‘Babaji Ka Bhog’ is a short story penned in Hindi by one of the greatest short-story writers of India, namely Munshi Premchand. Premchand is well known for his short stories and novels, which focus on the lives of the poor and oppressed peasants of India during the pre-Independence period. Village life and the utter poverty of the rural peasant was his inspiration making him write several stories in Hindi and Urdu based on the lives of these citizens of colonial India. In this story titled ‘Babaji Ka Bhog’ or ‘Babaji’s Feast’, a mendicant or Sadhu takes advantage of the hospitality of the poor peasant family of Ramdhan Ahir and obtains a feast for himself at the expense of the Ahir family. This story highlights that the Indian rural peasant’s condition is worse than that of a mendicant or a wandering Sadhu. This is because of the peasant’s poverty, the debts he owes because of his poverty, the fact that he is of the lower caste and class, and because such a rural peasant is beholden to the upper caste men like the Sadhu or holy mendicant. In the name of honor and respect for the sacred Sadhu, Ahir, after consulting with his wife, almost empties their store of meager lentils and flour so as not to invoke the Sadhu’s curses, who would then leave their home unsatisfied, disappointed, and empty-handed. The Ahir family, following hospitality and superstitious practices, fed the Sadhu. In contrast, the Sadhu did not seem concerned with their poverty and helplessness. He is a renouncer of the world and cares for none but the gods, little knowing that his position in society is a desirable one for a peasant like Ahir.
Ramdhan Ahir’s hospitality to the Sadhu knows no bounds. From his little stock, he is generous enough to part with more for the sake of not upsetting a holy man. The Sadhu is a renouncer of everything worldly and wanders from place to place, seeking shelter wherever he can and eating whatever was available in the house that welcomed his presence. However, the Sadhu seems too preoccupied with the trivial outward or external symbols of religion like using a spoonful of ghee as an offering, ringing bells, and praying at a makeshift altar. If only he truly worshipped God in spirit, it would have opened his eyes to the impoverished and desperate plight of Ahir’s family. But the Sadhu was caught up in himself and his needs. Therefore, he failed to see what otherwise would have been obvious. Instead, he demands things like ghee, substantial food, and a place to cook his food. He is a confident gatecrasher who forces himself into the home of the Ahir family. Usually, when a saintly soul enters a home, the residents of the house feel happy, blissful, and blessed with his presence. However, from the moment the Sadhu entered the Ahir home, he took advantage of the hospitality shown him bringing the family to such dire straits that they went to bed feeding only on some lentils. Ramdhan Ahir, the family patriarch, jealously believes that even a so-called holy mendicant was better off than him and is resigned to his fate.
‘Babaji’s Feast’ is indeed a story of honor with its consequences. Most of the Indian stories written before the nineteenth century centered around fairytale-like stories with happy endings. However, Premchand’s short story does not have a happy ending. The Sadhu does not bestow any gifts or boon on the Ahir family. Instead, he brings them misery which may have led to starvation. Premchand’s stories are realistic stories with a social issue theme. Premchand wrote stories about the poverty of the peasants of India to create an awareness in the population about the sorrowful condition of the poor and the issues they had to face. His stories are thought-provoking, invoking the yearnings for freedom and rights in the poor, especially the agricultural peasants. Premchand’s style is unpretentious and resembles the works of the Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov and the spirit of the novels of the greatest British writer of all time, Charles Dickens. Premchand in ‘Babaji Ka Bhog’ or ‘Babaji’s Feast’ does not have a happy ending for Ramdhan Ahir and his family but portrays reality as it is. He leaves us with an anti-climax where in helplessness, Ahir yearns even for some respect that the mendicant had in Indian society. Premchand draws our attention to the evils of colonial rule, mass industrial production, and capitalism, which widened the gap between the rich and the poor. We notice from the text that the poor are ready to give away everything they have in the name of honor. They are generous and follow tradition, which is akin to the poverty-stricken characters of Charles Dickens and the greatest Russian writer of all time, Leo Tolstoy. Premchand creates situations that drive the plot forward akin to Tolstoy’s style, with characters that seem to live and breathe like Dickens style, but without the verbose descriptions. We know very little of Ahir, his wife, and the Sadhu. Still, the little we know and their plight etches the classic Munshi Premchand story ‘Babaji Ka Bhog’ in our minds forever.
Notice the increasing unrealistic demands of the Sadhu, which Ahir and his wife give into one after another. The family parts with:
- Flour that was being offered to the gods.
- Lentils to trade and buy ghee.
- Cow dung to light the fire to cook.
- Salt to add taste.
- Water from the well.
Notice the significance of the Sadhu getting the flour meant for the gods. This is symbolic of how the priestly class was draining the peasants of their wealth through superstitious religious observances. They did not allow the peasants to think rationally and practically about their day-to-day needs. Ramdhan Ahir and his wife were brought up in this narrow-minded society of early twentieth-century India. They felt saying no to a Sadhu was bad luck or taboo. The Sadhu also takes advantage of them, instead of being satisfied with what he received or with what he was given. The Sadhu’s holiness and austerity would have been much grander if he merely accepted whatever he got rather than demand stuff from those who were not empowered enough to fight back or to question the conventions of society. It was as if the Sadhu first asked for a ‘finger’ but then took ‘an arm’ instead.
The point to note is that the Chait season had just gone by. But the money obtained from harvesting Ahir’s field must have gone into the pockets of everyone except the tiller of the soil, who should have had the greatest share of the produce and profit. Munshi Premchand, in this way, resembles Tolstoy to the letter in his descriptions of how the largest share of the crop was taken by the middlemen involved in the production instead of Ahir. However, unlike Tolstoy, this story has no divine parabolic-like twists. Tolstoy was fond of introducing the Christian angle to his stories. According to the Hindu Calendar, Chait is the first month of the year, the start of the spring season. The Ahir family’s harvest is shared by the moneylender, the landlord’s agent, and the ox merchant, respectively. Only a meager forty kilograms of grain is left for the family’s consumption, a pittance for a whole year of toil.
The Ahir family does not bother about the future. They are convinced that they had to donate food to the Sadhu. They don’t grudge him even though they know it is not practical. The Sadhu is depicted artistically by Munshi Premchand as stroking his belly once eaten his fill. This indicates that the Sadhu liked to indulge himself while the poor around him starved. Premchand, through this almost Chekhovian short story titled ‘Babaji Ka Bhog’ or ‘Babaji’s Feast’, makes us ponder whether when some of us renounce the world, such people can abandon their empathy towards others. In Ahir’s home, the Sadhu or Babaji had a feast that evening. At the same time, the peasant’s family who was housing him slept hungry and were ruined. And thus, Premchand ends a short story that is a classic among Hindi literature lovers. But we must realize the reality of what Premchand spoke through his characters and plot.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Babaji’s Feast’ or ‘Babaji Ka Bhog’ by my fourth favorite writer of all time Munshi Premchand. I hope to read and review more of Premchand’s novels and short stories in the coming weeks. If you are interested in my analysis of the short stories written by the best Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov, you can check them out here. For analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s short stories, you can check here. If you want to read my award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to review more short stories in the coming days.
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