Playground: Rangbhoomi by Premchand

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Item Code: NAC122
Author: Manju Jain
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780143102113
Pages: 685
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 Inch X 5.6 Inch
Weight 630 gm
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Manju Jain ‘One of the subcontinent’s best loved writers…the father of the modern Urdu/Hindi novel’

The Hindu,

First published in 1925, Rangbhoomi was considered by Premchand to be his best work. Set against the backdrop of colonial India-characterized by a brutal state, opportunistic, feudal landlords and ruthless capitalists – this novel is a grim account of the blind beggar Soordas’s struggle against the acquisition of his ancestral land. Weaving together themes such as industrialization, atrocities committed by princely states, the role of women in India’s independence movement, and caste and class hierarchies, Playground’s concerns remain shockingly relevant.

Capturing Premchand’s masterful handling of a variety of linguistic registers, Manu Jain’s evocative translation shows us the deep humanism of one of India’s greatest writers.


Translator’s Note

The main challenge in translating Rangb/000mi was to be faithful to the text while not being literal and doing justice to the multiple linguistic registers and discourses that Premchand deploys in the novel as well as to evoke the material culture in which it is embedded. To that end I have often translated metaphors and proverbs literally because these embody the nuances and the lived practices of a culture. I have included Hindi/ Urdu words to suggest a flavour of the original and have given a glossary as well as annotations. The reader would otherwise either feel befuddled and ignore these or frequently have to look up dictionaries and encyclopedias to figure out meanings and references. Many Hindi/ Urdu words have of course entered common usage and are to be found in the Oxford Dictionary of English. Perhaps such translations will enable more such words to be included and serve as bridges across different languages and cultures. I have not glossed culinary items which are now well-known thanks to the worldwide popularity of Indian cuisine and mostly found in the OED, except for a few that belong specifically to the rural milieu. Dialect is difficult to translate, especially when it is often a matter of pronunciation. I have therefore occasionally spelt a word to suggest the original pronunciation and have annotated it. It is of course impossible to capture the inflexions of dialect as well as of Dr Ganguly’s Banglacized Hindi so I have not attempted to do that. I have also tried to be context-sensitive in translating words that can have different social and political meanings depending on the context, such as ‘jaati’, which can variously signify caste, community, race, nation, species, among others. I have attempted to capture the rhythms and the structure of Premchand’s prose as well as the shifts in his use of tenses. He often uses short sentences which I have retained where possible to evoke the staccato effect that he probably wished to communicate. I have also retained the style that he uses for dialogues—the name of the person followed by a dash——for its clarity as well as for the dramatic counterpoint that it provides.

I have not used politically correct language in translating caste names and words for that would be to efface history as well as to negate Premchand’s deep concern with caste oppression. I have consulted the Premchand Rachnavali (vol. 3) edition of Rangbhoomi as well as the Diamond Pocket Books edition of 2000. Premchand’s prefatory note is not included in the Rachnavali edition. The process of collating errors and misprints in both the editions gave me a heightened awareness of the instability of a text, where an alphabet or a syllabic mark can change the meaning of an entire sentence.

Finally, to quote T.S. Eliot on translating Shakespeare: ‘What can be translated? A story, a dramatic plot, the impressions of a living character in action, an image, a proposition. What cannot be translated is the incantation, the music of the words, and that part of the meaning which is in the music. One may add that what cannot also be translated are the nuances of the lived realities of one culture in terms of another, as well as the multivalences of one language into those of another. Translation is yet another form of interpretation and not a mimetic rendition of the original text. All that a translator can hope to do is to make the novel accessible to readers who do not know the language.



Premchand’s oeuvre negotiates the wide—ranging transformations that were taking place in the country in the first three and a half decades of the twentieth century. It is germinated by the creative tensions in the development of his thinking as he witnessed and responded to the vast changes that were taking place around him, HDI only within the country, but in the international arena as well. In his journalism, letters, articles and speeches he commented upon and analysed practically every topic of contemporary importance, making him an exemplar of a writer and an intellectual who was cosmopolitan while remaining rooted in the local. It is my contention that a novel such as Rangbhoomi provides a radical alternative to colonial historiography as well as to colonial literary representations.

Looking back on his oeuvre towards the end of his life, Premchand wrote that Rangbhoomi was, in his opinion, his best work} Rangbhoomi (which can variously be translated as playground/theatre/arena/stage/ battlefield) is quite literally a veritable playground or battlefield of conflicting perspectives, ideological positions, discourses, genres, voices and linguistic registers that crisscross the novel. It constantly compels readers to engage with this plurality evoking the fluidity and polyphony of the creative imagination at work, in a dialogic mode, through several, often contradictory, perspectives. This polyphony is heightened through the shifts and nuances of the narratorial voice- didactic, ironic, melodramatic, playful, disclaiming omniscient knowledge, eliciting the participation of the reader—much like the kathavaachak or storyteller in a village chaupaal.

Premchand had begun working on Rangbhoomi in October 1922. He completed the Urdu draft (as Chaugan-e-Hasti) on 1 April 1924 and was simultaneously turning it into Hindi. The manuscript of the Hindi version was completed within four months, on l2August 1924, and published in January 1925. Chaugan-e-Hasti (Arena of1,ife) was published later in 1928 (Rai 1982, 205-6, 390). The earlier Urdu draft was revised in the light of the Hindi version.

Tracing back the temporal span of the novel on the basis of the internal evidence of Premchand’s self-referential allusion to his own play Karbala (published in November 1924) in Chapter 41, just a short while before the final denouement, and Dr Ganguly’s reference to the Bengal Hoods of 1922 (Ch. 32), makes it seem to cover a period of approximately five years, from about the end of 1919 to about the end of 1924.3 Though completed in August 1924, the action of the novel is proleptically projected a few months into the future, or perhaps Premchand may have continued to write/ revise it before its final publication. The eviction of Pandeypur begins on 1 May; the protest continues after that for about two months leading to Soordas’s death; his statue is built about six months later, taking the action on to about the end of December 1924. This of course was a period in which there were vast upheavals in the country; Rang/2}200mi dramatizes these changes as they were taking place. If as Rai says, Rangbhoomi is the epic of Premchand’s life up to this moment (Rai 1982, 197), it can also be regarded as an epic of the nation during this period, reflecting the turbulence of the times, with all the fissures and contradictions that were then prevalent. Since the novel is so deeply embedded in the history and politics of the time, it will be useful to trace the trajectory of Premchand`s response to the events that were taking place and to see how they are mediated in Rangbhoomi.

It is worth recalling that the discourse of nationalism itself; at this stage in the formation of the nation, was undergoing radical modifications and was fraught with internal contradictions-- between nation and community, loyalty to the country and loyalty to the community, whether of caste, region or religion. It was in the early 1920s that the nationalism of people like Gandhi changed, as Gyanendra Pandey writes, from the earlier stress on the `possibility of a coexistence of loyalty to the country and loyalty to the (religious) Community’ to the primacy of the one over the other (Pandey 1990, 237-38). °Nationalism is greater than sectarianism”, Gandhi wrote in January 1922, emphasizing that `[l]n that sense we are Indians first and Hindus, Mussulmans, Parsis, Christians afterwards (in Pandey 1990, 238). It is important to remember, though, that there were several contending conceptions of nationhood, including the religious, resulting in compromises and vacillations among different kinds of nationalists (Pandey 1990, 255).

The Early Political Context

The earliest political influences on Premchand were those of the Arya Samaj and the Social Reforms League led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahadev Govind Ranade who belonged to the moderate faction of the Congress as opposed to the militants led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Like the younger generation of revolutionaries, Premchand also admired Vivekananda, Mazzini and Garibaldi. However, the brutal repression of the militants within the Congress and the activities of the revolutionaries outside it by the government increasingly made Premchand more rebellious (Rai 1982, 65-68). This was especially so in the wake of the excesses of the British government in crushing the revolutionaries following the Partition of Bengal in October 1905. Premchand, in fact, wrote an article in support of the Swadeshi movement, started by Tilak, Aurobindo Ghosh, and Lala Lajpat Rai, which had been triggered off by this Partition, in November 1905 (PR 7, 39-40). Premchand’s revolutionary and our became even more intense when the fifteen-year-old Khudiram Bose was hanged for sedition by the British government on 11 August 1908. Premchand bought his portrait and hung it in his study even though he was employed in government service at the time (Rai 1982, 67-68). His own direct confrontation with the British colonial government occurred in 1909, when he was reprimanded by the district magistrate of Hamirpur, where he was posted as a deputy sub—inspector of schools, for the seditious content of his collection of short stories, Soz-e- Vatan (Dirge of the Nation), published in 1908. All the remaining copies of ll1C book had to be surrendered and Premchand was informed that he could never again write anything without the government’s permission (PR 7, 566-67). This led him to change his name from Nawab Rai, under which he had written so far, to Premchand.

The War and the immediate post-War years, as Sumit Sarkar writes, witnessed dramatic changes in Indian life, the three most crucial landmarks being constitutional reforms, the emergence of Gandhi as leader of ‘a qualitatively new all-India mass nationalism’, and important shifts in India’s colonial economy (Sarkar 2002, 165). These years witnessed the traumatic events following the introduction of the Rowlatt Bill in the Legislative Assembly in February 1919. The Bill, which came into effect as the Rowlatt Act in March 1919, indefinitely extended the `emergency measures, of the Defense of India Regulations Act enacted during the First World War for the purpose of controlling public unrest and eradicating sedition. Protests against the imposition of the Rowlatt Act led to Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, which roused massive nation-wide support. The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre took place on 13 April 1919 when soldiers of the British Indian Army, under the command of General Dyer, opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women, and children. In fact, there are repeated references in Rangb/700mi to the disturbances and brutal repressions in Punjab, and it is to Punjab that Rani Jahnavi, Indu and Dr Ganguly are headed at the end of the novel.

Constitutional Reforms

Meanwhile, in 1917, legislative autonomy had been promised to the country by the Lloyd George government through Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India. The Montagu-Chelmsford Report was prepared in 1918 and formed the basis of the Government of India Act of 1919. The principle of °diarchy’ was introduced by the setting up of Indian provincial and central legislative assemblies, in which authority was ‘shared’ between the British government and the Indians. Real power, however, remained in the hands of the viceroy and the provincial governors. Following widespread discontent with the Reforms, the Indian National Congress at its annual meeting in September 1920 supported Gandhi’s proposal of ‘swarajya’ or self rule, which was to be implemented through a policy of non-cooperation with the British government. Gandhi had issued a manifesto on 10 March 1920 outlining his plan for non-cooperation.

Premchand was deeply sceptical about the Montgu-Chelmsford (Montford) Reforms. In a letter of 21 December 1919 to his friend Dayanarayan Nigam, editor of Zamana, he explained that, considering the moderate policy of Zamana, he did not think it appropriate to write on political issues for the paper. The moderate party he wrote, was being unnecessarily arrogant at this time, because if there was any speciality about the Reforms it was only that the educated class would get more facilities, and given the way in which this class was sucking the blood of the people as lawyers, it would cut their throats in the same way on becoming officials in the future (CP, 94-95).

In Rangbhoomi', Dr Ganguly, who appears in part to be modelled on Gokhale, is made to reject any policy of appeasement by the British through such measures as the Montford Reforms thus going back on his earlier championing of a policy of cooperation and conciliation with the colonial government for the attainment of nationalist goals. Ganguly, in fact, now rejects the hypocrisy of the British liberal tradition as represented by Lord Ripon, the radical liberal Viceroy of India, A.O. Hume, one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, and even Annie Besant, on whom Premchand claimed to have based Sophia’s character, all of whom he had earlier constantly cited in support of his trust that the British wanted to rule India on the basis of justice (Ch. 50, 628-9). (Besant had by then become a moderate. She was shouted down for supporting the Montford reforms at the Delhi Congress of 1918 [Sarkar 2002, 188]). It may be noted here that Clark, the district magistrate, himself emphasizes that the British have only their imperialist goals in sight and are not inspired by noble and high principles, be they conservative or liberal, radical or labour, nationalist or socialist (Ch. 35, 450). This is what Premchand had to say about the Labour Party in an article of 13 April 1922, °Systems that Nurture and Oppose Swarajya°, even while praising it, corroborating Clark’s assertion: {There is no doubt that the leadership of the Labour Party is in the control of people who are °`imperialists” at heart. These people want 1ndia°s liberation, but by its remaining subject to England.... Their self—centeredness has compelled India’s well—wisher, Mr Andrews, to remark that we don’t trust the justice of the English’ (PR 7, 245). As Dayanarayan Nigam recounts: ‘Premchand held in distrust the very idea of conciliation in an unequal fight .... He believed that there was no other way except direct confrontation with the government (Rai 1982, 67). Prabhu Sevak is overwhelmed by the reception that he receives when he visits England and by the liberalism and enlightenment of English society. However, as lndradutt tells Vinay, ‘the only difference is that he is preaching friendship without equality, we consider equality to be essential for Friendship’ (Ch. 41, 528). One cannot help recalling Aziz’s rejoinder to Fielding in Forster’s A Passage t0 India that there can be no friendship without equality.

Premchand had written a laudatory article on Gokhale in the November-December 1905 issue of Zamana,, praising Gokhale for talking (with great pride of the enormous benefits that have accrued to us due to the British rule’ (Rai 1982, 66). Simultaneously, however, in an article of 16 November 1905, Premchand had also supported the Swadeshi movement that had begun as a result of the Partition of Bengal (PR 7, 39-40). In Rangb/000mi, Premchand no doubt had Gokhale’s views in mind, as well as his own earlier admiration of them, when he has Kunwar Bharat Singh contradict Mrs Sevak’s eulogy on the (benefits, resulting from British rule (Ch. 14). Ganguly’s political journey then may be seen to chart that of Premchand himself as well as that of the nation, torn between conflicting options for political action in the struggle for independence.

Ganguly also partially resembles Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das in his moderate political stance (Rai 1982, 201). In his obituary on Das in 1925, Premchand wrote about the discussions and debates between the moderates and the militants concerning the Reforms and Das’s proposal o1` joining the Councils to oppose the government in order to remove the passivity that had set in after Gandhi’s imprisonment and to reawaken enthusiasm for nationalism. For Premchand, however, at this stage of the freedom struggle, there was an innate opposition between memberships of? Councils and non—cooperation. "To join the Councils, he believed, was to support cooperation. Echoing Ganguly, however, Premchand writes of Das’s desire that he should be reborn in this country and spend his life serving it. Other characteristics of Das that Premchand singles out, and that he shares with Ganguly are his integrity, generosity, inability to save money sociability remaining firm on his principles, cheerfulness and simple-heartedness (PR 7, 310-13). Premchand, however, later supported participation in the Councils and criticized their boycott by the Congress on the grounds that non- participation would only increase the autocracy of the government, allowing it to make whatever laws it wanted. He therefore welcomed Gandhi’s later decision of supporting participation in the Councils, for ‘the moves of an army should change according to new circumstances? This may be seen less as a going back by Premchand on his earlier position than as a modification and a change in strategy in the light of the prevalent political circumstances.


Premchand’s revolutionary enthusiasm was also fuelled by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 which, For him, represented the rebellion of peasants after centuries of exploitation and oppression. On 2] Dec 1919, in the same letter in which he had criticized the moderate party for its acceptance of the Montford Reforms, Premchand wrote to Nigam, I am now more or less convinced by Bolshevist principles, (CP, 95). Before that, in his article of February 1919, ‘Purana Zamana: Naya Zamana` (The Old Age: The New Age), Premchand prophetically proclaimed that the coming age would be that of the peasants and the labourers, and that India could not remain unaffected by these winds of change, For who knew before the Revolution that there was so much hidden strength in the oppressed people of Russia? (PR 7, 197-98). Premchand continued to defend the Soviet Union as well as Stalin against rumours published against them as the propaganda of capitalist nations (PR 8, 165-66, 415; PR 9, 98). And in one of his last pieces, ‘A Mercantile Civilization’ (August 1936), in which he denounced capitalism, mercantilism, hereditary wealth and private property, he expressed his faith in the Soviet system whose basic principle was the recognition of: individual merit and effort (PR 7, 515, 517).

The Russian Revolution caused widespread tear among the British authorities. Lin a panic reminiscent of that caused by the French Revolution’, Sarkar writes, official reports from 1919—20 onwards and the Home Political Piles of the 1920s were obsessed with the `°Bolshevik Menace” and discovered Bolshevik ideas and Soviet agents everywhere, with even people like Gandhi or C.R. Das at times not above suspicion’ (Sarkar 2002, 177, 249). Rangbhoomi reflects a pervasive fear among the authorities of the spread of communism and Bolshevism, which john Sevak. also articulates in his conversation with Kunwar Bharat Singh (Ch 25, 301). Sophia is even thought to he a Bolshevik agent by Clark when she is with Veerpaal Singh and the dacoits in Rajputana.

And yet Premchand did not himself join the revolutionary movement. He may at times have supported violence, advocated radical solutions and used Marxist rhetoric but like George Eliot, whose Silas Marner he had adapted in Hindi as Sukhdus (Devotee of Bliss), he too appears to have subscribed to an evolutionist and gradualist rather than a revolutionary path of social and political progress: ‘I believe in social evolution’, he wrote in his letter of 31 December 1934 in English, ‘our object being to educate public opinion. Revolution is the failure of saner methods.... It may lead us to worse forms of dictatorship denying all personal liberty’ (CR 432). In Rangbhoomi too Sophia rejects the dacoits when she is confronted with the violence in which their terrorism has resulted. Her decision reflects Premchand’s own fears of violence, despite his attraction towards revolutionary ideologies. Premchand was also critical of the hypocritical communism of the upper classes such as that of Mahendra Singh who is described as being inclined towards communism, despite being an affluent taluqdar, but is motivated only by his self—interest. For Prabhu Sevak, communism was merely a topic of entertainment, and Vinay’s communism is comically transformed into selfishness as soon as he boards a train (Ch 35, 459).

The Impact of Gandhi and the National Movement

Premchand was simultaneously attracted to Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. Like Gandhi, Premchand too was deeply influenced by Tolstoy’s ideals of spirituality and non-violence, which he had imbibed before Gandhi’s appearance on the Indian political horizon. He had already adapted twenty-three of Tolstoy’s stories in Hindi, some of which Gandhi had also translated into Gujarati (Rai 1982, 43). The turning point in Premchand’s life came on 8 February 1921 when Gandhi arrived in Gorakhpur, where Premchand had been teaching at the Normal School since August 1916, to enlist support for his Non-Cooperation movement. Responding to Gandhi’s call for non—cooperation, Premchand resigned his government job on 15 February 1921 (Rai 1982, 154). Gandhi, however, called off the Non—Cooperation movement on 11 February 1922 at Bardoli, following the news of the burning alive of twenty-two policemen by angry peasants protesting against liquor sales and high food prices at Chauri Chaura, a village in Gorakhpur district (Sarkar 2002, 206, 224-25). He was arrested on 10 March 1922 tried for sedition, and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. He was released two years later on medical grounds in February 1924.




  Acknowledgements ix
  Translator’s Note xi
  Introduction xiii
  Author’s Note xlv
  Playground: Rangbhoomi 1-631
  Works Cited 632
  Glossary 635

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