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Munshi Premchand, the Hindi ‘Upanyas Samrat’, is still contemporary

On his 136th birth anniversary today, a look at the life and works of Premchand

premchand, munshi premchand, premchand novels, premchand life, premchand stories, godaan, idgah, nirmala, premchand books, premchand literature, india news, books india Cover page of Premchand’s novel ‘Godaan’, translated in English. (Courtesy: Google Play)

“Wealth and position don’t matter here. All are equal in Islam. Such beautiful management, such beautiful arrangements! Lakhs of heads bow together in reverence, and rise together… and it goes on. Such a wonderful sight. The collective acts, their expansion and eternity fill the heart with respect, pride and happiness, as if the thread of brotherhood and strung all these souls together.”

“Why a widow, even if Mani were untouchable, or something worse, she is still a gem of a woman for me. We look for experienced people, but when it comes to choosing life partner, we don’t consider experience a good thing. I am not one who would strangle justice. No school can impart experience as adversity does. The person who has a degree from this school can easily be trusted with the reins of your life. In my eyes, being a widow is not a sin for a woman…”

“Padma was not averse to luxury, she hated dependence, hated the idea of marriage. When you can enjoy life being independent, why not? To her, morality didn’t come in the way of pleasure, which was bodily requirement for her. The requirement can be met if you can find the right shop.”

Also Read | Munshi Premchand Google doodle is inspired by Godan

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Munshi Premchand, as a writer, was much ahead of his time, and has always remained contemporary. The above excerpts translated from his three short stories adequately display the range of his thoughts. In ‘Idgah’, the Hindu Kayasth writer was fearlessly lavish in his praise for the culture of another community. Maybe the society was not as polarised on communal lines back then, but Premchand, proficient in Urdu and Persian, did see things differently than others. The Pre-Independence Hindi litterateur was immensely progressive in the depiction of women too — sometimes highlighting the curse of child/mismatched marriage, sometimes criticising oppression, and sometimes championing the cause of widow remarriage. In ‘Miss Padma’, he even dealt with an educated woman’s take on free sex, live-in relationship and single motherhood.

Premchand’s women were of substance — bold, strong and with a mind of their own. While his Anandi in ‘Bade Ghar Ki Beti’ was sensible, smart and intelligent, Leela in ‘Swarg ki Devi’ personified patience, forgiveness and sacrifice.

Family, however, was supreme to Premchand and he thought it was the woman’s responsibility to keep the flock together and happy. Hence, despite being from a very rich family, Anandi swallows her pride to stop division of her family as sought by her husband after she has a tiff with her brother-in-law over not using ghee judiciously in her cooking. In ‘Suhag ka Shav’, Premchand allows an uneducated Subhadra to sacrifice her love and position when her husband finds another woman, and die for the sake of his happiness.

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Premchand had an ideal woman in his mind, a woman who is docile, obedient and chaste. He was quite critical of the urban and Westernised career woman.

In ‘Miss Padma’, the independent and carefree Padma is shown all alone in the end after her partner and her child’s father leaves her for another woman. In Shanti, the protagonist adopts Western ways of life on her husband’s insistence but returns to her old self after things go wrong because of this in their lives.

The story of Kusum was, however, different in approach. Abandoned by her husband over dowry, Kusum longed for acceptance and begged to be with him. Premchand accepted in the story the society had killed the self-confidence and self-respect of women by continuously teaching them lessons on duty and sacrifice. He said at one place: “If the man is not dependent on the woman, why should the woman depend on the man?”

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Premchand was equally judgemental of men, portraying many as irresponsible, egoistic and selfish.

“For children, father is an object of luxury, like gram for horses, or ‘mohanbhog (sweet)’ for the babus… Mother is ‘daal-roti’,” he had said in ‘Ghar Jamai’. He was clear about the fact that the mother was more important in a child’s life than the father.

Premchand believed it was the duty of a writer to fight for those who are oppressed and deprived. While sufferings of woman moved him the most, he felt for other weaker sections of society too.

Watch: Remembering Munshi Premchand On His 136th Birth Anniversary

He wrote ‘Thakur ka kuan’ depicting the plight of an untouchable family that is not allowed to use the well used by upper caste people in the village. Nirmala talks of the evil of dowry and mismatched marriage, which claimed an entire family in the novel.

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The issues he raised in his works and the views he expressed through them have kept Premchand relevant till date. This social evil of caste discrimination, as depicted in ‘Thakur ka kuan’ around a century ago, is still not a thing of past in the country that saw Independence around 70 years ago. Dowry, too, continues to be a reality in Indian society.

It is Premchand’s 136th birthday today. Born as Dhanpat Rai on July 31, 1880 at Lamhi village in Uttar Pradesh, Premchand wrote nearly 300 short stories, novels and essays in his lifetime.

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He wrote very little about himself but his works draw a lot of influence from his personal life. His mother died when he was just eight and his father remarried. Premchand was married off at the age of 15, apparently to a woman older to him. It is said he never got along with his wife who eventually left him and went back to her father. Premchand later married a child widow, Shivarani Devi, in 1906, facing a lot of opposition. They had three children, Amrit Rai, Sripath Rai and Kamala Devi.

Many of Premchand’s works have been translated in various languages and made into films. While ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ by Satyajit Ray remains one of the most famous film adaptations of his works, Nirmala proved to be a popular television serial aired on Doordarshan in the late 1980s.

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Premchand had tried his luck in the Hindi film industry too as a writer. He wrote the story and script for Mazdoor depicting poverty and the plight of labourers, and even did a cameo in it. The film was, however, banned after it inspired mill workers to stand up against the owners. It was ironical that the same film caused trouble at his own Saraswati Press in Varanasi as workers launched a strike over non-payment of their salaries.

Lyricist and writer Gulzar Saturday released the screenplay format of Premchand’s classics Godan and Nirmala. Penned by Gulzar, the screenplays were part of the 26-episode TV series Tehreer aired on DD. The screenplays have been translated by Saba Mahmood Bashir for Roli Books publication.

First published on: 31-07-2016 at 08:28:06 am
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