Classic retold
Reviewed by Uma Vasudeva

Playground: Rangbhoomi
By Premchand. Trans. Manju Jain. Penguin Books. Pages 641. Rs 550.

Playground: RangbhoomiTHE title itself means, "The arena of life" — which is so apt to the entire book. It is life playing itself in its arena and in many shapes, forms and emotions. The novel is a resounding proclamation of a resolve that the battle of freedom from the British Empire will continue notwithstanding the absence of prominent leaders, including Gandhi. As Soordas soliloquises on his deathbed, they will continue to fight with renewed strength and unity and will recoup their forces even though they are defeated. The very title of the novel is a metaphor taken from a song that Soordas sings in Chapter 18:

"Bhai, why do you turn your face from the battle?

You have come to rangbhoomi, to show your glory,

Why do you break the law of Dharma?"

Set against the backdrop of colonial India—characterised by a brutal state, opportunistic, feudal landlords and ruthless capitalists—this novel is a grim account of the blind beggar Soordas’s struggle against the acquisition of his ancestral land.

The plot of the book is simple as the case is in most Premchand’s works: oppression of the working classes, namely in Rural India, which would mean — the farmers. We encounter the blind Soordas and his chronicle from life to death and the hardships he suffers on the account of his place in the society — that of a farmer.

The novel provides a radical alternative to colonial historiography as well as to colonial literary representation. It constantly compels readers to engage with plurality, evoking the fluidity and polyphony of the creative imagination at work, in a dialogic mode, through several often-contradictory perspectives. The author in this novel behaves like a storyteller in a village chaupaal.

The author has been critical of hypocritical communism of the upper classes as in the case of Mahendra Singh who is a staunch Communist, despite being an affluent taluqdar, but is motivated by his self-interest. For Prabhu Sevak, communism is merely a topic of entertainment, and Vinay’s communism is comically transformed into selfishness as soon as he boards the train.

The author endorses the satyagrah and non-cooperation when the sepoys refused to open fire when they were ordered by the Superintendent of Police, Mr Brown, that is shown as a unique history of the Army. This seems to be author’s assertion that the struggle against the colonial powers and their cohorts will continue at the grass-roots level.

The most significant aspect of Rangbhoomi is that Premchand chose a blind, crippled beggar as his protagonist, for Soordas is the epicentre of the struggle against the combined vested interests of the colonial state, its bureaucracy, the feudal landowning classes and the mercantile bourgeoisie. Premchand perceived the class interests at work within the national movement well as the role of the British in consolidating those interests.

The author at a number of places in the novel has been found guilty of lumpenising and stereotyping the Dalits. In one of the episodes Bhairo and his cohorts go around the muhalla lewdly dancing and singing. But it was Soordas who is a protagonist and the repository of the positive values in the novel. In fact, Soordas is probably the first Dalit hero in Hindu fiction.

The contradictions between author’s reformist ideals and his often-reactionary views are dramatised in the depiction of the predicament of women in the novel.

Sophia, the first Indian Christian heroine in Hindi fiction, rebels against the patriarchy of her family and the religious oppression inflicted on her and leaves home with the desire to find independence and autonomous identity. She asserts her agency in her support of Veerpal and dacoits and in her rejection of Vinay, when he becomes complicit in the brutal repression of the riyasat. Her repressed sexuality is suggested, but not fully explored. Sophia commits suicide at the end not because of demands of the conventions of romantic tragedy but because of ideological compulsions that dictate the end of sati for her.

Capturing Premchand’s masterful handling of a variety of linguistic registers, Manju Jain’s evocative translation shows us the deep humanism of one of India’s greatest writers in Rangbhoomi.