Karmabhumi (Premchand)

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Item Code: NAF877
Author: Munshi Premchand, Translated By Lalit Srivastava
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2021
ISBN: 9780195696660
Pages: 380
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 360 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


In Karmabhumi Premchand explores the complex world of human relationships.

Through his protagonists and their yearnings, love, laughter, tears, trials, and tribulations, the author subtly brings alive the India of the early decades of the twentieth century. With its focus on

the nationalist movement and strong political and social overtones, the novel will appeal to general readers, as well as students of literature, Indian literature in

translation, and social history.




Dhanpat Rai, widely known as Premchand, was born on 31 July 1880 in a village called Lamhi about four miles from Benaras. His parents were poor, and after primary education in the village and matriculation from Mission School in Benaras, he started earning his living as a tutor in 1899. Unable to obtain admission to university because of deficiencies in mathematics, he taught in various small schools before being selected for teacher's training and being appointed as sub-inspector of schools. Soon after his matriculation, Rai started writing stories and articles with a nationalistic flavour. One collection of his short stories published in 1907 caught the then British government's attention. The book was banned as it was considered seditious and all the remaining copies destroyed. But Rai continued to write, and in 1916 adopted the pen name 'Prernchand'. A prolific writer despite a short lifespan, illhealth, and financial problems, he wrote many famous novels like Seuasadan, Nirmala, Caban, Kayakalp, Karmabhumi, Rangbhumi, Premashram, and Godan, and nearly three hundred short stories. He also edited several magazines such as Maryada, Madhuri, Hans, and Jagran, and for a short time in 1934, worked in Bombay as a scriptwriter for films. He presided over the first conference of the Progressive Writers' Union in 1936, and died the same year in Benaras. -,

Some of Premchand's works have been translated into English: Godan (The Gift of a Cow), Nirmala, Gaban (The Stolen Jewels), and Sevasadan (House of Service), and at least four collections of his short stories are available in English. This novel, Karmabhumi, which I translate as The Field of Action, is set in Uttar Pradesh (UP, formerly the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh) where he was born and grew up and where most of his other novels are also situated. However, this novel covers a wider social fabric than many of the other novels. It was written in the 1930s, and to see the novel in its historical and local perspective it is essential to understand Hindu-Muslim relations, the Hindu caste system, the abject misery of peasants and the poor in villages and cities, and the impact of Mahatma Gandhi and his satyagrah movement on the Indian national scene. The first Muslim invasion of India took place in AD 712, but it was not until 1192 that Muslim sovereignty was established in northern India and later extended to southern India. From then until 1857, when it was succeeded by the British crown, Delhi was ruled by Muslim princes, although some Hindu princes also held sway in many parts of western and southern India. The contact with Arab Muslims, and then Turkish and Persian Muslims, led to the evolution of two languages in ladia-Hindi and Urdu. Urdu was not a language that was distinct from Hindi. It had evolved from Hindi and shared with it the same basic grammatical system as well as much of the vocabulary, but it had an Arabic alphabet. Hindi had a Sanskrit base and was written from left to right like all Indo-European languages, while Urdu had an Arabic and Persian base and was written from right to left. Many Hindus wrote with distinction in Urdu, and there were Muslim scholars of Hindi literature and Hindu thought. Present-day Uttar Pradesh, with Lucknow as its capital and Delhi at its western edge, became the seat of Muslim culture where both Urdu and Hindi flourished. Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Urdu was the official language, and all educated people, whether Muslim or Hindu, learned it as their first language. This situation remained unchanged until the late nineteenth and early years of the twentieth centuries when English gradually replaced Urdu as the official language. Premchand grew up with both languages, wrote in both, and achieved a place of honour in the literature of both languages. When I was growing up in Uttar Pradesh in the 1930s and 1940s, we spoke a mixture of the two languages known as Hindustani; my Muslim friends would use more Urdu words, we would use more Hindi words, but everyone understood each other. Hindustani is the language in Karmabhumi and many of the distinctive idioms which Premchand uses are derived from it.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the two religions, Islam and Hinduism, had coexisted in India for more than a thousand years. Except for occasional outbursts of violence, the two religious communities lived together in harmony. They not only tolerated each other but, indeed, there were numerous instances of friendship (such as that between Amarkant, the main Hindu character of Karmabhumi, and Salim, the chief Muslim character) and strong social bonds, excluding marriage, between the two communities. Hindus were the first to take advantage of English education: they became clerks in the government, entered the Indian Civil Service, and provided the bulk of businessmen and professional people such as lawyers,

doctors, and teachers. This was the beginning of the Hindu middle class. By contrast, the great majority of Muslims were either landlords or peasants. The former disdained learning a foreign language or entering a trade, whereas the peasants were the same as their Hindu counterparts, with the result that there were few professional people and hardly any middle class among the Muslims.As a result, some Muslims feared that in an independent India they might be relegated to second-class status. This view is expressed by Mr Ghaznavi in a dialogue with Salim, but he qualifies it with (he conviction that Hindus would never treat Muslims so. (Nevertheless, this fear was the basis for the demand for Pakistan by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, and led to the division of the country in 1947.)

During the decade before Karmabhumi's publication, Premchand had been very much influenced by Gandhiji's satyagrah movement, and his writings, stories, and essays clearly reflected his sympathies with India's poor and the fight for India's freedom. India of the early 1900s consisted of a great mass of poor and illiterate people who were exploited by the privileged few. Peasants in the villages were cheated by moneylenders and landlords and the poor of all castes in the cities were exploited by the rich and powerful. The untouchable classes were treated as pariahs by their own upper-caste Hindu brethren.

Since Vedic times (1500-800 Be), the caste system had been one of the pillars of Hindu society. Caste was at first based on profession: teachers and those devoted to learning and worship were Brahmans, those devoted to warfare and affairs of state were Kshatriyas, those devoted to trade and business were Vaishyas, and those devoted to farming and menial tasks were Shudras. Within each group there were smaller groups or subcastes.A small subgroup ofShudras, the untouchables, were those employed in gathering night 'soil and were leatherworkers. Although initially there was vertical mobility between the castes, with time the boundaries became rigid and caste became hereditary. As the caste system became rigid, opposition against it grew. However, it has shown remarkable resilience through the ages. It survived not only the powerful impact of Buddhism and many centuries of Muslim rule and the spread of Islam, but also the strenuous efforts of innumerable Hindu reformers who raised their voices against it, specially against its worst aspects-untouchability and the exclusion of a large section from the main fabric of Hindu society. The untouchables could not enter the temples or homes of caste Hindus, even their shadow could not be allowed to fall on a caste Hindu. Into this rigid and caste- bound society in early 1900s~ti1lliving like a feudal society in the Middle Ages--came Gandhi with a vision of change, a change that would galvanize the tradition-bound Hindu and Muslim populations into social and political action. The magic of Gandhiji's satyagrah movement was that it encompassed three goals-India's independence from British rule, the removal of untouchability, and the alleviation of poverty, expressed poetically as the wiping of every tear from every poor person-in one single movement.

Premchand has structured Karmabhumi to give importance to the two social issues of the Gandhian movement; the political issue of independence, although very real, is mentioned only in passing. It is social reform that is highlighted in the temple incident, the poor villagers' protest for relief from land tax, and the march of the poor people in the city demanding land for their individual homes. All of these protests are subject to suppression, but the leaders of the movement oppose these suppressive forces in a typically Gandhian manner with non-violent protest and willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions without rancour towards their oppressors. In this movement, women participate equally with the men and the movement gains momentum as it draws students, teachers, farmers, and labourers in its fold. Premchand has been called the first great artist of the progressive Indian social revolution.

The novel is also an expression of Indian philosophic thought. The Hindi title, Karmabhumi, does not lend itself to an easy translation in English. In Hindi, the word 'karma' has many meanings-act, work, deed, occupation, business, fate, destiny; and 'bhurni' means earth, ground, field. I have loosely translated it as The Field if Action which ties in with the Urdu title of the book, Maidaane-amal? The main theme of Karmabhumi—the uplifting of the downtrodden poor including the untouchables, and the inherent right of people to better their lives irrespective of their birth or station in life-is expressed through the Hindu philosophy of karma and its Gandhian interpretation of non-violent protest with its principle that ends do not justify the means.

The theory of karma says that you must do what your duty requires you to do without regard to consequences. This theory is expounded in the Bhagvad Gita by Lord Krishna on the eve of the epic battle of Mahabharata between the Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas. Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior, seeing his cousins, relatives, teachers, and friends, arrayed in battle against him, throws down his great Gaandeeva bow, and says to Lord Krishna, his charioteer, that he cannot fight his friends and relatives. Krishna then explains to Arjuna that it is his duty to fight, irrespective of the consequences, that it is his dharma as a warrior to perform this action, this karma.

In Premchand's novel, human life is also portrayed as a field of action in which the character and destinies of individuals are formed and revealed through their actions. Some of these actions, which might seem melodramatic in ordinary realistic fiction, gain resonance in Karmabhumi, placed as they are within this symbolic and philosophical framework. It is in this context that we interpret pivotal points in the narrative such as when Amarkant concludes that he must leave his home, when the young mother Munni leaves husband and child to go into exile, when the untouchables are attacked by the police for attempting to enter the temple and Sukhada joins the battle to support them, when the village poor revolt against a rich landlord, and when the district officer Salim, having become convinced of the oppressive governmental policy, resigns from the Indian Civil Service. In each case the character (or group) concerned is depicted as corning to a point of moral awakening where he, she, or they must act on their convictions. The climax of the book comes on an actual field where the dispossessed and poor of the city are assembled. As each speaker- Lala Samarkant, Renuka Devi, and Dr Shantikurnar—-gives his/her reasons why the struggle for land for the poor must continue, they are stopped by the police and taken to prison. Finally the shy and affectionate Naina, Amarkant's young half-sister, is moved to speak. Her words are stopped by a bullet but her death on the field of action leads to eventual victory for the greater cause of gaining land for the poor.

In Karmabhumi, the marital life of Amarkant and Sukhada is played out against the backdrop of the larger canvas of class conflict and peoples' movement. The marriage fails due to differences between the two personalities, but they come together towards the end with each realizing the oilier's worth. In the process, Premchand expounds his ideas on education, on marriage and rights of women, his sympathies for the poor and dispossessed, his dislike of cant and superficialities of religion, and of priests who prey upon the gullibility. of the devout, the powers of self sacrifice and mass movement, and his dreams of an independent India.

Premchand is an educator par excellence and devoted to learning as shown by the fact that he himself obtained his B.A. degree studying privately at the age of thirty-nine. Throughout Karmabhumi there is strong emphasis on the role of schools and education: indeed the first chapter of the book depicts a classroom where the wrong kind of education prevails, a so- called 'Western education', where the emphasis is on money rather than on idealism or learning. Later in the text the author offers an alternative: his perspective on a more idealistic Indian education as developed in Dr Shantikumar's school.

Amarkant is portrayed as an intelligent and idealistic, but weak, young man. To learn to act in a more independent manner he must first overcome the dominance of his father and then of his wife. Premchand develops his psychology in some detail. Amarkant's mother had died when he was very young; his stepmother, while she lived, berated him on every occasion; and his father Lala Samarkant, a rich moneylender, constantly scolded his son for spending his money on idealistic pursuits. Deprived of love in his formative years, Amarkant grew up to hate his father's business and his sham adherence to the superficial formalities of the Hindu religion. Throughout the text, Premchand uses the word 'dharma' in a variety of ways to make his readers reflect upon the differences berween 'real' and 'superficial' religious acts.


Translator's Note


The translation of a novel from one language into another is a hazardous task. It is especially so when a Hindi novel is translated into English because the two languages differ from each other not only in grammar and construction, but also because many words and expressions have no counterparts in the other language. For instance, in Hindi, verbs are declined according to the subject; also, sentences often do not state the subject or the object, the context tells who or what is intended. A literal translation, therefore, is often baffling and sometimes unintelligible. Although it is necessary to have it as a first step, it has to be converted to everyday English, which involves a more or less free and colloquial translation. The present translation is the result of such an attempt. I have tried not to deviate too far from the intent, spirit, and flavour of the original, and many Hindi names and words have been retained for the Indian reader familiar with the setting of the novel in its particular Indian context. For western readers and Indian readers with a similar background, a glossary of Hindustani words used in the book has been provided.

The format of the text has been slightly changed. In the Hindi text of Karmabhumi, long dialogues occur between characrcters with no indication of who is speaking. This is possible in Hindi because the grammar makes it clear who is saying what. However, in an English translation where verbs and adjectives do not follow the subjective noun, such dialogues are confusing. Hence in some places I have inserted the name of the speaker, for example, 'Amar rejoined', or 'Naina replied', for clarity. Other changes include grouping of very short sentences, and certain forms of speech. For instance, in Hindi one often says do-char dill which literally translated means 'two- four days'. These forms have been changed to 'three or four days'.

As noted by almost every translator of Premchand's novels or short stories, there are some inconsistencies in the Hindi text of Karmabhumi, Premchand was a very prolific writer and he probably did not have the time or the inclination to re-read and correct some of the ambiguities/errors that inevitably creep into a novel of the size of Karmcbhumi.Ttiese inconsistencies have been corrected in the translation. For instance, in Part 1, Chapter 7, Pathanin says to Amarkant that she has sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, and the implication is that they are all living but they don't take care of her. Later in the same chapter she says that they are all dead. In this translation, I have amended the first reference to imply that they are all dead. Similarly, a reference to Amarkant having been relieved of the task of selling caps has been changed to selling handkerchiefs to correspond with the description.

Among the Hindi words that have no counterpart in English and one which occurs repeatedly in Karmabhumi is 'dharma'. Dharma has several meanings, depending on the context: religion, duty, code of action, morality, moral principles, obligation, righteousness. The concept of duty or code of action or dharma is not an inflexible entity, but is commensurate with one's station or place in life. For example, a soldier's dharma is to fight a battle with honour and bravery; he is not to concern himself with the consequences of success or failure. When a specific meaning is clear I have translated dharma into that meaning; otherwise, I have left it as 'dharma'.

Certain aspects of Indian, especially Hindu, culture and tradition need to be explained for non-Indian readers. In Hindu thought, this world and all it represents, animate and inanimate, is part of the Brahman, the absolute Godhead. We, the individual atmans, can achieve nirvana, the freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth, by fusing our spirits with the Brahman. Brahman is inconceivable and unknowable, but the world he created, his maya, is knowable. The attachments that we make to our relatives and friends (love, affection, etc.) are considered moho Maya and moh have various meanings depending on the context, but generally connote something that is unreal or insubstantive and transitory, in contrast to the spiritual world and the love for God, which are real and of eternal value. Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to think that maya and moh are totally unreal; they are 'real'to people (who themselves are part of maya) , but that reality is temporal and has no lasting value.

In Hindu society, sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law show respect to their elders, when meeting them after a while, by touching their feet. Similarly, if seated, they get up if an elder enters the room; a wife, if sitting, stands up when the husband enters the room.

Auspicious occasions are often celebrated with showering rice and batashas (small semi-spherical cakes, very light and fluffy, made of rice

flour and sugar) on the general populace; sometimes coins may be showered as well. People collect these things, called loot, for their use. On the birth of a child, servants are offered gifts, sometimes jewellery to female servants.

Karmabhumi gives graphic accounts of women's place in society. Not only do they participate equally with men in the struggle for the removal of untouchability and upliftment of the poor, they are also very conscious of their rights and duties vis-a-vis men. In Part 3, Chapter 6 for instance, Sukhada, an educated Hindu woman, expresses her conception of her conjugal rights and duties to Dr Shantikumar, a university professor. Yet she is deeply grounded in Hindu cultural values and, contrary to western conception, she is no vassal or chattel of man.

Another instance of grounding in Hindu values is shown by Munni, an uneducated village woman. Western readers may think that Munni is exaggerating her situation when she pleads for death during her trial on a charge of murder, and, on acquittal, when she begs her audience for respect and oblivion for herself in exile. She considers herself defiled and thus unfit for living as wife and mother. She realizes in her own mind that even though she is being hailed as a sati by the general population and her husband is ready to take her back, yet this accolade is transient and the stigma of impurity will remain with her for ever. Later, the same feeling of having been defiled and thus unfit for being a wife and mother keeps her from going back to her husband and child when they come searching for her in Haridwar.

In Hindu society, a daughter is thought to belong to her (future) husband's family. For this reason she is considered a guest in her own familial house, held in trust until her wedding when she is passed on to her husband or her husband's parents. Girls were considered to be of marriageable age after reaching puberty and many were indeed married when they were between fourteen and seventeen years of age. Also, marriages used to be arranged between families of similar background and caste, but with little. direct input from the bride or the groom. For these reasons, a period of several years (up to three or four) would elapse during which the new bride and groom would get to know and adjust to each other, develop mentally and physically, and gradually assume the responsibilities of parenthood and running their own household. During this period, the bride would often go back to her parent's house (maika), sometimes for months, only to return to her husband's or father-in-law's house (sasural). With time, both the frequency and duration of visits to the maika would reduce and eventually become normal visits to a parent's home.

At the time of writing of Karmabhumi, Hindus were allowed several wives, although the general practice was for only one (which has since 1947 become the law). Hence the idea of a marriage between Amarkant and Sakina was legally possible, even though, as Salim said, it would have led to much turmoil, possibly even bloodshed.






Translator's Note




Premchand's Appeal


PART ONE Chapters


PART TWO Chapters




PART FOUR Chapters


PART FIVE Chapters





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