On Munshi Premchand's 81st death anniversary, a look at his quietly rebellious work

Munshi Premchand died on 8 October 1936, only a day before Che Guevara was assassinated 31 years later. It is a coincidence at best but also reaffirms one's belief in the grand design that Premchand depicted in his novels and short stories, and the one he had the audacity to defy, stroke by stroke.

Premchand's rebellion was in many ways, the literary counterpart of Guevara's guerrilla warfare. He camouflaged himself under what was perceived as the course of nature. In all his novels, he narrated the things the way they are, with little embellishment.

Atishayokti alankar (poetic exaggeration) was rarely an element employed in his narration. Instead, his style was that of khadiboli (jumping straight into the central narrative). His language was simple, as if devoid of any man-made intervention.

But he made sure to strike when prospective victims were at their unsuspecting best. Just like how Guevara and the guerrilla forces used grenades to annihilate their enemies, Premchand used words. These words were endless quivers of arrows, flamed by sarcasm and social commentary.

Part of the direct speech by characters strategically etched by him, the carefully chosen words were accompanied by all kinds of metaphors and similes that evoked a greasy imagery of those at the receiving end.

Unlike say, Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, Premchand's commentary was not all about backhanded compliments and veiled allegations. His approach was rather direct, and on many occasions, confrontational. His characters were strong and self-reliant and raised a voice against the system only when they were provoked.

 On Munshi Premchands 81st death anniversary, a look at his quietly rebellious work

Munshi Premchand. Image via YouTube

But Premchand did not always give out the message that revolutions find their origin in provocation. In fact, many of his stories demonstrate how change can take place in ordinary lives of ordinary people through extraordinary gestures.

In this regard, his academically prescribed story Idgah stands out. An old lady raises her grandson single-handedly in spite of abject poverty. She makes sure to serve him a full meal before he leaves for school every day. But the child notices that his grandmother's hand gets burnt while she makes roti on a chulah (stove). She cannot even an afford a pair of tongs to save her hand from getting burnt.

On the occasion of Eid, the grandmother gives a little money to the kid, as Idgah (money given to children as part of celebration), so that he can purchase a gift from the neighbourhood mela (fair). But the grandchild chooses to buy a pair of tongs for his grandmother's sake.

When he returns home with the rather unconventional gift, his grandmother is furious at the wastage of money. She starts beating him up till she realises that the pair of tongs is actually a gift for her. The story ends with the overwhelmed old lady hugging her concerned grandson tightly as the two celebrate the special bond they share.

What makes the little boy defy peer pressure, his aspirations of buying toys on the long awaited occasion of Eid and the very inertia that status quo provides? What makes him not take his helpless grandmother for granted and actually place her needs before his wants? His action was a minor form of rebellion triggered by love and gratitude for his grandmother.

Premchand used micro examples like these to show Rome was not built in a day. And unlike Rome, India boasts of a heterogeneous society that makes its maintenance as a cohesive entity even more challenging. To add a drop to the ocean of possibility is merely aiming an arrow into the dark. One needs to believe that the arrow will hit the bull's eye even if the odds are against that.

Through many of his stories, he points out how the ocean of possibility is often in front of us but we fail to look beyond the horizon, given our myopic vision. Adding your own drop may not make the physical vision clearer but will certainly create a ripple effect.

Premchand throws more light on the same through his story Khudi; where along with love, hope shapes the protagonist's indomitable will. Munni is an orphan who is a sought-after object of desire in her village. But as the writer puts it, "woh sabki thi, uska koi na tha" (She was everybody's. But she had nobody).

When she finds a dejected lover and falls for him, the insecure guy goes absconding. But Munni waits for her lover in a straw hut that they had created as their makeshift home. Turning a deaf ear to all other proposals, she holds her hope tight to her heart. She does not even allow an iota of doubt into her heart that is fueled by the hope of seeing the only man she loved, return...but to no avail.

The last four words (Read: but to no avail) never make it to Premchand's narrative, literally. But he allows the leader to immerse themselves in Munni's pain and loneliness by making them a part of her struggle. Since she does not act but merely waits for her knight in shining armour, does that make her a rebel in any way?

To Premchand, it does. Munni rebels against her sexual desires, social pressure and even a possible feeling of remorse down the line. Her endless wait is not a sign of inactivity. It is a conscious decision to traverse the less beaten path. Here, the toil is not physical. It is mental, emotional and spiritual.

Also, she does not wait for her knight to rescue her from a desperate state of isolation. She holds on to him as it serves as an asset rather than a self-imposed burden. Abstinence and patience are indeed an unsung form of rebellion, particularly when society is sexually charged and materialistically inclined.

Munshi Premchand. Twitter@Abhishek8Negi

Munshi Premchand. Photo courtesy Twitter/@Abhishek8Negi

Through such illustrations, Premchand hammers home the point that the conflict within follows a template. It is always Nature vs Nurture, personal vs societal. Social conditioning has churned out innumerable warriors in the battlefield. While that can lend war wisdom, valour cannot be ingrained in individuals.

But Premchand also shows, through stories like Aalha, that valour is not always a wise retort. A synthetic form of heroism can be indoctrinated in individuals given that they have been moulded during impressionable stages of life. Thus, it is then that this perceived feeling of valour becomes the Nurture to the Nature of retreat, the reflex action of humans as soon as they smell trouble.

In Aalha, a Rajput warrior returns to his long forgotten kingdom in order to lead a war against an enemy army. When the dust settles, the two clans are completely wiped off barring three of the principle members. The Rajput warrior is never found again as he is suspected to be guilt-ridden, given the fact that his testosterone rush proved to be a catalyst in the near-extinction of his clan.

Thus, Premchand subtly brings in the idea that one needs thorough soul-searching, and not an impulsive adherence to the instinct, to sieve nature from nurture, right from wrong. It takes another level of rebellion to stay calm when you are expected to unleash the demon within. All civilisations today find their origin in the idea to profess and disseminate peace.

Thus, rebellion need not have an aggressive connotation. It can be as silent and understated as Premchand's language which lures you into a world you want to be in, only to shake you out of complacency just when you start getting comfortable. But the undercurrent of hope is what projects his work as an agent of social change, a crucial cog in the wheel of the vicious cycle of how society shapes individuals and vice versa.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2017 12:32:45 IST