For a novel based on Gandhian philosophy, Munshi Premchand‘s ‘Premashram’ (1922) has several violent deaths. Rai Saheb (Gyanshanker’s father-in-law) escapes death by poisoning by his yogic skills, Gyanshanker’s two young cousins slice off their heads with a sword under the myth of Tantrik skills, Vidya (Gyanshanker’s wife) kills herself with poison, her sister Gayatri jumps off a cliff when faced with her father as a sadhu, Manohar (a villager) slits Gaus Khan’s (Gyanshanker’s clerk) throat with a sword.

While the protagonist of the novel, Premashanker, epitomizes the Gandhian precept that even great social changes can be brought about by self-sacrifice, Premchand the novelist seems to reject the possibility of human redemption beyond a certain point. It is as if there are some sins committed that cannot allow a human being, even when humbled and repentant, to carry on living.

There is a curious sense of self-honour which reminds me of Japanese hara-kiri.

But intrinsic in the narrative itself, is also a Gandhian self-questioning.

Premashanker, a zamindar, comes back from the United States, to realize that he is an outcaste in his society, and unwanted even within his own family. He decides to live in a village and gives up all his inherited earnings to live a life from what he can earn himself, and spend his life dedicated to the uplift of the village he has adopted and the village he has inherited.

By sheer example, he influences not only the villagers, but slowly even corrupt people like the magistrate, the lawyer, the doctor and the social worker, who under one garb or the other were out only to accumulate wealth for themselves.

Yet Premashanker himself is not entirely without ego. It is his ego and principles that will not allow him to do many things which he would like to do, for instance live with his wife, Shraddha who asks that he go through a rite of purification to be accepted back into society. Finally it is Shraddha herself after 14 years who gives up her own religious taboos and realizes that her husband has purified himself not through ritual but through his selfless action.

Premshanker has the Gandhian humility, the questioning of the minutest flaws within his thought, the realization that he is quick to judge people, whereas even the most hardened person like his cousin, Gaurishanker, a policeman has streaks of kindness towards his underlings.

This introspection is also that of the author’s, for no character is delineated in black or white. The poor are not necessarily good, the noble are not free from their egos, the weak and selfish are not without their redemptions.

The strongest character is Premashanker’s brother, Gyanshanker, who epitomizes the modern, selfish man, whose education gives him the values of self-worth, self-gain and self-improvement. There is no space left for sympathy or tolerance of those outside his world. Yet, Gyanshanker is clever, able, and also self-aware. He knows very well that he is bartering his soul for what he thinks is important, wealth and fame. He even goes to the extent of bartering his love. But life, or fate, or whatever you may call it, the inexorable movement of circumstances gives him failure even after the tasting of huge successes. It is Karma, if you could call it that. And in that moment of realization, there is no other way for him except to die, even though he does not want to.

The novel kept reminding me of Vikram Seth‘s ‘A Suitable Boy’ (1993).

‘Premashram’ questions the very basis of the zamindari system, the notion of a middle-man taxing the peasants for doing nothing. The zamindar is only an agent. Influenced by his uncle, Premashanker, Mayashanker, Dayashanker’s son is able to revert the system by giving up his zamindari rights voluntarily on the very day he is given them.

‘A Suitable Boy’ revolves around the time that the zamindari system was abolished (the 1950s). This novel too has a vast array of characters and draws a detailed and complex portrait of life in India around the time, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where ‘Premashram’ is also based.

The difference is that Premchand is writing about a time he was living in, and his novel is influenced by hope, fired by the new ideas propagated by Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom struggle. Premchand himself had just a year before writing this novel, resigned from his school-teacher’s job in answer to Gandhi’s call to quit government jobs. Vikram Seth’s novel is historical and he sees those times through a modern perspective, without the unabashed idealism of Premchand.

The internal voices in both novels is strong. The novels are not only about what happens, but what the characters think and feel, the transformations they undergo.

But while Vikram Seth is equally sympathetic with his characters and balanced in his portrayal of them, he does not allow them to get swayed by their emotions, he keeps their reins in his hand.

It is interesting to note that Vikram Seth chooses to tell his story through the marriage proposals of a young girl, Lata who is almost passive, very introverted in the middle of a vortex of circumstances and characters around her.  Lata’s choice of bridegroom also seems to be the path of least resistance, which is quite contrary to the struggle that each of the characters in ‘Premashram’ go through, to overcome their own egos for what they see as a larger good.

Both books kept me company for a long time in Bangalore. I realized yet again the wonder of entering another world, another time, and the comfort of reading a long book, which allows you to become familiar with the lives of its characters at leisure. I realized why it is that people are addicted to watching soap operas. I felt bereft when the books had ended.

Of course, reading ‘A Suitable Boy’ was easier for me than to attune myself to the rhythm of Premchand’s writing. I have not read Hindi in a while, but now that Flipkart makes it easy for me to acquire Hindi books, without the long trek into town, I hope to make up for lost time.