Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Premchand–A Study

Madan Gopal

Premchand–A Study
(With special reference to his last novel “GODAN”)


Premchand, the veteran Hindustani writer, raised his voice and cautioned us, as early as 1904 against the tide of Western civilisation which, foolishly imitated by the intelligentsia of the land, was tending the deterioration of moral standards in Indian social life, and leading to a lamentable hybridisation of culture. The position of woman in the family and in society early attracted his attention and forms the central theme of all his novels that appeared before 1920 and Ghaban and Nirmala later. As an important secondary thread, it exists in almost all the others. His attitude, as reflected in his books and which was in line with the ancient Indian ideal of self-denial, self-sacrifice and self-control–ideals which placed woman on a higher pedestal than man–remained consistent throughout his life; there was no appreciable modification. That way Premchand was a conservative writer. But in his last novel, Godan, his views on the various aspects of this problem were crystallised and are brought out with great artistry.

Miss Malati, an England-returned doctor, is a social butterfly. She is vociferous and demands equality with man in regard to votes and the right of courtship. Chance brings her info contact with the philosopher Professor Mehta, who may be said to be the mouthpiece of Premchand, and to express the author’s views. She falls in love with him and ultimately forgets all about her ideals. But Mehta does not love her; his outlook on life is different; he envies Mr. Khanna, an industrialist and banker who sucks the blood of the poor labourers another prototype of John Sewak in Rangabhumi, because of Mrs. Govindi Khanna, who is ten times more sensible and practical and honest than her greedy husband. She is the ideal woman of Premchand’s conception and has few faults, although for these qualities she has once to leave her house, the real cause being Malati whom Khanna loves, in spite of the fact that she merely flirts with him.

But Malati, or Mehta, or Khanna, or Rai Sahib form only the second important theme of the novel: they all belong to the middle classes, which formed the central theme of Premchand’s pre-1920 novels, that is, till the time Gandhiji came on to the Indian stage and Premchand resigned his job to participate in the Non-co-operation Movement of 1921. From now onwards the central theme of all his novels was, primarily, the peasant. Premasram, Rangabhumi, Kayakalp, Karmabhumi and Godan are all agrarian novels, wherein everything else revolves round the life of the peasant. In Premasram or in Gosha-i-Afiat (Urdu), it is his struggle against the Taluqdar or the hereditary landlord; in Rangabhumi or in Chaugan-i-Hasti (Urdu), the struggle is against the pseudo-nationalist industrialists; in Karmabhumi or in Maidan-I-Amal (Urdu), it also envelops the Harijans and the labour class in the fight for the vindication of their rights. The shame-faced and ruthless exploitation of the peasant by the moneylender is the theme of Godan.

The last of his agrarian epics, Godan, is also the last of Premchand’s novels, published in the year of his death, 1936. And it is his best. For its characters are more Chiseled, polished and realistic, the plot more coherent, although herein, as in most of his novels, the two main themes run parallel to each other and touch only at a few points and that too only at the surface. The ideas are more systematically arranged and the dull monotony of long speeches and harangues is broken by the periodic criticisms and interruptions by Pandit Onkar Nath, the editor of the Bijli, and in the speech of Mr. Mehta on women’s demand for equality with man. Premchand’s art is seen here at its best. Unlike far too many of his novels, wherein the characters die unnatural deaths, by epidemics, suicide, murder or drowning and far too many improbable happenings and coincidences take place, in Godan, these defects cannot be pointed out.

Besides, the language herein used is unparalled in homeliness, vivacious simplicity, spontaneity and suggestion. There is the excellence of style and narration. The novel is quick with the rhythm of life. Those messages wherein the author expresses his own philosophical or metaphysical reflections are superb, because, although they are polished and finished to a great degree, the language used is very simple. Rural and homely words come to him without the least effort.

In all his novels that preceded it, idealism almost always swayed him. Herein realism and its twin-brother, pessimism, are predominant. In all his novels before Godan, he created idealist heroes, Premshankar in Premasram, Sur Das in Rangabhumi, Chakradhar in Kayakalp and Amarkant in Karmabhumi, all of whom bear the indelible imprint of Gandhi and Tolstoy. Valiant fighters against tyranny, inspired by the highest and noblest ideals of love and service of the down-trodden masses whom they organie for mass-scale satyagraha, they always pursue, undeterred by the sacrifices they are called upon to make, the path of Truth.

Perhaps the only idealist character in Godan is Prof. Mehta, who is sagacious, but verges on eccentricity, and he figures only in a minor theme in the story. Save one very isolated strike in Mr. Khanna’s mill, there are no strikes, let alone mass movements. One wonders if Premchand, in his last days, lost faith in the efficacy of non-violent struggle. And if he did not lose his faith, he at least came to entertain some doubts about the same.

Unlike all other agrarian novels, Godan does not end in a compromise, in the triumph of the peasant. As a matter of fact, herein Premchand refrains from suggesting any solution to any problem, an idea so dear to his heart. He had absolutely no faith in votes for the peasant, in Councils, in elections and in popular ministries (they had not come into existence then, and Premchand had before him only the 1919 experiment.) They could not ameliorate the lot of the peasant. He makes Tanakha say that democracy is the rule by the big bankers and traders. The futility of rural reconstructions, a fad started in those days, is reflected in what Malati, after her conversion and dedication to a life of service, achieves. She analyses the problem of rural indebtedness as being due to fragmentation of land and the extravagance of the peasant on social functions; But she suggests no real solution. She merely employs Gobar as a mali and gives him a rather privileged position in her family; it is more or less by way of charity.

When we first meet Gobar, we find him a rebellious soul. We hope that, like all other characters of Premchand, which are dynamic and never static, changing with the changing environments and always developing the traits talent in them. Gobar would grow into, perhaps, a Socialist leader and would organise people for a struggle against moneylenders and the system which grinds down the peasant into a paste. Our hopes are, however, belied. Gobar becomes a part of the system which victimises the peasants and against which Gobar was to raise voice. Instead, he now hates the village and prefers to be a poor servile labourer in the town where, in the first instance, he carves out a place for himself. He earns some money and lends it to others at exorbitant rates, which, if the moneylender charged from Hori, perturbed Gobar. In a way he becomes a cog in the machine which is responsible for Hori’s ruination and ends in his death. But could Gobar help it? Perhaps not, for, as Premchand says, in the society as it is constituted to-day, either one is an exploiter or is exploited. There can be no third alternative. The only solution of the problem, Premchand said, was a thorough shake-up of the present system. And till that comes the peasant’s fate would be the fate of Hori.

Hori’s is the most realistic characterisation in Premchand’s works. It is indigenous to the Indian soil. Hori is not merely an individual; he is the representative of a class, whose virtues and failings he shares. If you know Hori intimately, as you actually do from Godan, you know almost everything important about the peasant in India, for the U. P. peasant is not much different from, say, the peasant from South India, as also about the class or stratum he comes from. Indeed, Hori is the class.

It is significant that Godan is a romance in ugly names. Hori, Gobar, Jheengur, Dhaniya, Paniya, Jhuniya, Nokhe Ram, Magru Shah and Chuhiya–all bring to our mind their proximity with the soil.

To Hori, ideas count for little. For him feelings and instinct are the only real things. Realism is the bone of his life. He does not believe in Gobar’s reasoning, which may all be very sound, but cannot be put into practice, because Hori’s ancestors did not act that way.

Gobar resents Hori’s kowtowing before the Rai Sahib, when he enjoys no concession and pays almost the same taxes as others do. But Hori knows that his mere visits to the Rai Sahib raise him in the estimation his fellow-peasants. Indeed, without any teachings of Dale Carnegie, he is the master of the engineering of the human mind. He is clever that way; he sympathises with Bhola, in the latter’s difficulties in re-marrying, and promises to help him–all this because he has an eye on one of Bhola’s cows, an objective wherein he ultimately succeeds. By speaking highly of middle-aged Dhaniya, he tickles her vanity, so that she may give hay free of charge to Bhola without any fuss. All this is instinctive.

Gobar says that God has made every one of us equal. Hori differs. He believes that all those who are born poor would not have earned good by their actions in their previous life while those who were born rich must have.

The Past is Hori’s only argument; it is his only sheet-anchor. He is a slave to custom. He believes in things, he acts, he behaves exactly in the same way as did his forefathers and does so because they did so. He does not have anything, not even a rupee, to offer at the altar of the idol at the annual “Katha” and feels remorseful, not because he is poor but because he could not offer anything, his mite at the altar of God, whom he truly fears.

The brahmin is another agency which the peasant can never defy Pandit Data Din is a moneylender with all the privileges that a high-caste birth has given him, for as Hori says: “The last pie that is the Brahmins due shall break through our very bones.”

Hori knows, and Dhaniya has an argument with him, that the Council of Five may be wrong. Nevertheless, its orders must be obeyed: “In Council of Five resides God.” And he obeys its orders because its orders had always had the seal of sanctity which was respected by his forefathers. And if he disobeyed, the family’s izzat was at stake. So when the Council actually fines him Rs. 100, almost his entire produce of the season, for giving shelter to Jhuniya, a widow whose hand had been accepted by Gobar in camera, and who had no other place to go to with her five months old burden, knowing that he is already under heavy debt, he borrows money to pay the fine. Besides, his children are starving. And he also knows that those who have fined him are fornicators themselves. Still, Hori cannot, must not, defy the Council. It had the seal of sanctity and custom.

Hori shares the vices of his class, too. He beats his wife, whenever he feels like it. Nevertheless, he is faithful to her, although he would not loose an opportunity to cut a few vulgar jokes with Dulari Sahuyayin, a woman moneylender, whom he jestingly addresses as “Bhabi” or sister-in-law.

Hard-pressed by circumstances, he “sells” away his daughter, Rupa, to an aged widower. His house is already mortgaged; Data Din demands his money , while Hori has none. His land, which is more than peasant’s life, is in danger of being taken away. Although Gobar says there is nothing basically wrong so long as the money taken from the son-in-law is returned, Hori feels remorseful and this event hastens his end.

The policeman to Hori is death incarnate. His very sight freezes Hori’s blood. But he is not a coward. When he sees that his landlord life is in danger and is sure of the latter’s implicit approval, he simply jumps at the “Pathan,” jeopardising his own life.

The supreme ambition of Hori is a cow. And he does bring one although it proves to be his undoing. When the entire village comes to see it and admires it and only Hira does not come to see the cow, Hora is pained. He is even restless and sends an emissary for him to come and have a look at it little knowing that Hira is jealous and harbours sinister designs on the animal. He poisons the cow and, because of the crime, leaves home. By doing this, however, he has sealed the fate of Hori, for the death of the cow is only the signal for calamites after calamities. Hori has seen Hira approaching the cow in the dark with his own eyes. He does not report to the police, and when police does come he swears by his son that he has not seen Hira near the cow. To his already heavy debts he adds more by borrowing more money to bribe the police, so that they may not search the house of Hira, because Hira’s izzat is his own izzat. During Hira’s absence, Hori first tills and cultivates Hira’s fields and then is own, for he asks who else would help Paniya if he did not. As a result whereas there is plenty in Paniya’s house, Hori’s own children starve.

Hira is the real cause of all Hori’s difficulties. When, however, he comes , a day before Hori’s death, there is absolutely no difference in Hori’s love for Hira. Hori does not see in him the source of all his troubles, but only as a child as when left by their parents. The intervening 30 years melt away. He says: “Why weep. To err is human. Where have you been all the time?”

But all these good and noble qualities are of no avail. In spite of them, indeed because of them, Hori is subjected to a system which provides him with scarcely enough for a bare living. He works harder and ever harder. At the opening of the book, we find his tender-aged children working at midday in the hottest month of the year. He lives under conditions of forced and convict labour. Life for him is no feast; it is not work even. It is a dull heavy tiresome burden. It is a battle which he never wins. And yet he works, because he must work, because the peasant has always worked. He is a true “Karma Yogi.”

On the one hand, he is buffeted by the inclement forces of Nature. On the other, there is the system which reduces him to a blind mechanical force, gradually exhausting itself out. He sweats and toils, so that the fruit of his sweat and toil may be enjoyed by others. He fights others’ battles, others who would stop at nothing short of devouring him. There is not one agency, but there are many which grind him down. The bureaucracy, the aristocracy and the guardians of religion all conspire “to eat him up,” his exploitation being their common bond.

First, there is the landlord, Rai Sahib. He is a friend. He has retained all the faults of the East and has grafted on those of the West. During the Congress movement of Civil Disobedience, he courted imprisonment. He puts on khaddar and claims to be a nationalist. He has literary gifts too and writes occasional skits. At heart, he says, he is a Socialist, believing in the nobility of manual labour and recognising the inherent injustice of the present system. But that is theory; in practice he is not a whit different from other brutish landlords. When the labourers refuse to give “begar,” he is wild with rage. When the mercenary editor of the Bijli voices the grievances of the peasants, he shuts the editor’s mouth with subscription for a hundred copies. He raises 500 rupees from the poor peasants to be spent on drinks, though the party is in connection with “Dhanush Yagy.” Again, when Hori is fined by the Council of Five he feels that injustice has been done to Hori. He asks the Council to disgorge the money but….the money goes not to Hori but to the exchequer of Rai Sahib!

There are also the petty officials and the pseudo-nationalist industrialists who suck the peasant’s blood. But, in cruelty, the moneylender is supreme. He is shrewd and clever and would never see the peasant die, or give up work, or even the village, for if the peasant goes, the moneylender loses the hen that lays the golden egg. He just keeps him alive.

Hori says there are over half a dozen moneylenders to every one peasant. There is patwari Pateshwari Shah, there is Jhinguri Shah; there is Nokhe Ram; there is Magru Shah; there is Dulari Sahuyayin, with her mask of feminine kindness; and there is Data Din, with the sanction of religion behind him. There are so many of them, for, as Premchand says, money lending is by far the easiest and the most profitable business.

The system works this way:

Hori took 30 rupees from Dulari. After three years it became 100 rupees. Then a promissory note was written. After another two years it became 150 rupees. From Magru Shah he borrowed 60 rupees; this has been twice paid over, and yet the loan stands at the same figure.

How cruel the system is is shown vividly in a farcical drama staged by the villagers. The peasant comes, falls at the feet of the Thakur and weeps. The Thakur, after much hesitation, consents to lend him ten rupees. The promissory note is written and it is signed by the peasant. The Thakur then gives him five rupees. The peasant is taken a. He says: “But they are only five, master.”

“They are not five; they are ten. Go home and count them again”
“No, master, they are actually five.”
“One rupee as your nazrana,” says the moneylender.
“Yes, master.”
“One rupee for the draft.”
“Yes, master.”
“One rupee for the ‘Government paper.”
“Yes, master.”
“One rupee as the dasturi?”
“Yes, master.”
“And five cash. Does it make ten or not?”
“Then, master, keep these five, too, with you for me,” says the peasant.
“What a fool you are.”

“No, master. One rupee as nazar to the Senior Thakurani; one rupee for her pan beeda. One rupee as nazar to the Junior Thakurani and another for her pan-beeda. The balance, one rupee, for your last rites.”

Premchand was so moved by the suffering of the peasant that in his last days he lost his faith in the existence of God, for to believe in God also implies the belief in His kindliness and fatherliness.

Premchand portrays another, perhaps more hideous and sinister picture of this system. Mr. Khanna has established a Sugar Mill near Hori’s village. The entire produce of the village, therefore, is sent to it. There is a sort of fraternity between the moneylenders and Mr. Khanna’s agents. Jhunguri Shah looks to the transactions “so that his clients may not be cheated.” When Hori’s turn for receiving the money comes, it is Jhinguri shah who receives the money and, out of the 120 rupees that he receives, he deducts 95 and pays him 25, which also is snatched away by Nokhe Ram, who accosts Hori as soon as he goes out of the premises. As a result, Hori comes home empty-handed, where is abject poverty. Premchand’s
description of poverty brings tears to the readers’ eyes.

On the way home, Hori meets Giridhar who is tipsy with toddy. He says to Hori: “Jhinguria has taken all, Hori Kaka. He hasn’t left a pice with me–the brute. I wept, I entreated, but that tyrant would have no pity.”

Sobha put in: “But you are drunk with toddy and still you say that he has not left you anything.”

Giridhar replies, pointing to his stomach; “it is evening now. Honestly, not a drop of water has gone down my throat. I hid a one-anna pice in my mouth, which I spent on today. I said to myself: ‘Man, you have sweated the whole year through. Have the fun of toddy one day.’ But, to tell you the truth, I am not drunk. How could one be drunk with a stuff worth one anna...It is so very good, Kaka, the account is cleared. I borrowed 20 and have paid 160. Is there a limit?”

Indeed there is none. Listen to what Gobar finds, when he returns from the city:

One portion of the house was about to collapse. On Hori’ s doorstep there was only one bullock and this one too was half dead. Hori’s wasn’t an individual case. The entire village had the same sorry tale to tell….There was not one man whose condition was above pity. It looked as if in their bodies there was not life, but grief making them dance like puppets. They went about, they worked, they were ground down only because they were fated to be so. There was no hope for them in life; they had no ambition. It was as if the very source of their life had dried up; all its verdure was gone. It was the harvesting season, but there was no corn. Unhappiness was writ large upon every face. A major portion of the produce had been sold away, while it had not yet gone beyond the winnowing place, to the moneylenders and the petty officials. That which was left belonged to others....The future of the peasant is dark; he sees no way out; all his senses are dead and dulled; before his house, there are heaps of refuse and waste which stinks, but his sense of smell is dead. His eyes are without a beam. At dusk, jackals roam about his house. None, however, takes notice of it, or feels sorry about it...Whatsoever is placed before them, and howsoever, they eat–just as the engine eats coal. What a shame that even their oxen do not put their mouth into the manger, unless there is gram flour. But they have just to fill the stomach. Taste is immaterial. Indeed, their palates do not know what taste is. They, these peasants, therefore, would be dishonest for half a pice, strike anybody for a handful of grain. And so deep is their degeneration that they cannot differentiate between self-respect and shame.*

One is led to ask what is the peasant’s ambition. When Sobha asks Hori if ever they will be free from the moneylenders clutches, Hori says:

There is no hope in this life. We ask neither for a kingdom nor for a throne, not even for comfort. We want to have coarse meals and coarse clothes, and to live with honour intact. But even that is denied to us.

For Hori, his life is a living death. Premchand says:

After a struggle lasting for thirty years, to-day Hori has lost his battle. His defeat is final. He has been, as it were, made to stand at the city gates. Whosoever enters it, spits at his face and he cries out to them: ‘Brethren, I deserve your pity. I never knew what the June heat or what the winter chill or rain was. Dissect this body and see if there is life in it. See how hard it has been kicked to pieces and trampled under foot. Ask it: ‘Have you ever known what comfort is? Have you ever enjoyed shade?”

And in spite of all this, what he gets is mere insults. Still he lives–impotent man, greedy, mean...

Horis end comes soon, sooner than one could have expected. He is heavily under debt. To earn his bread and to pay the interest on the loans, he has been forced by circumstances to take loans and these are ever piling up, he makes ropes by night and works on double shift as a labourer on the road, for now only that is left to him. After days of semi- starvation, one day he collapses on the roadside, to be brought home to die. There is no money in the house to send for the doctor. And now again, the moneylender comes this time in the shape of the heartless brahmin, with the sanction and authority of religion and custom behind him. Pandit Data Din says: “The end is come. Let Hori give away a cow with his dying hand to seek his salvation.” But there is no cow in the house, nor is there money for it. There are only 20 annas in the house, the previous night’s earnings. Dhaniya brings it, puts it into the hand of the brahmin and says: “Maharaj, there is no cow in the house, not even a she-calf. And there is neither money, save these 20 annas, which is all that is left in the house. This is his gaudan.” She faints: Hori dies. The curtain drops: The novel ends.

* The translation is not literal but conveys the general sense of Premchand’s narration.

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