‘The Shroud’ by Munshi Premchand: Short Story Analysis
‘The Shroud’ is considered to be one of the best written short stories in India. Munshi Premchand, one of the greatest Indian writers in Hindi and Urdu, penned this story. It has been translated and reprinted many times. As you read the story, it is impossible to miss the caustic satire, the gritty reality, and the harshness of life of the lower caste cobblers in India and especially their women. ‘The Shroud’ is an ironic title because the dead woman whose name was Budhiya did not get a shroud for herself even in death. Even the dignity of death could not pierce the stony heart of her aged father-in-law Ghisu, and her husband, Madhav. Ghisu and Madhav were not only lazy but also ungrateful louts. They lived their lives without bothering about their responsibilities. It was as if they did not even have a properly functioning conscience. Poverty and their low caste status made them so hardhearted that they never cared for anyone but themselves. Though Budhiya was in the throes of childbirth and needed their assistance, Ghisu and Madhav just sat outside their hut peeling potatoes.
Premchand, in this realistic story, has focused on two aspects vital to the workings of an Indian village in pre-independence India:
- The abuse of women in India and the sexism rampant in the country.
- The poverty of the lower caste people.
Budhiya was dying during childbirth. Though she had done her best by Ghisu and Madhav, they made no move to call a doctor to save her life. They were more concerned about peeling and eating the potatoes they had just managed to procure. They believed in living the cliched ‘one day at a time’ but in a very warped manner. By not calling a doctor or wet nurse to attend to Budhiya, they became her murderers when she died after a painful night. Despite the closely-knit village they lived in, no one came to see why there was so much shrieking and screaming going on in Ghisu’s hut which showed the following:
- They were fed up with the lazy ways of Ghisu and Madhav and wanted nothing to do with them.
- They were cruel as well as negligent of the fact that no one was attending to the wailing Budhiya. Thereby, they were murderers, because they were ‘deaf’ to her screaming for help during the birth of her child.
- Poverty had hardened them so much that they were not bothered that there was a commotion in Ghisu’s home.
- They did not want to get mixed up in Ghisu and Madhav’s affairs as they were always hard up.
Their carelessness led to Budhiya’s death. However, no one felt that they were at fault. The father and son cried crocodile tears and lied how:
- They had sat by Budhiya’s side all night while, in reality, they were fast asleep as she died.
- They had no medicines to give her, and that was why she died.
- That she was the one who had abandoned them and so they were the victims more than she.
The fickle-mindedness of Indian village society is seen starkly in ‘The Shroud’. Although the villagers did nothing to help the shrieking Budhiya in life, they congregated around the hut once she was dead. Their main concern was to make sure she got a proper cremation. Women of the village who did not stir from their homes while Budhiya wailed her lungs out, cried over her dead body.
There is a mention in the story of the screaming of Budhiya not affecting Ghisu or Madhav. They were both unwilling to leave their potatoes alone lest one of them ate the other’s share. Ghisu gave the excuse that because Budhiya was naked, being her father-in-law, he could not go and be by her side. On the other hand, Madhav states that he could not go and be by her side as he could not stand her screaming and hoped it would end with her death. It is very satirical to see that the father-in-law was more concerned about propriety than his dying daughter-in-law’s life.
They manage to borrow a total of five rupees from:
- The landlord
- The merchants
- The traders
- Other villagers
Probably, all these people were from the higher castes. They borrow the five rupees from them intending to buy a shroud for Budhiya to cover her dead body, a sacred custom in Hindu society in India. However, instead of quickly buying the shroud for Budhiya, they shop for it as if they were shopping for a woman’s wedding saree. They make excuses for not liking the plain white cloths presented to them, and at the end of it, they give in to their stomachs and base instincts and spend the money on food and alcohol.
They spend the entire day and night drinking and eating without even caring that the money they were spending was for a deceased woman’s shroud. The desire for food and drink was their primary motive in getting the money in the first place. They knew they would get a lot of money from the fickle-minded pretentious villagers out of sympathy for their dead Budhiya. They only wanted the money to satisfy their desire for a feast. They eat a lavish feast of:
- Fried fish
- A variety of chutneys
- A variety of pickles
- Any number of puris
They scream and toast the dead Budhiya’s soul, as, in her name, they had managed to get such a royal feast, a satire on men whose consciences were dead with selfishness and dire poverty. They gifted the remaining puris to a beggar and intoxicated make their way home. They tell the beggar to bless Budhiya, who was dead. They praise her verbally and brazenly many times. It is Madhav who suddenly, in the midst of his reveling, feels a slight prick in conscience. He wonders what answer would he give his dutiful wife when he would enter eternity. She was sure to ask him why, despite being her husband, he did not even give her a shroud.
Ghisu, the sixty-year-old experienced lout, declares to the spirit dampened Madhav that the villagers are so superstitious where a dead body is concerned that they will again contribute a few rupees to buy a shroud. Though this satisfies Madhav’s good-as-dead conscience, he often brings it up, which irritates Ghisu. These two individuals, Ghisu and his son Madhav are showing a mirror of the paradox of Indian village society who ignore the living but have a lot of respect for the dead. Premchand declares towards the end that more than Budhiya, it seemed that everyone in the story was truly dead because their respect for humanity was dead, and their priorities were not where they should be. Ghisu and Madhav fall in a heap due to their drunken state. So too falls the opinion of people concerning the village life of pre-independence India. The problem is, nothing much has changed since Premchand’s time:
- Women are still abused in India and are looked down upon.
- People from the lower castes live a miserable existence and are regularly beaten and abused for trying to assert their rights.
- A person becomes more important dead than alive.
- The rich have it all while the poor still starve.
- People are still highly superstitious and fickle-minded.
I was 12 years old studying at Bombay Scottish School in Mumbai when I read ‘The Shroud’, my first Premchand short story. It was one of the lessons in my Hindi textbook. It introduced me to the writings of Munshi Premchand, who would go on to become my fourth favorite fiction writer of all time. It was a pleasure to analyze this short story here on my blog.
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