What if Premchand had not died at the age of 56? What if he had the money and the patronage to travel abroad? What if his 250 and odd short stories and a dozen novels had been translated into other languages in his lifetime?
The questions haunt readers of Hindi literature every time his birth anniversary on July 31 comes around. This year it is the 139th birth anniversary of the writer (1880—1936), whose works have been compared by critics at different times to Maxim Gorky, Charles Dickens and Balzac. A copy of his BA degree found place on social media:
His powerful short stories continue to caprivate.
In Do Bailon Ki Katha, he wonders how, of all animals, it’s the donkey that came to be called the dumbest! He writes that possibly tolerance and silence are mistaken for stupidity. In yet another evergreen story, Kafan, the father-son duo of Ghisu and Madhav wallow in self-pity, philosophise on their poverty and plight but are too lazy to do anything about it. They work only when they must as Ghisu remembers the better moments, a sumptuous meal that he had 20 years ago at the wedding of the Thakur’s daughter. Both justify their decision to spend the money meant to buy a shroud (kafan) for Ghisu’s wife on drinks. It was his uncanny command over both language and life that made him write in Godan that if the poor and the starving are given two square meals, they would readily chant the Lord’s name the whole day long. Both politicians and godmen in this country would seem to have learnt that lesson.
It appears that his writings predicted the state of today’s politics and society. It was much ahead of its time, retaining its stark relevance now more than ever.
Asked to name his favourite story of Premchand, poet and writer Priyadarshan rightly points out that there are so many that it would be unfair to single out one. But then he chooses Panch Parmeshwar because of a sentence that he feels continues to test us till today. The simple but soul stirring question posed by the old Khaala: Biggad ke darr se imaan kii baat naa bologe, beta? (Wouldn’t you say the truth only because it may hurt you, son?)
Hindi scholar Pallav says, “My first encounter with Premchand was when I read Eidgaah in school. I find that story fascinating even today. He gave his characters a particular strength in the sense that they do not lose the zest for life even amid deprivations”
Journalist Imran Khan’s favourite Premchand story is Mantra. A poor man’s young son dies because the doctor is busy playing golf. But when the doctor’s son is bitten by a snake and the poor man realises that he could cure him, he is torn between the desire to avenge the death of his own son and his good sense.
Poet, writer and journalist Manglesh Dabral thinks for a while before he picks Poos Ki Raat but then has second thoughts. He eventually settles for Bade Bhai Sahab. “It’s a story about the relationship between two brothers, a reflection on childhood and a serious comment on the education system too. This intricate theme working at so many levels is what fascinates me,” he says.