Is the Ongoing Criticism of Premchand on Social Media Justified?

The legendary writer’s short story ‘Kafan’ has afresh attracted criticism for his representation of Dalit characters. Questions are being raised if he actually held prejudice against Dalits despite a progressive and liberal image he carried.

Premchand is again the topic of debate these days. At the centre of the debate is his masterpiece, a short story titled ‘Kafan’ which was written in 1935. It was first published in Urdu and then in Hindi. This is not a new debate, for some three decades back, critic Dharamveer had fiercely criticised Premchand for his “insensitive approach” towards Dalits. Those were the days when Dharamveer took on a number of Hindi icons. In his book ‘Kabir ke Aalochak, he spared no one, including Ramchandra Shukla and Hajari Prasad Dwivedi. In his book Samant ka Munshi, he questioned Premchand for choosing two Dalit characters to show the dehumanising social pattern which does not let a human being remain a normal man.

But this time around, the debate is centred around Premchand’s torn shoes seen in his famous photograph where his wife, Shivrani Devi, is also pictured. (Look for ongoing debate here, here, here, and here.)

Once writer Harishankar Parsai had written about these shoes. He wrote that Premchand‘s shoes are torn because he kept on kicking the rotten tradition of Indian society. It was one way to look at Premchand’s torn shoes. There might be other ways also. Generally, the mainstream Hindi literary society has presented this as a piece of evidence to indicate that Premchand lived in poverty.

However, to be true, Premchand was not poor by the standards of his time. He was rather a middle-class man with a moderate income, who ran a press and published a magazine called Hans. His children went to good schools, received a good education, and earned themselves name and fame, again for their literary contributions. Amrit Rai and Shripat Rai are well-respected names in Hindi literature.

Also read: Why Premchand Felt Starting a Publishing House Was the Biggest Mistake of His Life

But, certainly, Premchand had been struggling to meet all these requirements of a middle-class family alongside running his magazine. It was not as if he was a landlord, like some other writers of his time. In fact, throughout his life and in his sensibility, he was close to common Indian peasants and labourers. He understood the manifold ironies of Indian villages and addressed them in his novels and short stories. The reality he depicted in his works is still prevalent in Indian society, and hence his being considered a great writer.

But then, why is Premchand being so fiercely attacked these days, and by whom?

Undoubtedly, Premchand was a progressive writer who stood almost always in favour of the poor and Dalits. He attacked the caste system and communalism in his writings. ‘Thakur ka Kuan’, ‘Sadgati’, ‘Poos ki Raat’, ‘Eidgah’, ‘Panch Parmeshwar’, and many other such stories give ample evidence of Premchand‘s commitment towards common people.

But there is a catch. At times, Premchand also seems to have been guided by middle-class sensibility, which is at many levels against the core values of the progressive movement. In ‘Panch Parmeshwar’, his language is a bit harsh and impolite towards his female characters, where they were blamed for family clashes like the male-dominated society always did.

In stories like ‘Bade Ghar ki Beti’, he referred to ideals that are feudal in nature and reflected male chauvinism and cannot be accepted by any modern standards. But these are only deviations in his writings, in his career spanning decades as a storyteller. Otherwise, he was a conscious writer who understood and reflected in his writings the pain and anguish of the oppressed classes. He advocated the need for a change in society at many levels.

What’s the issue with ‘Kafan’?

Let us come back to ‘Kafan’. It is considered the greatest story ever written by Premchand. In the story, he surpassed the idealistic realism of his own style and captured the great irony that our system has created. He identifies the forces which dehumanise people like Gheesu and Madhav and blames it on the caste system unabashedly. He shows what level of degradation is possible in human nature when a man is deprived of his basic needs.

But the new reading of ‘Kafan’ raises a number of questions. It seems that knowingly or unknowingly again the same middle-class sensibility appears to be working in Premchand‘s narration. He begins the story with the mention of Chamaron ki Badnam Basti from where Gheesuu and Madhav come. However, there could be one more possibility that Premchand was merely expressing the general upper-class notion against Dalits prevailing in society. He did not support this view himself. As a storyteller, he simply reminded us of the misconceptions and prejudices society held against Dalits. It is, in fact, a way of storytelling.

From here, he shows the dehumanising effect of the social process created by this prejudice. But those with Dalit consciousness are not ready to buy this logic. They simply ask what was the need for the writer to mention the caste of Gheesu and Madhav. Had Premchand not mentioned their caste, would the story have been less effective? Perhaps not. But why did Premchand not avoid the caste issue? Perhaps because he felt that the real impact of the caste system must come out through this story.

Again the point falls short. People are reminded that on the verge of her delivery, Budhiya can’t remain alone and aloof in her society merely because they are poor. The women and midwives of her Basti can’t leave her helpless during the most sensitive point of her life. It only means Premchand ignored the fact of their collective life which supported each other in their moments of acute crisis which was no unusual thing.

So, the debate on social media has been continuing for many days now. One of the sides feels that this is an attempt to demean Premchand at a time when he is needed the most. Another side blames the old progressive criticism of Premchand for not taking their account while analysing the society or the short story.

But, one thing is for sure, with the rise of Dalit discourse in literature, the old school will be asked some uncomfortable questions. A number of writers will be questioned, a great number of novels and short stories will come under the lens of new Dalit criticism, and sooner or later, a new sensibility will emerge. The process also suggests the changing nature of Hindi as a language. Hindi is no more the language of the Brahminical order. English has taken over the place. The Hindi media now largely lacks original content and is merely translating some trash produced in English. But the real Hindi is now the language of Dalits, Adivasis, and women. This is the real new Hindi, which is asking the old bosses of criticism to change their position.

So, as for Premchand is concerned, he will continue to remain a towering literary figure, because he created many layers of understanding in his short stories. In ‘Kafan’ too, he ultimately hit back at the dead rituals surrounding death. Gheesu and Madhav sing Kabir at the end of the story  (Thagini kyon Naina jhamkave). It seems to me an ironical end, full of anguish.

Priyadarshan is a Hindi novelist, critic and journalist. He has published nine books, including two short story collections and one poetry collection. He has also translated a number of authors into Hindi, including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.