‘Forty Years’: A Kashmiri story in translation

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Translated from Kashmiri by Neerja Mattoo.

This was the last day. After forty years, Sansar Chand would be free. By now he had been beaten hollow; all the pulp was gone, only the shell remained.

How he had waited for the day when his son, Kundanji, began to earn, marking the dawn of his own freedom. Unemployed for three years after graduation, Kundanji had finally found a job. Sansar Chand felt like a king. He felt as if his son had not just become a clerk but scaled some unconquered peak of glory. On the very day his son received his letter of appointment, Sansar Chand gave notice to his employer. He would quit at the end of the month. God had heeded his prayers—his son had found employment on a salary of 600 rupees. With his own pension of 200 rupees, it would be quite enough for the family of four—the old couple and their two sons. Not that he had anything against private service. For him, life itself had been never-ending slavery. He would often say, “Look at me—a born slave! I began life as the government’s slave, and now I am the Seth’s slave. I was a drudge then and I am drudge now—the yoke has never been lifted,”

But now, at last, he was convinced that the days of his slavery were ending—his son had found a job and he could stop worrying!

Today was his last day. Sansar Chand had never been happier. His son Kundanji was bringing home his first pay packet—400 rupees. He himself had been paid 400 by the Seth, and with his pension of 200, it added up to 600. But the 600 his son would bring home seemed an enormous sum to him—more like 6,000 or even 6,00,000! I cannot believe that he could have felt as elated at the sight of his own first pay as he did today at the thought of his son’s. My own pay was not more than Sansar Chand’s—just about 400—but I felt rich for I could spend it just as I pleased. The house was run by my father and elder brother. Since I was single, hardly any responsibilities burdened me. There was a world of difference between my situation and that of Sansar Chand. In spite of a hand-to-mouth existence, he had not only given his daughter a substantial dowry, but also fulfilled every demand from her in-laws. He had even got into debt to ensure her happiness.

In order to run his house, educate his two sons, and feel somewhat secure, he had been forced to work for the Seth. But now, after years of running between pillar and post, appeasing God only knows how many devils, one of his sons had found employment. This was the moment Sansar Chand had been waiting for all these years, during which he must have told me at least 7,000 times, “Do you hear, Majid Bhai, the day Kundanji gets a job will be the day of my release—for too long I have been somebody’s slave!”

Sansar Chand was very good at his work. Our Seth had never got along with those of his employees who understood the business of accounting, but Sansar Chand had been able to win his trust. In spite of knowing all about the Seth’s business dealings he quietly followed all instructions, keeping the accounts without questioning Sethji’s ethics. He would justify it thus: “The Seth is responsible for his own sins; I only follow orders. We just happen to be his employees, no better than slaves and, therefore, already serving a sentence of penal servitude. Are we not serving a sentence rigorous enough? And what do we get for all this? Just 400 rupees on the seventh of every month!”

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But on the seventh of the month, he would still touch his eyes with the 400-rupee pay packet, kiss it, and put it in his pocket, saying, “Masjid Bhai, why don’t you plead with your God to let my Kundanji find a job quickly? And then, I shall relax to my heart’s content. I have never had a peaceful night’s sleep, even after my retirement. First it used to be the fear of reaching the office late and annoying the boss, and now I keep awake with the worry that the shop must have opened—the Seth must have left his home…”

I knew that tonight, for the first time, Sansar Chand would sleep through the night, in peace, in freedom. Now he was nobody’s slave. I myself had no experience of working for the government, but I agreed with Sansar Chand that private employment, particularly working for the Seth, was certainly worse than slavery, with any “rights” existing only in the imagination. The employee is not supposed to be an individual, his only identity lay in the fact that he belonged to the Seth, body and soul—not only he, but all his ancestors, his family, even his neighbourhood—all must consider themselves the bonded slaves of the Seth. Throughout the day he is subjected to all sorts of humiliations, forced to listen to remarks questioning his pedigree, character, ability: “Where the hell have you sprung from? Don’t you have the least sense of how to deal with a customer? You eat enough for two or three, but your output? Zero! Which dumb mohalla bears you as its curse? Good for nothing! Fit for nothing at all!”

But, to tell the truth, our Seth was not that bad. He did not ill-treat his employees all the time. He was a much-travelled man and once or twice every month, he would take a trip to Delhi, Bombay, or Calcutta. But even then he thought nothing of making his employees do his domestic chores: collecting the ration, fetching the gas cylinder, escorting his children to school and back, paying his electricity and water bills. It was having to do these household errands for the Seth that I hated the most. But, the others at the shop did it willingly, as did Sansar Chand. He used to say that once you become the Seth’s servant, how did it matter whether you worked at his shop or his house? If there was no work in the shop, he would extract it elsewhere.


It was winter, cold and frosty, a drab heavy atmosphere, under a brooding sky. The roads were puddles of snow and water; the bazaars as empty as people’s pockets. There was nothing green to be seen anywhere, no new faces, hardly anything to distinguish one face from another. Their heads bound in helmet-like woollen caps, clad in thick pherans or cardigans and overcoats, everyone looked worn-out—just like Sansar Chand. But no, he looked different. For the past month, Sansar Chand’s face had acquired a glow—a month since his son Kundanji began working. In his son’s job he had seen mirrored the dreams of a secure, happy old age and now, they were about to become a concrete reality.

Today was his last day at the shop. My heart felt somewhat heavy. During the past few years, a strange bond had been forged between the two of us. At the same time, I was happy that he was going to be free. How long could he have dragged himself about? For the past forty years, it had been one long tale of drudgery. Surely, he deserved rest. If his son did not provide it, who would?

Sansar Chand met all his fellow employees, bade them goodbye, and left.

“Sansar Chandji, do keep in touch, and drop in occasionally, will you?” I said and walked with him up to the main road. “God knows whether we would ever meet again,” I wondered for a long time that night before I went to sleep.

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Sansar Chand turned up at the shop as usual the next morning, creating a flurry. He went straight up to the Seth and said, “Sir, I want to withdraw my notice.” All the employees were pleased—the Seth most of all. But not I. Taking Sansar Chand aside, I asked, “You were going to rest and enjoy your leisure. Didn’t you want to make up for all those forty years of toil? Didn’t you say that you wanted freedom from servitude? Then what happened? Didn’t Kundanji get his pay?”

“Oh yes, he got it all right,” the words seemed to be drawn from him with some effort. “But before reaching home, he had spent it all. On clothes, shoes, and other stuff. What he said was quite right though. In my selfishness, it is I who had lost a sense of proportion.”

“But what did he say?” I asked impatiently.

“He said that he had his needs, his personal expenses, and why couldn’t the house run as it had all these years, without his pay?”

I found it hard to meet Sansar Chand’s eyes. Shame suffused my whole being. I could hardly say a thing.

On the seventh of that month when I received my pay packet, I handed every paisa to my father. He could hardly believe his eyes—he almost collapsed at the sight of the money.

Original title: “To Slavery Born”

Selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy of Aleph Book Company

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

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