Negative Capability

Munshi Premchand's hidden gifts

01 July, 2018

MAXIM GORKY, one of Soviet Russia’s most influential writers, and a champion of the “socialist realist” school of art, delivered a rousing speech from the stage of the Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow in August 1934, a couple of years before his death. His subject was the future of Russian literature and Europe’s degenerate past. European writers—from Shakespeare to Fielding, Molière to Maupassant—had a history, Gorky said, of pandering to the bourgeoisie. They made loving portraits of feudal lords, knights and monarchs, and glamourised “rogues, thieves, assassins and agents of the criminal police” in their books. Rather than grappling with real problems of the real world, these writers preferred shutting themselves “in the solitude of their soul” to pursue a kind of anarchic individualism.

In Gorky’s analysis, Russian bourgeois literature had been subject to the West’s pernicious influence, and had spawned a profusion of “superfluous” literary types —the “playboy,” the “contrite noble,” the “crank and cross-headed person.” Against this, it was the Russian writer’s responsibility to depict “our heroes of labour, who represent the flower of the working class.”

These ideas were hugely influential at the time, and their impact was felt beyond the Soviet Union. Distinct echoes of Gorky’s anti-Europe tirade can be heard, for instance, in Munshi Premchand’s famous address, delivered in April 1936 at the inaugural meet of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow. The AIPWA was set up by the Urdu writer and Marxist ideologue Syed Sajjad Zaheer, and its manifesto of progressive literary ideals—aiming to popularise anti-imperialist and democratic values through literature—was supported by such luminaries as Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali, for whom Premchand was a guiding light.

Entitled “Sahitya Ka Uddeshya”—“The Purpose of Literature”—Premchand’s speech was a Gorky-esque appeal, urging Indian writers to wake up from their romantic slumber, stop thinking of themselves as mere entertainers and assume a more socially responsible position. The writer’s job, Premchand declared, was nothing less than to reinvent literature and rethink beauty.

We need a new touchstone of beauty. Until now this touchstone was de- termined by wealth and debauchery. Our artist always hung on to the coattails of the rich, his identity de- pended on their appreciation and the objective of his art was the depiction of their sorrows and joys, their hopes and regrets ... His gaze was directed at harems and bungalows. Shanties and ruins were not deserving of his attention. He considered these out- side the purview of humanity.

Ethics and literature, Premchand believed, have the same objective: infusing moral values into the public sphere. It was incumbent on all writers to “reflect on life’s problems and to solve them.”

When Premchand heard of Gorky’s passing, in June 1936, he was severely ill and just about four months away from his own death. Yet, as the novelist and actor Bhisham Sahni has written in his preface to a 1987 edition of Premchand’s selected stories, the tragic news from Russia both saddened Premchand and galvanised him into leaving his sickbed in the middle of the night to pen a tribute to Gorky. He was to read it the next day at a memorial event but was too sick to do so. He sat in the audience as someone else read out the speech on his behalf.

Premchand looked up to Gorky. The two writers had a common worldview—a shared belief in the power of literature to change the world. However, Premchand’s understanding of literature was never as programmatic or party-political as that of the Russian author. In Premchand’s literary philosophy, there was room for negative capability—the faculty, as conceived by the poet John Keats, that allows writers to accept life’s mysteries and contradictions “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He was more open-minded than Gorky in this regard, and more susceptible to forming unlikely intellectual alliances.

Maxim Gorky addresses the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, a speech that greatly influenced Premchand. ITAR-TASS/ALAMY

In his speech, Premchand defined literature as “criticism of life,” directly borrowing from the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold’s definition of poetry as “this high criticism of life.” Unlike Arnold, though, Premchand was not arguing to preserve the artist’s “noble sphere,” nor championing “the best that has been thought and known.” He was never interested in canon-building, instead exhorting writers to get down and dirty with reality. Premchand wrote in his essay “Upanyas” (“The Novel”), “Art for art’s sake”—the phrase is written in English in the original text—“is for a time when a country is prosperous and happy.” When social conditions are inimical to general prosperity, every choice a writer makes has to be justified in a political context.

FOR THE FIRST FEW YEARS of his writing career, Premchand found the novel to be an ideal vehicle for imparting progressive ideas. His first novel, Asrar-e-Muavid—Mysteries of the House of Worship—a satirical takedown of the priestly class in Hindu society, appeared in weekly instalments in the Urdu journal Awaz-e-Khalk, in 1903. Three years later, Premchand published Ham Khurma Wa Ham Sawab—The Best of Both Worldsa novel about widow remarriage that was originally written in Urdu and later published in a Hindi translation. His third novel, Kishna, was published in 1907. Considered a lost treasure by Premchand scholars, it remains “untraceable today,” according to Manohar Bandopadhyay, author of Life and Works of Premchand. Premchand’s early quartet was completed towards the end of the same year, with Roothi Rani—The Angry Queena historical Urdu novel at whose receiving end are the kings and feudal lords of Indian history.

While Premchand continued to write novels throughout his career, after his fourth book he decided to make the significant switch to what he perceived to be a more democratic medium: the short story. As he wrote in an essay entitled “Kahani Kala”: “Novels are read by those who have money; only those who have money have the time. Stories (aakhyaika) are written for those who have neither money nor the time.”

After the publication of his first story collection, Soz-e Watan, in 1908, Premchand remained committed to the shorter form, writing some 300 stories over the course of his manically prolific career. These were written in both Urdu and Hindi, the two languages Premchand was proficient in, and were often translated from one language to the other by the author himself. It is only now, more than 80 years after his death, that all his stories have been collected and translated into English. The recently published The Complete Short Stories—a four-volume, 3,000-plus-page epic—has been put together by the Premchand scholar M Asaduddin, in collaboration with a team of 60 translators. They appear to have worked on the assumption that there’s no such thing as an authoritative translation. A writer’s voice is inseparable from the original language he or she writes in. It makes sense, then, to present the translated text in varied voices by involving a group of translators, even if all of them work individually on different pieces, as was the case with this project.

Asaduddin and his team have replicated in these pages the clarity and simplicity that Premchand exercised in his work. The Complete Short Stories should be prized for their readability. But, every once in a while, some passages pale in comparison with the idiomatic richness of Premchand’s original texts.

For instance, in the opening pages of “Sadgati”—“Salvation”—the peasant Dukhi gives his wife, Jhuriya, a shopping list. The Hindi text reads: “Ser-bhar aata, aadh-ser chawal, paav-bhar daal, aadh-paav ghee, noon, haldi...” Listen to the play of syllabic rhythm here. (In his film adaptation of “Sadgati,” Satyajit Ray has Jhuriya sing out this line twice.) The English translation of these words, by Asaduddin, sounds flat by comparison: “Take one ser of wheat flour, half ser of rice, 250 grams of dal, 125 grams of ghee, some salt and turmeric…”

Despite such quibbles, The Complete Short Stories is a landmark event in Indian publishing, not least because at its centre is one of India’s most celebrated writers who, over the years, has attained a kind of literary sainthood. But it’s always an unfortunate writer who is anointed a literary saint: a writer whom everyone admires but nobody reads. Premchand’s politics, his liberal agendas, his social messages have already been internalised by generations of Indians, even if the issues he explored—along the fault lines of caste, class and gender—remain equally relevant today. Premchand’s image as a sermoniser and moralist can also be a major put-off for the general reader. All that most of us can manage is to pay our respects and quietly move on.

If the editor and publisher of these volumes cared about their readership at all, they would not have brought out a series of doorstoppers. (Or they would have published a selection of his stories alongside.) These tomes seem destined to be tucked away at university departments and libraries, until some Premchand scholar comes calling. Still, I believe The Complete Stories can repay the labour of reading them: it is only by giving ourselves up to the whole range of his short fiction that we experience the full complexity of the writer’s imagination, appreciate how his interests went beyond moralising, and discern the fascinating contradictions between how Premchand intended to write and how he ended up writing.

POLITICAL IDEAS WERE NOT THE ONLY SROUCE of inspiration for Premchand. He kept abreast of the literary trends of his time, and was always open to experimentation and new influences. He pioneered the compact form in Hindi literature almost singlehandedly, after reading the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore in English translation. It was this moment of literary discovery, in 1907, that marked the beginning of Premchand’s career as a short-story writer.

His writerly life on the whole was fraught with difficulties. With the anti-establishment tone of his early fiction, he knew that he was risking a backlash from his imperialist overlords. So he gave up his real name, Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav, settling first for the nom de plume Nawab Rai, and later, when that cover was blown, for the less aristocratic sounding Munshi Premchand. He worked as an administrator at a British-run school in Gorakhpur for a long time, but gave up the job in a heartbeat after listening to a speech Gandhi delivered on the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921. Thereafter, Premchand set up shop as a full-time writer and embarked on a life of penury. He was a desperate freelancer—never saying no to a writing commitment. (The sheer volume of his prose rivals that of Charles Dickens, that other great paid-by-the-word hack.)

The dangers of writing became evident to Premchand early in his career. Soz-e-Watan elicited a sedition charge from the British government. He was summoned by the district magistrate of Hamirpur in the erstwhile United Provinces and given a dressing down—an experience that scarred him for life. The incident figures prominently in an autobiographical story from 1932, included in the present collection as “The Story of My Life.”

The sahib asked me, “Did you write this book?”

I told him I did. He asked me about the intention behind each of the stories, was angry towards the end, and said, “Your stories are completely seditious. Consider yourself lucky that this is the British government. Had it been the Mughals ruling, both your hands would have been cut off.”

The story is narrated by a man suffering from a stomach ailment. (Incidentally, Premchand would die from a similar condition in October 1936). The narrator looks back over the “flat, level plain” of his life and shares a handful of details: where he went to school, how much his father earned at the time of his death (forty rupees a month) and his college principal’s name (Mr Richardson). An arc of a complete life takes shape in these ten pages. “I began writing stories in 1907,” the author-narrator says. “I had read many of Tagore’s stories in English and got their Urdu translations published in Urdu newspapers.”

More than matters of craft, Premchand picked up from Tagore an all-embracing, international manner of engaging with the world. We may celebrate Premchand as a nationalist icon, someone who stayed true to his roots both as writer and citizen, but his cosmopolitan credentials, inherited from Tagore, can’t be questioned.

In an early story, “The Travels of the Dervish,” originally written in Urdu and published in 1910, the protagonist is so moved by the sight of a beautiful woman that he goes on to say, “I have no idea if Raphael or Caravaggio had ever drawn such a figure with their pencils. Such a figure also cannot be found in the paintings of van Dyck or even Rembrandt.” While Premchand never set foot in Europe, he kept himself up to speed with Western culture. His 1931 story “The Writer” is about an Indian poet who writes patriotic verse in English and doesn’t consider himself “even a wee bit less than Byron, Shelley and the others.” “A Philosopher’s Love,” from 1921, features another precocious autodidact who “had barely reached class twelve when names like Mill and Berkeley had become quite familiar to him.”

Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo, Maupassant, Balzac—these are the names one encounters in Premchand’s essays on literature. He obviously had great regard for Europe’s realist tradition. But was realism ever enough? For a writer, what was the moral cost of artistic detachment? If the society being written about was inherently unjust, how could a writer not try and do more than simply tell a story? Such questions haunted Premchand throughout his life. His response was a kind of realism of engagement, a realism born of the writer’s moral ideals. The French author Stendhal’s metaphor for the role of literature—a mirror held up to society—was of no use to Premchand. His ideal was literature as a lamp illumining the surrounding darkness, spreading the light of progress, of wisdom. In his essay “Upanyas,” he coined the term “idealistic realism.” But Premchand also advised writers to strike a balance between reality and ideals. Moral pontification in literature was as bad as fly-on-the-wall observational realism.

Gorky’s contemporary Anton Chekhov was often attacked for being an advocate of this last approach, and for being rigidly objective in his writings. Premchand, too, takes a swipe at Chekhov in his essay “Kahani Kala”: “Chekhov has written a lot of stories, and he is very popular in Europe; but except for the life sketches of Russia’s debauched society (vilaas-priye samaaj), there’s nothing of importance in his work.” This criticism is unfair and uninformed in equal measure. (Maybe Premchand got his line on Chekhov from Gorky, who was himself not a fan.) Apart from being a medical doctor of distinction, Chekhov was a writer driven by his conscience: to the extent that, in 1890, despite being tubercular and weak, he travelled to Siberia to study the horrific conditions of prisoners under Russia’s penal system, which became the subject of his book Sakhalin Island. In his fiction, too, Chekhov wrote with great sympathy about Russia’s peasants and workers, and his stories, as the British writer VS Pritchett claimed, have a “core of serious moral insight.”

In a letter written in 1890 to one of his friends (a letter that might well have been addressed to Premchand), Chekhov responds to his critics:

You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indiffer- ence to good and evil, lack of ideas and ideals, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse thieves, say: “Steal- ing horses is evil.” But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.

You don’t find many riffs of the stealing-horses-is-evil variety in Premchand. But he did have the tendency of ending his narratives on a faux-cathartic note. Often, the author’s messages are ventriloquised through his characters, who have learned one valuable lesson or another by the time we get to the climax. The narrator of the story “Retribution” ends his account thus: “What a shame I did not value life’s blessings, I simply spurned them. And now, I am undergoing this punishment as a consequence.” As we reach the final passages of “Wisdom,” another story, a teacher realises “the glory of being a teacher. He understood the nobility of his position.” This man is a “changed person” by the last sentence. Similarly, the narrator of “The Spell,” remembering a good samaritan, signs off with these mawkish words: “His goodness has provided me with an ideal that will remain before me throughout my life.”

Yet to dwell on such negative examples would be to overlook the real strengths of Premchand’s stories. Reading them together enables the discovery of aspects of his writing that are seldom mentioned, or even, I suspect, noticed, by his admirers. In his introduction to the collection, Asaduddin talks about Premchand’s relevance “in the contexts of the Woman Question (Stree Vimarsh), Dalit Discourse (Dalit Vimarsh), Gandhian Nationalism, Hindu-Muslim relations and the current debates about the idea of India that is inclusive of all groups and denominations, irrespective of caste and creed.” Tellingly, there is no mention here of the literary value of his work, as though literature itself was part of an elitist conspiracy that Premchand was campaigning against.

Premchand’s residence as a teacher and superintendent of the normal school in Gorakhpur. He gave up the job inspired by Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. COURTESY JPAIC JAMIA MILLIA ISLAMIA

In spite of his avowed distaste for art for art’s sake, Premchand was a writer deeply interested in aesthetic questions—from the structuring of a narrative to the deployment of the correct-sounding words. He wrote long and intricately constructed stories, as well as compressed poetic fragments. Some of his experimental pieces, included in this collection, were astonishingly avant-garde for their time. There is, for example, a story written from the point-of-view of a door. First published in 1917 in an Urdu magazine called Al-Nazeer, “The Door: A Fragment” is a two-page exploration of the pathetic fallacy, possibly the first of its kind in Indian literature. “They often keep me closed even when the master is present in the house,” the door says. “I am the link between home and the outside. Such a vast world outside.”

One needs a fertile comic imagination to be able to dream up such bizarre narratives. And comedy is a common thread running through Premchand’s writing—another quality of his work that many bonafide Premchand fans seem blind to. The humour comes in different shades, from the bold and outrightly funny to the dark and unsettling. For an example of the former, consider “The Final Excuse” from 1930, about a husband writing letters full of hyperbole to his wife in the village, trying to dissuade her from coming to see him in the city:

Cities are full of epidemics. It’s a cause for concern that all eatables might contain poison—poison in the milk, in ghee, in fruits, in vegetables, in the air and in the water too... In a fraction of a second one can have a heart attack, or leave home for work, get hit by a vehicle and meet his end... The Angel of Death reigns every- where. If we’re spared an accident

by car or tram, then we fall victim to flies and mosquitoes... I breathe with caution so that bacteria causing tu- berculosis do not enter my lungs.

Another comic gem is the canonical “Shatranj Ke Khiladi”—translated in this collection as “The Game of Chess,” and adapted into a film by Satyajit Ray in 1977. It is a hilarious character sketch of two ne’er-do-well nobles—archetypes of Gorky’s “superfluous people”—who develop an unhealthy obsession with chess. The story has a dark, somewhat absurd ending—the two chess players turn against each other over a petty argument that begins with accusations of cheating (“When did I take my hand off the piece?”) and class aspersions (“Your father must have been a grass cutter!”), and it ends with a duel that proves to be mutually lethal.

“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story,” the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol once said, “the sadder it becomes.” Milan Kundera, who quotes the line in The Art of the Novel, calls this tragicomic category “melancholy humour.” The humour in Premchand’s work, by and large, is of the melancholy kind. His Dickensian characters—the moneylenders, the landowners, the babus, the quacks—can make you laugh and get your gorge rising at the same time. “The Romantic Editor,” his story about a lecherous man running a women’s magazine who refuses to publish a poem by a contributor because she is not attractive enough, is a case in point. Premchand excelled in capturing the comedy of social relations—of frustrated hopes, human cruelty and vulnerability. As a writer, he understood an important philosophical truth: that humour wasn’t opposed to sympathy, and comedy wasn’t opposed to tragedy.

What moral lesson does a story like “The Game of Chess” impart, though? Where is the message in “The Romantic Editor”? What does the existential note struck in “The Door: A Fragment” teach us? Despite his many critical manifestos, his prescriptive lectures on the purpose of literature, Premchand’s own literary output doesn’t measure up as the best exemplar of his theories. If Premchand was a writer who took on the role of social crusader in his essays and speeches, in his stories he managed to transcend that role—or to ignore it.

Towards the end of his life, this contradiction in Premchand’s personality became increasingly pronounced. There’s a dose of cynicism in his late fiction, counteracting the idealism of his non-fiction. A year before he delivered his didactic “Sahitya Ka Uddeshya” speech, he wrote perhaps the darkest, bleakest story of his career, “Kafan”—“The Shroud.” This was Premchand’s last great work.

“Kafan” shook the foundations (or should we say, laid the foundations?) of Hindi literature when it was published in 1935. It leaves you numb every time you read it. A woman in an under-caste, hopelessly poor family, is dead. Outside the shanty, her husband and father-in-law are eating roast potatoes and mourning her demise. The two men seem worried about the funeral and wonder how to arrange the money required for a shroud. But they are primarily interested in the job at hand: eating the potatoes.

The duo peeled the potatoes and hastily popped them into their mouths. Starving since the previous day, they didn’t have the patience to let them cool. The outer part of
the potatoes didn’t feel too hot, but as they dug their teeth in, the hot insides scalded their tongues, palate and throat. The safest thing to do at that moment was to gulp down the burning ember hurriedly and consign it to the place where it would cool down soon enough. So they kept on gobbling up the potatoes frantically even as tears streamed down their eyes from the effort.

I don’t think there exists in all of literature a more evocative description of two hungry men eating. And have we ever witnessed tears dripping with such irony before?

Premchand’s letters in Hindi and Urdu, the two languages he was proficient in. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Eventually the two men visit the local landlord, begging for alms, and receive a five-rupee windfall. So they head to the market, shroud-shopping. But the buzz of excitement, the promise of commerce there, is infectious. At a liquor store, the father and son buy, somewhat reluctantly, a bottle of alcohol, and by the time they’re done, the drinking session becomes a feast. They splurge all the money. Late night is too soon for shame, and they’re too drunk to convincingly justify their deed to each other. So the story ends with the drunkards reflecting on mortality like a couple of repentant sinners, feeling low, feeling high, breaking into a song and finally passing out.

There’s no preaching in “Kafan,” nor any indication of the catharsis Premchand habitually offers readers in many of his stories. In his essay “Premchand Ki Upasthitee”—“Premchand’s Presence”—the Hindi novelist and critic Nirmal Verma has written perceptively about Premchand, especially in the context of “Kafan,” which he regarded as a tour de force. He calls it the first “blasphemous story” in Hindi, because within its framework the author is “sullying” (Verma uses the Hindi word kalankit) all that he considered holy, all the social values he held dear, the literary prescriptions he issued. By taking such a risk, Premchand had discovered a new freedom as a writer, and had introduced, Verma argues, real human characters, of flesh-and-blood complexity, to Hindi literature. Verma writes: “That moment when the father-son duo raised to their lips those cups of alcohol bought from the money meant for their woman’s shroud, that was also the moment in Hindi literature when man got his first taste of freedom.”

“We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’” There is no consensus on who said that. The utterance is ascribed to Dostoevsky as well as to Turgenev. “I don’t know how much truth is in that statement,” Verma writes, “but a large chunk of modern prose literature in Hindi”—in the original, “adhunik Hindi katha sahitya”—“has come out of Premchand’s ‘Kafan.’”

Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey in Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film Shatranj Ke Khiladi, based on Premchand’s story of two ne’er-do-well nobles. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

Is anyone still reading Premchand, though?

Many great artists—Tagore comes to mind—fall into a posthumous void sustained by a cult of personality and a crowd of admirers. The name is celebrated while the work is slowly forgotten, or its meaning distorted out of shape. But there is one way in which ordinary readers can help save these doomed demigods: forget about the surrounding noise and go read the texts on their own terms. The Complete Short Stories is ideal for Premchand’s future readers because the collection helps us to forget: by the end, it is possible to overlook everything we were supposed to know about Premchand’s life, politics and activism. What emerges is a writer we never knew existed: Premchand, the comic master; Premchand, the literary inventor.

Disclosure: The Caravan’s Books editor translated two stories for The Complete Short Stories.

Vineet Gill is a Delhi-based journalist currently working with the Sunday Guardian. His writings have appeared in Guernica, Himal Southasian, Open and the Hindu Business Line, among other publications.