The Incident that Shaped Munshi Premchand

Premchand’s inner woman constantly was in conversation with him, from a very young age

Much before Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain became a part of my daily diet as a child, I had stumbled upon and brushed aside a writer my Azoba and Baba greatly admired. Munshi Premchand’s Godaan, Gaban, Nirmala were stacked up in my Azoba’s bookshelf along with Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora which was gift from his co-workers celebrating an achievement of which he had no memory whatsoever. There was also the cruel Murphy’s Law, and the entire collection of the Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of “greatest detective stories” that had Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe sharing spaces, the usual Russian staple of Tolstoy, Chekov, and a few Maxim Gorkys, an anthology of 19th century poets, and so it went. When I took up reading, I started stacking all my books there, next to Azoba’s. And most of them are still here, however tattered their condition might be.

In all these years of reading books and conversing with them, Baba has time and again asked me to read Premchand, but I have resisted. I had, while in school, read a character sketch of the author as part of our Hindi syllabus. I found his life too depressing to read his books. I had read Nirmala, which incidentally was also my Aaji’s name. And I had found it too sad, and too whiny. Much like the character sketch of the author. But a few years back when I decided to get over my childish aversion to the guy, I found humour in him. And I found the empathy, the sensitivity that could only belong to a man who knew how to think like a woman.

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A couple of days back I stumbled upon a biography of Premchand, written by Madan Gopal, which chronicles his life, and tells his story the way a writer’s story should be told. In parts, in phases, like a well written and well told story.

The biography which gives incredible insights to the man’s life is a treasure trove of stories that if not archived and cherished will be lost forever. And therefore I am going to tell you a story about Premchand’s childhood, because it is there where the roots of his empathy, his need to fight for the oppressed without taking away their agency, begin sprouting with spectacular strength.

Premchand whose father was a Postmaster, used to get posted from time to time in different villages. This one time when he was transferred to the village of Jamnia, in Azamgarh tehsil, Premchand struck an unusual friendship with the postal runner named Qazaki. Qazaki would play with a young Premchand, indulge him in games of childhood. In the evening after collecting the post when Qazaki would return, with staff on his shoulders and bells round his waist, the two would start running towards each other.

“When Qazaki would see Premchand, he would quicken his pace, his bells would ring louder; Premchand’s heart would beat faster, and he would run towards Qazaki and in no time be seated on Qazaki’s shoulders — his throne and the haven of his desires. When Qazaki would start running, it would seem to Premchand that he was flying “in the air on the back of a winger horse.” The world would grow small and contemptible.”

This one time when Qazaki got late in coming back from work, little Premchand was furious and starting throwing punches at the man. When Qazaki showed him what he had gotten for him, a fawn, Premchand jumped with happiness. However, the time it took to catch that baby deer cost Qazaki his job. Premchand’s father furious at missing the post of the day, fired Qazaki. The news saddened Premchand deeply. But Qazaki and Premchand kept up with their evening rendezvous. Premchand, who did not say anything when his father asked Qazaki about his lateness in arrival, was grappling with a constant feeling of helplessness. He wanted to give Qazaki his duty belt back, and all the money in the world. But Premchand couldn’t do either. In that moment when his father fired Qazaki, Pramchand just sat there with the baby deer in his lap, looking at it with tenderness,

“as though he were its mother.”

Premchand once tried to steal flour from his house for Qazaki. He wanted to give it to him, so that Qazaki would not stop their meetings. When Qazaki playfully told him he would keep coming if Premchand kept giving him food, he was delighted.

“Had I possessed a precious jewel, say like the Kohinoor, I would not have hesitated to present it to him, to induce him to come to me daily.”

Such was their love. Qazaki finally was reinstated after he fell terribly sick and still jumped inside a lake to get lotus stems for Premchand, one of his most favourite things. It was Qazaki’s wife who brought the news of her husband’s illness along with the stems. Premchand’s father gave Qazaki his job back, but the moment Premchand got his old friend back, he lost his baby. The deer died while trying to escape.

This little story from the writer’s childhood, I think lay the foundation of his later works. Premchand’s stories always reflected the kind of empathy he had for the oppressed. Madan Gopal, at one point in the book talks about the lean, frail body structure of Premchand. From his body to his soul masculinity was absent in all spheres of his life. His inner woman constantly was in conversation with him, from a very young age. And so we have the sensitive portrayal of women characters in his novels. Premchand was deeply funny, moving, sensitive, and empathetic writer. And this wonderful book Munshi Premchand: A Literary Biography by Madan Gopal chronicles the life of the writer, whose name, as it feels on days, is about to be forgotten in books of literary history.

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