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HomeFeaturesOf caste struggles and women empowerment, a look at Premchand’s short stories

Of caste struggles and women empowerment, a look at Premchand’s short stories

There has been a century-long debate on whether Premchand was able to articulate the suffering of the lower castes, considering that he was a rich Kayastha.

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New Delhi: “Looks as though little Dukhi is dead,” says Pandit Ghasiram in Premchand’s short story Sadgati (Deliverance). Dukhi, the sad one, is a Dalit on his way to ask the Brahmin for a favour. Starved of food and stressed about work, Dukhi the tanner falls to the floor while chopping the Pandit’s logs for free, but he never gets up.

“Out there in the field, jackals and kites, dogs and crows were picking at Dukhi’s body. This was the reward for a whole life of devotion, service and faith,” read the last lines of Premchand’s story.

Dukhi is the classic example of a Dalit so deeply indoctrinated by the caste system that for him to imagine defying an upper-caste man is in itself a heresy. He doesn’t question, he serves — a portrayal that earned Premchand the ire of many.

At the other end of the spectrum are Ghisua and Madhav, the protagonists of Kafan (The Shroud). Debauched drinkers and complete wastrels, these two Dalits barely get by in their own lives — so much so that when the latter’s wife passes away, they spend the money they begged for her shroud on drink.

Premchand wasn’t spared for his characterisation of these two either. However, one crucial difference is that even in their intoxicated state, the story raises the concern of an alienation from labour and the debilitating deprivation of the lower castes who don’t even get two full meals.

The debate on whether or not Premchand was able to articulate the pain and suffering of the lower castes in the early 20th century, considering he was a rich Kayastha, has raged on ever since he began writing.

On his 83rd death anniversary, ThePrint looks at some of the characters in his short stories that defined Premchand’s views as Dalit assertion in India began to take shape.

Also read: The Maharashtra farmers’ march reminded us of what Tagore & Premchand tried teaching us

Of caste and conflict

Can someone who has not experienced exploitation articulate it? This is a question literary theorists have asked time and again. Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci held the opinion that two kinds of intellectuals exist in society — traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals, as Premchand is likely to be categorised, are distanced from the economic structure and derive their information from the records of the past and often legitimise power structures. Organic intellectuals, such as B.R. Ambedkar, are deeply entrenched in the economic structure, and thus, are more likely to overthrow the existing structure.

Premchand, however, deviates from the norm to challenge these structures. His depiction of upper castes, landlords and priests is a scathing indictment of an unequal society that works to keep certain classes deprived of access to basic human resources such as water.

“Premchand could have written from the point of view of a Brahmin, but he chose the Dalit point of view,” says G.S. Meena, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a scholar on the works of Premchand.

“He made people realise the follies of the caste system and the oppression it inflicts on those who are relegated to the periphery. That is what makes him a successful author.”

On the other hand, if one views characters like Dukhi and Shankar, the protagonist of Sawa Ser Gehun (One and A Quarter Ser of Wheat, ‘ser’ being an Indian weight measure that’s slightly less than a kilogram), that sense of complete resignation to Dalit oppression is hard to escape. Both men inevitably cede the ability to challenge the system, letting it exploit them.

“The stories demonstrate that the Dalits were subjected to daily humiliation by members of the upper castes and this humiliation stemmed from the fact that Dalit inferiority had become embedded in the psyche of the members of the Hindu upper castes, who had developed a vast repertoire of idioms, symbols and gestures of verbal and physical denigration of the Dalits over centuries,” writes M. Asaduddin in his introduction to Premchand’s Stories on Caste, published by Penguin.

But Premchand’s most interesting interjection comes with his female characters. In Thakur ka Kuan (Thakur’s Well), Gangi is the rebellious Dalit woman who is willing to brave the landlord’s ire only to get clean drinking water for her sick husband. She is defiant and has the ability to question, if not overthrow, the pervading order.

In Mandir, Sukhiya asks a question whose reverberations can be heard even today — why can’t Dalits enter the temple, is he only “their” God? She dies at foot of the temple, nursing her sick child, denied the right to pray but defiant to the end.

“Every work of literature should be evaluated according to times in which it was written,” said Meena. “Premchand wrote before the many movements for Dalit assertion took shape in India. In a certain sense, he did for literature what Ambedkar did for politics; it’s just the way they did it had to be different, because the fields are different.”

Also read: Munshi Premchand’s ‘Godaan’ featured Hindi fiction’s first live-in relationship

Life and times of Munshi Premchand 

Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava was born on 31 July 1880, in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. He was educated at a madrasa where he learnt Urdu and Persian, and later English at a missionary school. He never made it to college, but wrote his first story Asrar-e-Ma’abid (Secrets of God’s Abode) under the pen-name Nawab Rai. The story talked about the sexual exploitation of women by priests.

Having changed his nom de plume to Premchand, he composed most of his famous works between 1920-1936, including his novels Godaan, Prema, Rangabhoomi and Pratigya.

He wrote for the Urdu magazine Zamana and was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi, but would later find himself disillusioned by his ideas. In 1936, he was elected the first president of the Progressive Writers’ Association. His oeuvre extended beyond just short stories and novels — he also penned the script for a Hindi film, Mazdoor (1934).

Also read: Munshi for millennials: Premchand and body building tips for the 21st century


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