Premchand (1880-1936) is not an author most of us pick up eagerly to read. This is a fall-out from having to study him in school, as part of Hindi literature. Dhanno said the other day, while watching part of ‘Bhagwan Dada’, “Why are they talking like characters from a Premchand story?” and she did not mean it as a compliment.
I began re-reading Premchand again, only a couple of years ago. Yes, his characters do tend to pontificate, about their ideology and beliefs, rather a lot, but I think that was pretty standard practice in most novel writing in those days.
What had me hooked first was a scene in ‘Nirmala’. Nirmala is a young girl, married off to a much older man, with 2 sons. Despite her understandable dislike of this relationship, she goes into the marriage determined to fulfill her duties. She likes little children and makes friends with her husband’s children, but her husband’s widowed sister, who lives with them, keeps indicating that she is a step-mother. At one point, Nirmala, as a mother, wants to scold and slap one of the boys, but holds back because she becomes conscious that she will be blamed for being a step-mother. It is a small moment, but leads to so many misunderstandings, and a growing distance between the family members that ends in break-ups, death and loneliness.
This scene also resonated with me, because I remember once, Teja scolding Dhanno, outside a restaurant. She was 6 or 7, we had barely started our relationship, she was being stubborn, and refusing to come off a toy horse, much after her stipulated share of rides. A close friend said to Teja, “It’s amazing how you scold her. I would be so frightened to do it, scared to upset her, scared of what she would think of me.” But Teja never treated Dhanno with kid gloves, and that had her accepting him without question.
Premchand also goes into great detail with each one of his characterizations. No one is black or white. At the most heroic moments, people have other thoughts racing in their minds, they are brave, but also petty, mean but also forthright, generous but also misguided, selfish and selfless, and everyone changes from time to time, growing, learning, affecting and being affected by not only each other’s actions, but also each other’s thoughts. The internal workings of Premchand’s characters is fascinating, particularly for any aspiring writer. I would recommend reading Premchand, only if to study development of character.
Through the other novels, it is this unfailing logic of events rising from small decisions, good and bad, small cowardices and misdemeanors, small resolutions and courage, that bind a whole world together. This fits into my own perspective of how life is, each one of us, each act, each thought inextricably linked with the other.
The novels I have read are, apart from ‘Nirmala’, ‘Premashram’, ‘Karmabhoomi’ and ‘Gaban’. ‘Premashram’ and ‘Karmabhoomi’ are the more difficult to get through, because they are also top-heavy with political ideology. ‘Gaban’ is quite an interesting tale of a weak, young man, fascinated by money, and all it can buy, and a wife who is naive enough not to question where the money is coming from, the chaos that unfolds because of this character flaw. However it leads to greater maturity and happiness for all in the end.
Another aspect of Premchand’s novels, is the women despite their traditional roles, are very strong, and often come to their senses much faster than the men.
I see in my own self, the continuous flow of thoughts. In my actions, when I am hurt, miserable, angry, envious, I often get carried away in the moment. When I am friendly, confident, bright, positive, I can see myself from the outside. And I can also hear a litany of thoughts in my mind, quite contrary to my outward behavior. This is a matter of my own temperament. And I guess all enlightenment comes through one or the other, to lose oneself in the moment, and to observe every moment, or rather a balance of both.
While you are at it, my review of Premashram.