The Short Stories

5 Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

An Analysis

           The Author and his Milieu

Premchand has been rightly credited with salvaging the Urdu and Hindi short story from the quagmire of fantastic and romantic tales totally aimless and totally divorced from reality. He was the one who created the genre of the serious short story, grounded it in reality and made the common man his hero rather than concentrating on just kings and queens.

Premchand was born on July 31, 1880 in Lamhi, a village near Benaras. His real name was Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav and he was the son of Munshi Ajayab Rai who worked as a clerk in the village post office. Obviously Premchand’s family subsisted on modest means and his life in the village brought him face to face with the daily trials and tribulations of the peasantry. Though brought up in humble circumstances, Premchand had access to good education and he became well versed in Persian and Urdu letters under the guidance of a Muslim teacher who was a tailor by profession but took to tutoring some students too. Premchand’s mother passed away when he was eight and his father married again. The stepmother was a difficult person to get on with and made Premchand’s life miserable. His father dealt him a second blow by marrying him off to an ugly, illiterate and ill-tempered girl at the age of sixteen. Premchand could not get along with her at all and his share of miseries increased manifold when his father died suddenly the following year after suffering a brief bout of illness. The responsibility of looking after the family fell on the tender shoulders of young Premchand and he had to put all his dreams of becoming a lawyer on the backburner.

His passion for studies however, took him to Benaras where he began coaching a lawyer’s sons and used the money to keep body and soul together. He earned five rupees, of which he kept two for himself and sent home the remaining three. Subsequently he took up various jobs beginning with being a teacher at a school in Chunar—then a government teacher in Bahriach. Later he was sent for a two-year training course to Allahabad. After the successful completion of this course in 1904 he was appointed teacher in Pratapgarh from where he was transferred to Kanpur.

Two important events took place during Premchand’s four-year stay in Kanpur. Firstly, he met Munshi Daya Narain Nigam, the editor of a well-known Urdu magazine Zamana (Time) and who became a friend, philosopher and guide. Secondly, in 1906 he married Shivrani Devi, a young widow whom he had met earlier and who proved a worthy companion for the remaining years of his life.

Premchand was subsequently appointed a sub-deputy inspector of schools -- a job that involved excessive travelling, irregular hours and equally irregular food habits.This resulted in severe stomach ulcers, which troubled him for the rest of his life. Under the influence of Gandhi’s teachings Premchand resigned from his government job in 1921 and started his own press called the Saraswati Press, in 1923. He lacked the required business acumen however, and the Press became a drain on his already modest finances. He even started his own paper Hans in March 1930 where he expected to express himself fearlessly and freely.

By 1932 Premchand was facing serious financial difficulties because of his inability to manage his Press and was in debt. Under these circumstances he accepted an offer from a film company Ajanta Cinetone, and agreed to work for them on a handsome salary. But things in Bombay were not as he expected them to be. He wanted to reach a wider audience through the medium of films and felt cheated and disillusioned when he saw that the producers were not interested in truth but in making money. So he resigned and returned to Benaras in 1935. His old stomach ulcers flared up again and his health deteriorated rapidly. On October 8, 1936, aged 56 he passed away quietly.

Though Premchand stands almost unchallenged in the world of Hindi literature yet we must not forget that he began writing initially in Urdu under the pseudonym of Nawab Rai. His first short story ‘The Most Precious Jewel in the World’ was published in Zamana in 1907. In 1908 a collection of five stories was published under the title Soz-e-Vatan (‘Sufferings of the Motherland’). This volume of stories was confiscated by the British government and labelled seditious. All subsequent works by the author were required to be censored. It was on the advice of his friend Daya Narain Nigam that Nawab Rai switched over to the penname of Premchand in order to get around the prohibition imposed by the British Government.

From the time that he began writing, Premchand turned out an astonishing number of novels, short stories, letters, essays and plays. When he died in 1936, he had to his credit twelve published novels, about three hundred short stories, innumerable letters, essays and editorials and also several plays, translations and adaptations. All this is doubly amazing if we remember that he suffered from poor health throughout his life. He was a widely read author and was influenced at various stages of his life by Dickens, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Marx and soon directed his fiction towards social reform. His domain was the Indian village, which remained the ‘richest inspiration for his work’. Here he found life in all its varied colours. He identified with the misery of the poor, exploited peasant; he was anguished at the appalling condition of the untouchables and was saddened by the wretched plight of women in Indian households. The caste snobbery, the struggle for basic survival, the widow’s predicament, the gap between the rich and the poor, the burden of traditional social value system like the joint family are just some of the recurrent themes in the multifarious world of Premchand. 

His forte lies in his rare ability to portray the life of the village in its minutest of details. He could do this because he had been a part of it all his life and had a keen eye and ear. Due to his authentic portrayal of the village Premchand has often been labeled a realist. But as P. Lal observes: ‘Premchand’s realism is a backdrop against which he can build a character.’ Uppermost in his mind, however, was the reformist aspect of literature. Literature according to Premchand, ‘must give us a goal, it must make us alive, it must make us think.’ When asked to define literature he prefers the definition, which describes it as ‘a criticism of life.’ It should present ‘the heart of truth.’ Premchand was a sincere, serious writer with a purpose and in almost all his writings we find the reformist’s zeal evident.