Missing the Forest for the Jamun Tree

Raza Naeem on the legacy of Krishan Chander and why he bothers bureaucrats in India

Missing the Forest for the Jamun Tree
I was not planning to write this particular piece when I put pen to paper earlier this month. I was to write a detailed piece commemorating the birth centenary of one of the greatest Urdu literary critics of the 20th century, Muhammad Hasan Askari, which fell on the 5th of November. Besides, I had already translated from and written on Krishan Chander in these very pages back in August (see Krishan and Kashmir, August 16, 2019). Incidentally, the 23rd of November last week marked Chander’s 115th birthday.

But trust our governments to do something crassly stupid and bring the classics alive! That happened a few weeks ago, when a school headmaster in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh in India, was sacked for “making” his students learn Pakistani national poet Muhammad Iqbal’s famous poem Lab Pe Aaati He Dua Ban ke Tammana Meri. And it happened again a few weeks ago on the 5th of November, when as a result of a friendly complaint from an Indian state, the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) decided to remove Krishan Chander’s classic short story Jamun ka Ped from the Class X Hindi syllabus, fearing it will probably expose more of the incompetence of the Indian bureaucratic machine than was necessary for those young minds.

Lest the reader feel that this is a uniquely Indian trait, many years ago, the Sindh government in Pakistan deleted many incendiary passages from Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Naya Qanoon, which was set in colonial India and took a bitterly satirical look at the then-recently introduced Government of India Act of 1935.
They have become very much like the lifeless mandarins of Krishan Chander’s story, whose own myopia the writer was criticizing

Krishan Chander’s eternal writings have made him immortal, but life is, after all, life. And however great the dead may be, it cannot be a substitute for life. The epoch will not be able to give birth to another Krishan Chander.

Krishan Chander’s literary life began in 1936 in Lahore and as long as he lived, he convulsed, remembering the land of Heer and Ranjha. He wrote light essays, short-stories, novels, reportage, everything; and in such abundance that in 40 years approximately 40 of his books were published. His pen never became weary.

Krishan Chander was the raconteur of unhappy humanity. He always linked his passion and art to those hard workers who are the grain-givers of all. For it is with the vitality of their blood that fields bloom, the fragrances of life dance, dead machinery comes to life and the bazaars are illuminated.

All his life, Krishan Chander held the values of beauty close to his heart. He was as much an admirer of the beauty of natural scenery as he was of the beauty of self and qualities. His art was a cry of protest against the social system which has at its centre the trampling of the personality of beauty and the beauty of personality. It is a system which makes the creative forces of humanity into a source of profitable gain and even deprives the human of humanity. How can beauty progress in a society where every person is involved like animals in the concerns of the belly? When there is the deep darkness of ignorance, prejudice and superstition and human dignity is subject to kicks at every step?

But Krishan Chander never despaired or became heartbroken about the future of humanity. His realist vision had identified the life-giving force which is the reflection of beauty, as well as the guarantor of the progress of beauty – which sometimes becomes the motherhood of mothers and the smile of innocent children, and sometimes appears in the form of the anger of the youth and the determination of the aged and the cry of widows and the sweat of the drenched bodies of workers and the pen of writers. Krishan Chander used this same pen to write elegies for beauty and condemnations of the cruelty of the sellers of beauty.

Krishan Chander was a universal man in the true sense. His art is spread from one horizon to another. He considered humanity to be a unit and did not believe in dividing it by colour, race, religion and nation. His heartfelt desire was an end to the forces which are bent against life.

Krishan Chander was perhaps Urdu’s sole author who lived his life supported by writing short stories alone. His place in literature was very high. Had he wanted, he could have attained much in the way of material gains. But he never bowed his head at the threshold of power. He never veiled his loyalties either – remaining always associated with the Progressive Writers Movement.

By removing Krishan Chander’s Jamun Ka Ped from the Hindi syllabus of class X in India, the ICSE and its mandarins have merely seen the tree for the forest and betrayed their limited vision. They have in fact become very much like the lifeless mandarins of Krishan Chander’s story, whose own myopia the writer was criticizing.

An issue related to political opportunism is the inefficiency and insensitivity of bureaucracies in our Subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan developed gigantic bureaucracies after independence, which became enormously influential in controlling the state affairs, perhaps even 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, his Jamun Ka Ped is one of his powerful denunciations of bureaucracy, which in my opinion could indeed proudly be mentioned in the same league as Gogol’s The Nose, and which does not require Gogol’s magic realism to depict the ruthless power and wanton misuse that it brings in its wake.

I can do no better than attempt to recreate the story’s chilling conclusion here in my imperfect translation:

“On the second day when the Forest Department men arrived with saws and axes, they were barred from cutting the tree. They found out that the Foreign Affairs Department had prohibited the cutting of the tree. The reason was that the tree had been planted in the Secretariat lawn a decade ago by the Prime Minister of Petunia. If the tree was cut now, there was a great risk that our relations with the government of Petunia would be damaged forever. ‘But this is a question of a man’s life’, shouted the clerk with anger. ‘On the other side, a question of relations between two countries’, the Second Clerk admonished the First Clerk, ‘and do try to understand too how much aid the Petunian government gives to our government. Can’t we sacrifice even one man’s life for their friendship?’

‘The poet should die.’


The Undersecretary told the Superintendant, ‘The Prime Minister has returned from the foreign visit in the morning today. The Foreign Affairs Department will present this tree’s file before him at 4 pm today, and whatever he decides will be accepted by all.’

At 5 pm the superintendant himself brought the poet’s file to the latter, ‘Do you hear?’ As soon as he arrived, he shouted, waving the file, ‘The Prime Minister has ordered to cut this tree and has taken full international responsibility for this incident upon himself. Tomorrow this tree will be cut and you’ll be rid of this trouble. ’

‘Do you hear? Today your file is complete’, the superintendant said, moving the poet’s arm.

But the poet’s arm was cold. His eyelids were lifeless and a long line of ants was going into his mouth. The file of his life had also been completed.”

I am sure that the writers of the new generation who love Krishan Chander will not be distracted or discouraged by this disappointing action undertaken by Indian authorities.

My own tryst with this landmark story came in the spring of 2015 when I was teaching a course on Pakistan’s political processes and institutions at one of Lahore’s well-known private universities, in their public policy and administration program. The dilemma was how to teach the inner workings of bureaucracy to a mixed group of serving and would-be bureaucrats, which avoided the prosaic pitfalls of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy and Woodrow Wilson’s theory of public administration. So I fell back on Jamun Ka Ped.

I began this piece with a mention of Hasan Askari, who would have been the subject of this piece had the ICSE not intervened, on his 100th birthday, the 5th of November. Incidentally, Askari had this to say about Krishan Chander, his great contemporary:

“I have said repeatedly that with Krishan Chander you cannot find the things which you have been searching for elsewhere. Neither does he possess qualities of plot, nor of characterization, neither of psychological analysis nor beautiful verbosity. He possesses one thing which is higher than all these – life. The truth indeed is that life is such a vast and extensive and ambiguous thing which no one can put a hand to. The zenith of the artist, as Henry James has said, is just that in his creation, he creates a ‘look of things’ and an ‘illusion of life’ and Krishan Chander is successful at it.”

It can thus be said that Jamun Ka Ped possesses both a look of things and an illusion of life, and the Indian officials who deprived generations of Indian schoolchildren of these twin pleasures at the stroke of a pen, possess neither.

All the translations from the Urdu are the author’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979