premchand – karma and the real world

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.


13 thoughts on “premchand – karma and the real world

  1. Banno, I read Premchand in school too! You are right, I didn’t appreciate him much then. He seemed to hit me over the head with moral lessons (and I didn’t want moral lessons. πŸ™‚ Besides, no one I knew spoke HIndi like that. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ Thankfully, in my misbegotten youth, I eventually learnt to appreciate him. Thank you for the review and the memories.

    1. Anu, it’s the meanness of his characters, in a very human sense, that makes him readable despite all the moral pontification. πŸ™‚ Probably something we weren’t able to discern as schoolgirls.

  2. Same here. I read Premchand in school too (though I’m different from Anu in that I liked Premchand – perhaps it had something to do with the fact that we had a very good teacher!) Also, Doordarshan was airing Nirmala around the same time, so that helped me appreciate Premchand more.

    Coincidentally, I’m reading Akshay Manwani’s biography of Sahir these days, and just this morning I read about Premchand’s words to the PWM…

    1. I’ve got the book on Sahir, too, but just been dipping into it. I’m just more comfortable reading Hindi these days, in between all my Inspector Wexford mysteries. My entire BCL list is crime stories. πŸ™‚
      Yes, Dustedoff, a good teacher makes all the difference. English literature was more fun because I always had good English teachers.

  3. Dustedoff, I couldn’t have liked Premchand, not with my Hindi teacher, who was a very good one by the way, but oh, gosh, the accent! πŸ™‚ She had half of us rolling in the aisles with splits. I learnt to appreciate him by accident. I was at my aunt’s house for the summer hols and was bored out of my head because there was nothing to do, and I found an English translation of a collection of his short stories that belonged to my grandfather. So, in the age, where I read everything, including the wrapping on mungphali, I read it and was totally engrossed by the characters. So, of course, I had to hunt down and read the originals. πŸ™‚ Nirmala was shown on DD? I don’t remember watching it. Perhaps they didn’t show it down south. 😦

    1. Oh, yes. Nirmala was shown on TV. A very good adaptation too, and the actress who played Nirmala was excellent. If I remember correctly, it was shown on DD National. In any event, back in the days when one had only National (and perhaps DD Metro).

  4. Banno.. I am a Premchand addict.. have been reading his stories since I learnt to read, and continue to this day.. almost every evening. So to me, the familiarity is overwhelming, a way of life. There is no way that I can analyse his work or characters, but I definitely prefer his stories to his novels. I think I read his books because they take me back to Allahabad.. to my childhood home and serve as an escape mechanism. Well.. this is as nonsensical a comment as can be… but I’ll post all the same.

    1. Violet, I don’t know why you think this is a nonsensical comment. Wow, you read Premchand almost every day. That’s some fan. I guess all of us connect to books, stories, for some reason or the other, and remembering your childhood home is a pretty strong reason.

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