Munshi Premchand (July 31, 1880-October 8, 1936) (“Premchand”) was one of the greatest literary figures of modern Hindi literature.
Premchand (Dhanpat Rai Srivastava) was born in Lamahi near Varanasi where his father was a clerk in the post office. Premchand’s mother died when he was seven. His father didn’t live long either – he passed away while Premchand was still a student, leaving Premchand responsible for his step-mother and step-siblings.
Early in life, Premchand faced immense poverty. He earned five rupees a month tutoring a lawyer’s child. Premchand passed his matriculation exam with great effort. He took teaching with a monthly salary of eighteen rupees. Later, Dhanpat Rai worked as the sub-deputy inspector of schools in what was then the United Provinces.
In 1910, he was hauled up by the District Magistrate in Jamirpur for his anthology of short stories Soz-e-Watan (Dirge of the Nation), which was labelled seditious. The first story of the anthology was Duniya ka Sabse Anmol Ratan (The Most Precious Jewel in the World), which according to him was “the last drop of blood shed in the cause of the country’s freedom”. All the copies of Soz-e-Watan were confiscated and burnt.
Initially Premchand wrote in Urdu under the name of Nawabrai. However, when his novel Soz-e-Watan was confiscated by the British, he started writing under the pseudonym Premchand. Before Premchand, Hindi literature consisted mainly of fantasy or religious works. Premchand brought realism to Hindi literature. He wrote over 300 stories, a dozen novels and two plays. The stories have been compiled and published as Maansarovar.
In 1921, he answered Gandhi’s call and resigned from his government job. Then he worked as the prorietor of a printing press, editor of literary and political journals (Jagaran and Hans). Briefly, he also worked as the script writer for the Bombay film world. He didn’t think much of the film world and once remarked about film Mazdoor (The Labourer)- “The director is the all in all in cinema. The writer may be the king of his pen, but he is an ordinary subject in the director’s empire…Idealism creeps into the plots I conceive and I am told there is no entertainment value in them.”
Premchand’s first marriage was a disaster. Second time, he married a child widow, Shivarani Devi, which was a courageous thing to do in India at that times.
Premchand lived a life of financial struggle. Once he took a loan of two-and-a-half rupees to buy some clothes. He had to struggle for three years to pay it back.
The main characteristic of Premchand’s writings is his interesting story-telling and use of simple language. His novels describe the problems of the urban middle-class. He avoided the use of highly Sanskritized Hindi (as was the common practice among Hindi writers), but rather he used the dialect of the common people.
Premchand called literature a work that expresses the truths and expeiences of life impressively. Presiding over the Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow in 1936, he said that attaching the word “Progressive” to writer was redundant, because “A writer or an artist is progressive by nature, if this was not his/her nature, he/she would not be a writer at all.”
Before Premchand, Hindi literature was confined to the raja-rani (king and queen) tales, the stories of magical powers and other such escapist fantasies. It was flying in the sky of fantasy, until Premchand brought it on the grounds of reality. Premchand wrote on the realistic issues of the day – communalism, corruption, zamindari, debt, poverty, colonialism etc.
Some criticize Premchand’s writings as full of too many deaths and too much of misery. They believe he doesn’t stand anywhere near contemporary literary giants of India – Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore. But it should be noted, that many of Premchand’s stories were influenced by his own experiences with poverty and misery. His stories reprsented the ordinary Indian people as they were, without any embellishments. Unlike many other contemporary writers, his works didn’t have any “hero” or “Mr. Nice” – they described people as they are.
Premchand has written about 300 short stories, several novels as well as many essays and letters. He has also written some plays. He also did some translations. Many of Premchand’s stories have been translated into English and Russian.
Many readers consider Godan (The Gift of a Cow), his last novel, as his best. The protagonist, Hori, a poor peasants, desperately longs for a cow – a symbol of wealth and presitige in rural India of those times. Hori gets a cow, but pays with his life for it. After his death, the village priests demand a cow from his widow to bring his soul to peace.
In Kafan (Shroud), a poor man collects money for the funeral rites of his dead wife, but spends it on food and drink.
Shatranj ke khiladi (The chess players)
Poos ki raat
Boodhi Kaki (The Old Aunt)
Bade Bhaisahab (The big brother)
Bade ghar ki beti (The girl of an affluent family)
Dikri Ke Rupai
Udhar Ki Ghadi
Gaban (The Embezzlement)
Godaan (The Gift of a Cow)
Mangalsootra – Incomplete
Pratigya (The Vow)
Rangbhoomi (The theatre)
Films based on Premchand’s work
Satyajit Ray filmed some of Premchand’s works, including Sadgati and Shatraj ke Khiladi. Sadgati (Salvation) is a short story revolving around poor Dukhi, who gets exhausted to death while hewing wood for a paltry favor. Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) revolved around the decadence of nawabi Lucknow, where the obsession with a game consumes the players, making them oblivious of their responsibilities in the midst of a crisis.
Sevasadan (first published in 1918) was made into a film with M. S. Subbulakshmi in the lead role. The novel is set in Varanasi, the holy city of Hindus. Sevasadan (“House of Service”) is an institute built for the daughters of courtesans. The lead of the novel is a beautiful, intelligent and talented girl called Suman. She belongs to high caste. She is married to a much older, tyrannical man. She realizes that marriage is just like prostitution except that there is only one client. Bholi, a couresan, lives opposite Suman. Suman realizes that Bholi is “outside purdah”, while she is “inside it”. Suman leaves her husband and becomes a successful entertainer of gentlemen. But after a brief period of success, she ends up as a victim of a political drama played out by self-righteous Hindu social reformers and moralists.