Thursday, January 2, 2014

How much land does a man need?



How much land does a man need?  is a short story by the classical Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy.  The story highlights human greed.

Pahom, the protagonist, is a peasant.  He thinks that more land means more happiness for a peasant.  But how much land does a peasant need?  Making the question more general, how much wealth does a person need?

This is the question that Tolstoy answers in his story.  Using all his savings as well as selling his colt and a sizeable share of his bees, hiring out his son, taking advance wages and borrowing from his brother-in-law, Pahom collects enough money to buy more land thinking he would be happier.  In fact, he became contented with all the vast acres he possessed. 

But human nature is seldom contented.  It always wants what it does not have.  [Leave out exceptions like saints (extinct species) and lunatics.]  Pahom learns about a place where a Commune gives 25 acres of land free to every individual and more if he/she wanted to buy.  He sells all he has and acquires 125 acres of land (25 acres for each member of the family) free.  “Of the Communal land alone
he had three times as much as at his former home, and the land was good corn-land. He was ten times better off than he had been. He had plenty of arable land and pasturage, and could keep as many head of cattle as he liked.”

Yet

Yet Pahom became unhappy eventually.  Human nature is such that even heaven would be a very discontenting place eventually.  We have to reinvent our heavens and our gods. 

Pahom’s quest for his heaven and his god takes him beyond the Commune to the land of the Bashkirs, simple shepherds, who allow him to take hold of all the land he can walk around.  Simple: just walk around from sunrise to sunset and own the land that you circumscribe.  Pahom starts walking at sunrise.  He walks and walks with all the energy within.  He beats all the MBAs and IITians, Babas and real estate mafias, godmen and politicians of today.  As the sun is setting he thinks he can manage to conquer a little more, another mount.

Just as he conquers that mount and returns to his designated position,
alas,
he falls down.

Let me quote the last lines of Tolstoy:

"Ah, what a fine fellow!" exclaimed the Chief. "He has gained much land!"

Pahom's servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead! The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.

“His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

Six feet from head to heel.

Is all the land that we require in the end.

But the MBAs and IITians, Babas and real estate mafias, godmen and politicians of today won’t give us even that.  They belong to Pahom’s species, you see.  You will see them in the museum of the outer spaces where they will buy land soon.



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25 comments:

  1. I remember that story.. it was really a nice one.. u explained it very well to us, Sir,

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    Replies
    1. I'm having to explain it again, unfortunately, Saurabh.
      Do you remember the skit in which you acted with butter being the hero?
      We need much more than butter these days. ?)

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    2. Its an utterly butterly delicious world, all the flatterers of the world unite.. you have nothing to loose but your self respect... and then there was a fall.. Hmm I can understand, whatever it is we are with you, and always be with you..

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    3. hey nice post Tomichan. I like your style of writing. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog titled How To Build Up Passion In Whatever You Find Yourself Doing .
      keep up the good work.

      Regards

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  2. I also understood where you are pointing the message of this story.... but its greed, which lives in our self in some form.. some greed for money, some for power, some for being glamorous and some to become famous... Above all what matters is to differentiate between right or wrong....

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    1. I'm amazed, Saurabh. i'm amazed you could recall the words of the skit so easily. I can flatter myself.

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    2. i never allowed these words to skip from my mind and till now i haven't had applied the butter.. :)

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  3. When I started reading, I had an idea that it is probably the conclusion where the story will go to - but yes, very nice and though provoking indeed.

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    1. I'm grateful for your patience to read to the end of my post, Abhra. Very few can manage that. :)

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  4. But unlike the unfortunate Pahom, the current species will not fall, even after walking days end :) after walking till the end, they'll book for more land in mars

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  5. I read this story long ago..probably I was in class X or XI . You've explained it very well..my memory refreshed.. :-)

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    1. Yes, Maniparna, it was prescribed in class 11 or 12 and I taught it.

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  6. When we look at the tribals who are being driven away from their jungles, villagers whose lands are going in the name of development, doesn't Tolstoy look a lot more relevant ?

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  7. Consider this song, though you may not understand the language, you will appreciate the meaning. Pahom wears corporate suits now and is supported by Neta and Police.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFmsl7KrZn8

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    1. Thank you, Puru. thank you more than I can say in words. This is a wonderful video. My heart is with you and the movement - even running the risk of being labelled a Maoist.

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  8. This is one of my favourite Tolstoy stories. And its not relevant in today's world as you said. The dead-body of a common man is denied of that 6 feet of land and the Pahoms of today want to get buried on moon.

    Love your post Sir.

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    1. Thanks, Namrota. Times have changed terribly and the kind of Commune that Tolstoy dreamt of is beyond any possibility today. Pahoms have taken over the system.

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  9. I too really loved this story. Did not read it actually. But saw it on TV on Doordarshan - either Kathasagar or Darpan. I too often wonder why people want to accumulate so much.

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    1. Fear, friend. Fear makes people accumulate. People who don't trust themselves, who don't trust their present, want to accumulate...

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  10. Accumulation must occur. Not for oneself, but for the greater good of society. Even creatures of lower intellect, such as ants, have figured that out.
    even then, hive mentality is to be resisted at all costs.

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    Replies
    1. Just read the short story titled 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' by Somerset Maugham, Dr Saab.

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  11. This is the dilemma I face every day. Whether to go to work to earn my bread and butter, or follow the path of my whims where I will get nothing worldly but everything soul-ly...sigh.

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