Writing on the birth or death anniversary of a writer one can easily slip into sentimentality or a meaningless verbal eulogy. Fortunately, in Premchand’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 lovable, 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 Premchand. 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 Premchand an immortal figure in Indian literature. But there is a tendency to underplay this achievement and to dismiss Premchand 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 Premchand 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 Premchand 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 Premchand’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 Premchand’s recourse to idealistic solutions to the problems he raised in his novels, and one must confess that Premchand, 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. Premchand’s idealism generally leaves us cold, but when that idealism survives in the doomed world of Hori’s, it cannot be lightly dismissed. That Premchand 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 Premchand’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 Premchand 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 Premchand 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 unfulfillment 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.
Premchand’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 Premchand remained quite traditional, and may not mean much to us; as a thinker he was not original, but, I doubt, if since Premchand 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.