Translator’s note: An issue pertaining to political opportunism is the inefficiency and insensitivity of bureaucracies in the Indian Subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan developed gigantic bureaucracies after independence, which became enormously influential in controlling the state affairs, more so in Pakistan. Krishan Chander’s famous novel ‘Aik Gadhay ki Atm Katha’ (Autobiography of a Donkey) is devoted to this theme, especially the Chinese-inspired model of bureaucracy introduced by Nehru in India. In the short form, one of his powerful denunciations of bureaucracy, which in my opinion could proudly be mentioned in the same league as Gogol’s ‘The Nose’, is his Jamun ka Ped (The Jamun Tree), which does not require Gogol’s magic realism to depict the ruthless power and the wanton misuse it brings in its wake. This story, and Krishan Chander’s work by extension, attained a new lease of afterlife in the wake of the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education’s decision to remove this story from the Hindi Class X syllabus on the 4th of November this year. So it became imperative to translate it into English for a new generation of South Asian readers.
A great storm occurred last night. A jamun tree fell in the lawn of the Secretariat. When the gardener saw in the morning, he got to know that a man was pressed down under the tree.
The gardener ran away to the peon; the peon ran away to the clerk; the clerk to ran away to the superintendent; and the superintendent ran away to the lawn outside. Within minutes a throng gathered around the man pressed under the tree.
‘The poor jamun tree, how fruit-bearing it was’, a clerk said.
‘And how juicy its jamuns used to be’, the second clerk said, recalling.
‘I used to carry home a pouchful during the fruit season. How joyfully my children ate its jamuns’, the third clerk said, almost on the verge of tears.
‘But this man’, the gardener pointed at the crushed man.
‘Yes, this man…!’ the superintendent began to ponder.
‘He must have died…if such a heavy trunk lands on anyone’s hip…then he can survive’…, the second clerk said.
‘No, I’m alive’, the crushed man said with difficulty, moaning.
‘He should be taken out quickly, by removing the tree’, the gardener advised.
‘Seems difficult’, a lazy and fat peon said, ‘the tree trunk is very heavy and weighty.’
‘How difficult is that’, the gardener replied. ‘If superintendent sahib orders, then the man crushed under the tree can be taken out right now by using 15-20 gardeners, peons and clerks.’
‘The gardener is right!’ Many clerks suddenly said in unison. ‘Let’s make an effort, we’re ready.’
At once many people got ready to lift the tree.
‘Wait!’ the superintendent said. ‘Let me consult the Undersecretary.’
The superintendent went to the Undersecretary; the Undersecretary went to the Deputy Secretary; the Deputy Secretary went to the Joint Secretary; the Joint Secretary went to the Chief Secretary; the Chief Secretary went to the Minister. The Minister told the Chief Secretary; the Chief Secretary to the Joint Secretary; the Joint Secretary to the Deputy Secretary; the Deputy Secretary to the Undersecretary. The file kept moving, it took half the day.
At lunch, a lot of people had gathered around the crushed man, people had different things to say on the matter. A few buoyant clerks tried to take the matter into their own hands. They were determining to remove the tree on their own without waiting for the decision of the government, when the superintendent came running with the file and said, ‘We ourselves cannot remove this tree from here. We are concerned with the Trade Department and this is a matter of a tree which is in the care of the Agriculture Department. Therefore I am marking this file ‘Urgent’ and sending it to the Agriculture Department. As soon as we receive their response, this tree will be removed.’
The next day the Agriculture Department replied that the tree had fallen in the lawn of the Trade Department, therefore the responsibility of removing – or not – the tree lay on the latter. The Trade Department flew into a rage upon reading this response. They promptly wrote that the responsibility of removing or not removing trees lay on the Agriculture Department. The Trade Department had nothing to do with the matter.
The file kept moving on the second day as well. In the evening, the response came. We are submitting this matter to the Horticulture Department; since this is the matter of a fruit-bearing tree and the Agriculture Department is only authorized to decide matters relating only to food and farming. The jamun tree is a fruit-bearing tree hence this tree falls within the circle of authority of the Horticulture Department.
On the third day, the response of the Horticulture Department came; a very stern response, and mixed with irony. The Secretary of the Horticulture Department seemed to be a man of literary temperament. He had written, ‘What a surprise! At this time, we are running ‘Darakht Ugao’ (Grow Trees) scheme on a big scale, we have such government officers in our country who advise to cut trees and that too a fruit-bearing tree and even then a jamun tree, whose fruit the people eat with great pleasure.’
‘Our department cannot allow cutting this fruit-bearing tree under any condition.’
‘Now what to do’, a buoyant fellow said. ‘If the tree cannot be cut, then this man should be cut to take him out.’
‘Look here’, the man spoke by pointing, ‘If this man is cut right from the middle, meaning from the place of the torso, then one half of the man will come out from there. Half the man will come out from there and the tree will stay where it is.’
‘But I will indeed die like this’, the crushed man protested.
‘He too is right!’ a clerk said.
The man advising about cutting the man protested vociferously, ‘You don’t know, nowadays how much plastic surgery had progressed, I think that if this man is cut from the middle and taken out, with plastic surgery, this man can be put together again at the place of the torso.’
Now the file was sent to the Medical Department. The Medical Department took action on it at once and the day the file reached their department, the very next day they sent the most competent plastic surgeon of their department for investigation. The surgeon groping the crushed man soundly, looking at his health, blood pressure, the circulation of breath, examining his heart and lungs, sent the report that a plastic surgery could indeed be performed on the man and it will be successful, but the man will die.
So this proposal too was rejected.
At night the gardener fed rice and pulses to the crushed man; though all around them was a police guard lest people take the law into their own hands; and try to remove the tree by themselves. But a police constable took mercy and he allowed the gardener to feed supper to the crushed man.
The gardener told the crushed man, ‘Your file is moving, hopefully by tomorrow it will be decided.’
The crushed man did not speak.
The gardener said again, ‘Do you have any heir here, so give me a clue. I will try to inform them.’
‘None.’ The crushed man said with great difficulty. The gardener moved from there showing regret.
At night the gardener told the crushed man while putting morsels of khichdi in his mouth, Now the matter has gone to the higher-ups. It has been said that there will be a meeting of all the secretaries of the Secretariat tomorrow. Your case will be placed there. Hopefully everything will be all right.’
The crushed man slowly said Ghalib’s verses with a sigh, ‘I know that you won’t shrink from familiarity; before you hear of my sad plight, I would have died off-stage.’
The gardener held his finger in his mouth in amazement, ‘Are you a poet?’
The crushed man slowly nodded his head.
(to be continued)