Growing up with Premchand: Finding reflections of the Hindi novelist's writing in India's towns, culture
A well-known photograph of Premchand where he can be seen wearing torn shoes speaks volumes about his simplicity — a trait he shares with many of the characters he created
In early 2017, as I sat watching Thithi, Raam Reddy's stellar debut film about a dysfunctional relationship between a father and son in rural Karnataka trying to raise funds for a funeral celebration, my mind kept racing back to a story I had read in school.
Kafan (Shroud) is about a similar father-and-son duo trying to raise funds for the funeral of the son's wife, while she lays dead inside the house. The story ends with both of them getting drunk with the money they gathered for the shroud — an ending that was perhaps far too morbid for a 13-year-old reader. Terse lines, written in a simple, conversational style with quotable observations in between. The writer was Munshi Premchand, and I was hooked. Sample these lines from Kafan –
"कैसा बुरा रिवाज है कि जिसे जीते-जी तन ढाँकने को चीथड़ा भी न मिले, उसे मरने पर कफन चाहिए।"
(How ironic is this tradition? Someone who couldn’t cover her body while she lived, needs a shroud now as she lays dead.)
"बड़ी अच्छी थी बेचारी! मरी तो भी खूब खिला-पिलाकर!"
(She was so nice. Even in death she helped us eat and drink.)
Soon, I found myself poring over everything I could find by him in our personal library. Using a pencil to underline the quotes, reading and re-reading paragraphs, marveling at how the characters in his stories came to life. My father, happy to see my new-found interest in Hindi literature, guided me to his most famous works. Nasha, a coming-of-age story was set in Moradabad, where I used to live at that point. It took me on an exploratory tour around the town on my bicycle to find a similar zamindar house that Ishwari (the protagonist’s friend in the story) might have lived in.
Idgah and Do Bailon Ki Katha became instant favorites. I hung out with Hamid (Idgah’s child protagonist) in my imagination and every other ox ambling down the empty roads of Moradabad seemed like a runaway Heera or Moti. Munshi Vansheedhar from Namak Ka Daroga, the story of an unlikely hero, became a personal idol. Amit Masurkar’s 'Newton' in his staunch dedication for duty and honesty has more than just shades of Munshi Vansheedhar.
I distinctly remember the first time I encountered Shatranj Ke Khiladi, which reads like a fun back-and-forth between two friends at first, and then takes a surprising dark turn. The banter-loving, sparring nawabs fighting unto death and the story's bloody ending left me stunned.
Premchand had a tough life, and his own story reads like something he would write.
The early demise of his mother and siblings while he was still a child; the banning of one of his earliest story collections, Soz-e-Watan, by the British government; his life-long struggles with money, which led him to take up multiple jobs as a teacher as well as run tuition classes; running his own publication, which later turned bankrupt; his insistence on writing regularly, through all these hurdles. He considered it his duty and he was unflinching in his passion, just like Vansheedhar or Newton. In his own words –
"मै एक मज़दूर हूँ। जिस दिन कुछ लिख न लूँ, उस दिन मुझे रोटी खाने का कोई हक नहीं।"
(I am a labourer. If I don’t write anything, I have no right to eat that day.)
“लिखते तो वह लोग हैं, जिनके अंदर कुछ दर्द है, अनुराग है, लगन है, विचार है। जिन्होंने धन और भोग-विलास को जीवन का लक्ष्य बना लिया, वह क्या लिखेंगे?”
(Writers are those people who have pain, love and thoughts. Those who aim for money and pleasure in life, how can they write?)
In his short essay ‘Premchand Ke Fate Joote’ (Premchand’s torn shoes), Harishankar Parsai presents observations about a telling photograph of the Hindi novelist. He remarked that Premchand looked like such an elegant, simple man getting a picture taken, wearing torn shoes on his feet and a grin on his face.
Perhaps it was this simplicity that he espoused and stood for in his life that shone through his characters. His works are very much a documentation of his times, capturing the milieu he grew up in and he wrote with a flair for human psychology. A lot of his major works have been adapted and visualised on-screen as well. From Gulzar to Satyajit Ray, Premchand has sparked the imaginations of writers and artists well beyond his time. One of my fondest memories from FTII remains watching Shashi Bhushan’s theatrical adaptation of Bade Bhaisahab.
Some of the criticism Premchand has faced is the apparent lack of humour in his works. A valid argument on the surface. However, I would argue that he used plot devices to invoke dark humor rather than writing funny lines. Some of his observations are also examples of dry humor –
"मासिक वेतन पूरनमासी का चाँद है जो एक दिन दिखाई देता है और घटते घटते लुप्त हो जाता है।"
(One's monthly salary is like a full moon, that is visible one day and slowly wanes with the passing of days, into nothingness.)
I’ve always felt that reading his stories is like listening to a monk imparting subtle wisdom. He is always present as a narrator in the stories, recounting the incidents as they occurred. His gaunt, creased face and piercing eyes portray the picture of a humble, learned man who has seen life up close, and you’d do well to listen to what he is saying. We can all learn something from a sage.
Shivam Sharma is a business analyst and FTII alumnus. He loves cinema, Hindi literature and runs a Hindi/Urdu poetry channel on YouTube called 'The Mansarovar Project'. You can follow the project on Facebook and Twitter. Shivam tweets at @GhantaGuy
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