A Special Holi

Translated by Harish Trivedi.

Published : Apr 11, 2018 12:30 IST

Munshi Premchand.

Munshi Premchand.

IT was the day of Holi, the carnivalesque spring festival. Mr A.B. Cross had gone out hunting and his groom, orderly, sweeper, waterman, milkman and dhobi were all celebrating Holi. No sooner had the sahib left than they drank a deep draught of bhang, and were now sitting in the garden singing the lusty songs of Phaag. They glanced at the gate every now and then to see if the sahib had returned. But it was Sheikh Noor Ali who presently came and stood before them.

“So Khansamaji, when is the sahib coming back?”

“The fellow can come back when he likes, but I am quitting today. I shan’t serve him anymore.”

“You will never find a job like this again,” said the orderly. “The pay is good and you can also make a bit on the side. No reason why you should leave.”

“Hang it all, I say. I shan’t be a slave any more. They kick us around all the time and yet we go on slaving for them! I am quitting this place today. But come, let me give all of you a treat first. Follow me, be seated and feel at home in the dining room, and I shall serve you such fine drinks as will truly warm your hearts.”

“What if the sahib were to return all of a sudden?”

“He won’t return for a while yet. Come right in.”

Servants of British masters are often drunkards themselves. As soon as they enlist to serve the sahibs, they too become subject to the same affliction. When the master swigs bottle after bottle, why shouldn’t the servants do the same? At this invitation then, all of them brightened up. They were already high on bhang. They left their drums and cymbals right there and, following Noor Ali, went indoors and sat at the dining table. Noor Ali opened a bottle of Scotch whisky, filled the glasses and they all began to quaff. When those used to coarser stuff found such fine liquor flowing they began to empty glass after glass. The khansama, too, did all he could to abet them. In a short while they had lost their heads and lost all fear too. One started to sing a traditional Holi song, and another joined in. The singing picked up. Noor Ali brought in the drums and cymbals and a concert got under way. As they sang on, one of them got up and began to dance. Another joined him. Soon all were cavorting around the room. A big hullabaloo arose. They proceeded from singing Kabir to Phaag to Chautal to trading abuses and even roughing each other up. Fearless, they felt truly at home. Chairs were knocked down, pictures came off walls, and someone even upturned the table. Another began throwing plates in the air and juggling them.

Such were the uproarious goings-on when Lala Ujagarmal, a rich man of the city, arrived. When he saw this strange sight he was dumbfounded. He asked the khansama, “What’s all this commotion, Sheikhji? What would the sahib say if he were to see all this?”

Noor Ali replied, “But what can we do if these are the sahib’s own orders? He has decreed a feast for all his servants today and asked us to celebrate Holi. We hear the Lat Sahib, his lordship the viceroy himself, has issued orders to all sahibs to socialise with the people and participate in all their festivals. That’s why our sahib has given this order, though normally he wouldn’t even look at us. Come in, please, and be seated. What can I get for you? A new consignment of liquor has just arrived from England.”

Ujagarmal, who had been awarded the title of Rai Sahib by the British, was a gentleman of liberal ideas. He attended British dinners without any qualms, followed a Western lifestyle, was the moving spirit behind the Union Club, was thick with the British generally, and regarded Mr Cross as an especially dear friend. In fact, he had always been close to the district magistrate, whoever he happened to be. On Noor Ali’s invitation he took a seat and said, “Is that so? Right, then, bring on something special. And let someone sing a ghazal.”

“Yes, sir, anything for you, sir.”

Ujagarmal had already had a couple before leaving home; when he’d had a few more, he asked unsteadily, “So, Noor Ali, will the sahib too play Holi today?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But I haven’t brought any colours or anything with me. Send someone at once to my bungalow to fetch some, and a few water pistols.”

He joked happily with the groom, Ghasite, about what fun it all was.

Ghasite exclaimed, “What fun, what fun. Happy Holi!”

Ujagarmal began to sing. “I’m going to play Holi with the sahib today, I’m going to play Holi with the sahib today, oh, I am going to aim my water pistol at him.”

Ghasite: “I’ll smear him with coloured powder.”

Milkman: “I’ll cover him in a cloud of colour.”

Dhobi: “I’ll guzzle bottle after bottle.”

Orderly: “I’ll sing Kabir after Kabir.”

Ujagarmal: “I’ll play Holi with the sahib today.”

Noor Ali: “Hey, watch out, everyone! I can hear the sahib’s motorcar entering the compound. Rai Sahib, here, I’ve got your colours and water pistols, so just start to sing a song now and, as the sahib enters, shoot your water pistol at him. All of you now, go ahead and cover his face with colour. The sahib will be beside himself with joy. The car is in the driveway. Ready, steady...!”


Mr Cross got out of the car, rifle in hand and began calling for his servants, but with the Chautal song in full flow, no one could hear him. Puzzled, he wondered at first what was wrong. Was that singing coming from his bungalow? This was too much! His face contorting with rage, Mr Cross took hold of his riding whip and approached the dining room, but no sooner had he stepped in than Ujagarmal discharged his water pistol. He was utterly drenched and some coloured water got into his eyes. As he was wiping his eyes, the groom and the milkman and all the others ran up, got hold of the sahib and rubbed coloured powder all over his face. The dhobi picked up some oil and soot and blackened the sahib’s face with it! The sahib’s rage knew no bounds, and he began thrashing around blindly with his whip. The poor souls had thought that the sahib would be pleased and give them a big tip, but on being whipped instead, they quickly came to their senses and ran helter-skelter.

When Ujagarmal saw things take such a turn he realised at once that Noor Ali had taken him for a ride. He shrank into a corner. When the room had emptied of all servants, the sahib advanced towards him. Ujagarmal was scared out of his wits. He bolted out of the room and ran as fast as his feet could carry him, with the sahib close on his heels. Ujagarmal’s carriage was parked outside the gate. Sensing the commotion, the horse gave a start, pricked its ears and ran off with the carriage behind it. What a scene it was, with the horse and carriage in front, Ujagarmal chasing it, and Mr Cross chasing him, whip in hand. All three were bolting as if they had broken free of their reins. Ujagarmal tripped but promptly picked himself up and was off again before the sahib could catch up. The chase lasted till they were out of the grounds and on to the open road. Finally, the sahib stopped. To proceed further with soot on his face would be ridiculous. In any case, he thought Ujagarmal had probably been punished enough. He decided to go and sort out the servants, and so turned back. Ujagarmal breathed again; in fact, he sat down right where he was to catch his breath. The horse, too, stuttered to a halt. The coachman got down, attended to Ujagarmal, picked him up in his arms and deposited him in the carriage.


Ujagarmal was the leader of the all the cooperators and collaborators in the city. He had complete faith in the continuing goodwill of the British and always sang praises of all kinds of progress being made under their rule. In all his speeches, he took the non-cooperators to task. Recently he had risen further in the esteem of the British and had been given several government contracts which had previously been the preserve of British contractors. As cooperation with the British had brought him both honour and wealth, he secretly wished the non-cooperators to carry on with their ways even as he denounced them. He thought of non-cooperation as a passing fad and was keen to make hay while the sun shone. Even as he carried exaggerated reports of the doings of the non-cooperators, he secretly laughed at the British for giving credence to such reports. As he rose in the esteem of the British, so he rose in his own esteem. He was no longer as timid as before. As he sat in his carriage and his breath returned to normal, he began to reflect on what had just happened. Surely Noor Ali played a trick on me, he thought, “He must be in league with the non-cooperators. But even if the British do not play Holi, flying into such a rage shows that they do not look upon us as any better than dogs. How proud they are of their authority over us! He chased me with a whip! Now I know that whatever little regard he showed for me earlier was merely a pretence. In their hearts they must think of us as low and mean people. That little spurt of red colour from the water pistol was no bullet; it wouldn’t have killed him. Don’t we go to church at Christmas and send them baskets full of gifts, though that’s no festival of ours? But this fellow got so mad just because I squirted some coloured water on him! Oh, what an insult! I should have stood up to him and openly confronted him. To have run away was cowardice. That’s what encourages them to roar like lions. There can be no doubt that through winning some of us over they want to crush the non-cooperators. All their courtesy and civility is only a ruse to serve their self-interest. They are still as haughty and they are still as tyrannical; there is no difference.”

The more Ujagarmal reflected on the matter, the more agitated he grew. Such utter humiliation! The thought of his insult would not go away and quite overwhelmed him. “This is the fruit of all my cooperation,” he lamented. “This is just what I deserve. How pleased I was at their expressions of goodwill. How stupid of me not to realise that between the master and the slave there can be no friendship. How I laughed at the non-cooperators for wanting to have nothing to do with the British. It turns out that it’s not they who are laughable, it’s I who am ridiculous.” He did not go home but went straight to the office of the Congress committee. There he found a huge assembly. The committee had invited everyone, the high and the low, the touchables and the untouchables, to come together to celebrate Holi. Hindus and Muslims sat together playing Holi with the greatest affection and warmth. A feast of fruits had been laid out so that all castes could partake of it. When he arrived, someone was in the middle of making a speech. Ujagarmal got out of his carriage but felt embarrassed to go forward and join the meeting. Walking in gingerly, he went and stood in a corner. Everyone was shocked to see him there and stared at him, wondering what on earth this archpriest of the sycophants thought he was doing here. Shouldn’t he have been at some meeting of collaborators passing a resolution pledging his loyalty? “Maybe he has come to spy on us,” they thought, and to bait him shouted, “Victory to Congress!”

Ujagarmal shouted loudly, “Victory to non-cooperation!”

The response came, “Down with sycophants!”

Ujagarmal shouted even more loudly, “Down with lickspittles!”

So saying and filling everyone with amazement, he went up to the platform and said in a contrite tone, “Gentlemen, friends, forgive me for having non-cooperated with you so far. I beg your forgiveness from the bottom of my heart. Do not think of me as a spy or an infiltrator or a betrayer like Vibhishana. Today the veil has been lifted from my eyes. Today, on this sacred day of Holi, I have come to embrace you in love and affection. Kindly treat me with indulgence and generosity. Today I have been punished for having betrayed you. The district magistrate today humiliated me dreadfully. I was whipped by him again and again and I have now come here to seek refuge. I have been a traitor to the nation, an enemy of my people. For the sake of my selfishness and because of my distrust of you, I have done a great disservice to the nation and put hurdles in your path. When I think of all my misdeeds I wish I could smash my heart to pieces.” (A voice piped up: “Go right ahead! And just let me know if you need any help!” The chairman: “This is no time for bitter words.”) “No, I need no help from anyone, I can do the job very well myself; but first I must do great penance and atone for all my sins. I hope to spend the rest of my days doing just such penance, washing the muck off my face. All I beg of you is to give me a chance to reform myself; please trust me and consider me a humble servant of yours. From now on, I dedicate myself to you with body, soul and all I have.”

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

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