‘Idgah’ is an iconic story by Munshi Premchand. Its protagonist Hamid — that poor, small thing — braves prejudices and poverty to purchase a pair of tongs on Eid for his frail grandmother who ends up burning her fingers while making rotis. Hamid is a creature of the culture of poverty. He has only three paise and he is acutely aware of the value of money. The sense of deprivation sharpens his survival instincts. He weighs his options carefully, doesn’t yield to temporary temptations or bet on things fleeting and fragile, and invests himself in a pair of tongs. What Hamid does corresponds to Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of ‘anti-fragility,’ a property of systems in which one increases the capability to thrive in the face of adversities.
His being argumentative and obstinate again stems from the same culture of poverty. Given denuded life circumstances, his arguments constitute his resource and his obstinacy, his will to survive against all odds. So, Mahmud and Mohsin and Noore and Sammi may have helped themselves with a ride on merry-go-round or with delicious sweets or clay toys, but they are too meretricious to have power of arguments.
His arguments may be bereft of logical consistency but that is the whole point of arguments. One who argues with obstinate obstinacy and acceptable plausibility wins the argument. That is the beauty of arguments; if you argue correctly, you are never wrong. So, Hamid would prove to those dim-witted kids given to ephemera that his tongs are not only tongs, but also a toy par excellence and that wins arguments for him.
Hamid may be a creature of the culture of poverty, but he is not the one suffering from the poverty of culture. He has his grudges against his uncouth and moneyed friends, but grudges do not graduate to the level of hatred or revenge. Newton once said, “Man builds too many walls, and not enough bridges.” Hamid is a character who builds bridges.
Hamid understands the sufferings and torments Ameena, his grandmother, undergoes. He possibly also distrusts the narrative put out by Ameena that his dead Abba and Ammi are ever going to come back with affluence and blessings and yet he pushes himself to believe in the promised riches that might make him get better of Mohsin and Mahmud one day. This is the power of hope in the promised cargo. In the end, it will not come true but as long as it survives, it serves to blunt the sharp edges of existence.
So, who has lived up to the true spirit of Eid? This is the question that keeps lurking in background. May be others have but Hamid certainly has. Hamid is ‘Vaishnav Jan’ of Mahatma Gandhi. As Gandhi would say, “I call him religious who understands the sufferings of others.”
What Hamid might have done if he had six or nine paise instead of three paise? I guess he would have certainly bought tongs and of the remaining amount, he would have bought some sweets — half for himself, half for Ameena. He would have loved to exchange the half sweets meant for him with his friends.
Game theorists have also sought to understand extreme rationality of Hamid’s behaviour. By investing in what is enduring and useful for the future and sacrificing more immediate but ephemeral temptations, he shows maturity beyond his years, which is almost transcendental.
As to Ameena, she feels overwhelmed with precocious empathy of Hamid’s act. Towards the end, Premchand writes beautifully that old Ameena had played the part of child Ameena and child Hamid had played the part of elderly Hamid and Ameena, looking heavenwards, was blessing Hamid, tears trickling down.
Ameena finds herself pitted against the whims of fate: Her son and daughter-in-law are gone, leaving an orphaned Hamid in her custody. And yet her capacity to love is unbounded. Irish novelist James Stephens in The Crock of Gold puts it beautifully: “The ability of the thin woman of Inis Magrath for anger was unbounded. She was not one of those limited creatures who are swept clean by a gust of wrath and left placid and smiling after its passing. She could store her anger in those caverns of eternity which open into every soul, and which are filled with rage and violence until the time comes when they may be stored with wisdom and love, for in the genesis of life, love is at the beginning and at the end of things."