A Complex Problem

English Translation of Munshi Premchand's Hindi Story विषम समस्या (Visham Samasya)

There were four peons in my office, and one of them was named Gharib. He was really simple, very obedient, deft in his job, silent even when rebuked. True to his name[1], he was a poor, humble fellow. It had been about a year since I came to this office, and I had never seen him miss a day at work. I was so used to seeing him sitting on his torn down mat every morning at nine, that it seemed he was a part of the building. He was so nice that he did not refuse anyone anything. Another peon was a Muslim. The whole office was afraid of him; I am not sure why. In my opinion, the only reason for this was his boastfulness. He claimed his cousin was a Qazi[2] in the state of Rampur, and his uncle was a police chief in the state of Tonk. He had unanimously been given the title of 'Qazi Sahib' . The other two gentlemen were Brahmins by caste. Just their blessings were a lot more valuable than their work. All three were shirkers, arrogant, and lazy. Ask them to do a small chore and they would not do it without making a fuss. They wouldn’t think anything at all of the clerks. They were a little afraid of the office manager, though they would sometimes disrespect even him. Even after so many bad qualities, no one in the office had such a bad standing as poor Gharib did. When it was appraisal time, the other three would get the high grades, and nobody would even care about Gharib. While everyone else was paid ten rupees each, Gharib was stuck at seven. He would not rest for even a minute from morning till evening. Even the three peons would order him around, and the poor man would have no share in their tips and bribes. On top of that everyone from the employees to the manager were miffed with him. He had been complained against so many times, fined a number of times, and getting rebuked and reprimanded was a daily occurrence with him. I just didn’t understand the secret of all this. I pitied him and I wanted to show with my treatment of him that in my eyes he had no less respect than the other three peons. I had even argued with other employees for him so many times.


One day, the manager asked Gharib to clean his table, which he started to do right away. Coincidentally, the duster hit the inkpot, which fell down; and the ink spilled onto the table. The manager saw this and got infuriated. He caught him by his ears and twisted them and started swearing at him with choicest profanities from all of India’s known languages. Poor Gharib kept listening with tears in his eyes and standing like a statue, as if he had committed a murder. I felt so bad about the manager’s pugnacious attitude over such a trivial matter. If another peon had committed even a bigger crime, he would not have been struck with such a fierce reprimand. I said to him in English, “Sir, you are being unjust. He did not spill the ink on purpose. Punishing him so severely is the height of impropriety.”

The manager said humbly, “You don’t know him. He is a scoundrel.”

“I don’t see any evil in him.”

“You haven’t known him yet. He is a rogue. His household farms with two bullocks. His dealings are in thousands of rupees, and he owns a number of buffalos. These are the things that he is arrogant about.”

“If he were so well off, why would he work as a peon in your office?”

“Trust me, he is really hard-shelled, and extremely stingy on top of that.”

“Well, even if he is, I don’t think it is a crime.”

“Mister, you don’t understand these things. Spend some more time here and you will figure out what kind of a rascal he is.”

Another gentleman spoke up, “Sir, his household produces maunds of milk and curds, maunds of peas, millet and gram, but he never even thinks of giving something to people at the office. We always yearn for such stuff here. So, why wouldn’t we be angry? He has got all this after he got employment here. He didn’t own a grain before that.”

The manager seemed embarrassed. He said, “That is not an issue. He owns all this, so it doesn’t matter if he shares it or not. But even otherwise, he is an animal.”

I started to get a gist of the matter. I said, “If he is such a mean hearted person, then he is really an animal. I didn’t know all this.”

Now the manager also opened up. He said, “Not that such gifts make anyone rich; it just goes to show the magnanimity of the giver. Moreover, you come to have expectations from those who are worthy. If someone is incapable, nobody expects anything from him. Who would take from an unclothed person?”

The secret was out. The manager had explained the whole situation in simple words. Everyone is an enemy of others’ prosperity; not just the little man, even a rich person is. If our relatives are poor, we don’t expect anything from them. More likely, we just forget about them. But if they are well-healed and don’t care about us, or don’t send us gifts on festivals, we become green with envy. If we visit an impoverished friend, we are happy getting served with just a mouthful of paan[3], but which person wouldn’t curse and forever hate a well-to-do friend after returning unfed from the friend's house. If Sudama[4] had returned dissatisfied from Krishna’s home, he would perhaps have become his worst enemy – worse than Shishupal and Jarasandh were. This is human nature.


A few days later I asked Gharib, “Why dear, do you have any farming business at home?”

Gharib said in a humble tone, “Yes, master, I do. We have a couple of servants. They are the ones who do the work.”

“Do you own cows and buffalos too?”

“Yes, sir, there are two buffalos. It’s just that the cows are not pregnant yet. Sir, it is people’s benevolence that helps us make our ends meet.”

“Do you ever give treats to the clerks at the office too?”

Gharib said with utmost modesty, “Sir, how can I give treats to the masters? What else do I get in my farming besides barley, gram, maize or millet? You people are like kings; how dare I present these crude things to you? My heart fears at the prospect of getting censured, for how did a man worth a penny dare such. This is why sir, I don’t dare. Otherwise, what would some milk and curd have been worth? A present should be worthy of the receiver.”

“I say why don’t you try and give them something someday, and see what they say. In the city, people don’t get such things. These people sometimes get tempted by small things.”

“And master, what if someone says something? What if someone complains to the office manager and I won’t be worth anything.”

“I take responsibility for that; nobody will say anything. If anyone does, I will explain it to them.”

“Right, sir. These days peas are being harvested. Grams are getting green, and even the sugarcane squeezer is up and ready. There is nothing else besides this.”

“So, just get them these things.”

“Yes sir, as I said, I will see what I can do.”

Next day when Gharib came, there were three well-built youths with him. On the heads of two of them were baskets, which were full of pea pods. On the head of the third was a pitcher full of sugarcane juice. All three had sugarcane bundles under their arms. Gharib came and quietly stood under a tree in front of the verandah. He wasn’t able to summon the courage to come into the office, as if he was a criminal. Just then, the peons and other employees of the office surrounded him. One started munching on a sugarcane stick, while others jumped upon the baskets. It was a free for all. In the meantime, the office manager reached the office. He saw the spectacle and said in a loud voice, “What is this crowding about? Go and do your work, each of you.”

I went and whispered into his ear, “Gharib has brought gifts from his home. Take some for yourself, and distribute some among these people.”

The office head feigned anger, “Gharib, why did you bring these things here? Take these things back, or I will report this to the higher ups. Do you think we are fools?”

All color left Gharib’s face. He started trembling. He was left speechless. He started looking at me with a guilty look in his eyes.

I pleaded on his behalf. After a lot of discussion, the manager was convinced. He sent half of everything to his own home. The other half was distributed among others. That was the end of this drama.


Now, Gharib started getting popular in the office. Now he wouldn't get yelled at constantly, wouldn’t have to run around all day. He wouldn't have to hear the sarcasm of the staffers and the ridicule of his colleagues. The peons would do his work for him. Even his name underwent a little change. From Gharib, he became Gharibdas. His character went through a transformation too. In place of modesty, cockiness took root. Diligence was replaced by lethargy. Now he would sometimes come late to office, and at other times pretend sickness and stay home. Now all his transgressions were pardonable. He had found the key to his respectability. Every week or two, he would get milk and curds and present it to the office head. He had learnt to gratify the gods. In place of humility, he had now gained wickedness.

One day, the office manager sent him to the station to claim a parcel of government forms. There were a number of large bundles of paper, and were transported on a cart. Gharib negotiated 12 annas[5] as labor with the cart driver. When the papers reached the office, he obtained 12 annas from the office head for the cart driver. But when he came out of the office, he changed his mind. He asked for his cut. The cart driver did not agree. Gharib got angry and kept all money in his pocket and threatened the cart drivers, “Now you are not getting a penny. Go and complain where you want to. Let me see what you can do to me.”

When the cart driver saw that he was going to lose the whole money if he didn’t give a commission, he was agreed to pay 4 annas to Gharib. Gharib gave him 8 annas, had him put his thumb impression on a receipt for 12 annas and submitted the receipt to the office. When I saw this, I was flabbergasted. This is the same Gharib who, a few months back, was an epitome of simplicity and humbleness – one who didn’t dare ask the peons for his own share of the money, who didn't know how to bribe others, not to say of taking a bribe. When I saw this transformation, I was extremely saddened. Who was responsible for this? Obviously, it was I who taught him the first lesson of arrogance and wickedness. A question arose in my mind -- wasn’t the timidity that let him tolerate injustice from others better than the arrogance with which he tramples upon others. The moment in which I showed him the path to respectability was a bad omen, because what I actually showed him was a dangerous path to his downfall. I sacrificed his self-esteem for his external esteem.

Meanings of some Hindustani words and terms in context:
1. Gharib = Poor
2. Qazi = An Islamic Judge
3. Paan = Chewing betel leaf
4. Sudama = Krishna's poor friend in the Mahabharata
5. Anna = 1/16th of a Rupee in India's old currency system


  1. i want to read the history of munshi premchand

  2. good one....that's why i like Munshi premchand...

  3. Great, Munshi Premchandji is the king of stories...