When a new department banning open trade in salt (a free gift of God) was set up, people began to trade it illegally. Many crooked ways were invented: Some took to bribing, others to smuggling. The government officials had a great time. People gave up the universally honoured office of the patwari and turned to this department. Even the lawyers hankered after the salt inspector's post. It was a time when people regarded the English education synonymous with Christianity. Persian was the dominant language; and Persian-knowing persons, well-read in love stories and erotic literature, were able to get appointed to the highest posts.
Munshi Vanshidhar, too, having read the unrequited love story of Zulekhan, rating the love stories of Majnu and Farhad far above the achievements of Nal and Neel and the discovery of America, went out in search of employment. His father was a worldly-wise man. He gave the young man the following advice:
Son, you well understand our sad plight. We are under a heavy debt. There're girls in the family, who are growing up fast like weeds. I'm like a tree that is likely to collapse anytime. Now you're the master and head of the family. Don't bother about the status in a service, which is like the mausoleum of a pir. Your eyes should always be fixed on chadders and offerings. Look for a job with an 'over-and-above-the-salary' income. The monthly salary is like the full moon which is visible only for a day, and wanes each successive day and then disappears. The over-and-above income is like a flowing stream that regularly quenches your thirst. Salary is given by man, which does not take you far; the over-and-above income is the gift of God, which leads to prosperity. You are a scholar yourself and don't need to be taught anything. One needs to use one's understanding. Look at man and his needs, and his opportunities. Then do what you think is best. It always pays to be tough with a person needing favours from you. But it is difficult to tame one who does not need any favour from you. Keep this in your mind. This is my lifetime's capital.'
After this sermon the father gave his blessings. Vanshidhar was an obedient son. He listened attentively to all this and then walked out of his home. In this vast world perseverance was his friend, intelligence his guide and self-reliance his aid. But since he had an auspicious start, he was appointed to the post of a salt inspector as soon as he had stepped out. The salary was good, and there was no limit to over-and- above income. When the old Munshi received this happy news he was overjoyed. His creditors became a bit soft. The hopes of old revelries revived. The neighours became green with jealousy.
It was a winter night. The constables and watchmen of the Salt Department were dead drunk. Munshi Vanshidhar had been here only for six months but he had impressed his officers with his efficiency and spotless conduct. They had begun to trust him wholeheartedly. The river Yamuna flowed about a mile away from the office of the Salt Department, where there was a boat-bridge over the river. The inspector had shut the doors and was sound asleep. Suddenly he woke up only to hear the noise of bullock carts and the shouts of boatmen instead of the sound of the flowing river. He wondered why there were carts crossing the river at such an hour. There was surely something fishy. A short reflection strengthened his suspicions. He immediately put on his uniform, pocketed his pistol and rode his horse and reached the river bridge in no time. He saw a long line of bullock carts going across the bridge. He demanded, 'Whose carts are these?'
There was no answer for some time. Then after a few whisperings among the men one of them said, 'Pandit Alopidin's.'
'Who's Pandit Alopidin?'
Vanshidhar was taken aback. Pandit Alopidin was the most prominent landlord of this area. He had a turnover of lakhs, and there was no trader, big or small, who was not under his obligation. He had a huge business, and was a very enterprising person. The Englishmen, who came here hunting, were his regular guests. This hospitality went on round the year.
The inspector asked, 'Where are the carts headed to?'
When he asked what was loaded in them there was a stunning silence. The inspector's suspicions were mounting. When he did not get any reply he shouted, 'Are you all deaf? Tell me what's inside these carts.' When he got no reply even after this, he moved his horse close to one of the carts to examine the load. His suspicions were confirmed. This was salt indeed.
Pandit Alopidin was following the convoy in his ornamental chariot, lying half asleep and half awake. All of a sudden a few rattled-up cart drivers came and woke him up. 'Maharaj, the inspector has stopped the carts. He's at the river bank and has summoned you.'
Pandit Alopidin had unshakable faith in the goddess Lakshmi. He used to say that not only on earth, the goddess Lakshmi reigned even in heaven. This was the plain truth. Justice and policy, both are playthings of Lakshmi. She can make them dance to any tune. Still lying down, he spoke out with great confidence, 'Go, I'm coming.'
Saying this Panditji rolled a paan for himself with great nonchalance. Covering himself in a quilt he walked towards the inspector and said, 'God bless you, babuji. Tell me how I have erred that my carts have been stopped. You should be kind to us Brahmins.'
Vanshidhar said in a cold, brusque manner, 'By the government's order.'
Pandit Alopidin laughed and said, 'I don't know what you mean by the Government's order, or the Government. For us you're the Government. It's all between us, our family affair. How can we be outsiders? You needn't have taken this trouble. It is impossible that we should pass this way and go away without offering anything to the god of this Ghat. I was myself coming to you.'
Vanshidhar was unmoved by this captivating tune from the flute of wealth. New to his job, he was riding on the wave of honesty. He spoke in a harsh tone, 'I'm not one of those who would sell their honour for a few coweries. You're under arrest now. You'll be challaned according to the law. I don't have time to waste. Jamadaar Badlu Singh, arrest him and take him along. This is my order.'
Panditji was dumbfounded; the cart drivers at sixes and sevens. This was the first time ever in his life that Panditji had to listen to such rude talk. Badlu Singh moved forward but did not have the courage to hold Panditji's hand. Panditji had never seen Dharma insulting Artha in such a manner. He thought the inspector was being rude and unmannerly, having not yet succumbed to temptation. He is too young and hesitant. Pandit Alopidin played a very humble tune.
'Babu sahib, don't do this. I'll be ruined. My reputation will be destroyed. What'll you gain by insulting me? I 'm not a stranger to you in any way.'
Vanshidhar answered rudely. 'I don't want to hear all this.'
The ground that Alopidin thought was rock solid appeared to be slipping from under his feet. Both prestige and wealth had been hit hard. Even then he had full faith in the numerical strength of wealth. He said to his assistant, 'Offer one thousand rupees to the sahib. He's behaving like a hungry lion.'
'Vanshidhar became angry. He said, 'Forget one thousand, even one lakh won't shake me from the path of truth.'
Panditji was annoyed at Dharma's blind stubbornness and this renunciation rare even among gods. Both the powers now engaged in warfare. Artha began to raise the stakes. From one to five, from five to ten, from ten to fifteen, and from fifteen it reached to twenty thousand. But Dharma with its superhuman bravery stood unmoved like a mountain against this vast numerical strength.
Alopidin was helpless now. He said, ' I can't go beyond this. You may do whatever you like.'
Vanshidhar shouted at the Jamadar. Badlu Singh advanced towards Pandit Alopidin, cursing the inspector in his heart. Panditji drew back in fright. He spoke with great humility, 'Babu sahib, for God's sake have pity on me. I'm willing to settle it for twenty five thousand.'
'Not even at forty thousand?'
'Not even forty lakhs. It's impossible. Badlu Singh arrest this man immediately. I don't want to hear another word.'
Dharma had crushed Artha under its feet. Alopidin saw a strong man advancing towards him with handcuffs. He looked around helplessly with pleading eyes. Then he fell down in a swoon.
About the book:
The Salt Inspector is about an Inspector of Salt, who enforces government monopoly with utmost sincerity. For his honesty, he spurns offers of fabulous wealth and even suffers suspension from service.
Premchand, famous for his 'village-realism', pens down, with exquisite simplicity and style, one of the best short stories written by an Indian writer.
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