Salute to chronicler of rural India
Harbans Singh

My Life and times: Premchand Created
by Madan Gopal. Roli Books. Rs 295. Pages 230.

EVEN if the purists are not entirely happy with the form of My Life And Times as an autobiographical narrative of Munshi Premchand, it is a welcome addition to the recent trend of rediscovering Indian literature through English. Not only are the students of literature rediscovering Bankimchandra and Saratchandra from the earlier era but novels of recent origin like Life Less Ordinary, an autobiographical work of Baby Halder, a domestic help in Delhi.

Admirers of Premchand, however, have always blamed the inadequacy of the translator for the inability of the world to appreciate his work. Some have attributed this to the perceived prejudice against Hindi literature, rather the lack of creativity among those who have attempted to bring Munshi Premchand to the world. Apart from the challenge of translating the rural idiom in English, Munshi Premchand makes no bones about the fact that he has tried to understand and analyse only rural India and its complex problems. A daunting task, and perplexing one for those who cannot understand it. It is not for nothing that when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi demonstrated his understanding of India in his own unique way, he became an enigma for his peers. But for millions with whose core being he had identified, he became an instant Mahatama.

Munshi Premchand, has himself acknowledged his limitations as a creative writer and the reason why he has stuck to short stories and novels in the last two chapters of the book. When read with the exposition of Mahajani culture rather that the more highbrow materialistic interpretation of history and dialecticism, one can understand as to how he became the high priest of the emotions and sensibilities of rural India.

Having recognised the magnitude of the task at hand, Madan Gopal needs to be commended for not only smartly using the works of the author to recreate his life and times with minimum intrusions but also doing a decent job of translation. In 230 pages, the essential Munshi Premchand has been brought out with the judicious choice of his work. A gamut of emotions pours out from these pages, the childhood and the years of struggle, which, in fact never came to an end, to the domestic experiences and the final sublimation as a chronicler of change. In this context, special mention needs to be made of the stories of the elder brother who was basically a boy at heart to the incisive episode of replaying gulli-danda with a childhood friend to a number of stories against the backdrop of communal harmony and freedom struggle. The story of Hamida Begum stands out as the ultimate in what is beautiful and noble in human nature.

The last chapter contains a narration of the failed honeymoon with Bombay cinema and his views on the limiting influence of commercial needs on creativity. It also carries an exposition of the Mahajani culture, which according to him is the bane of rural India. However, no story, like the Kafan or the Heera Moti, is included to represent that culture in the present book. Had a couple of stories from that genre been included, the book would have been truly representative of the life and times of Munshi Premchand in all respects. To the more discerning first-time reader of Premchand, the minor blemishes in translation get overwhelmed by the realisation that the author has, against the backdrop of colonial India, touched subjects and emotions that are universal.