Born 137 years ago on July 31 in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi, Premchand (1880-1936) wrote about things that have always existed but had hitherto been considered beyond the pale of literature – exploitation and submission, greed and corruption, the straightjacket of poverty and an unyielding caste system. Son of a post office clerk, he was named Dhanpat Rai (literally meaning the ‘master of wealth’), yet he waged a lifelong battle against unremitting genteel poverty. Reading and writing, always the stock in trade of a good kayastha boy, coupled with acute social consciousness and an unerring eye for detail turned him – with a literary career spanning three decades which included 14 novels, 300 short stories, several translations from English classics, innumerable essays and editorial pieces – into a qalam ka sipahi, a ‘soldier with the pen’.
Mirroring the world
Premchand’s first story, Duniya ka Sabse Anmol Ratan (The Most Precious Jewel in the World) was published in 1907 in Zamana; somewhat melodramatically it announced that the last drop of blood that would bring the country its freedom would be the most precious ‘jewel’.
His first collection of short stories, Soz-e Watan (The Dirge of the Nation), that followed a year later in 1908 was found to be so incendiary and seditious that not only was it banned by the imperial government, but all copies of the book were burnt. Undaunted, Premchand kept writing stories that expressed the pain and suffering of the toiling masses that had been suppressed for centuries, using stereotypes where necessary to make general observations, painting on a large canvas with broad, sweeping brushstrokes, writing stories that occasionally seem preachy or moralistic when not outright sentimental to modern readers.
Yet, for all their moralistic overtones, they appeal to all that is good and decent in us, all that is moved by exploitation, injustice and intolerance. It is this quality that has single-handedly made Premchand relevant to modern readers, even young urban readers, explaining why great stories like Do Bailon ki Katha or Idgah continue to be prescribed reading in school textbooks.
In Premchand’s world, the bad are needed to offset the good. Self-seeking, bhang-drinking pandits, effete landlords, college-going newly-westernised sahibs and memsahibs, and corrupt petty officials are set against another set of characters. There is, for instance, the orphan Hamid who buys a pair of iron tongs for his grandmother instead of sweets and toys for himself, little Ladli who sets aside her share of puris for old Kaki, the corrupt Pandit Alopideen who shows immense generosity for a fallen but upright opponent, Jhuri who loved his oxen like his own children – all these help restore our faith that human beings can occasionally be good and kind too. Stock characters like Dukhi the tanner, Halku the peasant, Gangi the untouchable woman, Buddhu the shepherd, Bhajan Singh the hot-headed thakur and countless others served a useful purpose to someone of Premchand’s literary disposition: he exploited the intrinsic worth of stock characters and stock situations to portray a very real world. Like the Russian masters whom he admired so much, realism for Premchand was a mise en scene against which he built up the props of character and plot. “I write for only one sake: To present a human truth, or to show a new angle of looking at common things,” he wrote.
Some of his finest writings, written in the last 20 years of his life, show the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and the Russian Revolution in his choice of subjects: the need for widow remarriage, the rampant systems of dowry and untouchability, the problems of landless labourers, the urgent need for land reform, the lot of underpaid and over-worked salaried people who resort to bribery and corruption, and social and class inequalities that cause good people to do bad things. His support for the Sarda Bill, which aimed to raise the age of marriage for girls and advocated the right to give widows a share of their late husband’s property, finds reflection in stories such as Nirmala and Narak ka Marg.
Interestingly enough, unlike the women writers of this period, such as Mahadevi Varma and Suhadra Kumari Chauhan, Premchand made no attempt to portray the woman as a silently suffering victim; if anything, his women voice the strongest arguments, complaints and feelings. His Gangi is willing to face the wraths of the thakurs while trying to fetch clean drinking water for her ailing husband. That she doesn’t succeed is another matter; in showing a woman who is, at the very least, trying to go where she is forbidden, he was showing the way – a way that would be seized by the progressive writers who came immediately after him, a group of writers who would turn the brave but ineffectual Gangi into the torch bearer of lasting social change.
A changing literature for a changing time
Premchand’s affinity towards socially-engaged, purposive literature is evident from his espousal of a new kind of writing that was beginning to take shape in the 1930s. When a group of Young Turks in London drew up a Manifesto of what would soon become the Progressive Writers’ Movement, he published it (albeit in a slightly watered-down version) in his influential Hindi journal Hans in October 1935. And when the progressives decided to hold an ambitious first-of-its-kind meeting of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) on April 9, 1936 at the Rifah-e Aam Hall in Lucknow, Premchand rose to the occasion with everything at his command as a writer. Not only did he give his whole-hearted support to this fledgling association, but his presidential address would, in later years, become a manifesto of sorts for a literary movement unlike any other in the history of this country, a movement that would shape the responses of a whole generation of Indian intelligentsia.
Unanimously elected the first president of this all-India writers’ body, Premchand – by now a lion in winter, for he would die a bare five months later – wrote one of his finest pieces of non-fiction for this occasion. His speech, called Sahitya ka Uddeshya (The Aim of Literature), was heard by a rapt audience comprising both young and established writers from across the country. In simple but powerful words, the greatest storyteller of his time told his audience how good literature can only be founded on truth, beauty, freedom and humanity, and that his definition of literature was simply ‘the criticism of life’. And since literature is nothing but a mirror of its age, its definition, scope and contents just as much as its aims and objectives must change with time. Given the turmoil and change in the world, his reader – and theirs – could no longer be content with the wondrous tales of love and escape that had been the staple fare of the fasana and dastan of yore.
“Currently, good literature,” he maintained, “is judged by the sharpness of its perception, which stirs our feelings and thoughts into motion.” The main aim of literature, then, was to ‘refine’ the mind of the readers. And while undoubtedly the aim of art was to strengthen one’s sense of beauty, art too must be weighed on the same scale of usefulness as everything else in life. The time had come, he declared with the quiet assurance of a messiah, to redefine the parameters of beauty: “Hamein khubsoorti ka mayaar badalna hoga.”
Calling language a means and not an end, and while conceding that a writer is born, not made, Premchand stressed that a writer’s natural gifts could be enhanced with education and curiosity about the world around him. “Literature,” he said, “is no longer limited to individualism or egotism, but tends to turn more and more towards the psychological and social. Now literature does not view the individual as separate from society; on the contrary it sees the individual as an indissoluble part of society!” Deeming “a quick mind and a fast pen” not enough, a writer must also be abreast of the latest scientific, social, historical or psychological questions – as was the case in international literary conferences. In India, Premchand maintained, we conversely shy away from such matters and thus the need for far more socially-engaged literature had become more urgent than ever:
“We will have to raise the standard of our literature, so that it can serve the society more usefully… our literature will discuss and assess every aspect of life and we will no longer be satisfied with eating the leftovers of other languages and literatures. We will ourselves increase the capital of our literature.”
Speaking not merely as president of the inaugural session, but identifying himself completely with the aims and objectives of the PWA (the address is replete with references to ‘our association’, ‘our ideal’, ‘our aim’), Premchand spoke about opening centres in ‘each province and in each language’: “To water them and to strengthen their aim is our goal.” The 14-page text is not merely an eloquent plea on behalf of the PWA; it is significant for other reasons as well. Here is the doyen of Hindi literature, rising above the thorny issue of language (Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani) and talking about what concerns, or should concern, all writers irrespective of language. He urged writers to discard individual and personal concerns and, instead, speak in a collective voice taking upon themselves public and political roles. Literature, which had hitherto been content to entertain or at best educate, must now, given the exigencies of the times, advance human knowledge and freedom.
Given the exigencies of our times, there can be no better way to celebrate Premchand’s legacy on his 137th birth anniversary than to remember his words and to remind ourselves of the aim and purpose of literature.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian who has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her recent works include Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014) and The Sea Lies Ahead, a translation of Intizar Husain’s novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015).