‘The Bookbinder’ by Munshi Premchand: Short Story Analysis
‘The Bookbinder’ is the story of the unfortunate animal lover Rafaqat Hussain who became indebted to many people because of his vicious second wife’s demands. Munshi Premchand is the narrator of this tale. Very rarely do we find Premchand as a character in his own short story. Premchand is considered a pioneer in Hindi and Urdu fiction and an excellent Indian writer of realistic fiction. In this story, Premchand, from an observer’s point of view, sees the deterioration of Hussain’s life after the death of his first wife. She was, like Hussain, devoted to his domesticated animals. After she passed away, Hussain was a sorrowful man who, because of his ultimate craving for sexual intimacy, gets married again. His marriage to a peon’s sharp-tongued daughter costs Hussain all his earnings, his simple life, and the animals that he had cherished for so many years. From a simple life of comfort and being one with nature, Hussain turns to please his second wife, who completely ruins him.
We see at the beginning of the narrative description of the simple life of Hussain. He worked as a bookbinder, earned ten rupees a month, and lived with his domesticated animals. Premchand, as a writer, was very fond of animals, mainly farming or domesticated ones. He always introduced them in his short stories. The animals looked after by Hussain are:
- A Mare
- A Cow
- A Cat
- A Dog
- Many Goats
- Few Hens
Hussain never tried to make a profit or use his animals. He tended to them as one would tend to a family member. The cow’s milk would feed the dog while the goat’s milk would feed the cat. Hussain used the leftover milk. The underlying socialist theme is present in the story but in a subtle way. Even the wife of Hussain cares for the animals. She did the most menial jobs for the animals like collecting cow dung, taking the trouble to feed grass to the mare, bathing the dog, and giving the cat company beside her as she sat. Ironically, this woman is killed one night when Hussain loses his way home from a fishing expedition and returns late. She was a victim of the animal that is most prevalent in India and is worshipped and feared at the same time – a poisonous snake. She is killed by the very animal kingdom, which she looks after with so much care. This shock cannot be grasped by the distraught Hussain, making him transfixed to the spot of his wife’s grave for a few months.
Hussain is left in mourning. He mourns for the old way of life, but just like the snake in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve tempts the couple through Eve to eat of the fruit of good and evil, Hussain because of sexual desires, craves for the company of a wife. He gets married, bringing home a vixen of a woman with a very sharp tongue. She is alluded to as a capitalist, the temptation which leads to the fall of humankind or Hussain, and the reason why the bookbinder will have to borrow money from the author himself.
She brings about a change in the working of the animals. She sees no benefit in the way things are going, as according to her, they were not gaining anything extra from it. She thus takes the milk of the cow as well as the goats. She eats the grams which were fed to the mare and abused the other animals. She used up the bookbinder Hussain’s ten rupees salary in a week, leaving the poor man to:
- Go looking for more private bookbinding jobs.
- Borrow money from people.
- Spend his money irrationally on tempting luxury goods, which were not needed by him in his financial condition and which he did not need when he was living with his first wife.
- Had to give away his animals. He gave the cow and mare to the animal shelter and the goats to the baker.
- He lost the trust of his sole cat, who walked out on him.
Only the dog remained loyal to Hussain. However, his loyalty was based on things of the past and a hope for those moments to return. He seemed to look as if he was cursing his fate to be stuck with Hussain. You can see all the subtle hints at the capitalist system of economics and governance. You can see that Premchand does not approve of that way of working. The story runs otherwise without that factor like an animal parable that is misogynist, which in my opinion, was not the idea of Premchand at all.
We see Hussain deep in debt and in need of borrowing money from someone or anyone. In the last part of the story titled ‘The Bookbinder’, Hussain comes to the narrator Premchand’s place to borrow money. At first, Premchand scorns him and tells him to go away. Yet, afterward, he is moved by Hussain’s shamefaced and remorseful look that he calls him back. Hussain tells Premchand he and his new wife had been starving for two days. He tells Premchand that it was all because of his wife’s greed that they were in such a state. Unusually, Premchand is moved by the state of affairs of Hussain and loans him five rupees saying something to the effect that dealing with a wife at home was like a soldier fighting on a battlefield.
The story ends with that peculiar sentence from the pen of Munshi Premchand. Unusual because Premchand was always an upholder of women empowerment. If not for the domestic strife factors that divide families and the vicious nature of the second wife, then we feel that the last line was to indicate how a man, listening to the dictates of his wife, is ruined! It is helpful if one thinks that men do not have a free will of their own where ruling their homes are concerned, but it is highly probable that the story was a parable in understanding a socialist setup from a capitalist structure. However, there have been many cases in Premchand’s stories where women take on the form of bloodsuckers, ruining men, and leading them into terrible situations.
Premchand is my fourth all-time favorite fiction writer. I have read most of his works, and it was a pleasure to analyze this story titled ‘The Bookbinder’ for you here on my blog. Munshi Premchand is an excellent writer in Urdu and Hindi. I read him for the first time at school in Hindi, then read his translations in English. I hope to reread more of his short stories and novels, even though most of the books I have are in Hindi. It is all in all good read!
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