‘Gold from the Grave’ by Annabhau Sathe: Short Story Analysis
‘Gold from the Grave’ is a story about the hardships of a construction worker named Bhima. Bhima had left his village to come to work in the bustling city of Mumbai. He found a job at a nearby quarry but when the place shut down, Bhima was left without a job. Bhima is so hard-pressed for money that he becomes a grave robber, something that is very much abhorred by Indian society. This story echoes the woes of the working class in the slums of Mumbai and their struggle to make two ends meet. Annabhau Sathe who was a prolific Marathi writer of novels and short stories was a social reformer. Through this story, he brings out the sad outcome of the desperate Bhima who had started stealing ‘gold’ from the dead. This story is based in the early part of the twentieth century in Mumbai which was then known as Bombay.
One can see the plight of Bhima as a person who becomes so desperate for money to fill the stomachs of his wife and little girl Narbada that he starts grave robbing. And this is a very unusual type of grave robbing. He steals gold rings, earrings, bracelets, anklets, coins, and even the gold teeth from the dead remains of a person. This includes people who are buried or cremated sloppily. When one sees the ardent manner in which Bhima seeks out the gold in the dead, one realizes that he is slowly losing his sanity as well as his morals.
On the other hand, Bhima feels that he is doing nothing wrong by robbing from the dead. He even makes a statement that it is only the rich who should live and the rich who should die, because when they die, they leave behind gold which can be of great use to a poor man. He dresses almost like a ‘Grim Reaper’, his weapon to break the bones or open up the mouths of the dead being a pointed crowbar. Even when his wife begs him to leave such a disreputable and terrible way of earning a living Bhima tells her to stay quiet on the subject.
This kind of mingling with the charred or buried remains of the dead is indicative of:
- The poor in Mumbai amid life are always walking in the shadow of death, so why not dabble with the remains of the dead?
- Even in a bustling urban city like Mumbai, Bhima couldn’t manage to secure a job for himself. One can easily see the immense disparity between the rich and poor in this story. Even in twenty-first-century Mumbai, the huge disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ remains. It seems as if the rich are ‘dead’ to the poor whether they are alive or dead.
- The sad fact that people think that they can take their riches beyond the grave which is the cliched false notion of everyone in existence, but in this story, the rich leave behind gold which Bhima can make use of even if it is only one tola of gold.
- The stigma attached to anyone who dabbles with the dead. The fact that we have a lot of unnerving reverence for the dead but not for the living especially the poor who are beseeching humanity to help them.
Bhima is a strong person. He can break bones and wrists of the dead to extract even the melted or molten gold from the bones of the dead. Bhima dresses in the Satara Maharashtra fashion and it is said in the story by Sathe that:
‘… yet fiery features had struck fear into many a ruffian.’
Bhima is brave, ruthless, and unashamed. Sathe through his candid prose beautifully brings out the humanness in Bhima’s character. Sathe writes excellent one-liners. He is truly a writer with a penchant for writing good sentences that hits the mark. Here are a few examples:
Mumbai had everything, except work and shelter.
It is the rich who should die and the rich who should live; the poor should never die.
This Mumbai is a ghost’s bazaar. The real ghosts stay in homes and the dead ones rot in the graveyards.
He had lost two of his ‘hill-breaker fingers’ for the sake of gold from the grave.
These are some of the most stirring lines in the story titled ‘Gold from the Grave’. The last line is the very last line in this story describing how in reckless desperation, Bhima had to get his two fingers amputated. The mouth of a powerful but dead moneylender had, while Bhima was at work getting gold from his mouth, clamped shut on his fingers to such a terrible extent that his two fingers got festered, and torn and finally had to be amputated.
In a way, this is symbolic of how even in death, moneylenders try not to allow the working class or peasants to be independent of them. The dead moneylender’s teeth clamping on Bhima’s fingers was a symbol of the eternal tyranny of the ‘haves’ over the ‘have nots’ especially those who are indebted to a moneylender. The situation of indebted farmers, tenant farmers, other backward castes working for the rich moneylenders, et al., all seems indicated here, in Sathe’s story titled ‘Gold from the Grave’. One can see Sathe’s social reformation angle coming out subtly here in the form of a simple story of a grave-digging gone wrong.
About the jackals in the story, that is quite a dangerous area to deal with. The jackals could be symbolized as the underbelly of the city of Mumbai which normally consists of the people doing menial jobs: the lower castes, the other backward castes, tribals, ragpickers, beggars, etc. They always work together in a group, that is their strong point and they are a united community. Here, the high caste Maharashtrian Bhima is almost at war with these jackals who have always had a raw deal when it comes to their fundamental rights in India. Bhima fights with them with his crowbar but what is one upper caste personality in the valley of death surrounded by those whom death has become a bedfellow. Bhima kills one jackal, but the others bite him terribly. They are ruthless because this is their turf, and Bhima has no right to trample down what they consider as their food.
The story ends sadly, with a moral. If only Bhima had not been so desperate and had waited a while longer, the quarry would have eventually opened again, which it did. But alas! Bhima wouldn’t be able to work in the quarry due to the amputation of his two fingers, the two fingers he lost while trying to rob the dead.
I loved this story by Sathe and it was a pleasure to analyze it for you on my blog. However, I would like to mention who is the translator of this Marathi short story. The individual who has translated Sathe’s short story ‘Gold from the Grave’ from Marathi to English is a man called Vernon Gonsalves who was a schoolmate of my godfather and younger maternal uncle. My Uncle Blaise and Vernon Gonsalves studied in the same school back in the 1960s and 1970s in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. My Uncle Blaise went on to become a banker while also graduating in law. Vernon Gonsalves became a political and social activist as well as got jailed for being a Naxalite. They never saw eye to eye. This was a really good translation of Sathe’s short story and so I thought I’d make a mention about its translator Vernon Gonsalves. I hope he is well and living per the dictates of the Constitution of India.
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