Ideas, Not Ideology: The Premchand I Know
The Nehruvian state and the popular culture it drove projected its own value system on Premchand. But the image that was thus created was not an honest reflection of the iconic writer.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
This is not only true about American writer Walt Whitman; it stands true for all intellectual giants. The expanse of intellect cannot be bound in the narrow definitions of ideologies. Even so, it has remained a tendency of powerful lobbies, even in the intellectual space, to try and appropriate the legends of the past in order to shine in their borrowed glory.
Munshi Premchand and his legacy too have suffered thus and the only works of the great writer which the governments of the past felt good enough to be taken to the masses, through government libraries and academic curricula, have been the ones which create an image of a socialist-Congressman of the writer.
Truth doesn’t bathe in stagnant waters. The ability to grow out of oneself is a hallmark of an evolved intellect. An ever-growing wisdom, like that of Premchand, outgrows itself with every new work, and was ever-evolving. An excellent writer and extraordinary narrator of ordinary human tragedies and hope, Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava (born on 31 July 1880, died 8 October 1936), known popularly as Munshi Premchand was one such vast intellect which can hardly be pigeonholed into modern ideological stereotypes. Premchand wrote iconic novels, thought-provoking essays and brilliant stories.
Although today, Premchand has been slotted with a particular brand of politics. The same brand which associates Urdu with a religion and supports and opposes it.
Premchand, on his part, was a true liberal on the matters of both language and literature.
He belonged to the times of lesser walls and more windows.
His schooling began with Urdu and initially he wrote in the same language, before reaching out to the masses eventually as an iconic Hindi writer. The keen sense of observation and the deep empathy with the people on the ground that Premchand observed reflects in the realism of his writings.
A true writer is not a captive of the ideology and writes what he observes. It is to such a quality American writer Ernest Hemingway referred to, when he said famously that “all you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
Premchand’s writing is a tumultuous riot of such truthful sentences. He doesn’t put the reader in awe, he does not scare you. He does not even embrace you and look into your eyes. He gently wraps his arms around your weary shoulders and looks at the world with you. He shares your vision in all honesty, devoid of hypocrisy, and therefore, his words always strike a chord with the common reader, almost a century down.
Premchand wrote about poverty because he lived through abject poverty. Forced to drop out of formal education after matriculation because he could not get scholarship, he began working to support the family at a very early age, teaching first in a school in Chunargarh and later in Bahraich. When we read his letter written on 7 June 1913, we realise that when half a century later, a famous Hindi satire writer wrote Premchand ke Phate Joote (the worn-out shoes of Premchand), he wasn’t away from truth.
In this letter, he writes to Dayaram Nigam, his friend, saying “if you could send without too much of trouble a watch of three-four rupee, and a pair of shoes of around four rupees, I shall be extremely grateful. Chhotak has taken my shoes and therefore I am barefooted these days.”
Premchand knew how little art paid, particularly if you are not well-connected and admits as much in his letter written in 1927 to Shri Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ when he writes, “only those should take up the worship of Art who are blessed with ancestral fortunes.” But this is the only art he knew and he made it his occupation.
Premchand’s stories oscillate between the sensibilities of a writer and the harsh realities of the world around him. He saw how simple people were swayed by the cause of religion and turned into fanatics, attacking and killing their fellow people. This reflects in his lesser-read stories like Jihad in which he narrates the story of a village in North East, where arrival of a mullah creates fanatic foes out of historic friends, and Pathans attack Hindus, ever divided into narrow lines of caste and class.
Premchand has written much on the ills of Hinduism and was a great votary of reforms, but in this story, what comes out is the necessity of men to stand by their faith even in the face of worst atrocities. There are two friends in the story and at the end of it both the men are dead. But the one who compromised his faith dies a loser — unloved and unwept for, while the one who stays true to the faith dies victorious.
Premchand, in most of his stories, does not offer an answer. His stories leave us more confounded at the time we leave them than they had found us in the beginning. But that is the strength of his writing. He is a sensitive man in search of answers, not an ideologue, perched on a podium.
He is like one of us, trying to find the answers and the way to a Utopian world of human innocence, not yet corrupted by the conspiracies of the religion.
In his story Mandir and Masjid, there is a Muslim landlord and his Hindu bodyguard, who ends up killing his master’s son-in-law, who had led a Muslim attack on a Hindu temple. As the story progresses, the bodyguard, then saved by his master, finds himself in front of the jagirdar again when a Hindu procession is pelted with stones from the mosque and he enters the mosque chasing the culprits.
The jagirdar puts Islam over everything else and kills Bhajan Singh for attacking the mosque. Bhajan Singh allows him to, in the name of loyalty and gratitude.
These delicately-told stories explain how human emotions lose relevance when fanatic religiosity grips the society. I wonder if in today’s world of fake righteousness he could have written such stories without being termed a bigot or Islamophobe.
On politics too, when we read his story Adarsh Virodh, we instantly recognise the barrister and Congress leader being reflected in the story. The story is about a Congressman, a rich barrister, who was appointed a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council but becomes a ‘brown sahib’ very quickly.
And once we recognise the people being referred to in the story, we cannot but applaud the honesty of Premchand.
Since such honest writing is less and less to be found, that is the very reason that it should be more and more read. It is this honesty which makes Premchand not only relevant, but also necessary.
On his death anniversary, let us remember to dig out the stories of Premchand dying in darkness and show them the bright lights of the day. Maybe, we will find answers to the questions of today in the writings of yesteryear.
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