Dhanpat Rai, better known by his pseudonym Munshi Premchand, was a famous Indian author and poet who ushered into the Modern Hindi and Urdu literature with his writings. His first novella, Asrar e Ma’abid was first published in Awaz-e-Khalq, an Urdu Weekly, after which he became associated with an Urdu magazine Zamana, writing columns on national and international events. The writer is mainly recognized for his creations that always contained a social message and raised voice against the social evils pertaining in the Indian society. His creations brought the era of realism in the Indian literature at that time, when only fantasy fictions and religious writings were dominating it. Premchand embodied the social purpose and social criticism in his characters that are subjected to the different circumstances and act accordingly. The great novelist is ranked among the greatest authors of the 20th century in India.
“The Temple and the Mosque” – A Tale by Munshi Premchand (as penned by this author)
Chaudhary Itrat Ali was a prominent landowner of the district. His ancestors had served the officials of the British Raj in many different ways. As a reward for past services, a jagir (land) was granted to them and this jagir flourished with Chaudhry sahib at the helm. Very soon, Chaudhry saheb was seen as the most affluent and eminent man in the entire district. British officials made it a point to pay a courtesy call on Chaudhry saheb whenever they came by on an inspection tour of the area. Chaudhry saheb being a proud man himself would never call upon visiting dignitaries, not even upon the commissioner. He considered it quite below his dignity to be a “yes man” to anything and everything that such dignitaries might utter.
A scholar of Arabic and Persian, Itrat Ali scrupulously followed the “Sharia” and considered the greed and lust for money as being a sin. He was known to say his prayers five times a day and to fast for thirty days during the holy month of Ramzan. He read from the Quran daily. He was a staunchly religious man, yet his mind was in no way tainted by religious narrow-mindedness. Despite rain or even hail, he insisted on taking an early morning dip in the holy Ganga, as part of his daily, unfailing routine. He would leave at five o’clock each morning and walk for two miles to reach the riverbank. He would fill his silver flagon with holy water and would only drink that water during the rest of the day. Even a Hindu sage or an ascetic could not be considered to have more reverence for the holy water of the Ganga as Chaudhry saheb. Every week, his entire house would be plastered with cow dung.
Chaudhry Itrat Ali’s secular beliefs extended beyond all of this; a pandit (priest) would be seated in his garden citing from the Holy Scriptures all the year through. He welcomed sanyasis into his home with a whole-hearted open-mindedness and devotion – to the extent that it is doubtful that Rajas and Maharajas of the past extended the same hospitality and respect to these passing holy mendicants, as Itrat Ali himself. All manner of holy men and mendicants – whether Hindu or Muslim – were welcomed hospitably at the wealthy house of Chaudhry saheb.
For the muslim fakirs, food was specially prepared in his own kitchens and every day, more than a hundred people would sit down for a communal dinner. Chaudhry saheb, renowned for his splendid generosity in the district, owed not a single cowrie to any moneylender and in fact, his fortunes flourished further with each passing day.
Chaudhry saheb had a Rajput Man Friday called Thakur Bhajan Singh. The latter was at least six feet tall, broad-chested, fearless and an absolute expert at wielding the cudgel. Chaudhry saheb trusted Thakur Bhajan Singh implicitly with his life and he even took Bhajan Singh along with him to Mecca when he went there to perform Haj. Chaudhry saheb was not without his fair share of enemies; all the neighbouring landlords were jealous of his power and fame. These enemies hesitated to mistreat their own subjects because of Itrat Ali’s awesome reputation of taking up the cause of the underdog.
Many a time had Bhajan Singh rescued his master’s life by the skin of his teeth – so eager was he to jump into the fray. Bhajan Singh was like a pet ram that was just waiting to be let off the leash so that he could run and hammer someone over the head. Chaudhry saheb was constantly worried that Bhajan Singh would get into a brawl. As far as Bhajan Singh himself was concerned, he truly worshipped the ground on which Chaudhry saheb walked. Chaudhry saheb was to him akin to a king, master and even like God Himself – so much was the true love and faithful devotion that Bhajan Singh espoused for Itrat Ali.
Meanwhile, the fanatics among the Muslims, wasted no time in hatching conspiracies against Chaudhry saheb. They believed him not to be a true Muslim at heart. They could not understand why Itrat Ali wanted to drink the holy water of the Ganga on a daily basis; they failed to understand why he should extend such warm hospitality to visiting mendicants and ascetics and further wondered why a pandit was invited daily to his home to read from the Holy Scriptures. These conspirators decided to put an end, once and for all, to Chaudhry saheb’s devout “Hinduism.” They hatched a plot to inflict a crushing defeat on the Hindus by attacking the Hindu Temple on the occasion of Janmashtami. The Hindus, according to the Muslims, ought to be taught properly that they could no longer hope to receive Chaudhry saheb’s kindness, homage and patronage. If Chaudhry saheb intervened in this matter, he would be taught a lesson too. These people could no longer stomach the outright audacity, on the part of Itrat Ali, in patronizing the Hindus so openly and warmly.
It was on a dark night that the auspicious occasion of Janmashtami was being celebrated at the temple. Thousands had gathered to watch the celebrations. A toothless, old man was singing the dhrupad on his tanpura. The congregation of devotees, sitting with their dhol and manjira were anxiously waiting to start singing the devotional songs. It was a very festive atmosphere.
Suddenly, a group of Muslims wielding lathis arrived and started lustily stoning the temple. The Hindus were caught off-guard and utter chaos and bedlam followed. A few Hindu men stepped out of the temple to inspect the commotion; they were lathi-charged by the cudgel-wielding Muslims. Caught completely unguarded and unequipped for such a thorough assault, some Hindus ran frantically to hide in the temple; others fled helter-skelter in the opposite direction.
Chaudhry Itrat Ali soon heard the news of the ensuing mayhem; he sent Thakur Bhajan Singh out to investigate the ongoing commotion. He instructed Bhajan Singh that he was allowed to give a slap or two to the trouble-makers if they continued to misbehave but that there should be no bloodshed whatsoever.
Being a warrior at heart, Thakur Bhajan Singh, was gnashing his teeth like a caged-animal and was waiting impatiently to be called upon to rush into the fray. These instructions from Chaudhry saheb were like a silent prayer that had been answered. With his trusty cudgel slung over his shoulder, Bhajan Singh loped off towards the temple. On reaching his destination, he found that the Muslims had wreaked havoc inside the temple.
A red tide of fury assailed the senses of Bhajan Singh. With a loud cry of rage, he set about heartily beating the trouble-makers inside the temple. He was one man against fifty others but he fought like a tiger. He felt that Lord Krishna Himself had come to his aid. After all, in the fight to preserve the sanctity of their religion, men are known to have performed many wondrous deeds.
Chaudhry saheb was very worried that Thakur Bhajan Singh would undoubtedly spill someone’s blood in his impetuous rage and fury. This thought made Itrat Ali hurry after Bhajan Singh.
A scene of havoc and destruction met the eyes of Chaudhry saheb at the temple. Some people, who were still capable of moving, were fleeing for their lives; some others were moaning or crying out loudly in pain. Just as Chaudhry saheb was about to call out for Thakur, a stricken man came running from somewhere and fell down in front of him. Itrat Ali found that the world was darkening before his eyes, so shocked was he. He had recognized the fear-stricken man as none other than Shahid Hussain, his son-in-law and sole heir.
Rushing forward to hold Shahid who was almost crumbling to his knees, Chaudhry saheb called out urgently to Thakur to get a lantern. Itrat Ali struck his forehead in grief and anguish and stated that Thakur had snuffed out the light from his life. Mortified and filled with shame, Thakur was trembling from head to foot when he replied to his master that he swore, on all the Gods, that he had not recognized Shahid Hussain. Chaudhry saheb went on to state that he was not blaming Thakur; after all, no one had the right to trespass on God’s Temple. Thakur had always been ever-willing to lay down his life for his master but that day it was as if God Himself had chosen Thakur to devastate and destroy him.
Thakur stood rooted to the spot unable to meet the eyes of Itrat Ali from which tears were freely streaming down. He was overcome by guilt, immense regret and remorse. Thakur Bhajan Singh proclaimed that his honour had been tarnished forever. Bhajan Singh felt that he was the proverbial serpent that his master had been nurturing in his bosom.
Bhajan Singh, at that moment, pulled out a dagger, hoping to wash the disgrace from his soul by spilling his own blood. Chaudhry saheb snatched the dagger from Thakur’s hands before further damage could be done. He told Thakur to control himself; after all, this was what Fate had in store for him. It was not Thakur’s fault. Chaudhry saheb hypothesized that if it had been him who had been taken in by Satan’s blandishments; if it had been him who had violated and desecrated the temple and profaned the idol and even if Thakur had recognized his master and killed him, even then would Chaudhry saheb forgive him for taking his life.
Itrat Ali stated, “There is no sin greater than insulting another man’s religion. God knows I hold nothing against you, though right now, I feel as if my heart will break and the shock of this tragedy will never ebb. If I had been in your place, I would have done exactly as you did. I know that my family will taunt me, my daughter will ask me to avenge the death of her husband, the entire Muslim community will bay for my blood, I will be called a kafir; perhaps some devout young man may even decide to kill me – but I will not turn my face away from what is true and right. The night is still dark. Run away from here and hide in one of the old barracks on my estate. Look over there, some Muslims are heading this way. Some of my family members too are with them. Run, run!”
Bhajan Singh stayed hidden on Chaudhry saheb’s estate for a full year. He was being pursued equally by the Muslims and by the police. Still, Chaudhry saheb continued to keep him safely hidden from the prying eyes of the world. He bore stoically the taunts directed at him by society, the reproaches and insults flung at him by his family, as well as the charges of the police and the ensuing threats from the mullahs. He never disclosed, despite all of this, the secret of where he had hidden Bhajan Singh. As long as he was alive, Itrat Ali, was not prepared to surrender a trusted and loyal servant into the hands of the pitiless law authorities. Bhajan Singh remained safely hidden even though the barracks on his estate were raided several times. Some bigoted Muslims even tried to corner his household servants but to no avail.
Late one winter’s night, Thakur Bhajan Singh came secretly to meet Chaudhry saheb. He stated to his master that he was sick and fed up of continuing to live this ‘hole-and-corner life’ and that if his master permitted it, he would present himself to the magistrate and then whatever was written in his fate would take place. Chaudhry saheb staunchly refused any such foolhardy action; he could never stand by and knowingly throw Thakur to the dogs. Itrat Ali was afraid that the police would turn and twist the truth to suit their own hidden purposes and Thakur would lose his life for no good reason. Thakur had on so many occasions put his life in jeopardy for his master that now Chaudhry saheb felt that he would be extremely ungrateful, if he failed to save Thakur’s life that day. He told Thakur not to utter another word on the subject again.
Thakur proclaimed that he had heard that some people had stopped associating with Chaudhry saheb. To this statement, Itrat Ali rejoined that it was always a good idea to keep one’s enemies at bay.
Bhajan Singh spent a restless night in an agony of self-reproach and early the next morning, he surrendered himself before the district magistrate.
Chaudhry saheb was astounded when he heard this news. Thakur could not be saved unless an advocate was found to plead his case. If his case were to be pleaded, it would cause an uproar in the Islamic community. The canons of Islam would sling fatwas at him from all directions. Itrat Ali was in a dilemma; yet his Muslim colleagues were all keen to seek the death penalty for the offender. A fund was set up for this purpose. Mullahs appealed to the people from mosques to contribute generously to the fund. People went from door-to-door in search of donations. Muslim lawyers took the opportunity to have their fair share of the limelight. They poured in, in hordes, from the neighbouring districts, to take part in what had rapidly become a jihad – a crusade to preserve the sanctity of their religion.
Chaudhry saheb, in the meanwhile, decided that he ought to be afraid of no one, while protecting the life of an innocent man. Thakur was completely innocent in the eyes of the law, yet Itrat Ali decided to leave his home and live in the city for a while.
For six months, Chaudhry saheb’s life revolved around court proceedings. He was forced to do things that he had never done in the past and would never commit again in the future. He flattered the clerks and fraternized with other petty officials, suffered silently the airs and arrogance of the lawyers, gave gifts and bribes to the officials till he finally succeeded in freeing Thakur from the clawing clutches of the scaffold. The news spread like wild fire and caused an uproar in the entire district. People started taunting Chaudhry saheb and began to mock at him for putting a spoke in their plans of a death penalty for Thakur.
Yet Chaudhry saheb’s actions seemed totally distorted when seen through the prism of communal hatred – the Muslims were outraged and screamed for the blood of the offender; the Hindus, on the other hand were jubilant. The Muslims felt that Chaudhry saheb had lost all vestiges of the faith that he had been born into. The Hindus felt that it was time to perform a purification rite (”shuddhi”) on Chaudhry saheb to cleanse his soul of any remaining impurities. This caused the mullahs to increase the volume of their preaching and the Hindus too raised the flag of Hindu solidarity and unity.
A consciousness of being a Muslim took root in the heart of every Muslim and the spirit of Hinduism imbued the heart of each Hindu. Thakur, impetuous and easily aroused as he was, totally lacked any religious sentiments, but he too was swept away in this wave of religiosity. He became the self-appointed leader of the Hindus. Thakur became now hell-bent upon picking quarrels in the name of religion. If he did not succeed in coercing the Muslims, he forced the chamars – the lowest of the low castes – and performed the shuddhi purification rites on them, even against their will.
Chaudhry saheb’s other servants were also caught up whole-heartedly in this rising wave of fanaticism. Muslims who were never once seen as even standing in front of a mosque, now went in to pray five times each day and Hindus likewise, who had never even seen the interior of a temple, now took to offering prayers in the morning and evening. The town had a majority of Hindus but they used to be disorganized and scattered till Bhajan Singh, the acknowledged strongman of the neighbourhood, became the head man. Previously, the Muslims, though fewer in number, could easily overpower the Hindus, but now the Hindus had put up a united front and had consolidated their strength. This put the Muslims in a very awkward position.
As another year passed by, the auspicious occasion of Janmashtami once again presented itself. The Hindus had not forgotten their bitter defeat at the hands of the Muslims. Clandestine preparations, for open warfare, had been going on for many months. Devotees had been gathering in the temple since early morning. Each man wielded a cudgel and some had even hidden a dagger in their waist-band. It had earlier been agreed that ample provocation would be needed before a fight with the Muslims broke out. As a departure from tradition, a grand procession was planned that year.
Lamps had been lit. The Muezzin had given his call for the evening prayer. The procession set off with a lot of fanfare, glitter and pageantry. There were elephants and horses, flags and pennants, drums and trumpets. Bhajan Singh, along with a posse of strong, young louts, swaggered at the head of the procession.
When the Jama Masjid came into sight, the youth steadied their lathis on their shoulders and the stragglers moved closer to form a tight-knit group. A hurried, whispered consultation took place and then the drums beat louder and louder and the cries of jubilation rang out louder than ever before. The procession soon reached abreast of the mosque. A Muslim stepped out of the mosque and requested the head of the procession to stop the drums as it was time for the evening prayer. Bhajan Singh retorted that the drums would not be stopped in any circumstance; the Muslims could stop their prayers if they felt uncomfortable. The Muslim told Bhajan Singh to stop taking on false airs on the strength of the patronage that he enjoyed from Chaudhry saheb. The Muslim went on to threaten Thakur that this time the Muslims would inflict a crushing defeat on the Hindus and teach them a lesson, once and for all. Thakur was not to be outdone. He replied that his men had not come armed with the illusion of Chaudhry saheb’s strength; they were driven by the strength of their own convictions. He stated that this was a matter of religious principles.
In the meantime, some other Muslims came out of the mosque and demanded that the drums be stopped immediately. Instead the drums beat louder and louder. One thing led to another and the situation rapidly went out of control. A mullah called Bhajan Singh a kafir, an infidel. Thakur lunged for the man’s beard and pandemonium broke out. Fighting started in earnest and all those who fancied themselves as heroes joined in the fray. With a roar of rage, Thakur entered the mosque and started beating up whoever he could lay his hands upon. Utter chaos and havoc ensued and it was difficult to say who held the field that day. Hindus maintained that it was a complete defeat. Muslims felt that they had delivered such a crushing blow to the Hindus that they would find it impossible to raise their heads again.
In the midst of these raging controversies, one thing became amply clear – Thakur had supernatural strength; the Hindus believed that he was a reincarnation of Lord Hanuman, the greatest of all warriors. The Muslims believed that if Thakur had not been there, not a single Hindu could have escaped with his life.
The festival of Janmashtami was over. Chaudhry saheb sat puffing on his huqqah. His brow was furrowed and sparks of intense rage shot from his eyes. He could not tolerate the fact that God’s house had been defiled. Couldn’t they have fought in the grounds around the mosque? Needless and ample blood had been shed in God’s abode. Such disrespect and irreverence shown to a mosque! A Temple is God’s abode as much as a Mosque is. If a Muslims who has profaned a temple is liable for punishment, then shouldn’t a Hindu who has desecrated a mosque be also liable for the very same punishment?
And to think that Thakur Bhajan Singh was the perpetrator of this infamy! Chaudhry saheb’s loyal and trusted servant was the one who had taken the life of his son-in-law. He would not have defended Thakur’s case, if he had known that he was capable of this atrocity. He ought to have let Thakur hang for his sins. Why then had Chaudhry saheb allowed himself to be so harassed, ridiculed and so burdened with debt? Thakur was undoubtedly an extremely faithful servant who had saved many a time Chaudhry saheb’s life. But this day, he had violated God’s House and for that he needed to be punished. The everlasting, burning fires of Hell itself would be a fitting punishment for such a grave sin. He who violates God’s House, blasphemes against God Himself.
As each minute passed, Chaudhry saheb’s anger grew more and more inflamed. Suddenly, Thakur came and stood in front of his master. Itrat Ali gave his servant a furious glance and demanded to know if he, as a Hindu, had had the audacity to enter the mosque. Thakur evaded the issue by replying that the mullahs had pounced on them. Chaudhry saheb forced Thakur to say the truth; the latter was then forced to admit that when the Muslims inside the mosque started throwing stones at them, they had to enter it to catch those men. Chaudhry asked Thakur if he was not aware that a mosque was the House of God. Did Thakur also not know that the mosque was as sacred as a temple? Thakur was dumb-struck. According to the philosophy of Chaudhry saheb, if a Muslim were to defile a temple, he would be liable for execution. If a Hindu were likewise to defile a mosque, the Hindu deserved the same punishment as the Muslim – it was as simple as that.
Chaudhry saheb was furious at Thakur’s blasphemy. He told Thakur that despite the fact that he had killed his own son-in-law, he had found an advocate to plead his case. Itrat Ali sincerely believed that his son-in-law deserved death for the sin that he had committed by desecrating the temple. He had believed that Thakur was right in meting out the punishment of death on his son-in-law. However, now Thakur himself was guilty of committing the same sin. Chaudhry saheb would have felt true happiness if a Muslim had had the good fortune of dispatching Thakur to the burning fires of Hell that day. Instead, Thakur had survived the onslaught like a shameless and miserable wretch. It was the duty of every Muslim, according to Chaudhry saheb, that the man, who desecrates God’s Place of Worship and disrespects Him, would have his head chopped off. That is God’s Edict. Just because a thief remained unpunished, it did not imply that he was still not a thief. Chaudhry saheb was fuming and he asked Thakur to admit that he had indeed shown disrespect to God.
Thakur hung his head in shame. He could not disclaim his guilt. Chaudhry saheb’s sheer goodness removed all traces of intransigence from his soul. Itrat Ali asked Thakur if he was now prepared to accept the same punishment that he had meted out on another man. Thakur replied that he had killed his master’s son-in-law unknowingly and by accident. Chaudhry saheb told Thakur to understand that if Thakur had not murdered his son-in-law that day, then Itrat Ali would have taken the law into his own hands and killed Shahid Hussain himself. Itrat Ali was bent on taking revenge for the sacrilege that Thakur had committed against God. Did he want retribution at the hands of his beloved master or at the hands of the law? The court would sentence him to a few years of imprisonment; Chaudhry saheb would kill Thakur. The latter was his friend and he held no grudge against him, yet he had to kill Thakur. Even though this action would cause him great pain and distress, Chaudhry saheb’s faith decreed it to be so.
Uttering these soulless words of revenge, Chaudhry saheb drew out his sword and stood in front of Thakur. It was a strange sight. Thakur was a god-like youth standing in front of a bent old man, with silvery-grey hair, who was brandishing a sword. Thakur could very well have knocked the old man down with one stroke of his cudgel but he stood still. He felt a deep respect for this old man in every fibre of his being. However, he could never have imagined that Chaudhry saheb was such a strictly religious man.
Like so many others, Thakur was under the mistaken notion that deep down in his heart Chaudhry saheb was a Hindu. The thought of violence against the man who had suffered so much to save him from the hangman’s noose had never entered his mind. He was absolutely fearless and like all truly brave men, he was also completely without guile or deceit. At this moment, he felt remorse, not anger. The thought of death brought sorrow, not fear.
Chaudhry stood brandishing the sword in front of Thakur. His mind was in a dilemma of indecision – his religion dictated that he kill this man; his goodness dictated that he let him go.
Thakur could see the dilemma raging in Chaudhry saheb’s head. He told his master that his compassion and benevolence would never allow his hand to be raised against him. He would never be able to kill a servant who he had raised and nurtured himself. But Thakur’s head was his, for the taking. He had saved this head in the past, now he could take the same head whenever it so pleased him. The next morning, Chaudhry saheb could send someone to Thakur’s house to collect what was rightfully his. If Thakur were to give it to him now, a full-scale riot would break out in the town. In the privacy and sanctity of his own home, no one would know who had killed Thakur. The latter asked his master for his forgiveness in case he had unknowingly hurt him in any way.
Saying these words, Thakur walked away.
PREMCHAND AND COMPOSITE CULTURE
AUGUST 1-15, 2005 – BY ASGHAR ALI ENGINEER.
This year (2005) happens to be the 125th birth anniversary of great litterateur and writer Premchand. He was born on 31st July 1880 in a small village called Lamhi, about 4 kms. from Benaras (also called Varanasi). Premchand left deep imprint on Hindi and Urdu literature. It is heartening news that during his 125-birth anniversary the U.P. Government is going to convert his house in Lamhi into a museum. It would be though late but a fitting tribute to his memory. He was born in a Kayast family. Kayasts generally were employed in Mughal courts on administrative posts and thus had a tradition of learning Persian and Urdu. His father’s name was Munshi Ajaib Lal. His father died when Premchand was 15 years old.
Premchand writes about his early life as simple and like levelled field in which one finds small holes here and there but no mountains, hillocks or dense jungles. His early life was spent in rural surroundings. He learnt Persian in first eight years and then began to learn English and passed his Entrance examination from Benaras. He began his literary life from 1901, beginning of the twentieth century.
He learnt Urdu and Persian from a Maulavi in his village. This was how Kayast children began their education and it was for this reason that there was deep impact of composite culture on his mind. The real name of Premchand was Dhanpat Rai and he began to write through pen name Nawab Rai which, on account of problems with the British Government for writing stories and novels with revolutionary fervour, he changed to Premchand and his writings survived under this name which will remain immortal both in Hindi and Urdu literature.
Like all great writers he was not satisfied with the status quo and began to write with the fervour of a social reformer. His very first novel was “Asrar-i-Ma’abid” (Secrets of places of worship). In this novel he exposes the secret life of priests who exploit the poor masses and take advantage of their miseries and superstitious beliefs born on account of their illiteracy and backwardness.
Munshi Premchand was attracted towards Arya Samaj movement precisely because it was a social reform movement, to begin with. He also campaigned for widow marriage and himself married a widow after separation from his first wife. In his later years Premchand was not happy with mere social reforms and was deeply influenced by Marxism and he clearly expresses his revolutionary views in his work on Mahajani Tahzib i.e. the bourgeois culture. This crucial turn in his life came in early thirties. He also inaugurated the first Progressive Writer’s conference in Lucknow in 1936 convened by Sajjad Zahir and others.
Premchand was in Government service but did not compromise his views on freedom struggle. He was greatly influenced by Gandhiji and regularly wrote essays supporting freedom struggle in an Urdu magazine called Zamana then published from Kanpur under the editorship of his friend Dayanarain Nigam. In the beginning he used to contribute to Zamana under the name of Nawab Rai but when he was caught by the British intelligence service and had to give an undertaking to the district collector not to write against government he killed Nawab Rai and began writing under the name of Premchand which gave him permanent fame.
Premchand’s ideas of aesthetics were shaped by his social and revolutionary commitments. He never fell for decadent literary trends. When Zamana published special issue on the Lucknawi poet Aatish (a poet of Lucknow school product of declining period of Lucknow’s feudal culture) Premchand protested against his friend Nigam and urged him not to waste pages of his magazine on such poets. His inaugural address to Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) Conference also reflects his ideas about revolutionary aesthetics. He criticises classical ides of aesthetics as the only valid concept of aesthetics and proposes that a peasant women working in the field and suckling her child is as aesthetic as classical portrayal of beauty.
He criticises static trends in literature and wants to induce dynamic spirit, spirit for change and social transformation. Thus he writes literature is reflection of its time. Those emotions and sentiments which stir people’s heart are there to stay. In the time of decline people either talk of love (ashiqi) or Sufism or bairag and if literature reflects these sentiments it surely represents declining trend. Thus Premchand stands for commitment to social change and transformation.
Premchand’s well known stories like Idgah, Kafan, and novel Gaudan are not only literary masterpieces but also show deep impact on his mind of India’s composite culture referred to as “ganga-jamni tehzib i.e. the culture of the land between the two rivers of Ganges and Jamuna which was essentially composite culture and this culture was result of the rich contribution of two communities i.e. Hindus and Muslims. In fact until 19 th century Persian and Urdu both the languages were considered as the languages of ruling elite be they Hindus or Muslims.
Premchand was deeply committed to communal harmony right from an early age. His attraction to Arya Samaj had no communal leaning. It was, as already pointed out, result of his commitment to social reforms in Hindu society. His stories like Idgah, Hajj-e-Akbar and Mandir Masjid indicates his commitment to communal harmony.
Idgah is a moving story of an orphan child brought up by his grandmother and how the poor child, a Muslim, who goes to Idgah fair on the Id day buys a clippers (chimta) for her grandmother as her hands often get burnt while making chapattis while his other friends buy toys and sweets with the money given to them by their parents. When his friends mock at him for buying clippers he defeats all of them in argument and proves the superiority of what he has bought. The story is not only deeply human but also shows knowledge of Premchand about the Islamic festival. Premchand is able to authentically portray the Muslim sentiments on this important festival.
Another story Hajj-I-Akbar also shows Premchand’s humane approach to his characters, Hindus or Muslims without a trace of prejudice. Hajj-I-Akbar is the story of poor old Muslim women whose ambition is to go for Hajj and she saves small amounts of money from her income as a domestic worker and finally is able to gather enough money to buy her ticket for hajj. That year it happens to be hajj-I-akbar (i.e. the great hajj as the day of hajj falls on Friday). Muslims consider it a great luck if they can perform hajj-I-akbar. The old woman is very happy that Allah has given her that great opportunity. When she is all ready to go and she learns that her Hindu neighbour who is poor like her is seriously ill and has no money to buy medicine. She is likely to die if she is not able to get money. Though she is all ready to go for hajj-I-akbar, she gives away all money to save her neighbour’s life and considers it a real hajj-I-akbar. It is deeply moving story.
Premchand was greatly committed to communal harmony. He was greatly annoyed by communal propaganda by some communal forces. Whenever any book, article or pamphlet was published by communalists, he will promptly reply. He wanted Hindus and Muslims to understand each other better and leave in peace. Whenever he found some Hindu attacking Muslims he would strongly condemn it. He was very close to CR.Das of Bengal in this respect.
In an article “Qahtur Rijal” (Famine of Men) he published in Nigam’s Zamana, he wrote that in the matter of Hindu-Muslim unity one cannot exonerate Hindus. He also had a grievance that Hindus did not properly appreciate the motives of the Khilafat movement. Hindus always looked at it with suspicious eyes, not from the eyes of Gandhiji. He called Muhammad and Shaukat Ali as Ram and Lakshman ki jodi (couple). He was great opponent of shuddhi movement and he did not spare anyone, howsoever great, in this respect.
He wrote a drama on Karbala to promote Hindu-Muslim unity. This drama has five acts and 43 scenes and it has a Hindu character Sahas Rao who sacrifices his life along with his group in support of Imam Husain. Sahas Rao is convinced that the Imam is on the path of truth. Though it may not be a historical fact but Premchand wrote this drama for promoting Hindu-Muslim unity. He wrote several stories like “Nyay” which is based on the event in the life of the Prophet of Islam and shows Prophet’s emphasis on justice.
He also wrote a story “Mandir-Masjid” which is very important from the perspective of Hindu-Muslim unity. It is the story of a Muslim Zamindar Chaudhary Ishrat Ali who is hated by Muslims and a Muslim mob attacks a Hindu mandir on the day of Janmashtami. Ishrat Ali sends his loyal servant Bhajansingh to face the Muslim mob and in this fight Ishrat Ali’s own son-in-law is killed at the hands of Bhajansingh. Bhajansingh wants to commit suicide for fear of retaliation by Ishrat Ali but Ishrat Ali saves his life and tells him that his son-in-law deserved that punishment as he attacked a sacred Hindu temple. Bhajansingh is arrested for killing his son-in-law but Ishrat Ali defends him.
But when Bhajansingh comes back after being released he is made a hero by Hindu communalists who attack a Muslim mosque on next Janmashtami festival and unfortunately Bhajansingh is among them. Ishrat Ali had placed faith in him and even had pardoned him for his son-in-law’s murder. He is greatly disturbed by Bhajansingh’s betrayal of faith and thinks of killing him. Bhajansingh realises his mistake and tells Ishrat Ali you saved my life and now you have every right to kill me. You get my head tomorrow and no one will know who killed me.
This story also leaves deep impact on reader’s mind. His great Novel Gaudan is a masterpiece and shows how deep Premchand’s knowledge and understanding of India‘s rural and urban society of his time. He analyses with master stroke the complex relationship between feudal lords and peasantry on one hand, and between workers and modern capitalists, on the other. This novel also is very realistic picture of composite culture of north India.
Premchand was a great writer by any account and his writings are as relevant today as they were when written. We can call him critical realist as he is deeply dissatisfied with his society and he looks at his society critically. His greatness lies as much in his commitment as in his creative talent and aesthetic craftsmanship. Premchand’s example shows that for a great literature commitment is as necessary as aesthetic creativity.