One of India’s greatest writers. Pramchand virtually founded the modern Hindi short story. The Present Selection in two volumes includes some of the finest examples of Premchand’s creative genius.
The flames leapt up! The fire blazed as it consumed all the hope and dreams the young man had expressed for his beloved country. As he stood there, stunned and disbelieving, watching the precious copies of his book turn to ashes, the harsh words of the District Collector rang in his ears.
“Be thankful you are under British rule. If this had been the Mughal Raj, you would have and both your hands cut off!” Harsher still was the injunction, “You will write nothing in future without our Permission.” An injunction impossible to comply with!
Which was this book, the first book by an Indian writer to be publicly burnt? Its name was Soz-E-Watan , a Collection or romantic stories of bravery and Patriostism, published in 1909. And the young man was its author a fiery patriot, Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, better known by his pen-name Premchand or Munshi Premchand. He was destined to become one of India’s greatest Writers.
Premchand was born on 31 July 1880 in the village of Lamhi, near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. His father was a postal clerk who had neither time nor money to spar for his son. Premchand’s mother died when he was only eight years old. His father remarried but his stepmother turned out to be a harsh and domineering woman, with no love for her little stepson. And so Premchand’s childhood was shadowed by both neglect and poverty.
In fact, poverty and ill-health were to dog him all his life. When premchand was only fifteen, his father got him married to girl with whom he had nothing in common and who left him a few years later.
A year after Premchan’s marriage, his father passed away. Premchand, who was then a student of Class Nine, was left to support a wife, a stepmother and her two children! There was no money in the house. Whatever little there had been, had been spent on his father’s long illness.
Premchand had dreamt of getting an M.A degree and then becoming a lawyer. All these dreams were shattered. He finished school somehow and hot down to earning a living for his family.
For a while he worked as tutor, earning five rupees a month (eauivalent to about two hundred and fifty rupees today). Then he got a job as an assistant teacher at a princely salary of eighteen rupees a month! Premchand was nineteen years old at the time. For the next 22 years of his life, he remained a teacher in one government school or another, in different parts of Uttar Pradesh
Life was never easy. Although Premchand would hand over most of his earnings to his stepmother and keep the bare minimum for himself, she remained harsh and critical towards him.
In 1906, when he was 26, Premchand married again and this marriage was a happy one. Shivrani Devi. His second wife, proved to be an understanding companion and a pillar of strength for her husband. It was with her support that he was able to take the difficult decision of quitting his government job in 1920. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who had visited Gorakhpur where he was then posted. Premchand decided to join the struggle for independence and server all links with the British ‘Sarkar.
The remaining years of his life saw him struggling to earn a decent livelihood. Besides his writing, he worked as an editor for several Hindi magazines. In 1923 he started his own printing press and began to publish two weeklies. One was Hons, a literary magazine, which acquainted its readers with the various regional literatures of India. The other was jagran , a nationalist paper, through which Premchand fearlessly voiced his political opinions, despite the heavy fines imposed on the magazine from time to time. Neither paper was a commercial success. To supplement his income, Premchand even wrote the scripts for some Hindi films in Bombay, but financial worries continued to harass.
Despite them and his failing health-worsened by vears of travelling, long hours of work and little rest-much of his best work belongs to this period. A source of inspiration and help for many an aspiring young writer, Premchand was at the peak of his creativity when he passed away, possibly of a chronic gastric ulcer, on 8 oct 1936. He was only 56 years old.
As a boy, Premchand had developed a varocious appetite for books. He read all the Urdu novels he could lay his hands on. These were, by and large, stirrings sagas or romance and adventure. Pramchand and a few of his friends would meet regularly and read aloud from their favourite book.
It was perhaps natural that a man, who loved books as much as Premchand did, should take to writing. His first novel appeared in 1901 and his first short story in 1907. He continued to write steadily for the rest of his life, producing about 300 short stories, a dozen novels innumerable essays, articles, editorials, plays screenplays and translations in relatively short span of 36 years.
Premchand began writing in Urdu and gradually, though never completely, switched over to Hindi in an attempt to reach a wider readership. He is acknowledged as a master in both languages. From a florid and fanciful style, influenced by the Urdu romances he had read as a youth, premchand’s language become simple, direct and immensely powerful.
His early writing was marked by great nationalistic fervor. Beside-Soz-e-Watan, the collection of stories that was banned by the British, he wrote biographies of Prominent nineteenth century freedom fighters such as the Italians, Garibaldi and the dynamic and revolutionary sage who made the world recognize the spiritual wealth that was India.
However, Premchand wanted more than just political freedom for his country. He wanted greater social and economic justice. Through a character in one of his short stories, he said, “We are fighting for more than freedom –to reduce oppression, to raise culture, clean homes, smiling, children, enlightened universities, honest low courts.” For Premchand, freedom did not only mean “putting Govind in Place to John”.
Through his writings he attacked and exposed many social evils of his time. In one of his earliest novels published in 1907 in Hindi, Prema, he describes the plight of child widows ostracized by Hindu society. The hero of the novel marries the child-widow, Prema. Premchand himself flouted tradition when at about this time, he chose to marry a child widow, Shivrani Devi, refusing the dowry he could easily have asked for and obtained.
Premchan’s other early novels also reflect a desire for social reform. Nirmala deals with the evils of the dowry system. In Premashram, Premchand took up the Plight of the struggling peasant, a subject he returned to again and again, notably in Godan his last and perhaps the finest of his novels.
In the world of Pramchand’s stories, love for humanity is the greatest religion. Communal harmony was very much a part of the India of Pramchand’s dreams. Those who aroused her ire and contempt were the fanatics, the exploiters, who could belong to any community.
Pandit Motey Ram Shastri is one such character. He is i exploiter of the credulity ofconurflofl folk.Premchand wrote wveral stories featuring this rotund, ridiculous and greedy one of which, ‘The Feast’ (Nimantrafl) is included hi tiw present volume.
Another of Premchand’s major concerns in his novels and 1mrt stories seems to be the many problems that beset women
All 11 through their lives, the evils of the dowry systems the terror iid heartbreak of not being able to bear sons; the shame and hc Isolation of widoWhood.The women in premchand’s stories are ,portrayed with a respect and understanding that is rare in a male writer. Aged and helpless Kaki (in the story ‘Boodhi Kaki’) and Amena, the poverty_stricken grandmother in the story ‘ Idgah’ are two memorable women characters among many others.
The most authentic and penetrating of premchand’s pori entre around, village life. This was a life he knew intimately. since he had grown up in a village.Then as a teacher,And later an inspector of schools, he travelled extensively the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Premchand was always a man of the people, a man of the soil. He spoke for his country’s poor, not just for the poor of his native state. With his powerful pen, he painted picture after picture of rural India, its largely static society, its caste clashes as well as its communal harmony, its poverty and its exploitation, as well as the richness of character of so many of its people.
Premchand may have spent much of his life in the villages and small towns of Uttar Pradesh, but he was well aware of the literary and political winds sweeping over not only India, but other countries as well.
As a well-informed editor and author, he was acquainted with the works of many literary giants of his day- notably, British novelists like Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy and Maxim Gorky; and French writers such as Honore de Balzac and Guy de Maupassant. He had also translated some of their work into Hindi and Urdu. All these writers reflected the mood of Realism that pervaded the prose of the nineteenth century. By and large, their work concentrated on portraying ordinary people, oppressed by social circumstances and struggling to shape their destinies.
Influenced no doubt by these writers and his own commitment to the cause of the poor, Pramchand almost single-handedly, raised the Hindi novel and short story from the unreal world of fantasy and romance to a high level of realistic narrative
His feelings for the poor attracted him to the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1918. This is clearly reflected in Premchand’s novel Premashram , written in 1922, in which one of the struggling peasants states that “ cultivators are now the ruling class in Russia”.
Like the great India writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s ,such as Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in Bengal and Subramaniam Bharti in Tamil Nadu , Premchand’s work was fired by a sense of intense nationalism, but he did not live long enough to see his country gain freedom.
While much of Premchand’s work was influenced by his political convictions, the values that shine through the finest of his writing are the old, old values of love, compassion and tolerance. it is in the moving blend of tragedy and hope , of realism and idealism that Premchand’s greatness lies.
“The greater the calamity,” the tougher the fibre. It is tragedy that makes a man.”
H OW true this was of his own life! The simply dressed man, with the serene countenance and the infectious laugh, had t harder and sadder life than many of his readers will ever know. His life and his work serve as inspiration for us all.
This selection is in two volumes, consisting of 14 stories in gil, taken from the Mansarovar collection of stories.
‘A Tale ofTwo Bullocks’ (which was later made into a film) aud ‘I )etermination’ reflect Premchands empathy for the mute brait of burden.
Also burdened, but this time with the sorrows and trials of old age is ‘Kaki’. Premchand’s portrayal of the helpless old Woman grips the heart of every reader.
In ‘The Feast’, we meet one of Premchand’s rare comic characters, the corpulent and corrupt Pandit Motey Ram Shastri; while in the ‘Price of Freedom’, Premchand focuses on the plight of the poor farmer, struggling to live a life of dignity amidst abject poverty
In ‘Guffi-Danda’, Premchand contrasts the carefree spirit of childhood with the self-consciousness and awareness of material status that creep into a man later in life. There is a strong autobiographical element running through the story
‘Idgah’ is one of Premchand’s best-known stories. This beautiful tale of a stout-hearted and resourceful little boy is both endearing and enduring.
It has not been possible to translate these stories word for word from Hindi to English. Many words and expressions in Hindi defy direct translation into another language.
Even so, every attempt has been made to ensure that there is no diminishing of impact and that the essence of each story is fully conveyed to the reader.
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