Books

Revisiting ‘Bade Bhai Sahab’: Premchand’s Endearing Short Story

Premchand’s nationalism often looked inward, at Indians, the decay of their culture, the condition of women and poor, the caste system or communalism.

Premchand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Premchand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bade Bhai Sahab, one of Premchand’s most notable short stories was published in 1910, shortly after he dropped his name Dhanpat Rai and adopted the pseudonym Premchand. The early 1900s were important and interesting times for the Indian freedom movement and its consciousness as a nation. This was the time when nationalism was finally taking firm shape in India with literature both shaping the discourse and responding to it.

Bade Bhai Sahab cover.

The partition of Bengal and later its cancellation took place in 1905 and 1911 respectively. It witnessed the Surat Split (1907) in Congress between the extremists and the moderates and finally brought to head the divergence in the tactics adopted by the two groups in shaping the freedom struggle and the nationalist discourse. In 1909, India witnessed the Morley Minto reforms. While the reforms were a far cry from granting the on-going demand of self-government, they legitimised the elections of Indians to various legislative councils for the first time, the introduction of electoral principle unintentionally laid the groundwork for parliamentary system and in a bid to further communal agenda the British instituted separate electorates for Muslims.

The two events had significant impact on Premchand and his writing. He sided with the extremists and wrote an article in Zamana supporting extremist measures of Tilak and denouncing moderate Gokhale. Likewise he considered Morley Minto reforms and later Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, as pointless for achieving greater political freedom.

The same year as the Surat split, the publishers of Zamana had published Premchand’s first short story collection Soz-e-Watan. The collection was later banned for it sought to inspire Indians in the freedom struggle and was labelled seditious. When Premchand was teaching at Hamirpur, the sub deputy inspector of schools ordered a raid of his house and found 500 copies of Soz-e-Watan and these were burned. This incident prompted a name change by which the writer came to be popularly known.

Premchand’s nationalism, like Rabindranath Tagore’s, often looked inward, at Indians, the decay of their culture (Gaban), the apathy of the remnants of feudalism (Shatranj ke Khiladi, Pariskhsa, Karmabhoomi), the condition of women (Seva Sadan, Nirmala, Prema) and poor (Godaan, Idgah, Kafan), the caste system or communalism, social evils like dowry and corruption, and significantly the bearing of colonialism on the day-to-day life of the people.

Shatranj ke Khiladi cover.

Bade Bhai Sahab is not obviously political like Shatranj ke Khiladi or idealist like Namak ka Daroga or Panch Parmeshwar. Nor is it a social commentary like Nashaa, Mantra, or Gupt Dhan or espouses extremist nationalism like Duniya ka Sabse Anmol Ratan. In fact, in the first instance, it is a merry story about relationship between the narrator and his brother, five years his senior in age and their divergent approaches to studying in school. If one looks closer it is an excellent critique of colonial educational system and its impact on Indians.

This was the time post Macaulay’s Minutes on Education, known as the English Education Act of 1835. In this, a concerted effort was made to move away from Sanskrit and Muslim education to teaching primarily a Western curriculum with English as the medium of instruction. This was based on the premise that native learning was inferior and through English language higher education “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” The motivation was standard white man’s burden, “To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens would indeed be a title to glory all our own (Macaulay’s speech in House of Commons, 1833).”

The ultimate purpose was to make Indians more amenable to British rule and institutions, who could serve as useful intermediaries in imperial expansion. The results were often incongruous.

Panch Parmeshwar cover.

Bade bhai sahab admonishes the narrator several times on the importance of mastering English and the related difficulties of the endeavour – how it is a not a joke, how it requires sustained study, and how even several great intellectuals cannot still master the language. He later, however, undercuts the superiority of the British when he scolds his brother on his supposed arrogance, taking interestingly a very Indian example of Raavan and how he fell due to his hauteur. He compares the mighty empire of Raavan with the British Empire and explains that even though the latter has expanded, there are many countries that do not accept the British and are independent, hinting at their fallibility. He then hilariously demonstrates the pointlessness and the absurdity of the English education for the vast majority of Indians and the remoteness of the context when he speaks about remembering the names of dozens of ‘Williams’ and ‘James’ and ‘Henrys’ and how the lack of new names necessitated annoying addition of generational suffixes.

A large part of bhai sahab’s critique of the education system is valid even today. The issues range from problematic emphasis on rote learning – bhai sahab says that this is what is known as education today; the irony of writing absurdly long essays on the importance of time; and the ultimate importance of life experience, demonstrated through the superior understanding of their mother and grandfather, over knowing trivia like the number of marriages of Henry VIII, or the number of constellations in the universe.

Ultimately the short story’s enduring appeal lies in its bittersweet reminiscences and vignettes about childhood, school, relationship with siblings and the life of a student – the futility of making a timetable that is soon abandoned, (the narrator makes a rigorous timetable – with half an hour allotted to walking in front of the hostel – but is very soon distracted by green fields, football and kabaddi), the doodles bhai sahab draws on the back of his notebooks that are incomprehensible to the narrator, the food losing its taste as the narrator is admonished, and the changing power dynamics between the brothers as narrator passes with little effort while bhai sahab’s momentous industry fails him.

Bhai sahab, in the story, is a tragicomic figure, a victim of colonial education. He makes Sisyphean efforts towards mastering the master’s tongue, fails spectacularly, and hilariously subverts the system. He tries to maintain his dominance and dignity over his outperforming younger brother while taking a momentous load of familial responsibilities over his young shoulders. However the story ends with touching poignancy. As the narrator guiltily concedes to bhai sahab’s righteous indignation (narrator had been caught goofing with friends), a stray cut kite passes over them. This prompts bhai sahab to shelve his lecture. He is, despite his self appointed role as a conscientious guardian, a young boy. In a moment of joyous abandon, he catches the stray and runs towards his hostel.

Swati Saxena is a social science researcher with a PhD in public health and policy. She is interested in health policy, politics and gender. 

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