Gained in translation
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

The Temple and the Mosque – The Best of Premchand
Translated by Rakhshanda Jalil. Harper Collins. Pages 197. Rs 250

It is a measure of Premchand’s popularity that his work keeps getting translated from time to time and yet no translation has ever been accepted by the readers as ‘the translation’. Usually when read in translation, Premchand’s stories appear to have lost not only their soul but the craft too. Finally here is a translation that is as close to the original as any translation can be.

The stories chosen are a fair representation of the essential Premchand in that they delineate not only the rural India but also the gradually urbanising society too. The Thakur’s Well, Salvation and The Shroud have for long been considered stories that have been soul scalding commentaries on the prevalence of the caste system in our society. Though in recent years they have been subjected to unfair criticism by a section of the critics. The translation of these stories by Rakshanda Jalil does nothing to make the traditional point of view yield space to those critics. In fact, these stories bring with greater force the fact that when such inhuman treatment becomes a way of life then caste and class combine to degrade one section and deprive the other of any claim to being humane. The difference between the Thakurs and Brahmins of the first two stories and Ghisu and Madhav of the third then get blurred.

A Winter’s Night, The Road to Salvation, A Tale of Two Oxen and A Quarter and One Ser of Wheat realistically portrays the rural life as it existed then. The constant struggle of marginal farmers to retain their identity as land owners and the inevitable culmination of the effort in becoming a labourer touches the core of the heart without becoming sentimental. The exploitative and unscrupulous usury and the unquestioning surrender of the simple and God-fearing farmers juxtapose all that is angelic and evil in mankind.

Intoxication, The Salt Inspector and Bade Bhai Saheb are excellent examples of Premchand’s understanding of the urban and lower middle class attitudes. After all he had spent his life among the newly emerging middle class of the then India and understood well their aspirations and failings. His brief commentary on the need to accept bribes in The Salt Inspector is a capsule containing a thesis about corruption while Bade Bhai Saheb displays his deep understanding of a teenager suppressing his desires to play a role model for his younger brother who also happens to be in his charge.

At the other end of the spectrum are The Temple and the Mosque and Idgah. Both have been written during a period when Premchand had become a part of the freedom struggle and harmony among the Hindus and Muslims had become the primary need of all nationalists. Of the two, The Temple and the Mosque is without doubt too idealistic but then idealism had by then become the driving force to the cause of national need. Idgah without doubt is very touching in its simplicity and
the dogged belief of the child as
to how he wanted to spend his meagre amount in the mela. Understandably, the dam of emotions bursts in the end. Old Kaki too
falls in this category though it
deals with the eternal relationship between the active generation and the one that has, after spending itself, surrendered the little capital that it might have had. In the story though, goodness does triumph.

It must be added that much of what Premchand wrote is relevant even today. The issues that trouble us today have been there in different forms even during his times.

Probably they were simpler because of their nascent stage. Bringing them to the modern readers in English is surely rewarding for the translators and enlightening to the readers and if the translation is good then it blesses both, the translator and the reader.