Summary of “Kafan” by Munshi Premchand

Munshi Premchand’s story “Kafan” is a landmark in Hindi-Urdu literature. It represents the zenith of his narrative prowess and his unwavering commitment to exposing the social injustices ingrained in society. The story revolves around the tragic lives of Ghisu and Madhav, a father-son duo, who belong to the lower strata of society and live as agricultural laborers in a rural village. They embody the absolute dregs of poverty and exploit the social norms to eke out a living.

The Setting and Characters

The story is set in an impoverished village, where Ghisu and Madhav occupy a small, dilapidated hut. Ghisu, the father, is around sixty and has spent his life laboring in the fields, but he is now reduced to scavenging. His son Madhav, around thirty, follows in his father’s footsteps. Both have an abominable reputation due to their laziness, as they prefer begging and stealing over honest work.

Introduction of Tragic Circumstances

The story begins with Ghisu and Madhav sitting outside their hut, huddled by a fire on a bitterly cold night. Inside, Madhav’s wife, Budhiya, writhes in labor pains. Her cries fill the air, but neither Ghisu nor Madhav dares to approach her, choosing instead to console themselves by roasting and eating stolen potatoes.

The scene reflects the heartless detachment and callousness of the father-son duo, who seem indifferent to Budhiya’s agony. Their conversation veers off into a discussion about how difficult labor is and how women often exaggerate their pain. Ghisu reminisces about his own wife’s suffering, noting that she struggled for a day and a half before she finally passed away.

Exploration of Poverty and Desperation

Ghisu and Madhav’s conduct is deeply influenced by the crushing poverty they have endured. They are accustomed to being berated and ostracized by the village. Their labor is often unpaid or underpaid, making them increasingly reluctant to work. They have become experts at finding creative ways to avoid responsibilities, whether by feigning illness or borrowing money under false pretenses.

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Despite their moral degradation, Premchand’s depiction evokes a degree of sympathy, as their misfortune seems rooted in systemic exploitation. The image of two men warming themselves by the fire while a woman battles death just a few feet away illustrates the depth of their despair and moral decay.

Budhiya’s Death and the Demand for the Shroud

By dawn, Budhiya’s cries cease, signaling her death. Her death is not mourned but rather becomes a new source of worry for Ghisu and Madhav. They ponder the societal expectations regarding her burial and the procurement of a shroud. Madhav is concerned about their inability to afford a shroud, but Ghisu reassures him that they will manage somehow.

As they head to the village for help, they muster tears and lamentations, successfully eliciting sympathy and donations from the villagers. In their grief-stricken state, they manage to collect a respectable sum of money.

Moral Dilemma and Degradation

With money in hand, they walk toward the market to purchase a shroud. However, their hunger and depraved tendencies soon overpower their superficial grief. They head to a local tavern and spend the money on liquor and food instead. Here, Premchand’s portrayal becomes sharper as he dissects their reasoning.

Ghisu justifies their actions by arguing that a dead woman cannot wear a shroud, and it is better to indulge in pleasure than to waste money on useless rituals. Their self-indulgence reaches a point where they even mock the societal norms that compelled them to beg in the first place. They revel in their debauchery, celebrating Budhiya’s death as if it were a fortunate event.

Satirical Commentary and Social Critique

“Kafan” is not just a narrative about individual moral decay but also a sharp critique of society at large. The villagers, who are quick to offer charity for a shroud but slow to address the systemic issues that keep Ghisu and Madhav in poverty, are not immune to Premchand’s scrutiny. The story thus becomes an indictment of a society that perpetuates poverty and hypocrisy.

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Moreover, Premchand delves into the irony of ritualistic customs. Ghisu and Madhav exploit these customs to manipulate the villagers into giving them money, but in the end, they expose the futility of these rituals by choosing indulgence over adherence.

An Existential Parable

The ending of the story, where Ghisu and Madhav lie drunk and sing praises to the divine while Budhiya’s body remains unburied, transforms “Kafan” into an existential parable. Their actions question the very notion of morality, responsibility, and the meaning of human existence in the face of insurmountable poverty.

Premchand’s use of irony and satire magnifies the story’s impact. Despite the grim subject matter, he weaves humor into the narrative, making Ghisu and Madhav appear like tragicomic figures who have resigned themselves to their fate. The shroud, a symbol of respect and mourning, is reduced to a mere tool for momentary pleasure.

Concluding Analysis

“Kafan” remains a timeless masterpiece due to its layered complexity and relentless critique of social norms. Ghisu and Madhav are not villains but rather products of a society that has failed them. Their moral degradation is as much a reflection of their own choices as it is of the societal structures that have left them with no hope.

Through “Kafan,” Premchand reveals the grotesque underbelly of human existence and the absurdity of social customs. He challenges readers to rethink their perspectives on poverty, charity, and morality, making the story a powerful commentary that transcends time and place.

Themes Explored in “Kafan”

Poverty and Its Impact on Morality:

  • Ghisu and Madhav’s actions reflect how dire poverty can erode a person’s moral compass.
  • Their willingness to forgo societal norms in favor of short-term pleasure underscores the desperation inherent in their lives.

Social Hypocrisy:

  • The villagers’ readiness to donate for a shroud but indifference to systemic exploitation reveals societal hypocrisy.
  • Premchand satirizes the ritualistic customs that people blindly follow without understanding their essence.

Gender and Patriarchy:

  • Budhiya’s death in labor reflects the harsh realities faced by women in patriarchal societies.
  • Her role is confined to serving her husband and father-in-law, and her death is merely a footnote in their story.

Irony and Satire:

  • The stark contrast between the villagers’ charitable intentions and Ghisu and Madhav’s indulgent actions highlights the irony.
  • The satirical portrayal of their debauchery questions the sincerity of societal norms.

Existentialism and Nihilism:

  • Ghisu and Madhav’s actions hint at a nihilistic worldview, where they find solace in self-indulgence.
  • Their disregard for rituals and social norms reflects an existential struggle with meaning.

Tradition vs. Modernity:

  • The story juxtaposes age-old traditions with the harsh realities of modern poverty.
  • Ghisu and Madhav’s rejection of the shroud ritual challenges the relevance of such traditions.


“Kafan” is a compelling tale that blends tragedy and comedy to offer a scathing critique of society. Munshi Premchand’s narrative style ensures that readers remain engrossed, even as they are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about poverty, morality, and humanity.

The story’s enduring relevance lies in its ability to hold a mirror to society, urging readers to introspect and challenge their preconceived notions about charity, morality, and social customs. Ultimately, “Kafan” is not just a story about two men’s moral decay but a larger commentary on the societal structures that create and perpetuate such decay.

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