Wednesday, January 19, 2011

IS PREM CHAND STILL RELEVANT?






Here below is a write-up on Prem Chand which  I wrote for a magazine in 1980 on the Birth Centenary of Prem Chand, the Hindi  novelist, short story writer, and much more.

I am posting it on my blog to see how  far my write-up hasdated, but, more than that, to find from viewers how far they think Prem Chand is still relevant and how since his times the issues that he took up in his writings have been transformed, over-ridden or become more or less relvant in Indian literature. In 1980, when I wrote the article, I was  firmly of the view that Prem Chand was forcefully relevant . Since 1980  the political and socio-economic environment in the countrty has undergone a sea change as a result liberalisation and globalization and the emrgence of  new political forces and gradual empowerment of many communties of whose spokesperson Prem Chand was. To a certain extent these communities have become their own spokespersons. Have the new voices drowned or added greater intensity to the issues raised in Prem Chand's writings Has Prem Chand become dated or do his writings still move and entertain us, and trouble our conscience?

Here is the write-up.


PREM CHAND’S RELEVANCE TODAY

Writing on the birth or death anniversary of a writer one can easily slip into sentimentality or a meaningless verbal eulogy. Fortunately, in Prem Chand’s case this danger can be easily avoided, there being so much that is still forcefully meaningful in all that he did and wrote.

As a man he was one of the most remarkable Indians of his time. All those who knew him talk of his simple, self-effacing, cheerful, unassuming nature, of his uncompromising honesty, freedom from malice, his sense of humour, his open ringing laughter. Shunning publicity he is a man who easily merges into the crowd – both as a man and a writer he remained a man of the people, identifying himself completely with the unfulfilled aspirations of the Indian masses. He was not one of the greatest Indians, yet he was one of the so many loveable, humane yet rebellious ones – a non-believing saint, as Jainendra has affectionately called him. It is not surprising that Dr Ram Vilas Sharma should have likened him to Kabir.

As a writer, his contribution to Hindi literature is so substantial that it is impossible to imagine Hindi prose fiction of the first forty years of the 20th century without Prem Chand. By switching over from Urdu to Hindi he hastened the process of modernization of Hindi literature, inducting into it the realism and social concern of his teacher, Sarshar. He weaned away the Hindi reading public from the crude sensationalism and infantile escapism of Chandrakanta and Bhootnath and brought it face to face the contemporary social reality. Through a dozen or so novels and a few hundred short stories and scores of essays spread over two decades he made Hindi literature a faithful mirror of the renascent consciousness and the awakened aspirations of the Indian people. And he was the first writer to have brought to the centre of Hindi literature the lowliest Indian and to have passionately pleaded that his life was as important as anyone else’s, and that the central issue before the Indian civilization was to rescue him from the abyss of poverty and inhuman degradation, not out of mercy, not out of pity, but because social justice demanded it.

All this is enough to make Prem Chand an immortal figure in Indian literature. But there is a tendency to underplay this achievement and to dismiss Prem Chand as a second rate writer, a propagandist and a social reformer whose work has dated and become stale. That he was a propagandist and a social reformer, that he thought literature as utilitarian and wanted to use it as an instrument of social change and education Prem Chand openly proclaimed. In his writings he made it repeatedly clear that for him the attainment of political independence, to raise his voice against social injustice, to champion the cause of the poor and the repressed, the liberation of Hindi literature from eroticism and the mood and tone of abject devotion and self-surrender, to give an altogether new content and to enlarge the concept of the beautiful in literature were the most important aims.

Whether or not we approve, we must remember that Prem Chand regarded literature not as a profession but a selfless devotion, and the writer as a man who owed his responsibility to the society; and for him the greatness of a literature lay in the greatness of its message, and he had no regard for pure aestheticism. This view of literature was particularly relevant to the times in which he lived. In a letter to one Mr. Sabharwal in Japan he wrote:
     
 You may not have liked the didactic element in my (those) stories; but so long India is under the foreign rule she cannot touch the peaks of great art. It is here that the difference between the literature of a free and a subject country lies: social and political realities force us to be didactic…

The statement unambiguously reveals where Prem Chand’s mind and heart lay. He believed that a sensitive writer, in the revolutionary phase such as India was passing through then, became of necessity, a handmaid of the revolutionary urge. As such the serenity and calm detachment that is the gift of stable periods of history and give rise to the greatest works of art is denied to the writer.

This, of course, cannot justify Prem Chand’s recourse to idealistic solutions to the problems he raised in his novels, and one must confess that Prem Chand, Dickens like, could not completely shed his mechanical approach to plot and character. It is perhaps only in Godan that Hori’s tale moves to its inexorable end through its inner dialectic. Prem Chand’s idealism generally leaves us cold, but when that idealism survives in the doomed world of Hori’s, it cannot be lightly dismissed. That Prem Chand should have clung to his idealism even where he found it tottering and even when he had become completely disillusioned with ‘this Mahajani Sabhyata’, is not a sign of weakness, but of strength and vitality drawn from the same sources as Gandhi drew from.

 What then is Prem Chand’s relevance today? We do not know what will happen in the 21st century, but the issues that he raised in Indian life and literature remain alive today, in fact have become more urgent, and are likely to remain urgent at least till the end of the century. National freedom was won a long time ago, but the common man with whom Prem Chand had identified himself and made the focus of his writings still remains on the fringe of our social, political and literary concerns. Hindi literature under the impact of the West as well through its own experience has become technically more accomplished, more sophisticated, its language more precise and less verbose and its mode more introvert and introspective. But along with this superior technique it has also borrowed Western man’s despair --- the kind of despair quite unknown to the vast majority of Indians. As contrasted to this Prem Chand had known the characteristically Indian despair, born not out of the consequences of an unbridled pursuit of power but of the crushing burden of the tyranny of the powerful, not out of a surfeit of material goods but out of an unfulfilment of even the minimum human needs; and he gave expression to it in his writings without succumbing to the negativism of the West. This is his greatest strength.

Prem Chand’s idealism often distorts reality and makes his plots and characters mechanical, but he never pretended to be a thoroughgoing realist. For him the function of literature was both to reveal life and to ‘make men better’ and the Indian models before him were the authors of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He was quite aware that both the great Indian epics had not only entertained millions of Indians for centuries but had also molded the lives and thoughts of so many men and women; and he continued to create characters who were truthful, courageous, dedicated to a life of selfless service in the image of our own ideal heroes whom many Indians, big and small, have for ages tried to emulate in real life.

Although he adapted the idealist-moralist function of the Indian epics, he, inspired by the West and the Russian Revolution, rejected  the prevalent fossilized , decadent, unjust and repressive social system and wanted it to be supplanted  by one that was just, humane and egalitarian. As a craftsman Prem Chand remained quite traditional, and may not mean much to us; as a thinker he was not original, but, I doubt, if since Prem Chand any Hindi novelist has displayed his passionate concern so comprehensive in its sympathies, and his ruthless rejection of all that was anti-man in the Indian civilization without alienating himself from the hard core of distinctively Indian humanism.
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Saturday, January 1, 2011

PUNJABI POET PASH'S LONG POEM: A CONVERSATION WITH THE COMRADE

“A Conversation with the Comrade”  is Pash’s longest poem, autographical and in many ways a reflection of his dynamic and constantly evolving personality and poetic practice. Written sometime between 1974 and 1978, it is in one sense an attempt at stocktaking of his ideological position as well as an honest assessment of the movement of which he was a part. In that sense it is also a critique of his ideology, of the movement and an attempt not only to state his own position, his own reservations or hesitations, before his critics but also an understanding of the causes of the failure of the movement and flaws in the ideology, its theory and praxis.


But that would, one might say, make it didactic, more a treatise than a poem. This is partly true and Pash himself was not fully satisfied with the poem for he felt that it was a little too cerebral and doctrinaire and therefore less poetic. But in my view the poem is able to lift itself far above a mere doctrinal statement for one can sense a sustained undulating undercurrent of meditative sadness through out the poem which reaches a culmination at the end. 
  
One might say that the poem is  Pash’s dialogue with his comrades, with his ideology and with himself. So it is at once argumentative, ideological and meditative. And importantly it is an attempt by the poet to break out of the straightjacket of his ideology and move towards a more open ended position.
  
The poem is a testimony to the fact that Pash was constantly evolving as a poet, always looking to step into new territories but without compromising his basic revolutionary concerns. Read the poem in my translation extracted from my book of translations : Pash: A Poet of Impossible Dreams. Here is the poem.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE COMRADE 
 
                        I
O cold cauldron, I salute you
And the times seething within you!
O you limping bird, I salute you
And the sky petrified in you!
O yogi of the blazing forests, 
I salute your damp asceticism, and
Your god turned to ashes !

I salute the child who stood in the fair, unbudging,
Demanding the colourful lac toy-horse and the tuneless shehnai  
I salute the downy moustaches, and the manly hand
Habitually caressing them.
Dear comrade, I bow my head to the crematorium
Still active in both our bodies.
Comrade, this bourgeoisie – you know –
Has matured like the old wine
And we have rotted like a hunk of flesh.
Comrade, the middle class is fugitive even today -
Not from the struggle but from the mad house,
Like a criminal, and the ideology is chasing them
Sometimes like the family and sometimes like the police.
Excuse me, comrade, it is unfair to curse
The echoes of one’s own past.
It is a brutal coincidence, friend,
That we had together read
Engels’ ‘Property, Family and the State’. 
That day you spat on your tottering Property,
Said goodbye to your Family
And walked away to take on the State.
And I, fighting the woodworm
Eating into the beams of the roof, as if it were the State,
Kept denying the loss of meaning  
From the word Family.

It is a brutal coincidence, friend,
That day, while reading the great Engels
And about the role of chance,
Speculating on the role of tools
In the development of the brain and language,
You had quietly walked out into the open
Where night and day,  
Poised at the opposite poles of the earth,
Fought like adolescent lovers in their yearning to reconcile.

In a way everything was in order, in principle,
Right it was for you to leave me alone
To read about the role of chance
For you to plunge into the struggle
And for me to show my back
You do not know, comrade,
All this was in order.

                        II

The dry sticks we had planted and watered,
One by one, during our early days,
Had burgeoned in our daydreams into a lush jungle.
Occasionally the sound of your gunshots
Echoing through that jungle has reached my ears.
I have heard that sound
Mingling with mother’s dumb sighs
But that wretched gunfire has never been in tune
With our Guddo’s artless songs.

This Guddo, comrade, is a counter-revolutionary
A class enemy out and out!
She hides her set of five pebbles
Under my learned books
Even after repeated admonitions
She prefers to play a round of the game
Than worry about the fate of the society.
Just imagine, how painful it is
When she calls Lenin the smooth-pated child- abductor
And confuses Mao with Sharma, that shameless police inspector!


After you, I did not go anywhere
But I have been a co-traveller
In the journey towards extinction of the hapless home
You had, in your far-sightedness,
Abandoned on its last gasp.
After you, comrade, harbouring the illusion
That the break-up of a home is an expansion of the family
I have come down like rains
On the shrinking rooftops  
And the expanding courtyards.
I have been running about,
Thirsting for life, like the man
Who knows he will go blind the next moment.
Comrade, it is a bit convenient
To call such a runner a ‘sprinter’ or a ‘deserter’
But mere shuttling cannot be the manifesto for every race.

                       
III

Comrade, the State for you
Is just a manger built with five Roman bricks 
Where you see fattening a four-horned bull.
And look at me, a wild expression of theory,
For me the word ‘court’ has become undefinable now.
Each day of appearance there
Sprouts through my body like a bamboo spike -
Perhaps, I would still have believed myself
To be human, had I not heard
That deafening darkness inside a strange voice,
Like a message from an alien world in outer space:
P- A- S- H versus S -T- A- T- E.
Would you believe it, comrade,
After hearing that voice,
Both Pash and the State cease to exist.

I wish I had never seen that terrifying ultimate disdain
Radiating from that file-shuffling court assistant’s eyes
I wish I had never known that slumber
In which the judges swim before and after lunch.

Those who have seen what remained
Of the village Talwan after the riots in Doaba,
Would know how I, who wanted
To build a Chandigarh there, feel about it.
Dear comrade, your secret night training schools
Are now meaningless for me.
I have watched Machiavelli’s corpse
Burning under the earth’s hotplate
I have seen the State fighting, with the help of people,
Sometimes against people, sometimes for them.
I have seen Aristotles and Stalins
Fighting for centuries
Just to define the kind of animal man is.

Forget the animals, comrade,
Many things about which even the sky knows nothing
Are known only to the human blood.
The shadow of the gun is drowned in the human blood
Just as the tired peasant’s drunken songs
Are lost in the evening twilight
And to those who argue for the sake of arguing
About the earth, the stars, the oceans,
The energy waves and the moon -
Man’s heroic blood, surrounded by this rigmarole,
Is a very patient listener.
Your Stalin, comrade, was a braggart
He did not know that the alternative
To ‘true history' lies in the human blood.

What he called ‘true history’ was really
One of the blades of the revolving fan of chance
That whipped past him.
How would you feel, comrade, if someone
Held by its neck just one moment in any today
And declared he had ‘Time’ in his grasp?
Comrade, which T in the word State is your favourite?
Plato’s  Republic?
Aristotle’s  Monarchy?
Or Commintern’s axe lodged in Trotsky’s skull?
Do you find anything common among these three, comrade?
And, the hot human blood spilled on a cold floor?
And how do you react, comrade,
To the excuse to purge  the race? 

This four-horned bull has always
Fed on the greenery in the human soul
And mankind, in all ages,
Has felt the presence of this ghost.
I have seen ascetics trying to exorcise this ghost:
They get so lost in their austerities,
They forget to conjure up
As they have forgotten their deeds in the previous birth.
I don’t believe, comrade, this ghostly spirit,
So used to live like a ghost, will ever
Undergo rebirth.
I don’t know, comrade,
When your attempts to deliver this ghost
Shall end up as a pastime.

Comrade, what if one day
Our desire to capture state power
Should end up as something like an old couple’s longing
To recapture with their tired bodies
The vigour of their first love-making?


IV

You don’t know, comrade,
The havoc you have played with words
By draining out all their sensitiveness.
Why did you condemn them
To a destiny of State’s power brokers?
Why did you, comrade, let the stockpile
Of class hatred become their dowry?


You have learnt to trim words
To suit your own convenience
Like someone bribing the patwari
To alter the boundary of his land.
You have never looked at them
As if they were chicks
Lusting to come out of the eggs
As if they were the sunlight dissolved
In a rain-soaked silvery afternoon.
I have suffered these words,
Along with their sharp edges -
I have sheltered them in my blood
Against the harshness of seasons.
I’m not Guru Govind 
I have shed tears for long
After stringing them off in my poetry.
When words are scorched in the heat
Of your speeches, the shade of my poetry
Fighting to save them from death,
Loses its delicate poise. ?

By destroying the reed-pens I could have wielded
To breach the siege of monsters,
You provide a feast of fun to the cowardly critics.
Leave  it to the secret service intellectuals,
Why should the defeat of a poet
Become for you, comrade, the matter to brag about?
Comrade, you have learnt to hate the defeated
You really don’t know them -
They who have tasted defeat.


                       
                        V

Does the newspaper sometimes reach you, comrade?
Don’t you believe those beggarly reports.
The woman drowned in the village pond the day before
Was not mother.
It was just a brick that fell from the sky -
Mother had escaped during the very first raid,
Like the mother in Gorky’s novel,        
And fled beyond the reach of the police.
Even now at times she stares at the margins of the novel
And sometimes she begins to wear out like her own blessings.

And the news you heard
About the poet who had joined a party out of expedience!
I was not that poet: It was a ladder against the backyard wall
That evil spirits in the garb of policemen had learnt to scale.
Much before that news was published
When night was descending into words
And the serpents of darkness were coiling round names
I, stealing the residual essence of the word 'party',
Had slipped out amidst the din raised by people.
When my own footsteps were listening to me
As to love songs
I had thoughtfully picked up that dying essence
And deposited it among crows’ eggs.
I had even complained to Sadhu Singh and Zirwee
About such news.
They say the news, stricken with paralysis,
Cannot travel on its feet, and to reach me
It needed the crutches provided by their death.
If we had believed ,
We would have mourned your death many a time.
After reading any news about an encounter
I tell mother
It was not you but another warrior bearing your name.
In the cold innocence of her old age
She does not understand the finer points of grammar.
She can mistake a proper noun for a common noun
And a common noun for a collective noun.
Whenever a gunshot is fired on a name
She sees it as the murder of a community or a belief.
Comrade, mother is still as naïve as ever
We two and the news could not change her.
And whenever you come back
She will first thrash you for late-coming
With anything she can get hold of in the house
And then thrust her dry breast into your mouth.
                       
                         VI

Never mind the home or the news
I’m right before you, comrade
Like a nich that peeps through the debris of a house
Like words that survive on a burnt love letter
Like the body bag come home
Of one who had gone to a foreign land to make his fortune
Like the girdle, worn by a long lost son,
Suddenly discovered in the family chest
Like the feeling of virginity after an abortion
Like the tune of a song one fails to recollect.

This is how I managed to escape
The police dragnet of the wealthy
Using my middle class cunning.
Where is your red pistol, comrade,
Come and train it on my bourgeois detachment
I am a poet!
In my heart all roads lead west
Where all the bragging suns go down,
When they talk too much.
I never know when the sun of class hatred goes down, untimely,
And I feel like crushing the withered smile
On the face of time
And I begin to wish that Newton’s sage-like Diamond
Should come all of a sudden for a moment
And topple in my mind’s open drawer a lighted candle
And burn up all the half- truths lodged there 
Before they crystallize into theory.
Otherwise they may prove dangerous.

I am a poet!
My heart becomes sad without reason.
How does it matter!
The evening dissolving among dumb stones
The rattle-song of bricks 
In the pannier on a donkey’s back
Pale, dust-laden sunshine dangling
On the autumn leaves that still cling to the bows.
Or so what!
If this plump humanity, 
Spinning like the ring of spectators
In the eyes of the downed wrestler flat on his back,
Wets my barren eyes for no reason at all?

Why think about it, comrade?
Does it matter?
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For more informaton on this Punjabi revolutionary poet see my previous blog on Pash and  also visit:

And visit Pash blog maintained by Pash Memorial International Trust