It shall be apt to begin with the famous words of Munshi Premchand – in his Presidential Address, to the All India Progressive Writers’ Association’s first national conference, held at Lucknow, in 1936 –
‘We will have to change our standards of beauty.’
The space granted does not permit a literary critique of the author – Besides, writing about someone who wrote in Urdu and Hindi, in English - further exacerbates the task. Be what it may – It is of extreme importance to introduce and discuss authors, whose language and literature is effervescent of the soil, which nourished them - whose writings reflect our society, our immediate issues, and our troubles. And, the loss of audience, for whose progressive and candid work, comes at a terrible cost for our society. Among the very best – is Premchand. Skipping biographical sketches, I come to brass-tacks – the very essence of Premchand, and why he must be read, understood, and discussed.
Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, in his seminal paper ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, published in 1969, popularized the term ‘Structural Violence’. Quoting from the paper itself, describing feudal society, the author remarks:
‘The typical feudal structure, with a succession of incapsulating hierarchies of metropole-satellite relationships is clearly structurally violent regardless of who staffs it and regardless of the level of awareness of the participants: the violence is built into the structures.’
Decades back, Premchand was exactly unwinding this form of violence; which is ‘built into the structures’. Writing for an audience, that had a proclivity (and, continues to have so) for bracketing social issues under strictly reductionist phrases of right and wrong – and awaiting saviors to fill the earth with justice – to fight their battles, to carve miracles and slay the wrongdoers – Premchand displayed an iron grit - by calling a spade a spade - by mirroring in his novels and stories, the stark realities of life. He himself points to it, in the address mentioned at the beginning, calling the literature that confines itself to metaphysical realms, hoodwinking the realities of life – as reflecting the ‘dullness and decline’ of a society which has ‘lost the will to undertake action and struggle’. ‘A story was a story, and life was life; both these considered contradictory to each other’ – derided Premchand. And this is precisely, what he wished to change. Premchand’s novels and stories – from the first to the last – reflect the ground realities of life – mostly bleak, even brutal, sometimes humane, on occasions opportunistic – but nonetheless, real. Rarely has anyone understood village life, as Premchand did – Particularly famous for his in-depth descriptions of rural India – Premchand fashions life into words, under various headings, and in numerous characters -
Godaan – a story centered on Hori – who despite his destituteness, wishes to acquire a cow and gift it for salvation. This heart-wrenching novel, filled with struggles of daily life; in a rural setting; and how popular religion, far from solving, furthers those problems, is an epic portrayal of exploitation and social hierarchy - that makes human life a race against time, which he is destined to lose.
Nirmala - a story of a young woman, forced into marriage with a person her father’s age; and how she develops an emotional bond with his eldest son; to the suspicion of her husband – reflecting patriarchy that wants to play both sides of the fence. That is arbitrary is setting rules and swift in passing judgment.
Kafan – As to how grinding poverty changes every notion of right and wrong. Mere chastising sermons don’t shape actions – Empty stomachs only understand the language of food. Our customs, far outgrown their use (if any)- have become autonomous, beating every inch of life out of poor humans, whom they are purported to serve. Particularly, the heart-wrenching words that sum up the story, and Prem Chand itself – Son and husband of a deceased woman, whose shroud money they eventually transact for liquor, casually remark, ‘What a tragic custom! When alive, she couldn’t get a small piece of garment to cover her body. Now, after death, she needs a new shroud!’
Boodhi Kaki – Depicting misery of an old woman – that comes with age; while the society engaged in soulless vanity, remains clueless in providing answers.
Qazaqi – story of loyalty despite adversity. Lottery – on human depravity and greed, and the fleeting bonds of human emotions. Eid-Gah – On the barren realities of abject poverty, and its impact on a young mind. Zewar ka Dabba – On human folly and guilt, son on and so forth – covering every aspect of human life.
Premchand had the audacity to pen down life, as it happens. The characters, he depicts in his stories, are not new – they are just unnoticed! Caught in the illusory world of political and supernatural fantasy, we eyewash from the realities that confront us each and every day. Hori, Nirmala, Boodhi Kaki – we all have lived with them. We see them every day; all around us - But, prefer to look the other way. Between the starry heavens and the moral law – there is a whole lot else to be seen – of human misery, of natural and man-made troubles, of grinding poverty and socio-economic exploitation. Premchand wants us to confront it - Unlike usual rhetoric; he sees the fault lines to be less moral, and more social. Heroes and villains barely exist anywhere with Premchand – Rather, there are structures, social and economic – that are impenetrable, that are concrete, that weave us into who we are, that wear us down – that perpetuate injustice and misery, no matter who ‘staff it’. There is the good, the bad, and the ugly – all of it, in the characters of Prem Chand – a very human depiction of humans. People impersonating goodness and evil are replaced by the socio-economic underpinnings that shape these characters; making an already troublesome life - virtually unbearable.
Premchand, by depicting these harsh realities, intended, in his own words,
‘to make literature a message and song for action and adventure’.
Taking a jibe at those, he referred to as ‘intellectual capitalists’, Premchand states,
‘His vision is not so wide that he can see the highest charm of beauty in the struggle of life. He does not believe it is possible for beauty to exist in starvation and nakedness’. For such, adds Premchand, beauty is confined to ‘painted lips, cheeks, and eyebrows.’, which cannot penetrate ‘disheveled hair, dry parched lips, and withered cheeks’.
This was what Prem Chand set to change – ‘the standard of beauty.’
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.