Premchand: His Life and Works by Hansraj Rahbar: Book Analysis
Premchand: His Life and Works by Hansraj Rahbar has already been reviewed by me in another post. Today, I shall be analyzing the biography to the best of my abilities. I gave Rahbar’s book four stars on Goodreads as there were many editing errors. Despite these errors, Rahbar’s biography of Premchand, one of the greatest Urdu and Hindi writers of early twentieth-century India, is a must-read for any fan of Premchand’s fiction. I hope that this analysis will aid those who want to do an intensive study of Premchand’s life and wish to get some basic knowledge of the life and times of a man we know so little about in the English-speaking world. Premchand: His Life and Works was published in Hindi in the year 1949. The English edition followed in 1956. The book which I have is a 2012 edition published by Farsight Publishers and Distributors.
Hansraj Rahbar is a prominent leftist thinker and activist. Therefore, it is quite natural that he took a shine to Munshi Premchand because you just cannot separate socialist and Marxist elements in Premchand’s novels and short stories. Premchand was a writer of realistic fiction in the form of clear and blunt prose. He never wrote his stories in a surreal poetic manner nor using flowery descriptions and words. Premchand’s writings dealt with social issues and the weaknesses inherent in human beings: rich, middle class, or poor. Rahbar has brought out this aspect very well in his book. Premchand stood for the masses; he wrote and published for the masses. He had leftist leanings but did not go the way, nor was he carried away by these tendencies. I think this was because Premchand preferred non-violence at the core of his being. He was proud of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement and even took part in it. He was torn between his admiration for the Russian Revolution and his belief in the non-violent Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party.
According to Rahbar, most of Premchand’s stories were centered on the peasants of India. In the peasants’ cause, his heart lay, and he wrote his stories so that one day they would be able to read his moralistic and idealistic stories and fight for their rights. Premchand was a middle-class man born to a postal clerk; however, he was from the upper castes. It was unthinkable that a writer belonging to the upper caste would write his stories with so much passion for highlighting the lower caste’s problems. Premchand, loved the Indian peasant and celebrated the Indian peasant in his fiction. Poverty colored Premchand’s fictional stories and novels. We could have benefitted a lot from this stalwart of Hindi literature if only he had retained his letters. Sadly, most of Premchand’s letters and private documents have been lost over time. It is a setback to studying this master writer of Indian realism, but we have his stories and novels to fall back on. And these fictional works bring out the reforming and revolutionary ideas that sprang from Premchand’s pen to alleviate his oppressed brothers and sisters, especially those from the lower castes.
Premchand had humble beginnings living as a postal clerk’s son. Premchand was only his pen name. His real name was Dhanpat Rai, and the ‘Munshi’ attached to his name is related to his father’s status as a postal clerk. His early years were devoted to studying in a Madrassa and after that in a British School. He studied in Urdu and Persian, like most children of postal clerks used to do in those days. His father worked hard but died when he was very young. Premchand was in the ninth-grade when his family married him off to a woman who was a virago. She always created a commotion in his family and strained his otherwise cordial relationship with his father’s second wife, his stepmother. Family problems were plenty, but Munshi Premchand was determined to pursue his education. Sadly, he was born with a weak constitution and was often having stomach ailments. Still, he studied. His favorite subject was history, and he loved reading historical fiction of the nineteenth-century. He was fond of saying that he loved history but not historians.
History is a subject that needs to be handled with responsibility. One cannot distort history to suit one’s needs. History, according to Premchand, was one of the most important subjects in the Arts stream, which was and is highly underrated. I agree with Premchand, being a history graduate and postgraduate. I have observed how history is twisted and falsified. Like Premchand, I have seen that the powers that be have a significant advantage where the writing of history is concerned. They like to color history to suit their agenda of violence and polarization. It’s strange, however, that though Premchand was aware of this, he didn’t recognize that Russia, after the October Revolution, was also re-writing history to suit their intentions, which was not to assist the poor but to dominate them. But I think that is the problem with those early years in the twentieth century where selective news was being circulated, deluding thinkers and fools alike. It’s happening now in our time as well, which is sad, pathetic, and frightening all at the same time.
Premchand was besotted with the subject of history for a significant part of his life. He considered history and the teaching of history to be an art. He believed that only a person with an unbiased understanding of the subject matter could gain mastery in it. Despite his stomach ailments, he went on to graduate in English, Persian, Philosophy, and Modern History. He enrolled in a teacher’s training college, where he studied English, and Persian, to teach the higher classes and earn a higher salary to feed his poverty-stricken family. Premchand’s fascination with history continued, and he wrote historical fiction, short stories, and novels in the early years of his writing career. He drifted towards social issue fiction once he realized that historical fiction did not gain him any readers or money. Rahbar believes that these early works of Premchand were good but not as good as his realistic fiction.
Munshi Premchand worked while he studied. He held the post of an assistant teacher that he hated because though the job was paying, it did not satisfy his cravings for leisure time to read and write. He became a headmaster of a middle-school after he graduated from the teacher’s training college. By this time, he earned a decent amount. Things would have gone on smoothly, but Premchand had other ideas. He wanted to write, wanted to get published, and spread his thoughts and ideas to India’s masses.
According to Rahbar, the supernatural or fantasy did not interest Premchand. He was a practical man with a bleeding heart for the masses. He did not approve of the British at all and considered them as tyrants. He started sending some writings of his to newsletters and magazines. One could find many such magazines ready to pay a writer in the making, but they too were hard to come by. Still, Premchand managed to strike up a great friendship with the editor of the ‘Zamaana’ magazine or newsletter. The gentleman’s name was Nigam, and most of Rahbar’s book incorporates the letters shared between these two friends of old. Nigam would remain a significant part of Premchand’s life until the very end. Premchand even became the assistant editor of the Zamaana but did not earn much money.
Premchand was reading and writing a lot at this time but encountered many hurdles on the home front. His first wife was harassing him, and so was his stepmother. Premchand finally separated from his first wife and married a widow, his second wife, who was a gem. Her name was Shivarani Devi. Premchand educated her, and she bore him his two sons and a daughter. Shivarani Devi would go on to write short stories and books of her own. Rahbar was in contact with her while writing this book. He also referred to the memoir penned by Shivarani Devi titled Premchand At Home. In this book, Devi writes about the person Premchand was and how he truly believed in the moralistic, blunt, and social issue-based fiction he wrote. Premchand was a doting father to his children, and they were a great help to Rahbar in collecting information for his biography on Premchand.
Premchand started writing in both Urdu and Hindi. He wrote under the pen name of Nawab Rai, especially his Urdu works. When he realized he was not making much money as an Urdu writer, he switched and stuck to Hindi. He then changed his pen-name to ‘Premchand’ and continued with that name until his death. His first bestselling book was burnt in bonfires by the Britishers. This was because he spoke of them disparagingly. Also, throughout his literary career, he never made money on his books. Still, he was a pleasant and cheerful person to be with. Premchand cracked a lot of jokes and was surrounded by people who wanted to hear his jokes. His penchant for comedy can be seen in his fiction, especially when he tries to describe his characters’ traits. He did not intend to be funny, but his words and descriptions were such that it made his readers laugh. Premchand was a person who though being fond of seclusion yet managed to be the life of the party when with others. He certainly did not have any mental issues. His main problem was his stomach ailments, which would claim him at the end despite all the efforts he took to the contrary.
People compare Premchand’s fictional works to that of Leo Tolstoy. Coincidently, Premchand was greatly influenced by the Russian writer’s works. He was continually reading them after he married his second wife and became a householder. Both Premchand and Tolstoy dwelt on similar themes of social realism in their writings but were not deeply leftist like other Russian writers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky. There is a reforming quality to both their works bordering on revolutionary thoughts induced by the sad plight of the marginalized in their countries.
The moment Premchand’s family situation improved, he dove headlong into his literary pursuits. He made a timetable for himself. During the day, he strictly followed his schedule; we can see the headmaster’s streak in him very clearly over here, though he maintained even then that he was only teaching to earn money to look after his family and buy books. Writing and reading were compulsory activities in his schedule. Shivarani Devi was a great support to him. Later she would not question why he quit his lucrative job to answer the call of Mahatma Gandhi and his Satyagraha movement.
It is interesting to know what Mahatma Gandhi meant to Premchand as a writer. Personally, Premchand liked Mahatma Gandhi but was very disappointed by some of his decisions regarding the Satyagraha movements. He vocalized his feelings in writing, but I do not think he was vocal about it. He certainly could not afford to have his books burned by the British. But he loved Gandhiji all the same. The charisma of the Mahatma highly influenced him. He was well aware that Gandhi was not paying much attention to the lower castes. I can see a latent Ambedkarite in Premchand. However, according to Rahbar, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar did not influence Premchand, where the plight of the lower castes was concerned. Ironically, it was Gandhi who made Premchand realize that India would not be free or independent without stamping out casteism for good. Premchand could not understand this side to Gandhi as to why he was not touching firmly on the topic integral to the lower castes. Concerning Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation movements, Premchand was more than ready to help Gandhi out in writing stories that spoke the truth of the Indian scenario in the early twentieth century.
He was doing this even before Mahatma Gandhi came on the scene. When we study Premchand’s writings, we see the reformer side of the writer. He was influenced by the Russian Revolution and felt that if the rich could be overthrow in Russia, it could even happen in India. In comes Mahatma Gandhi, who is dead against the principles of Communism and Socialism as a whole. Thus, with a mixture of these turbulent current affairs, Premchand transformed from a writer of reformative fiction to a writer of, I would say, passive-revolutionary fiction. I would not, like Rahbar, call him an outright revolutionary because there was too much boiling in the pot of Premchand’s mind. The main ingredient in Premchand’s mind was Satyagraha with a revolutionary take, something on the lines of Subhas Chandra Bose but in a decidedly milder form.
All would have still gone well for Premchand. However, he decided in the middle of the freedom struggle to start his own publishing company with his old friends, especially Nigam. He wanted to publish and distribute his books on his own because he felt he could do a better job than what the regular distributors and publishers were doing with his works. He was incensed by the piles of books collecting dust in depots or godowns without being sent to be bought by readers. He, therefore, decided to self-publish his books. He was also compelled by an irresistible urge to ‘speak’ a bit more to India’s people. Consequently, he started his press, where he regularly published two newsletters: ‘Hans’ and ‘Jagran’. These newsletters ate up most of his time and precious money, but Premchand could never give them up; he did not want them to close down.
When I read examples of such ardor for expressing views in the form of newsletters by writers from the past, I feel upset. I feel upset because, as I have mentioned before, the main problem is that people like Premchand were born at a completely wrong time. He did not need a newsletter; he needed a blog or website! Alas, that the poor man emptied his savings over something that even one-year-old toddlers have in their name in this crackpot twenty-first-century world!
Premchand was vocal in his newsletters and very determined to publish them. He was influenced by the tons of writing that emerged before and after the Russian Revolution. This made him think that his newsletters would also act as great literary tools to encourage Indians towards freedom. He was firm in his belief, which ironically came true, that the British would only leave India the day they would not get anything more from India. This is mentioned categorically by Rahbar in the biography. It is the exact reason why, after the end of the Second World War in Europe, Britain wanted to do away with India and get out from there as soon as possible. Premchand was quite prophetic in that idea. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see Independence for India. He passed away on the 8th of October, 1936, after writing two of his most memorable pieces. These two pieces are his bestselling novel Godan and his famous but satirical short story ‘The Shroud’ also called Kafan. I have reviewed this short story on my blog, and you can check that out for reference. These two pieces by Premchand can be considered the most well written and bestselling stories in the world of not only Hindi literature but also Indian-English literature. These two works classify Premchand as an excellent and accomplished writer. His pathos for the poor, satire, irony, and realism is so filled with factual material that it is impossible not to recall these two pieces in one’s mind.
Premchand dream was to live a life of simplicity and humbleness. He was happy that he was born middle-class, and so had an overall quiet life and an even quieter exit from life. He died after a severe bout of gastro caused by a gastric ulcer. He was writing a piece called ‘Mangal Sutra,’ which he left incomplete along with other stillborn works dotted all over his writing space. Premchand was a good man, but he did have a few old-fashioned notions about women and sex’s status. He was very idealistic, which colored most of his works on realistic fiction. His stories and novels remain today as his legacy to the nation and national literature. He devoted his whole life to the Freedom Struggle of India and was a revolutionary in his own right. His way of revolting against society’s many idiosyncrasies was, like many writers, through his pen and newsletter editorials. His only wish was that he should be able to leave behind two well-written books as a legacy to the Indians of tomorrow. In this, he was exceedingly humble. He never realized that he was a genius at his craft. Hindi literature will never know a more celebrated writer than Premchand. He could pass off as a nondescript man, but he became a legend.
There are a few more details that I would like to dwell upon in this analysis about Premchand. All writers who write these days dream of having at least one of their books made into a film. Premchand entered the Bombay film industry in the year 1934. He came to Bombay, housed himself at Dadar, and wrote film scripts for a cinema house. His first film, ‘Mill Mazdoor’ or “Mill Worker’, was screened but was not a success. A few others followed, equally unsuccessful. Premchand believed that his movies failed because he depicted reality, which was too harsh. He accurately described the poor, the plight of peasants, and the injustices of society. But the cinema audience did not appreciate his scripts. Paradoxically, people don’t like harsh realities in their literature and their cinema when such difficult situations in life surround them. This is easily answered by the fact that cinema and literature are the person’s escape into a world where these terrible realities do not hold sway over the mind of a person. Yet, there are many instances of realistic cinema and documentary cinema doing well at the box office. Sadly, Premchand met with ill luck, where the Bombay film industry was concerned. In fact, according to Rahbar’s book, he was one of the few writers who, after a few failures, scorned movies with his heels and returned to his hometown. He refused offers to write scripts because the cinema life did not suit his simple needs and his simple but very truthful stories.
Premchand left the film industry and started a writer’s organization. This organization was called The Progressive Writer’s Union, and it was established in 1936, with Premchand as President. Premchand was very devoted to this group because he wanted to hone budding talents in literature and help more good books be published and pushed forward by distributors. Around this time, his stomach ailments started becoming worse, and he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer that would ultimately take his life. Rahbar shows in his biography of Premchand how deeply affected he was by the death of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Despite his ill health, he was ready to give a eulogy on Gorky and his legacy to Russian as well as international literature. His wife begged him not to give the speech, but Premchand would not listen.
When he gave a speech on Gorky, translators and literary critics were sure that Leo Tolstoy lived and breathed in an Indian form through the personage of Munshi Premchand. Premchand had immense love for the poor, but his sentiments towards the middle-class and their quirks were sincere. Premchand remains one of the best Urdu and Hindi writers of the early twentieth century. His legacy lives on in the annals of literature, and even I was highly influenced by his writings when I encountered it in the first two years of the new millennium.
I liked this book and was keen on reading it this year. Premchand’s realism is what I imitate in my writings, especially my novels, which are women-centered. One of Premchand’s stories was a book titled ‘Nirmala’. I read a very sketchy English translation of Premchand’s ‘Nirmala’ somewhere in 2012. By the time it was 2014, I had penned and published my woman-centric novella, and it was titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom. You can check it out on Amazon. My ‘Nirmala’ sold well and gave me the courage to write more novels and novellas in my twenties.
I am glad that publishers are proactive in translating Premchand’s stories and novels post 2016 and making the works available at bookstores. Premchand is a writer meant to be read and loved by everyone. I hope to reread more of his works, especially his short stories, and then analyze them for you on my blog. I own almost everything, pre-2019, published on and by Munshi Premchand, and I hope to get through all of them. I also hope to read more of Rahbar’s biographies. I am keen on reading his biography on Nehru and, my favorite, Bhagat Singh. I possess all his biographies that I bought at the Ashish Book Centre’s Book Fairs and are all displayed on shelves in my office-cum-writing hut. To read more about my crazy bookish life, you can check out my memoir on Amazon titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I am sure you will find many new books to add to your TBR pile from my memoir.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to purchase my books, you can check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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