July 31, Premchand’s birth anniversary, leads SIDDHARTHYA SWAPAN ROY to wonder why one of India’s most celebrated writers has been forgotten by urban readers today.

Illustration:Deepak Harichandan

Illustration:Deepak Harichandan

Many pensive pauses, edits and deletions later, I think it is best to start an essay about Munshi Premchand the way he would have — by stating the truth as it is. And the truth is, however unkind it may be, — as those loving him, his writing and his literary philosophy will attest — that he, one of the brightest lights in the horizon of Indian prose, stands eclipsed if not forgotten by the urbane Indian fiction readers of today.

The fact that he wrote in Hindi and Urdu and we, the urbane Indian fiction reader of today, mostly read English doesn’t fully explain this eclipse. For one, there have been many non-English writers who continue to be brightly visible long after their demise. Second, language divides were never a barrier when it came to Munshi Premchand. Both in person and his works were by no means limited to the Hindi belt. He was a well-read man who knew about the world at large and its ways and could dabble in many languages at the same time. The United Provinces, where he was born and did his schooling from, had Urdu as the lingua franca. So not only did he formally learn Urdu, he was even taught Farsi to refine his tongue. Thereafter he went to Queen’s Collegiate School in Varanasi and taught himself English.

Later through his lifetime, he interacted and read in Bengali — Saratchandra Chatterjee was one of his biggest influences. English and translated works of foreign writers like Maxim Gorky were a big part of his inspiration. Most importantly his prose was recognised for being so moving and powerful during his lifetime itself that his works have been translated in a multitude of languages both Indian and foreign. So it isn’t language.

Was it content and subject that’s no more in vogue? Perhaps yes, but not fully.

Tragedy and pathos were his forte and he wrote these in tales where his plots were often blunt. ‘Sadgati’ (Salvation), his short story later filmed by Satyajit Ray, is a story about how a lower caste untouchable man dies of exhaustion trying to chop wood for a high caste pujari for a petty favour. He is then dragged off like a dead dog with a rope around his ankle. It is an apt example of how he could be raw, not merely realist, in his honest portrayals of the brutal socio-political reality of his times.

Yet others were ones of great personal tragedy — for example that of Nirmala (The Unblemished One) the young woman forced to marry a very old man who has sons older than her from his first marriage. The husband is cruelly jealous and suspects Nirmala of having an affair with his eldest son when Nirmala is only doing the duty of a mother to a son who is ill. The son finally dies taking Nirmala’s crushed soul with him.

Though as a natural consequence of being a realist writer, tragedy and pathos form the bulk of his writing, sadness isn’t the only emotion he talked about. In ‘Moteram Ji Shastri’, the story of a lovable charlatan, he gives us humour. In ‘Bade Bhai Sahab’, through the reminiscences of the narrator about his less- than-bright but golden-hearted elder brother, Munshiji leads us through a sad sweet tale that leaves us in an exhilaration of tears and smiles.

Whether by inflicting deep wounds on the readers’ psyche or by tying them up in threads of unpretentious simplicity, his stories linger on long after the words have trailed off and the book has been physically closed. And since he dealt not with superficial fads but with fundamental emotions — love, lust, fear, the desire to be free, rage, violence, helplessness and so on — it can’t be that his stories are dead and forgotten; ones that became irrelevant over time.

In his lifetime he wrote 11 novels and many hundred short stories. So it certainly isn’t a case of low volume and thus being a speck of shine in a sky full of literary stars.

It must be noted here that he not only wrote of the wretched working class but also dealt with modern characters and urbane themes as well. In Seva Sadan (released as Bazar-e-Husn in Urdu and later made into a Tamil film with the legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi in the lead), a young high-caste woman Suman is in a loveless marriage of compulsion and crosses paths with a prostitute. And from that point on Munshi Premchand tosses us into a debate that questions every norm and form of what society considers holy and unholy; what it sanctions and what it forbids in relations. Starting from the very name Seva Sadan — meaning Care Giving Quarters — where the word ‘care’ layers up in connotation and context, Premchand leaves no literary device untouched to provoke us and make us question everything.

In fact strong feminist themes or situations viewed from a woman’s perspective are an oft-recurring pattern in his writings and he uses it to repeatedly prod the reader to see the omnipresent hypocrisy and exploitation.

In ‘Miss Padma’, his protagonist is a young headstrong and modern woman who chooses to live-in with a man instead of marrying. But in telling us how she is robbed of her jewels by the man who then runs away, Premchand makes no bones in telling us how the odds are heavily stacked against women in our society despite their taking radical and pro-freedom choices — something our society is still exploring. Only the story was penned way back in 1914.

Did he lack variety of form? Did he write only realist pieces and not do his duty to literature? No. Though he was celebrated most for his realism, he did use allegory and elaborate metaphors. For example in his ‘Duniya Ka Sabsey Anmol Ratan’, he writes a story using Islamic mythology but tells a tale that has nothing about mythology.

July 31 was his 133rd birth anniversary. Why do we see and hear so less of him? What explains this obscurity? Why this near absence from literary discourses? This absence from being the cited inspiration of film stories and being adapted and reproduced in newer forms?

For that we need to perhaps examine both the writer and the reader. Let’s look at the writer first. Born of a father with a clerk’s salary of Rs. 25 a month and near absent immovable property, his name Dhanpat Rai — which translates to wealthy lord — was an obvious misnomer. His early foray into writing was with a royal nom de guerre Nawab Rai. This too proved short-lived because the set of stories in Urdu called Soz-E-Watan (Cries of the Motherland) he wrote with this pen name irked his employers, the British rulers. They cared little about the literary merits of the work and instead hunted out the traitor of a deputy sub-inspector of schools behind the pseudonym and banned his book.

It was then that the pen name Premchand (The Lover) was born. As time would tell, the name was apt for the man who lived his life battling repeated unemployment and a lifetime’s high salary of Rs.18 but had with him ‘Duniya ka Sabsey Anmol Ratan’ a heart rich in empathy and love. This impoverished lover, like Dilfigar of his aforementioned story, set out on a quest for liberation through words.

Before long, the literary and social philosophies espoused by Munshiji became prominent. The characters he sketched (Ghisu and Madhav of ‘Kafan’), the struggles and conflicts he held up (‘Thakur Ka Kunwa’), the sides he took (‘Shudraa’), the values he held up (‘Mandir-Masjid’). True Munshiji said he was influenced by Saratchandra Chatterjee and many likened his writing with the great realist from Bengal. But, unlike the masterly neutrality which Saratchandra could maintain when his characters fought on class, caste and gender lines, Munshi Premchand jumped right in and, like a comrade in arms, took the side of the oppressed.

In fact not content with only writing, he became an organiser in the progressive writing movement of his time. His politics of being a Communist showed in both his writing and his work as an activist. Perhaps in a befitting tribute to his own literary ideology, the ailing Munshiji (a long-time patient of severe ulcers) attended a function celebrating the great Russian proletarian writer Maxim Gorky, and then took so ill that he never recovered.

But what about the reader today? If we, today, walk into any one of the glossy book stores of big city India and randomly lay our hands on a shelf, the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of touching upon a book that celebrates the wealthy and their personal wealth. The lion’s share of our fiction celebrates the rich and upwardly mobile — MBAs, investment bankers and other high flying people. Outcastes, indebted farmers, wronged women, exploited men, bonded labourers have all been obliterated and their stories and struggles and lives do not form sellable plots anymore. The ones who command the position of being bestselling authors do not talk about how men must be brothers beyond religion, language and other divides and yet draw claps.

We are in an urban book reading India that would laud a Dhanpat or a Nawab and not penniless lovers like Premchand. Perhaps there lie the reasons of eclipse.

PS: The Hindi names of novels and stories have been translated by the writer to reflect the context and are not necessarily the official translations.

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