The Short Stories

5 Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

5.1 Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

The Holy Panchayat


‘The Holy Panchayat’ or ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ as it was titled in Hindi carries the distinction of being Premchand’s first story to be published in Hindi. Originally it had been written in Urdu and was titled ‘Panchayat’ but Premchand’s desire to reach a wider readership led him to switch over to writing in Hindi and he translated this story himself. It was published in 1916 in the May-June issue of the periodical Saraswati. ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ belongs to the early group of short stories by Premchand, which were written between 1916 and 1920. Other stories included in this group are ‘Namak ka Daroga’, ‘Bade Ghar ki Beti’, ‘Rani Sarandha’, ‘Mamta’, ‘Saut’, ‘Amavasya ki Raat’ etc. Most of these stories share a common purpose and exhibit a similar flow of ideas. They are narrative / descriptive in nature and are based on an idealistic view of things. The sense of the teller and the tale comes through quite strongly and the stance of the author is of the omniscient narrator. He reveals all, knows the characters’ background, can take a peep into their hearts and minds and can philosophize on the prevailing state of affairs. Most of these stories carry within them Premchand’s early beliefs and convictions. When he bases the resolution of these stories on a ‘change of heart’ he actually believed it to be possible. In fact, these stories have often been referred to as the ‘change of heart’ stories since they mostly end with the events getting resolved through a ‘change of heart’ in the concerned characters.

The element of chance plays an important role, both in the development of the plot as well as in the resolution of events towards the end. Because the resolution of the stories depends to a large extent on an idealistic premise, there seems to be a corresponding lack of the element of believable probability, which in turn takes the story away from being entirely realistic in nature.

    Detailed Analysis

‘The Holy Panchayat’ or ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ is set in a village and begins quite characteristically with Premchand at first introducing the reader to the physical as well as the emotional backdrops of the story. Jumman Sheikh and Algu Chaudhary show a deep bond of friendship, which goes back to their childhood days. The two belonging to different faiths shared nothing, not even food or religion. There was nothing to bind them except their mental and emotional affinity. The omniscient narrator intervenes at this point to tell us that this of course is the basic rule of friendship. Then he proceeds to describe how if Jumman had to go to Haj he would entrust Algu with the responsibility of looking after his house. Algu did the same if he had to be away anytime.

We are given a glimpse of the beginnings of this friendship in the boyhood days of these men when both used to be students of Jumman’s father Jumrati. In a short paragraph Premchand sketches a vivid picture of the method of imparting and receiving education in a village. Algu is ever willing to run odd errands for his teacher and to get his hubble-bubble ready for him. We may recall how Premchand too received a similar coaching in the Persian and Urdu letters from a Muslim teacher and was ever trying to please his teacher though at times for reasons other than the apparent ones. Despite Algu’s numerous odd jobs for his teacher, he could never succeed in studies and consoled himself by saying that education was not in his kismet. Premchand is here giving us a peep into the mind of an average Indian who is always ready to blame hiskismet for his own failures.  Jumman on the other hand did well and became known for his learning in the surrounding villages. Algu was known and respected for his wealth.

Having set the story against this backdrop of a village scene and against this background of friendship and harmony, Premchand proceeds to develop it further and introduces a new character - Jumman’s old aunt. At this point we may stop to take note of a few things. Two things are important here. Firstly the rural background of the story, which is going to necessitate the calling of the Panchayat. The Panchayat used to bring justice to remote areas of the country especially to people who could either not afford the city courts or simply could not reach them. Equally important is the strong bond of friendship that existed between the two friends because it is this bond which will be dealt a severely damaging blow during the proceedings of the Panchayat. At the same time it will be used for making a very important point as far as meeting out justice to the accused is concerned. Thus in a very skillful manner Premchand is going to connect the opening of his story with the events that follow.

  •     A Build-up to the Panchayat Proceedings 

We are given another peep into the past and are acquainted with events that have brought matters to their present state. Jumman’s old aunt had handed over her whole property to Jumman on the assurance that in return she would be looked after and provided for till she lives. For some time things went off well but as it usually happens, the old aunt and Jumman’s wife Kariman began having daily skirmishes over minor matters like the quality of food being given to the aunt not being good, the dal being given without any ghee and so on. The aunt complained to Jumman, but he just turned a deaf ear. He, along with his wife, was of the view that they had agreed to look after the old lady thinking that she did not have much time left. But now it seems she will live forever and already the amount they had fed her would have been enough to buy them the land she had handed over to them. Such was the talk that the old aunt had to listen to. She tolerated it for some time but then having failed to make Jumman listen to her complaints, the old aunt now demands that she be given some money so she can cook her food separately. The short exchange that follows between the aunt and Jumman is packed with suppressed emotions. On being told that money doesn’t grow on trees, the aunt replies in an apparently polite manner that though her needs are very little she has to somehow make both ends meet. The politeness carries with it a sense of simmering anger in the original, which threatens to burst any moment. Jumman’s cruelly insensitive comment ‘I had no idea, that you were determined to live for ever.’ puts a question mark on all his learning and wisdom which ought to have made him more humane but seems to have succeeded in making him just more materialistic and insensitive.

When Jumman refuses to give her money, the aunt demands that her land be returned to her so she can live off it for the rest of her remaining days. Jumman refuses. She threatens to call the Panchayat. At this Jumman smiles to himself and readily agrees. After all, who would dare to speak against him? People of this village as well as other surrounding area were all indebted to him in some form or the other. Nobody would dare make him his enemy.

  •     The Basic Structure

From the point of view of the structure of the story notice that after having introduced us to the main characters and after having placed them against a certain physical and emotional backdrop, a problem has now been presented. As is often the case with Premchand’s stories, he takes up some problem or the other in almost all of them and works towards a resolution. This is what is going to happen in ‘The Holy Panchayat’ as well. A problem has been presented and now the rest of the story will work towards a resolution of the same.

Two important observations are being made at this point. On the one hand, Premchand has brought in the Panchayat after preparing the ground by describing in detail the circumstances that have given rise to the need for holding the Panchayat. The old, infirm, poor aunt strongly believes that she will find justice in the village council. From her point of view the Panchayat seems to be a fair minded authority which would look at the matter objectively and see the injustice of Jumman’s behaviour. Premchand thus seems to be presenting the Panchayat as a viable alternative system of governance for people in the remote corners of the country. But in Jumman’s reaction Premchand is at once hinting at the cracks and fissures that are already threatening a smooth, objective and fair working of this system because Jumman is quite confident that he would be able to sway the Panchayat’s judgement in his favour.

The old aunt begins to garner support for her case by going and pouring out her story to all who were willing to listen to her. Premchand being a keen observer of people and their behaviour gives us a wide range of the reactions to the old woman’s lament. Some console her, some blame it on the times but there are even some who have fun at her expense and laugh at her bent back, sunken cheeks and white hair. Some go even as far as to admonish her for still having a desire for material things despite having one foot in the grave. Premchand hints here at the streak of cruelty that is present in human beings. The question whether the aged and the infirm should give up all their desire for peace and happiness just because they are old is implied in his observations.

The old aunt is a determined soul and she persists in going from one person to the other, inviting them to the Panchayat and to see that justice is done. In the end she reaches the house of Algu Chaudhary. Because of his friendship with Jumman, Algu wants to stay away from the whole affair. The aunt, however, very cleverly appeals to his conscience and his sense of justice and challenges him by asking ‘Will your turn your back to justice for fear of ruining your friendship.’ This is the key sentence of the whole story. As pointed out in the annotations to your text, the original version carries the word imaanrather than a Hindi equivalent of justice. The word imaan should carry with it a sense of conscience too and probably integrity would have been a better word to use. At this point Premchand enters the narration to make a brief analysis of the struggle going on in Algu’s mind and bases his argument on a psychological insight into the subtle workings of the human consciousness. In a normal course of events we often let our conscience and our sense of justice persist in a state of convenient slumber but once challenged it becomes alert and is on its guard. Had the old aunt not challenged him, Algu would have turned a blind eye towards justice. Once challenged, however, his conscience rears up its head and now refuses to be put to sleep. He does not have the courage to say ‘no’ to the aunt now. Structurally this exchange between Algu and the aunt has been strategically placed in order to prepare a convincing ground for Algu’s fair judgement in the Panchayat.

  •     The Realistic Setting in Minute Details

There is a break in time and scene and from the mind of Algu Chaudhary, Premchand next moves on to describe the physical setting of the Panchayat. Attention is drawn to the fact that Jumman had taken care to provide for the comfort of the Panchayat members, having covered the earthen floor and also having arranged for pan, ilaichi, hukka and tobacco. A realistic and detailed description of the scene follows, complete with the barber filling the chillums, the village boys running around here and there, the smoke arising from the smouldering dung cakes, the birds chirping noisily in the trees and also the village dogs who too had started gathering around, anticipating a village feast and who were contributing to the general din. Premchand being a master of such descriptions has in a few sentences created the whole scene for us and we can almost visualize the same. The smoke from the chillums and from the fire that has been lit is dense enough to be used as an image to convey how Jumman was going to try and obscure reality here.

  •    The Panchayat as an Alternative System of Governance

The proceedings of the Panchayat begin. The aunt puts the case before the members. She is an old and poor woman, a widow, unable to fight ‘in a court or durbar’ and so has come to the village Panchayat with a hope for getting some justice. As explained in your textual notes, the aunt’s use of the word ‘durbar’ lends irony to the situation because in colloquial terms a durbar is ‘a large assembly of favour seeking individuals at an important person’s place’. Since Jumman is an influential person in the village, the aunt is afraid that this Panchayat may turn out to be his ‘durbar.’ All the same, she appeals to the sense of justice of all who are present and puts her case before them.

Premchand, while following the events of the story and also the proceedings of the Panchayat step by step, at the same time gives us an insight into the workings of the Panchayat as a social organization which makes an alternative system of governance available to the people. In the rural Indian set-up the village Panchayat had an important role to play in reaching justice to the poor and downtrodden people who could not afford the expenses of the city law courts. Premchand in his heart was partial to this system of justice at the local level just as he had a preference for the joint family system. With time and due to various socio-political reasons, both these systems perished but in this story Premchand makes the Panchayat system work despite all the negative forces trying to corrupt it. There is an element of wishful thinking on Premchand’s part. In the unpleasantness between the aunt and the nephew, however, he could not deny the breakdown of the joint family system.

  •     An Idealistic View of Justice

When Algu Chaudhary is named the Sarpanch, Jumman feels overjoyed and is sure that the judgement will be in his favour as Algu was his childhood friend. Yet, Premchand shows a very strong sense of conscience prevailing upon the whole proceeding and Algu pronounces his decision in favour of the aunt, ordering Jumman to return her lands. Jumman is stunned! For him it is almost as though his friend had stabbed him in the back. But Premchand is writing of the times when people’s faith in the Panchayat system was firm and they abided by its decision whatever may be the case. So Jumman neither opposes the decision nor poses any hurdle in the smooth carrying out of the sentence though from that day onwards the bond between the two friends ceases to exist. They behave as strangers with Jumman believing that Algu had proved to be treacherous while Algu believed he had merely performed his duty. Premchand uses an appropriate simile to describe the relationship between the two friends when he compares their meeting to the meeting of a sword and a shield emphasizing on the coldness associated with steel.

  •     A Doubling of Events

Another time lapse occurs and Premchand takes us a month ahead from the old aunt’s Panchayat to a build up of events which give Jumman an opportunity to take his revenge on Algu when he gets a chance to act as Panch between Algu Chaudhary and Samjhu Sahu. Premchand brings us up to date with the situation by first giving us the background to it. It so happens that Algu had bought a pair of oxen from the village fair the previous year and within a month of the Panchayat’s decision one ox dies. He suspects Jumman Sheikh for poisoning it but cannot prove it. Since Algu is unable to put a single ox to use in the fields he decides to sell it off.  Samjhu Sahu the typical village merchant comes as a prospective buyer as he needs the ox to ferry his merchandise to and fro between the farm and the village. Promising to pay the money in a month’s time he takes the ox away. In that one month Samjhu Sahu extracts the maximum amount of work from the ox in addition to not feeding him properly and also not giving him any opportunity to rest and beating him cruelly according to his whim and fancies. The ox finally gives up and one evening on a return journey from the town market he collapses on the road while the village is still a considerable distance away. The cart is loaded with goods and Samjhu Sahu is also carrying all the cash earned from his business during the day. He tries to keep awake so the thieves would stay away but is unable to. When he wakes up in the morning, most of the goods are stolen as well as the money which he had with him. The Sahu reaches home an angry man and along with his wife puts the entire blame on Algu Chaudhary for having sold him a good-for-nothing ox. He refuses to make any payment for the ox now. After a long wait the matter comes to the Panchayat. Once again the village gathers under the same tree to witness the case proceedings. This time it is Jumman Sheikh’s turn to be made Sarpanch.

  •     The Role of Conscience

At this point Premchand once again stops to take a look at the subtle workings of the human consciousness. It is, according to him, a position of responsibility that brings a man’s seriousness and sense of duty to the fore. He supports his arguments with a few examples as that of the newspaper editor who had been making scathing attacks on the politician only till the day he enters politics himself. Then his style of understanding undergoes a remarkable change and he becomes ‘impartial’, discriminate and objective’. Similar is the case of the high strung young people who learn to be patient once they have to shoulder the responsibility of their own families. In a like manner, Jumman Sheikh too feels a similar sense of responsibility for his high position the moment he is made Sarpanch. Till that moment he had been unable to understand the reason behind Algu’s decision in favour of the aunt. Now, being faced with a similar dilemma, Jumman could have given vent to his anger by deciding the case against his friend Algu though that would have meant going against his own conscience and against justice too. The moment he sits on the seat of the Sarpanch the sense of responsibility for his position comes to the fore and he knows, that while pronouncing judgement he has to be objective and not let any personal feelings influence what he has to say. He cannot deviate from the truth at all. It is almost as though God Himself speaks through the mouth of the Sarpanch.

Algu, who had been dreading Jumman’s verdict, is overjoyed when he listens to the case being decided against the Sahu. He, along with the other villagers, is all praise for Jumman’s sense of justice and truth which never gets swayed or coloured by his personal feeling. This, observes Premchand, is true justice. Such a fair decision prompts us to believe that God resides in the Panch and speaks through him.

The withered tree of friendship is given a new lease of life after this Panchayat. All misunderstandings are removed and the point is reiterated that in pronouncing a just and fair sentence at their respective Panchayats both friends had remained true to their conscience and their sense of Justice. Both now believe that it was almost as though God Himself was speaking through them while they were holding that high position of authority. They cry on one another’s shoulder and all is forgiven and understood and their friendship is revived once again.

    Additional Comments

  •     Element of Chance

The structure of the story is similar to that of Premchand’s other stories. In an entirely credible manner Premchand begins by talking about mundane, day to day affairs. While developing the plot, however, he relies not just on logic and argument but a great deal on chance as well.  In fact, most of the important events that take place in the story happen due to chance — it is by chance that Algu is made the Sarpanch, it is by chance that his ox dies, it is by chance that he sells the other ox to a man like Samjhu Sahu, it is also by chance that the other ox dies on the village road at night and the Sahu is robbed and so on. Yet, all these incidents have a strong sense of believable probability and they have all been woven together intricately and skillfully which makes it a realistic story on one level while an idealistic one on the other. The events can happen the way they do in the story but can such a change of heart occur the moment a person is made the Sarpanch? This is a point that invites critical speculation. What if Samjhu Sahu had been named the Panch in the first case? Would he have been as objective and as fair-minded as Algu? Surely all the preparations that Jumman had made for the benefit of the members of the Panchayat would have had an influence and helped in deciding the case in favour of Jumman rather than the old aunt.

  •     A ‘Change of Heart’Story

‘Panch Parmeshwar’ or ‘The Holy Panchayat’ is a simple story, which is built around the seemingly unimportant, day- to- day events in the lives of the people of an Indian village. Yet in its ordinariness we are given a taste of the greatness of Premchand’s art as a storyteller. He is able to create the atmosphere of an Indian village quite effortlessly and equally effortlessly is he able to convey the importance of the alternative system of justice and governance that we see in operation here. Yet there is more to it than just a description of how a village Panchayat solved the cases of Jumman and Algu. On one occasion Premchand had himself outlined his methods and his intentions for writing a story. He said, ‘I never write a story for the sake of describing an incident and event. I write for only one reason.... to present a human truth, or to show a new angle of looking at common and obvious things... I believe, very strongly, that no story can depend totally on a clear scene or a dramatic incident; the story’s sap is a psychological insight.’ In ‘The Holy Panchayat’ too we are given that psychological insight when he describes a change of heart occurring in the cases of both Jumman and Algu the moment they are made Sarpanch. Lest we may remain unconvinced about it in the first instance when Algu gives his decision against Jumman, Premchand has given us a doubling of the same occurrence when Jumman too experiences a similar sense of responsibility and change of heart when he is made Sarpanch. Structurally therefore we have two separate incidents proving the same point that a village Panchayat is a viable alternative to the colonial system of governance. Premchand’s awareness, however, is not limited or constricted to seeing just the benefits of the system. He is sensitive to the dangers surrounding it too. Already forces of power, capitalism and flattery are laying siege to a fair and objective working of the Panchayat. It is another situation altogether that Jumman’s various preparations are unable to sway the Panchayat members and they give whatever decision they have to. But we cannot deny the fact that this fair judgement hinges very precariously on the Sarpanch’s conscience and sense of responsibility. It is all very well to think that a man becomes aware of his duties the moment he is placed in a position of responsibility but we know that such a process of thought, while indicating faith in humanity on the one hand, is also suggestive of a certain wishful-thinking on the part of the writer. In both cases of the holding of the Panchayat the problems are resolved through the suggestion that God Himself was operating as a spirit in the whole proceeding. But would God have still spoken had Samjhu Sahu been made the Sarpanch? So the resolution of the problem is based on an idealistic premise which leaves many questions unanswered.

  •     Erosion of Traditional Values

After forty years of Premchand’s ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ came a story by Rangey Raghav with the same title. In his story however the village Panchayat has lost its sanctity and its authenticity completely. While in Premchand’s story Jumman is unable to influence the decision of the Panch even though he tries, in Raghav’s story we find that with the steady advancements of capitalism, a man’s worth is measured by his material gains. Not only can a rich man sway a decision in his favour by bribing the Panch but in fact decisions are made keeping the status of the involved people in mind. Justice here is fickle and has lost its meaning. It is not God now who speaks through the Panch but money. In such a world truth and justice have become the inevitable casualties of the system.

  •     Forward Looking

Premchand too was aware of the issues that were already present in the social landscape. There is the clash of interests between Jumman and his clients, which hints at the friction present between various social classes. There is the lure and power of money which makes a man resort to dishonest means, as in the case of Jumman’s injustice to his old and helpless aunt. The story carries the dark hint of a possibility that things might have gone in the opposite direction with the old woman being robbed of everything. The vile and cunning of the village merchant, Algu’s hopeless endeavours to get his payment from the Sahu—are all indicative of the cracks and fissures already present in the apparently idealized village community. In fact when Premchand brings in an element of the fable at this point when the second Panchayat is to be held, he is being quite sarcastic when he shows, that even the birds do not find anything worth emulating in the behaviour of human beings. Thus a story which looks deceptively simple carries within it a hint of things to come. Specific questions may have been resolved—the old aunt gets her land and Algu gets his money —but what about the larger questions? The position of the old and infirm in our society, the power of money which can corrupt easily, the fate of shy and simple people like Algu who more often than not would end up being exploited, the clash of interests between rival groups which is only hinted at mildly in the story but which has assumed alarming proportions in the present day villages in India. Premchand was therefore a forward-looking writer who was aware of the gradual breakdown of traditional values taking place in our society. At the same time at this stage of his writing career the reformist’s zeal prompts him to present solutions to these problems too and in ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ that solution is presented in an idealized view of man which is romantic and visionary.

  •     Title and Techniques

‘Panch Parmeshwar’ is therefore a very suitable title for the story and translated as ‘The Holy Panchayat’ it carries within it the mythic dimension of the justice we see in operation here. The word ‘Panchayat’ makes it obvious that the story is going to be about a village Panchayat but by the time we come to the end of the story we also understand why the word ‘Parmeshwar’ or ‘Holy’ has been used in the title. We understand why the word of the Panch has been likened to the word of God and the title justifies its relevance completely.

Characterization in the story is effected through description as well as dialogue and at times through direct authorial interventions that occur from time to time. For example, when the writer takes a peep into the mind of Algu while he is torn between being true to his friend or being true to the larger call of justice. The tone of the story varies from being mildly ironic to entirely serious; at times merely observing and at other times being critical and sarcastic about what is being observed. Since the omniscient author technique is employed the point of view remains that of the narrator. This third person omniscient narrator has the freedom to look into the minds of his characters and he acquaints us with their points of view too at different stages of the narrative.

  •     Theme of Friendship and Communal Harmony

In ‘Panch Parmeshwar’, Premchand gives us an insight into one other aspect of India’s social reality. This has a bearing on the relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities which existed side by side through most of the social fabric of India, whether towns or villages. By showing a strong bond of friendship between a Hindu and a Muslim who share nothing except like-mindedness, mental and emotional affinities, Premchand is hinting at the vast possibilities that exist for such friendships to occur despite the many religious, cultural and social barriers between the two communities. What Premchand seems to be saying is that Peace is a joint responsibility of both groups. However, it is a well known fact that the two communities did exist in complete harmony, side by side but once again there were forces that threatened this peaceful coexistence from all sides. Misunderstanding can be one big hurdle. The same is removed in the story though in a highly sentimentalized manner. Yet the need for a mutual understanding is what Premchand seems to be stressing on towards the end of the story.