Seldom does an Urdu writer have expertise on village life and the psychology of villagers as Munshi Premchand did, who passed away 82 years ago on October 8. He was born and raised in a village. The duration of his education – when one’s personality is formed – too was spent in the village. He used to walk five to six miles daily to the city and would return to the village after school. He even found a job which involved visiting villages; in this manner, he had the opportunity to observe village life in various parts of Uttar Pradesh quite closely. His relationship with the village did not break till his dying day and his love for villagers remained unchanged.
Indeed, the majority of his short stories are about villages. Along with Amarkant, all the characters of Maidan–e–Amal reach the village from the city one by one. The citizens of Godaan visit the village now and then for tourism and hunting, and for purposes of village reform. Those who have settled in the city after getting an education also have their hearts firmly set in the village, like Munshi Premchand.
Padam Singh Sharma is a lawyer in Premchand’s Bazaar-e-Husn, but he is indeed a villager – so his property is in the village and all his relatives live there. How can he ever forget the village? His nephew Sadan has fled the village to live with him in the city.
The lawyer then begins to talk to Sadan about the village home after sending a telegram to the latter’s father and this conversation lasts until evening. Sharma does not leave any worker, potter, blacksmith, cobbler in his inquiry. There is a brotherly affection in village life which is not found in the city. Everyone in the village, great and small, is tied within this relationship.
Sometimes, Premchand makes citizens leave their residence in the city to settle in villages. There is Devidin Khatik. He has acquired political sense during his stay in Calcutta. He has sacrificed his two sons for the Swadeshi Movement but Munshiji brings even him to sit with Ramanath along the bank of the Ganges beneath a banyan tree.
The pleasant spring evening, the bank of river Ganges, the flame of the forest swaying with tesu blossoms, the overshadowing banyan tree, the cows and buffaloes tied beneath it, the huts waving with pumpkin and bottle-gourd vines, neither trace of dust nor noise – can there be a better place for rest and relaxation?
Village versus city life
If Munshi Premchand takes a peasant from the village to the city, he puts him in great distress. Hori’s son Gobar moves to Lucknow in distress and becomes a worker in a sugar mill. There his healthy son, who was more used to the open spaces of the village, becomes sick in the narrow and dark chamber and dies. There is a strike in the mill and Gobar becomes unemployed. The younger son contracts smallpox. In short, there is a multitude of calamities.
There – in the village – his body did as much work as it wished, his heart remained free. Now, despite there being lesser physical labour, this stormy noise and turmoil loaded him with a sort of burden. There was also the fear of not knowing when he might be reprimanded – this was the predicament of all workers.
Land is the life of a peasant, his ego. Without land, life becomes meaningless. Like the Greek mythological hero, he only gets energy by touching it. The courage to live is born. The field may just be worth one yoke, it no less dear to the peasant than the jugular vein. He finds it insulting to take to hard work and labour by breaking his ties to the land. In Godaan, Hori is entirely indebted. His buffalo is dead, as is the ox. He is barely surviving but is not prepared to abandon farming and when he has to drink this final draught of humiliation, he dies.
Despite these issues, if they prefer village life over city life, it is because according to them, cities are a symbol of capitalism, and they despise it owing to the fact that capital is behind every type of slavery in the world (Maidan-e-Amal). It is the lust for capital which has subjected Asia and Africa to Western imperialism. In addition, no one is a sympathiser in the city. Every person keeps trying to move ahead by pushing, in fact crushing others under one’s feet. Love, humanity, friendship, brotherhood, to be a friend in need, all such human values are non-existent in the city; and workers’ lives are the lives of absolute helplessness and slavery.
He neither sleeps nor awakens at will. The siren of the mill rings and he hurriedly leaps toward it. If he is late, non-attendance is marked; forced labour without pay is deducted. He becomes a machine part the moment he steps inside the mill; his individual personality vanishes. He neither has control over his labour power – which is his sole personal property – nor over the tools of production. Even in the work given to him, he has no personal desire or will but he has to do what is ordered by the owner. Machines – meaning the tools of production – are not his property, so he loves neither the machines nor the product. The goods which are prepared, he cannot even identify whether finished by his machine or someone else’s; his person has no attachment or interest in the mill, the mill machines and their product, this alienation and detachment become inherent. As soon as he is free from work, he darts away from the mill like a prisoner from jail. In addition, the sword of redundancy is hanging over him all the time.
The aphorism of Munshi Premchand that there is brotherly peace in village life which is not found in the city is also true. Everyone in the village, great and small, is tied within this relationship. The peasant is forced to cooperate and extend mutual assistance, but this forcibleness is one of friendship and affinity, not a legal one. From ploughing, sowing and irrigation to the cutting of crops and guarding of farms, peasants help each other in their productive process. The same goes for weddings, sorrows and other hardships. Citizens hold their privacy dear, they consider respect for private life a part of fundamental rights. This word is altogether absent from the dictionary of the peasant. His life is an open book which every villager takes turns to read. Sometimes they laugh, get irritated at others, sometimes they make fun of, and become upset at others.
But it is also a reality that the illiterate peasant of Munshi Premchand is unaware of the law of historical evolution. His daily sensory experiences too do not validate the evolutionary process. The same thousand-year-old atmosphere, the same ploughs dating back to the era of Gautam Buddha, spades, hoes, the same mud houses and grass huts, his ancestors too were devoid of the light of education, as he himself is. It is correct that the industrial system was prevalent in the country but beneath the flag of imperialism, then how could he have understood that his future is associated with the industrial system.
The night-raid which capitalism made on his life, the peasant is absolutely unaware of its result. He is under the misconception that no matter how hard-pressed his body might be, at least his spirit is free; although within the feudal-type society in villages, his spirit is as much a slave as his body. He is a slave of religious superstitions. His thought does not extend beyond his farm, his family and household, his plough, his ox and his village. He is absolutely sure that he will be able to master his situation with his individual efforts. He does not see that his problems are the collective problems of all peasants and workers, and can only be solved with collective efforts. He does not see that it is indeed his four-acre land which is an impediment between him and social revolution. The bigger the farm, the more he will worry about saving the social system. He is not a nomadic proletariat who has nothing to lose except his chains. He is a peasant, owner of land, owner of the plough and ox, owner of home and household. He neither has a feeling for his collective strength nor of the proletariat’s revolutionary character. Indeed he considers the proletariat to be much more inferior than himself. His spirit trembles at the very ‘thought of labour’.
The image of freedom which Munshi Premchand has presented with respect to peasants is unparalleled in Urdu literature. Here what he means by freedom is not political or economic freedom, but the freedom of creative process – human freedom. This is not Rousseau’s romanticism, but direct knowledge of reality, the zenith of the creative flight of a great artist.
It is unknown whether he knew about the philosophy of alienation of Hegel and Marx, but we can say this with certainty that when he compares the free creative process of the peasant with the unfree creative process of the proletariat, he indicates the most inhuman aspect of the capitalist system which has made the labourers devoid of every kind of spiritual and physical freedom, and made them a slave of capital.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel The Weary Generations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.