Re-reading Premchand in the Changing and Unchanging India

Premchand was a keen observer and chronicler of his times. He was the first Hindi and Urdu writer to write in-depth the lives of the deprived classes, communities and, especially, women. He wrote on contemporary themes of immediate social and political relevance.

Premchand

Today is the birth anniversary of one of the most celebrated Hindi writers of the early twentieth century- Munshi Premchand. As with every anniversary, Premchand is also remembered on his anniversary day, with seminars, lectures and cultural meetings. Writers, intellectuals will lament about loss and legacy of a writer like Premchand. Premchand’s writings ranged from liberal to radical. Some of his radical work was destroyed by the British government of the time. Some of his liberal (Read. acceptable) writings have found space in the Hindi books in schools. Those who are baffled by the lives we live in, may I suggest to go and re-read his stories and novels. 

 Referred to as Upanyas Samrat, Premchand wrote over three hundred short stories and fourteen novels, many essays and letters, plays and translations. 

Premchand was a keen observer and chronicler of his times. He was the first Hindi and Urdu writer to write in-depth the lives of the deprived classes, communities and, especially, women. He wrote on contemporary themes of immediate social and political relevance. Many of Premchand’s works were translated into English and Russian after his death. 

Life and times of Premchand

Born in a village near Varanasi, he lost his mother early on. His father’s remarriage and stepmother behavior made him more isolated and he found solace in books. Even his early writing reflects his disdain for religious hypocrisy and exploitation of weak. He wrote his first short novel, Devasthan Rahasya (Temple´s secret) at the age of 23. The novel though amateurish explores the story of corruption among the temple priests and their sexual exploitation of poor women. 

In 1906, Premchand married a child widow. The step was considered to be revolutionary at that time, and Premchand faced a lot of social opposition. His second novel Prema, 1907, based on his own life, explores the issue of widow remarriage in the contemporary conservative society.

Premchand was influenced by nationalism and the Indian independence movement, which is reflected in his early writings. His collection of patriotic short stories, Soz-e Watan were interpreted as seditious by the British government. The book was banned and all copies were burned. This incident gave birth to the new pen name Premchand.

In 1921, he resigned government service at the call of Gandhi during the Non-Cooperation Movement. After quitting his job, he decided to focus on his literary career. He started a press but faced huge losses. He worked as editor of Hindi journals to support his income. Till his death in 1936, he faced severe financial difficulties and chronic ill health. 

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Throughout his life, Premchand championed for the rights of the poor and marginalized through his writings. He used literature for the purpose of arousing public awareness about national and social issues ranging from corruption, child widowhood, prostitution, feudal system, poverty, colonialism to India’s freedom movement. 

Premchand also tried his luck in the Hindi film industry in 1934 but got disillusioned soon by the commercial environment of the Bombay film industry.  He wrote the script for the film mazdoor (The Labourer). The film depicted the poor conditions of the labor class. Premchand himself did a cameo as the leader of laborers in the film. Some influential businessmen managed to get a stay on its release in Bombay. The film was released in Lahore and Delhi but was banned again after it inspired the mill workers to stand up against the owners.

Some of his most famous novels and short stories –

  1. Idgah-  Story of a poor Muslim boy who lives with his grandmother. On the festival day of Eid, the other kids buy themselves candies and toys. The poor boy, thinking of his grandmother, buys a pair of tongs to help her make Rotis since she burns her hands trying to cook them bare-handed.
  2. Nirmala- Women oppression under marriage 
  3. Godan( the gift of a cow)-Considered his best novel and one of Hindi’s finest novel. The protagonist, Hori, a poor peasant, desperately longs for a cow, a symbol of wealth and prestige in rural India.
  4. Rangabhoomi- Industrialisation and working-class oppression
  5. Karmabhoomi- caste oppression and Hindu Muslim relations
  6. Sadgati- The story is a vicious indictment of the Indian caste system. The story was made into a film by Satyajit Ray.Premchand
  7. Shatranj Ke Khiladi-  (The Chess Players) revolved around the decadence of nawabi Lucknow, where the obsession with a game consumes the players, making them oblivious of their responsibilities in the midst of a crisis. This was also made into a movie by Satyajit Ray. 
  8. Namak ka daroga (Salt inspector) – An idealist becomes a police officer, and faces problems while performing his duties.
  9. Poos ki Raat (A night in the month of  Winter)- A poor farmer stays out with his dog to protect his field on an extremely cold December night.
  10. Kafan – The story depicts the tussle between two classes and the plight of poor father-son laborers, who are caught in the crossfire. The story is a tragicomedy.  The novel was made into a Telugu film Oka Oori Katha in 1977.
  11. Gaban- The novel depicts the falling moral values among lower-middle-class Indian youth in the era of British India. It was made into a Hindi film in 1966. 
  12. Seva Sadan- An unhappy housewife first becomes a courtesan, and then manages an orphanage for the young daughters of the courtesans. The novel was made into a Telugu movie- Sevasadanam with M.S. Subbulakshmi in the lead role. 

Premchand is considered the first Hindi author whose writings prominently featured realism and had a rationalistic outlook.  Premchand has been credited with the distinction of creating a short story genre in Hindi and Urdu. He single-handedly brought a high level of realistic narrative comparable to European fiction of the time.  Premchand believed that social realism was the way for Hindi literature, as opposed to the “feminine quality”, tenderness and emotion of the contemporary Bengali literature.

Unlike other contemporary renowned authors such as Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand was not appreciated much outside India mostly because of a lack of good translations of his work. Also, unlike Tagore and Iqbal, Premchand never traveled outside India, studied abroad or mingled with the renowned foreign literary figures. 

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