pupils. Only in a garden of joy and freedom, only under the conditions of right guidance and help can good pupils blossom.
(Bade Bhai Sahib)
My brother, though five years my senior in age, was only three classes ahead. He started going to school at the same age as I, but in a vital matter like education, he did not wish to be hasty. He wanted to lay a solid foundation so that later he could build a magnificent palace over it. He did one year's work in two. Sometimes it took him even three years. If the foundations were weak, how would the house be sturdy?
I was younger than him. He was fourteen and I was nine. He had every right, by virtue of his birth, to watch over me and rebuke me. As far as I was concerned, courtesy demanded that I look upon his orders as law.
He was very studious by nature and always sat with a book before him. Perhaps to give a little rest to his brain he doodled. He sometimes drew pictures of birds, dogs and cats on his notebooks or along the margin of his books. Sometimes he wrote a single name or word or sentence several times over. Sometimes he copied down a couplet in a beautiful hand, again and again. He often wrote things that had neither meaning nor logic. For example, once I saw on his notebook the following text — special, Amina, between brothers, in truth, two brothers, Radhey Shyam, Mr. Radhey Shyam, within an hour... There followed the face of a man. I tried hard to find an answer to this riddle, but failed, and did not have the courage to ask him. He was in class nine and I in class five. It was presumptuous of me to expect to understand his composition.
I was not at all interested in studies. It was a monumental task to sit with my books even for an hour. At the first opportunity, I would run out of the hostel and on to the field. Sometimes I played with pebbles, at other times I made paper butterflies and flew them. If I ran into a friend, my happiness knew no bounds. Sometimes we would scramble up the compound wall and jump down, sometimes we would swing on the gate and by pushing ft back and forth derive the pleasure of a joy-ride in a car. But when I came back and saw my brother's severe countenance, I would be scared to death. His first question would invariably be, "Where were you?" Always the same question, always asked in the same tone. And my only reply to it would be silence. I don't know why I couldn't utter a simple thing like, "I was out playing." My silence appeared to be a confession of guilt and my brother had no choice but to
scold me, "If this is how you go about reading English, you will be at it all your life and not learn a single word. Learning English is no joke. Not many people can do. it, or else every Tom, Dick and Harry would become a scholar of English. We have to pore over books night and day and undergo terrible strain. And what do we learn but a smattering? Even great scholars can't write chaste English, much less speak it. And I must say you are a fool not to take a leaf out of my book. You see perfectly well how hard I work. If you don't see it, you must be blind, and stupid too! So many fairs and shows are held here. Have you ever seen me attend any? Cricket and hockey matches are played every day, but I don't go anywhere near them. I'm studying all the time. Even then I spend two or three years in each class. How then can you hope to pass when you spend all your time fooling around? I take two or three years, you will spend your entire life rotting in the same class. If you are bent upon wasting your life in this manner, better go home and enjoy yourself playing gulli-danda. Why waste your father's hard-earned money?"
On being thus rebuked I always burst into tears. What could I say in reply? I was guilty, but who can stand reproof? He would make such caustic remarks that I would be heart-broken and lose all confidence in myself. I did not feel equal to a strenuous activity like studying and would begin to think despondently, "Why don't I go home? Why should I ruin my life by attempting something that is beyond my capacity?" I was not content to remain a fool but could not possibly work so hard. Such thoughts would make me dizzy, but after an hour or two the clouds would lift and I would resolve to put my heart and soul into my studies. A time-table was made in a flash. Without advance planning and a proper scheme, how could I start? The time-table did not allow for any respite in the shape of games. It ran, "Get up early morning. After a wash and breakfast, sit down to study at six. From six to eight — English. Eight to nine — Arithmetic. Nine to nine-thirty — History, followed by lunch and school. After return from school at three-thirty — half an hour's rest, From four to five — Geography, five to six — Grammar, followed by a half-hour stroll in front of the hostel. From six-thirty to seven — English composition. After dinner, from eight to nine — translation, nine to ten — Hindi. Ten to eleven — other subjects, thereafter sleep."
But it is one thing to make a time-table and quite another to follow it. From the very first day I would begin to transgress it. So many things drew me quite unawares and irresistibly — the peaceful green of the fields, gentle puffs of breeze, the bounce of a game of football, the swiftness and agility of volley-ball and the dodges of kabaddi. Once there I forgot everything else. I forgot that killer time-table and those
books that all but destroyed the eyesight. I remembered neither and once again Bhai Sahib got a chance to preach to me.
I ran from his very shadow and tried my best to avoid him, entering a room softly so that he would not become aware of my presence. The moment he raised his eyes and saw me, I nearly died of fright. I always felt as if there was a naked sword poised over my head. Yet, in spite of all the scolding, I could not give up games and sports just as, caught between death and disaster, man is still bound by attachment and desire.
The annual examination was held, Bhai Sahib failed; I not only passed but stood first in my class. Now the gap between us was reduced to two years. I felt like taking Bhai Sahib to task and asking him, "Where did your penance get you? Look at me. I played around happily and still managed to stand first in my class." But he was so depressed and unhappy that my heart went out to him and the very idea of rubbing things in appeared contemptible. I became a little proud and self-assured. Bhai Sahib no longer had the old influence over me. I freely joined in sports and games. If he preached to me again, I would bluntly say, "What have you achieved by killing yourself? Look at me. I kept playing and still stood first." Although I did not have the guts to give voice to this boast, it was clear from my conduct that Bhai Sahib had lost his hold on me. Bhai Sahib understood this. He had a very robust commonsense and one morning when I came back after a session of gulli-danda he set upon me, armed with a sword, as it were: "I can see that you have grown conceited because you passed and stood first in class. But the pride of even the greatest has been humbled. What is your standing? You must have read in history what happened to Ravana. What lesson have you learnt from his character? Or did you read through it casually? Simply passing an examination is nothing, the main thing is the development of your brains. You must understand the significance of what you read. Ravana was the lord of the earth. An empire such as his is called chakravarty. These days the British have a vast empire. But we cannot call itchakravarty. Several nations of the world refuse to acknowledge the supremacy of the British. They are absolutely independent. But Ravana was a chakravarty raja. All the kings of the world paid him tribute. The greatest among the gods were like his slaves. The gods of fire and water were also his servants. But what was his end? His pride wiped out both him and his race, there was not a soul left. Whatever evil deeds a man may do, let him not indulge in pride. Let him not put on airs. If he is proud, he loses in both the material and the spiritual worlds. You must also have read what happened to Satan. He was proud that there was no greater and truer devotee of God than himself. In the end he was cast out from
heaven into hell. Once the Emperor of Rome also gave way to pride. He died begging for alms. If your head has turned on clearing just one class, then your progress is indeed assured! You can take it from me that you have not succeeded through hard work, but through sheer luck. This kind of thing can happen only once, not again. Sometimes when playing gulli-danda one makes a hit by chance but this does not make one a successful player. A successful player is one whose shots never miss their mark. Don't go by my failure. When you reach my class you will sweat and toil, battling with things like algebra and geometry and English history. It is not easy to remember the names of kings. There have been as many as eight Henrys. Do you think it is easy to remember in which Henry's reign a particular event took place? Write Henry VIII instead of Henry VII and you lose all marks! Not even a zero will you get, not even a zero! Have you ever thought of that? There have been dozens of Jameses, dozens of Williams, scores of Charleses. The brain reels, one feels giddy thinking of them. The unfortunate British could not even find names. They simply affixed Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth to a single name. Had they asked me I would have suggested a million names. As for geometry, God help us! Write ABC instead of ACB and all your marks are cut. There is no one to ask these heartless examiners what, after all, the difference is between ABC and ACB and why they slaughter candidates for such trivial reasons. How does it matter whether you eat dal and rice and roti or rice and dal and roti But are these examiners concerned with anything beyond the book? They want the boys to learn every single letter by heart. And such cramming has been given the name of education. After all what is the use of reading things that have neither head nor tail? 'If you drop a perpendicular on this line, the base will be twice the perpendicular',
"What, one may ask, is the use of this? How do I care whether it is twice or four times the size or remains a mere half? But if you want to pass an exam you must learn all this rubbish. You are told to write an essay on 'punctuality', not less then four pages in length. All you do is, open your notebook, pick up your pen and curse them. Who doesn't know that punctuality is a very good thing? It brings discipline into a man's life. Other people begin to have a regard for him and his business prospers. But how can one write four pages on a little thing like that? What, anyway, is the use of writing four pages on something that can be said in a single sentence? I would call this folly. Overstressing a thing without sufficient reason is not economy but misuse of time. We want a man who says quickly what he has to say. But no. You are compelled to colour four pages, no matter how you do it. And mind you, foolscap pages at that. Isn't this a cruelty to students? The irony of the whole situation is that
you are told to write briefly. Write a brief essay, not less than four pages! Fine! A brief essay means four pages. Otherwise we would have to write a hundred or two- hundred pages. It's like running both fast and slow. Isn't that a contradiction? Even a child can understand a little thing like that but not these teachers. When you come to my class, sir, you will know just what is what. You have topped in this class so you are walking on air. Take my advice. I might fail a hundred-thousand times, still I am older than you and have more experience of the world than you have. Make a note of what I say or you'll be sorry."
It was nearly time for school, otherwise God knows when this sermon would have ended. My food seemed tasteless to me. When I was being harangued on having passed, perhaps I would have been killed if I had failed. I was terrified by the fearful picture of studies in his class that Bhai Sahib had painted. It is a wonder that I did not leave school and run away home. But in spite of all these warnings I still remained uninterested in books. I never lost an opportunity to play games. I studied too, but very little, just enough to complete the day's task and to avoid being disgraced in class. The self-confidence that had taken root within me disappeared again, and once more I began to live the life of a thief.
Again the annual exams were held and as chance would have it, again I passed and Bhai Sahib failed. I did not work very hard but somehow managed to stand first in class. I was myself surprised. Bhai Sahib had put heart and soul into his work. He had swallowed every single word of the course, working till ten in the night, from four in the afternoon, and from six to nine-thirty before going to school. He looked completely drained with the effort but still he failed. I felt sorry for him. When the result was announced he burst into tears and I also began to cry. My joy at my success was halved. Had I also failed Bhai Sahib would not have been so unhappy. But who can divert destiny?
Between Bhai Sahib and me there now remained a gap of only one class. An evil thought sprang up within me: if Bhai Sahib failed another year I would be his equal. On what basis then would he preach to me? But I forcibly thrust this uncharitable thought from my heart. "After all, he scolds me for my own good. At this time I doubtless find it unpleasant but perhaps it is due to his sermons that I pass again and again and secure such good marks too."
By now Bhai Sahib had softened to a great extent. Several times, even on finding an opportunity to scold me, he showed great patience. Perhaps now he had himself come to understand that he no longer had a right to scold me, or at best, to a very small extent. I became more and more self-willed and began to take
advantage of his tolerance. I had the conviction that I would pass, whether I studied or not. Luck was on my side. Thus I stopped studying what little I used to for fear. of Bhai Sahib. I had developed a new interest — flying kites — and now all my time was devoted to it. Even so, I respected my brother and flew kites in secret. Preparing the manjha, correcting the balance of the kite, planning for kite tournaments and allied problems were all solved in secrecy. I did not want Bhai Sahib to suspect that my respect and regard for him had gone down.
One evening, at some distance from the hostel, I was running recklessly to loot a drifting kite. My eyes were turned upwards to the sky and my heart lay with this traveller who came gliding slowly, rolling towards a fall, like a restless soul coming out of heaven to inhabit a new world. A whole army of children was surging towards it to welcome it, armed with sticks and bamboos. Nobody was aware of his surroundings. Everyone was, as it were, flying with that kite up in the sky, where everything is smooth and there are neither cars, nor trams or trains.
Suddenly I ran into Bhai Sahib who was perhaps returning from the market. Then and there he caught me by the hands and said angrily, "Aren't you ashamed, running after a worthless kite with these street urchins? You don't have any consideration for the fact that now you are no longer in a junior class. On the contrary you are in class eight and only one class below me. After all, man should have some regard for his position. There was a time when people used to become naib-tehsildars after passing class eight. I know several middlechis who are first class magistrates or superintendants. So many who have passed class eight are our leaders and the editors of our newspapers. Great scholars work under them. And you, having come to the same class, are running after a kite with these street urchins! I am grieved by your lack of sense. Without a doubt, you are clever, but what use is cleverness if it destroys one's self-respect? You must be thinking to yourself, 'lam only one class below Bhai Sahib and now he has no right to say anything to me. 'But this is where you are mistaken. I am five years older than you and even if you come to my class today — (and if this is the attitude of examiners, then without a doubt, next year you will be my class-fellow and perhaps after a year you will be ahead of me) — the five years' difference between you and me cannot be erased by God himself, to say nothing of you. I am, and shall always remain, five years older than you. You cannot equal my experience of life and this world, even if you become an M.A. and D. Phil, and D.Litt. Our mother has not passed a single class and even our father has, perhaps, not gone beyond class five or six. But they will always retain the right to guide and correct us, even if we acquire all the knowledge in the world. Not
only because they have given us life but also because they have and will always continue to have more experience of the world than we do. What kind of government America has, or how many times Henry VIII married, or how many planets there are in the sky — these things they may not know. But there are thousands of things which they know better than you or I. God forbid, if I were to fall ill today, you would be at your wits' end. You would not be able to think of anything save sending a wire to Dada. But if Dada were in your place he would not send a wire to anyone, nor would he get nervous or panicky. First he would diagnose the illness himself and then proceed to treat it. If he were unsuccessful, he would call a doctor. But an illness is a big thing. The two of us do not even know how to stretch our monthly allowance to last a whole month. Whatever Dada sends, we finish by the twentieth or twenty- second and then become paupers. We have to cut out snacks and avoid meeting the dhobi and the barber. But living on half of what we are spending now, Dada has managed a large portion of his life with credit and honour. He has raised a family in which there are a total of nine members. Look at our own Headmaster Sahib. Isn't he an M.A.? And not an M.A. from here, but an M.A. from Oxford. He gets a thousand rupees, but who is managing his household? His old mother. Headmaster Sahib's degree proved useless in this matter. Earlier he used to run the household himself but there was never enough money. He incurred debts. Ever since his mother has taken the management into her own hands, it is as if Lakshmi has come into the house. So, my dear brother, root out from your mind the notion that you have come close to me and are now independent. You will not be able to go astray while I am there to watch over you. If you don't obey me, I can make use of this too [indicating a slap]. I know that my words are like poison to you."
I felt humbled at this new attitude of his. I honestly became aware of my smallness and a deep regard for Bhai Sahib took root within me. I said with tears in my eyes, "Certainly not! Whatever you are saying is absolutely true and you have a right to say it."
Bhai Sahib embraced me and said, "I am not forbidding you to fly kites. Even I long to do so but what can I do? If I go astray myself how can I safeguard you? This duty has also fallen to my lot."
As luck would have it, just at that moment a kite drifted above our heads. Its string was trailing and a horde of boys came running after it. Bhai Sahib was tall. He leapt and caught the string and raced towards the hostel. I ran after him.
From Pratibha Nath, Premchand, The Voice of Rural India (New Delhi: NCERT, 1974).
Four miles from Benares there lies the small village of Lamhi. It is here, on July 31,1880, that Premchand was born, the family's first son. As a child he was naughty and spent most of his time in sports. He was fond of listening to stories and had a weakness for sweets. Premchand received his early schooling from a teacher who was also a tailor — so the students had plenty of free time. Nevertheless, he still played truant whenever he could, and went wandering in the fields, chewing sugarcane or watching the pranks of a tamed bear or monkey.
At the age of eight he lost his mother. His father soon re-married, but the stepmother had a negative influence on the boy. In high school, he developed an insatiable love for reading, and this awakened in him the desire to write. He was barely fifteen when he was married. Shortly after this his father died and Premchand had to support not only his wife but his stepmother and her two sons. Still he was determined to continue his education and was admitted to the Hindu College at Benares. He took on various teaching jobs while continuing to study. Premchand now decided to dedicate his services to his motherland through writing, and, under a pen name, started writing novels dealing with problems of Hindu society. He worked as a journalist as well.
By 1907 Premchand had established himself in Urdu letters but he was unhappy. His wife had left him for good. Without consulting his family he decided to marry a girl who had been widowed in childhood, a radical step in those days. In 1908 a collection of his stories attracted the attention of the bureaucracy and he was summoned before the Collector and was told, "You are spreading sedition and have insulted the British Government." He was ordered to stop publishing without permission. This led him to adopt the name "Premchand", and he continued writing. He was disgusted by the British authorities and wanted badly to give up his government teaching job. In order to become more independent, he was determined to secure higher education. While studying he continued to write. His first collection of short stories was published in 1917.
Meanwhile, events around him were influencing Premchand, primarily the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and India's Freedom Movement. In 1921, he resigned from his job, saying, "My conscience does not permit me to serve the government any longer." Premchand then went through a number of jobs and was always in financial difficulty. He dreamed of establishing a printing press of his own but several attempts ended in failure.
In his writings he criticized all fanaticism and vehemently advocated Hindu-Muslim unity. His fame began to spread far and wide. He was invited to write scenarios for a film company in Bombay, and went to that city in 1934. However, he became totally disillusioned with the film world and left Bombay to become very active on the problem of a national language. He felt that India would never be free as long as the English language dominated, and he toured the country promoting Hindi. He dreamed of a national literature of India, and his journal, Hamsa, became the organ of an all-India organization to promote this cause.
While Premchand was rising to meteoric heights in the literary world, his financial condition and health were deteriorating day by day. In June of 1936 there was no printing paper left in his press, and efforts to remedy this caused him to fall ill. The death of Maxim Gorky was an additional
shock, and soon he was bed-ridden. Still, he continued to write his last novel for Hamsa. On October 8,1936, at the age of fifty-six, he fell into a coma and died. Thus came the end of a great writer, a light that continues to illumine millions of hearts in India and throughout the world.
Based on Premchand: An Anthology, ed. Dr. Nagendra (Delhi: Bansal and Co., 1981)