Premchand, the father of the modern Hindi novel, lived in an era of social turmoil. He saw traditional village independence being destroyed by colonisers. He also noted the fallout of large-scale urbanisation and the materialistic tendencies it triggered off. His stories and novels faithfully record and analyse these changes. He made it a point not to use Sanskritised Hindi but wrote in Hindustani — the dialect of the common people.
The country’s vernacular literary tradition is age-old and the number of authors the country has produced runs into the thousands. But if you were to try to name the most acclaimed Indian author, who would that be? Besides Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) deserves the accolade.
Premchand’s 125th birth anniversary falls today. A giant among Hindi and Urdu writers, he wrote nearly three hundred stories, a dozen novels and two plays. In the international arena, he can easily be equated with great writers like Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. As Amrit Rai, a biographer has put it, "Premchand created the genre of the serious novel and the serious short story in two languages, Hindi and Urdu." His book Godan narrates the soul-destroying travails of a poor man, bound by society and exploited by the privileged class. This novel is considered to be his magnum opus and its English translation features in UNESCO’s Asian Literature Series under the title The Gift of the Cow. His writings have been translated not only into all Indian languages but also into English, French, Russian, Chinese, and other major foreign languages.
Premchand was born in 1880 in Lamahi village near Benares. His real name was Dhanpat Rai. When he first began writing, it was under the name Nawabrai. However, after his first collection of short stories came under the scanner of the British censors, he changed his pen-name to Premchand.
The son of a poor postal clerk, Premchand was eight when he lost his mother and 14 when his father died. With his father’s demise, young Premchand took over the responsibility of earning for the family. After passing his matriculation with great difficulty, he became a schoolteacher in 1899, and with breaks in time and`A0shifts from place to place, teaching remained his profession.
Besides being a literary genius, Premchand was a reformist. These two traits merged in his writings, and his works are known for their realism and portrayal of the urban middle class. In his own life too, Premchand heeded the call of his reformist nature. His marriage to Shivrani Devi, a balavidhava or child widow, was a bold move in those days when society frowned on such alliances. For Premchand, however, the marriage was a good decision, as his wife supported him in all his struggles.
In 1921, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s call to leave Government jobs, Premchand resigned as schoolmaster. It wasn’t an easy decision, for he needed all the money he could earn. By 1934, he was so deep in debt that he had to shift to Mumbai, where he began to write for the Hindi film industry. Here, however, he was constantly being asked to compromise on his storyline to suit the film producers. He refused to make such compromises, and, disappointed, he returned to Benares.
In April 1936, Premchand chaired the first all-India conference of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association at Lucknow. The continual struggle that he had had to make for a living had however worn him down, and he succumbed to gastric ulcer, dropsy and cirrhosis of the liver on`A0October 8, 1936.
Premchand lived in an era of social turmoil. He saw traditional village independence being destroyed by colonisers. He also noted the fallout of large-scale urbanisation and the consequent materialistic tendencies it triggered off. His stories and novels faithfully record and analyse these changes. He made it a point not to use Sanskritised Hindi but wrote in Hindustani — the dialect of the common people.
Some of his short stories such as Heera Moti (Do Bhailon ki Katha), Sadgati and Shatranj ke Khilari have been made into full-length films/TV serials. Out of his novels, Gaban and Godan have been made into films.
He has been translated in many languages, and there are numerous Ph.D.s awarded on his works every year. But India has not appreciated Premchand. His birth centenary was celebrated in the Soviet Union before it was done in India. Only recently has the need for an archive on him been felt, and the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, has promised such an archive now.
In 2004 the Government of India, preparing for Premchand’s 125th birth anniversary, made big plans, including the restoration of the writer’s house in his native Lamahi. "The house is in a state of disrepair," says Premchand’s grandson Alok Rai. "The idea is to turn it into a national museum," says Rajya Sabha member Maheshwari, who had been asking questions in Parliament on Premchand every year on July 31, the writer’s birth date. Then, even as celebration plans were being made, the house where Premchand lived collapsed. Meanwhile, other relics associated with Premchand too are fading away. The house he was born in has already been demolished.
The country’s neglect of
Premchand is a disservice not only to him but the Indian people as well.
As one anguished blogger has written, "In Delhi we have a Tolstoy
Road and we even have a Pushkin Road but I’m yet to come across a
Premchand lane." — MF