Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ and Poor Economics

Esther Duflo on May 2, delivering the first of her Tanner lectures. (Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer)

For some days after I went to listen to Esther Duflo’s Tanner lectures, I couldn’t get Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ out of my head.

Duflo’s lectures, organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, were on May 2 and 3. (A seminar was held on May 4.)  It was the first time in many years that an economist had been invited to deliver the Tanner lectures. For a ‘Nobelisable’ economist, Duflo is astonishingly young (not yet 40). I don’t know how much of a success the lectures were. I don’t think they rose above the level of a classroom PowerPoint presentation (by a by a very bright teacher, of course) for many of the people I saw on the first day (‘Paternalism versus Freedom’) were absent on the second (‘Hope as Capability’).  As for me, my mind segued from development economics to literature. I began to think of Premchand’s classic.

In 2003 Esther Duflo and her MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee (with Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan) founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab ((J-PAL) at MIT. J-PAL conducts micro tests to assess the effectiveness of development programmes and is credited with introducing empiricism to development economics. Some of the work Banerjee and Duflo have done  among the poor in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and other countries can be found in their  bestselling book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2011), described as ‘Freakonomics for the billion people on earth who live on less than a dollar a day.’

A few years ago I supervised a doctoral thesis on the representation of domestic servants in Indian English fiction.  My colleague Sanjib Sahoo, who was doing the work, was on to something when he argued that the Indian servant,  so ubiquitous a presence in our upper or middle class lives, is in fact invisible and silent.  One of the many passages he cited was this seemingly innocuous one from Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August:

The Garhwali servant, a cheerful teenager, appeared, said, ‘namaste’ and took away Agastya’s bag. Agastya had spent, off and on, almost six years in that house . . . It was a three-bedroom house, simple . . . The servant cooked well. Simple things, good food, a lawn shaded by neem, jaracanda and gulmohar . . . in Madna his only ambition had grown to be to clutch these simple things.

The passage effaces the ‘cheerful’, (significantly nameless) teenaged Garhwali servant’s daily labour of keeping the house in order – the endless routines of cooking and cleaning – and his years of exploitation (and the many more to come). Watching Sahoo’s thesis develop thorough chapters like ‘Marginalization of Servant’s Labour’, ‘Marginalization of the Servant’s Body’, and ‘Marginalization of the Servant’s Space’ was a way of becoming aware of the inadequacy of one’s responses to the poor.

In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo relate an anecdote about Oucha Mbarbk, a poor man they met in a remote Moroccan village. They ask him what he would do if he had money. Mbarbk replies that he would buy more food. They ask him what he would do if he had more money. He replies that he would buy better-tasting food. ‘We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna, and a DVD player in the room we were sitting. We asked him why he had bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat. He laughed, and said, “Oh, but television is more important than food!” Living in the village, Banerjee and Duflo began to see Mbarbk’s point. Since he (and the other villagers) had worked only for seventy days that year in agriculture and thirty in construction, it made sense to buy things that made life less boring and brutal.

If this sounds irresponsible, like our servants who buy cellphones when they really ought to be saving, reading Poor Economics makes you realize it isn’t. The book shows why development aid based on the belief that the poor will always make the right choices is often ineffective. The poor don’t always make the right choices – not because they are perverse but because they have their reasons. An example Duflo constantly cited in her lectures was that of chlorinated water: poor people neglect to use chlorine tablets even when they are supplied free. This is partly because the poor are less well informed about health hazards. But if, like the poor, people like us (who have access to quality drinking water) too had to daily chlorinate our drinking water, it is possible that we may not do so for the same reason we find it difficult  to stick to our New Year’s resolutions. Poor Economics also makes us realize how the poor live with the knowledge that their lives will not improve. To a poor man like Oucha Mbarbk who knows there is no realistic chance of improving his lot, it makes sense to maximize the moment.  As Banerjee and Duflo put it, the poor ‘have to be sophisticated economists just to survive.’

After the first day’s lecture, I walked over to the Widener to see if I could borrow ‘Kafan’. I had read the story years ago as a college student. The book I found on the shelves was Premchand: The Shroud and 20 Other Stories translated by Madan Gopal (Sagar Publications: New Delhi, 1972).

The story (spoiler alert!) is about two utterly poor and ‘notorious’ village cobblers, Ghisu and his son Madhav. ‘If Ghisu worked for one day, he would rest for three. Madhav was such a shirker that for every half hour of work he would smoke for one hour.’  When the story begins it is a winter night and  Budhia, Madhav’s wife, is in the throes of child-birth. ‘If she must die why doesn’t she hurry?’ asks Madhav. He wonders what he will do if a baby is born. Ghisu replies, ‘Everything will come – let God give the baby first.’ ‘In a society where the lot of the hard-working peasant was not better than theirs’, Premchand comments, ‘and where only those who exploited the poor enjoyed the plums, such an attitude was nothing surprising. We might even say that Ghisu was much wiser than the peasants. Instead of following the herd of unthinking peasants, he had joined the unsavoury ranks of idlers, though he lacked the means to follow the ways and principles of the tribe.’

Sometime in the night, when father and son are asleep, Budhia dies with the child in her womb. In the morning, Madhav and Ghisu go to the zamindar because they have no money to cremate her. ‘The zamindar had a kind heart, but to do a good turn to Ghisu was like dying a black blanket.’ However, he gives them some money. Ghisu and Madhav go to the bazaar to buy a shroud for Budhia. But ‘led by some mysterious power, they found themselves in front of a tavern and, as if the visit was pre-determined, entered it.’  They make merry in the tavern, drinking and feasting until (this is how the story ends) ‘in the end they fell down – dead drunk.’

V.S. Naipaul called Premchand a writer much concerned with middle-class morality. When I read ‘Kafan’ as a college student, it was mostly in a judgmental way. I was following Premchand: his disapproval of Ghisu and Madhav is unmistakable. But Premchand also had real understanding of what brute poverty does to people – and makes the reader feel it. That is why ‘Kafan’ had come back to me like a half remembered song.  Duflo’s lectures and Poor Economics clarified a couple of things for me  but the great writer had always known.