The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 3, 2000

A writer forgotten
By N.K. Oberoi

WRITING in a journal on Tulsi Jayanti in June 1935, Munshi Prem Chand regretted that we as a nation did not pay proper homage to the memory of Goswami Tulsidas. Tulsidas is part and parcel of our lives, the still, small voice within us, the source of our moral imagination as a people. The birth anniversary of Prem Chand fell on July 31. However, there was hardly any mention of this in our newspapers and T.V. Prem Chand could never have forseen that the insensitivity towards Tulsi Jayanti displayed by the people was going to be his lot, too.

Munshi Prem Chand bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm in raising funds for the renovation of Tulsi Ghat and Tulsi Mandir at Varanasi. By way of rationalising it, one may say that the writer of Ramcharitmanas does not need any monuments to his memory. The Supreme Court of India came down heavily on the Delhi Municipal Corporation for not taking action to prevent the burial place of Urdu poet Momin from being turned into a public urinal. A coal depot is housed where the poet Ghalib once lived. A TV crew was shocked at the dilapidated condition of Prem Chandís house. Even its windows had been removed, the crew discovered, when it visited the spot again to shoot it for television.


Munshi Prem ChandThe question that Munshi Prem Chand does not directly raise but it automatically crops us through the tepid celebration of Tulsi Jayanti is the changing context of relationship between literature and the life of the people ó what it was in Tulsidasí times and what it has come to be in Prem Chandís times. How far have we come from Prem Chandís times, too? The empathy Prem Chand felt for the rural poor, their beliefs, hopes and fears concerning their destiny and human identity has now degenerated into a stance, a fetish, gesture at best.

That the vital links between literature and the lives of the people have been substituted by a professionalism of the writing act itself. Recognising this is not making a case for cloning against the dynamics of the life-process itself.

Poetry or narrative fiction are both different modes of articulating the inner life of the people. The existence of people and their possible inner lives had become highly questionable. At a time when virtual reality has overtaken us, it is doubtful whether the art forms in their traditional forms still reflect our inner lives. Tulsi Ramayana Vinay Patrika, Prem Chandís novels and short stories ó Godan and Kaffar have yet to find their place on the Internet.

The real question is how would the representations of a social, political and cultural landscape and ethos, be classified on the Internet and on what basis? Every act of reordering the literature of the past, and the present is, infact, reconceptualising what passes in the common parlance as the pop and the classical. In a way Prem Chandís fiction demolishes this distinction. How would our traditional literatures be shelved in the stacks of the global library?

Prem Chandís fiction may be accorded the status of the classic of a social and cultural period but is now out of step with the what is recognised as a bestseller in terms of a Pulitzer Booker, the Commonwealth Prize, the Jnanpith or Sahitya Akademi Award. The network between the award-giving agencies and the publishing houses is for too well-known a factor to be considered extra-literary. Gone are the days when a book could exist in its own right without the back up of publicity. What kind of a projection would Prem Chandís writing get once it becomes a part of the Internet? This is not to highlight the transmission-hazards from one language and cultural space to another but the requirements of the Internet language into which Prem Chandís fiction would be rendered.

A fancy dress contest in a college on its annual day function comes to my mind. People were dressed up. It was difficult to distinguish those who were participating in the fancy dress competition from those who were not. The best award for the fancy dress went to a person who was huddled in one corner of the hall as a starving poor man. Those present in the hall were shocked when they discovered that the awardee was not a participant but a poor man who had stealthily made his way into the hall, hoping to get something to eat there. The fancy dress show could very well stand for the Indian literary scene and the presence of the starving poor man as Prem Chandís literary achievement.

Prem Chandís anguish over people not rising upto the occasion of Tulsi Jayanti though justified, is understandable. So much has our milieu changed from the times of the Ramayana to those of Godan. Our neglect of Prem Chand however, is not understandable ó Godanís milieu is still the milieu of rural India inspite of the invasion of our reality by television.

Depressed at the lack of visible mention of Prem Chandís legacy as a writer in the newspapers, journals and the television, I thought of locating Prem Chandís views of Tulsi Jayanti. Checking up with a host of scholars, researchers and academics did not help.

The help came from a binder in a big library, a young boy 15 or 16 who was yet to appear in his matriculation examination or perhaps was a matriculate, who located the volumes of Vividh Prasang collection of Prem Chandís non-fiction writings in the library.

That he was a passionate reader of Prem Chandís fiction is, for me, the real celebration of Prem Chandís birth anniversary, celebration by an anonymous character from his fiction.