Premchand detailed Biography by Amrit Rai

Munshi Premchand: Biography, Short Stories, Novels, Books and Photo


Young Chandrahasan has come all the way to Banaras from Kerala to meet Premchand. After much knocking about he finally reaches the writer's house. He makes the appropriate noises to announce his presence but there is no response. So he goes to the nearest door and, a little nervously, peeps into the room: a man with a long bushy moustache, is sitting at a small desk on the floor, busy writing. The room is so bare and the man looks so ordinary that the young visitor is sure that this must be the great writer's clerk.

He steps forward and says, "I want to see Munshi Premchand." Premchand looks up, a trifle bemused, puts down his pen and, breaking into a peal of laughter, says, "Of course...but won't you sit down first!"

Nashad, a young Urdu poet, goes to see Premchand for the first time, in Lucknow. He knows roughly the location of the house but he is not quite sure. So he asks someone on the street, a rather shabby-looking man, wearing only a vest and a not-too-clean dhoti, "Could you please direct me to the house of Munshi Premchand?"

"Most gladly," the man says.

He moves ahead, with the young poet following. They soon reach the house. Then the two go up the staircase and arriving at the first floor they go into an almost bare room. The man asks Nashad to wait for a while and goes into the inner part of the house. He comes out soon, wearing a kurta over his vest. "Now you are meeting Munshi Premchand," he says laughing mischievously.

April 1934. A Hindi writers conference is held in Delhi. Premchand has been nominated Chairman of the fiction section. He is now at the height of his fame but he makes no special demands on the organisers. In the words of Jainendra Kumar, the eminent Hindi novelist, "He came and stayed like everyone else-getting a camp-bed in the dormitory along with scores of others." It looks like the general ward of a hospital but Premchand has no complaints. It is best like this At mealtimes he goes to the canteen and asks for a meal. The volunteer on duty asks for the meal ticket. "Ticket? Where do you get it?"

"From that window there, if you want to buy it, otherwise from the office," the volunteer says, not knowing whom he is talking to.

Without another word, Premchand takes his place in the queue, and buys the ticket from the window.

This simplicity was basic to the man's character. Now the scene is Lahore and the year 1935. The distinguished Urdu playwright Imtiaz Ali Taj has asked him over to tea. "Very well, I will be there. But I have so much to do before that." However, when he arrives at the poet's house at the end of a hectic day roaming the streets of Lahore, in his crushed, drab dhoti and coarse-linen kurta, he finds more than a hundred cars there, one better than the other. There were judges, barristers, doctors and professors. The entire elite of the city had been invited and it took people, who did not know the man Premchand well, some time to get over the shock that this funny, dishevelled man, who looked like a simple villager, was the person for whom some of the most important people of the city had been waiting! There are many such legends and they all speak of only one thing the utter simplicity of the man. There was nothing false about him: he was as he was. If there was anything he really hated, it was affectation.


This is Premchand speaking about himself:

My life is a level plain. There are pits here and there but no cliffs, mountains, jungles, deep ravines, or ruins. Gentlemen who have a taste for mountaineering will be disappointed here.

I was born on July 31, 1880, in a village called Lamahi, four miles from Banaras. My father was a postal employee, my mother was ailing. I also had an older sister. At the time of my birth my father was earning about twenty rupees a month; by the time he died his salary was forty. He had been a very thoughtful man, moving through life with his eyes wide open, but in his last days he had stumbled and even fallen and brought me down with him: when I was fifteen he had me married. And scarcely a year after the marriage he died.

Premchand makes it sound pretty dismal. (It was hard, certainly, but I doubt if it was dismal) Childhood is one time of life when nothing is dismal. A kind of magic transforms everything magic a child gets to understand, in retrospect, when he is no more a child and the magic has vanished, as all magic does. There was one source of pain, however, which no magic could do anything about: the death of his mother when Premchand was only eight. It cut deep into his heart, a wound that stayed with him for life. The fact that Premchand's father had married again and got him a stepmother did not add to his happiness nor did it assuage his grief; but no boy sits brooding over his grief. Navab or Dhanpat, as the boy was then called, didn't either-Premchand was a pseudonym he adopted much later.

About the same time as his mother's death he was put under the tutelage of a Maulvi in a nearby village, to get the usual education that children of the Kayastha caste in those days had and which largely meant a knowledge of Persian, and Urdu. The school was, however, great fun in its own way. The Maulvi was really a tailor by profession, who also ran a madrassa for the few boys whom he happened to find as pupils. There was no attendance register and the Maulvi did not care very much who came for the lessons and who did not, so long as he got his tuition fees and the boys kept him generally happy with little services in the household and running errands for him. So Navab often played truant from school (with some highly imaginative excuse ready the next morning!) and ran off to more engaging pastimes, as he described later in an autobiographical story called "The Theft":

Sometimes we stood in front of the police station and saw the policemen parade, at others we would spend the whole day following some monkey or bear-dance show man wherever he went, or go to the railway station and see the wonderful trains come and go. We knew more about train timings than, possibly, the school time-table!

And, of course, all the usual games and recreations of a village-boy-playing marbles or gulli-danda which Navab played exceptionally well; catching fish from several ponds in the village and roasting them on open fires; picking sugarcane from the fields when it was in season or dropping mangoes from trees by throwing stones at them (Navab was known to have a very good aim) and similar amusements involving no expertise. It was all great fun, even the abuse that was hurled by those you were stealing from! And, of course, there was the fact that you spent most of your time out of doors, not cooped up at home which, in Navab's case, was an even greater relief. With his mother dead, father busy with his post-office routine and an irritable stepmother, home was not a very attractive place anyway. He looked forward to his father's transfers, every few months, to places like Banda and Basti, Azamgarh and Gorakhpur, Kanpur and Lucknow. Travelling was hea ven and Navab's excitement knew no bounds. Besides all the excitement of seeing a new place, father was a little more indulgent than in the village, and there was no stepmother to scold him for she often stayed back. Navab seems to have stored up the experiences subconsciously and used them later in his writings. For example, in another clearly autobiographi cal story called 'Kajaki' (Kajaki is a postal peon in the story) Premchand says about his father:

Father did not take long to get angry. He had to work very hard and this made him irritable. I avoided his presence and he did not shower much love on me. He came into the house only twice, an hour each time, for his meals; the rest of the time he was scribbling away in his office. Time and again he had asked his superiors for an assistant, but in vain.

Evidently, there wasn't much communication between the father and the son. After his mother's death the only person whose tenderness was something like his mother's was his older sister, but she had married and gone away. This made for loneliness and a somewhat wild, untended kind of growth. Vagrancy was the next stage-and the boy almost stepped into it, learning to smoke by the age of twelve and "also many other things not good for a boy to learn at that raw age", as Premchand himself says when talking about the early years of his life. But nature has its own ways of saving those whom it would from disaster. It was a fortuitous coincidence that, when Navab was with his father in Gorakhpur, he met a bookseller called Buddhi Lal.

I was then about thirteen years of age, I did not know any Hindi. I was mad about Urdu novels. Maulana Sharar, Pandit Ratannath Sarshar, Mirza Ruswa, Maulvi Mohammad Ali of Hardoi were the most popular novelists of the time. The moment I found any of their books I forgot all about school and would not rest until I had finished reading the book. Reynold's novels were the rage in those days. Numerous Urdu translations of his books appeared and were sold in no time. I was crazy about these too.... Ratannath Sarshar was one writer 1 never had enough of.... I used to go and sit at Buddhi Lal's shop, take out novels from his stacks and read them. But it was not possible for me to sit at the shop all day, therefore I used to take notes and keys to English books and sell them to boys at school and in consideration of this take novels home. I must have read hundreds of novels in those two or three years. After I had finished the novels, I read Urdu translations of the Puranas, publish ed by the Nawal Kishore Press, and also many volumes of Tilism-e-Hoshruba. Seventeen volumes of this gigantic book of mystery and wonder had appeared by then and each volume was no less than two thousand pages in the super royal size. Apart from these seventeen volumes, scores of volumes had been published dealing with separate episodes from this book. I devoured these, too. One can only wonder at the immense imaginative power of the man who wrote this book. It is said that Maulana Fyzee wrote these tales in Persian for Akbar. I cannot say how far this is true; but there is no doubt that there is probably no language in the world which has such a mammoth story book. A regular encyclopaedia. Let alone writing such a book, even copying it would be almost impossible for any man in a lifetime of sixty years.

It is well known that Premchand's greatest strength lies in constructing a really gripping story, and this was his secret: the prolific reading between the ages of thirteen and fifteen had laid the foundation of his incredible skill as a story-teller. Moreover, this coupled with a nascent creative urge saved the boy from the disaster which was building up in the wake of his loneliness and eventual waywardness. The books took care of both: they filled his loneliness and provided an avenue for his waywardness, his love of adventure and fantasy.

This was also the time Navab wrote his first piece, in the form of a little play. It was a boy's act of vengeance, making wild fun of a distant relative who had teased him endlessly. It so happened that the gentleman was given to philandering and had got into trouble as a result-an ideal situation for ribaldry. And the boy, who was certainly in no mood to spare the rascal, hit out for all he was worth. But unfortunately the little play never saw the light of day and was probably consigned to the flames by the embarrassed relative before he took to his heels. However this must have been the first inkling the young writer had of the power of the pen.

Life had fallen into a humdrum routine, as most lives do, nothing very spectacular happening-until the boy's marriage at fifteen. This was at first quite absorbing, but later became a nightmare because apart from the fact that it was a ridiculously early marriage, the couple were unusually ill matched. And then his father died the next year. As Premchand says in a short autobiographical essay:

I was then a student of class nine. At home I had my wife, a stepmother and her two children, and no income whatever. What little we had had as savings was used up in my father's six-month illness and funeral expenses. And my ambition was to get an M.A. and become a lawyer. In those days jobs were just as hard to get as now. With great effort you could find a post with a salary of ten or twelve rupees a month. But I insisted on continuing my studies. The chains on my feet were not just iron but seemed to be made of all the metals together; and I wanted to reach the mountain tops!

It was a hard life with "no shoes and no clothes that were not torn or frayed". Talking of those days Premchand says in that short essay:

I was studying in the High School of Queen's College in Banaras, where the headmaster had waived the fees. The exams were coming up soon. When I left school at half past three I would go to the part of town known as Bamboo Gate to tutor a boy there. I would get there at four and teach until six, then leave for my house, which was five miles away in the country.Even by walking very fast I could not get there before eight o'clock. And I had to leave the house at eight in the morning otherwise I could not get to school on time. At night after supper I used to sit down to study, by the light of a little oil-lamp. and I wouldn't know when I went off to sleep. Nevertheless I was determined.

After his father's death, it was harder. He could not take the exam that year owing to the disturbed conditions at home. So he appeared for the exam the next year, in 1898, and passed it. but only with a second division. Now there was no hope left of being admitted to Queen's College because fees could be waived only for students getting a first. Hindu College was founded that year and Premchand decided to study in this new institution. But that, too, proved to be a vain hope, for he failed the pre-admission test in mathematics, which was ha greatest handicap. He writes, "For me mathematics was like the peak of Mount Everest I could never reach it. It not only barred his entry to Hindu College but also prevented him from passing the intermediate examination for years and years.

Appearing as a private student twice and failing each time, he gave up in despair and could pass only when, under a new rule, he could offer some other subject in place of mathematics-in 1916, a full eighteen years after his matriculation!

To get back to our story, Premchand went home greatly disappointed after he failed to get admission to Hindu College, but the desire for learning was still strong:

What could I do sitting at home? How to improve my maths and get enrolled in college was the problem. For this I would have to live in town. Luckily I got a post tutoring a lawyer's son with a salary of five rupees. I decided to live on two rupees and give the other three to my family. Above the advocate's stable there was a rather small room made of mud. I got permission to stay there. A piece of hessian was spread out for my bed; I got a small lamp from the market and began my life in town. I also brought some pots from home. Once a day I cooked some gruel and after washing and scouring the pots I would set out for the library-maths was the pretext but I would read novels most of the time. In those days I read Pandit Ratannath Dar's Fasana-e-Azad (The Romance of Azad) as well as Chandrakanta Santati (The Descendants of Chandrakanta) and I read everything that I could find in Urdu translation of Bankim Chatterji.

The poverty of his student days, however, remained as appalling as ever:

That winter I hadn't a pice left. I had spent a few days eating a pice worth of the cheapest cereal each day. Either the moneylenders had refused to loan me anything or I could not ask out of sheer embarrassment. One evening, at dusk, I went to a bookseller to sell a book-the Key to Chakravarti's Mathematics, which I had bought two years ago. I had held on to it until now with difficulty, but today in complete despair I decided to great sell it. Although it had cost me two rupees I settled for one. Taking my rupee I was just about to leave the shop when a gentleman with heavy moustaches who was sitting there asked me, 'Where are you studying?"

'I am not studying anywhere but I hope to enroll somewhere,' I said.

'Have you passed your matric exams? Don't you want a job?'

'I can't find a job anywhere.'

This gentleman was the headmaster of a small school, and he needed an assistant teacher. He offered me a salary of eighteen rupees; I accepted. Eighteen rupees at that time was beyond the highest flight of my pessimistic imagination. I arranged to meet him the next day and left with my head in the clouds. This was in the year 1899. I was ready to cope with anything and if mathematics did not stop me I would certainly go ahead. But the most difficult obstacle was the University's total lack of understanding, which then and for several years after wards led it to treat everybody in the manner of the bandit who made everybody, tall and short, fit one bed.


Chunar is forty miles from Banaras, a small quiet place with an old fort and, in those days, a regiment of the British army. Premchand promptly went and reported for work; this was the luckiest break he could hope for in that miserable situation.

Thus began his life as a school teacher, a life which was to be his for the next twenty-two years.

It was a rather humdrum life, with nothing much to do after school hours. But this never bothered him. He always had his books. He was soon known as a bookworm. They say, even a (book) worm turns. It did. The occasion was a football match between the school team and an army team. The schoolboys were naturally cheering their team wildly. And then, to make matters worse, the army team lost. The schoolboys' hip-hip hurrahs rent the air. This was more than the army could take. One of the army men viciously kicked a player from the school team. Nothing very extraordinary-such scuffles were normal after matches, when tempers were running high. But Premchand, who was there, could not for some reason stand it. He probably saw in it the domination and aggressiveness of the White-would the man have kicked a fellow-White? This thought stung him to the quick: he pulled out the nearest boundary-post and went for the army men, hammer and tongs. The schoolboys joined in, and the soldiers got a beating they would remember all their lives.

When the skirmish was over, the one thing that surprised everybody was that the man who assumed leadership had been. of all persons, the quiet, shy bookworm! Whoever would have thought that he had so much fight in him! Indeed, he hadn't; in small, personal matters one could perhaps even call him timid. But it was quite another matter when national honour was at stake or his code of social justice was being violated. Then he would throw caution to the winds and act with complete fearlessness. This latter trait was also put to test before long, when a colleague of his, Maulvi Ibne Ali, had to suffer the wrath of the school authorities.

Premchand's life had been quite stark so far, and it continued to be the same. Eighteen rupees was no princely sum on which to subsist and to support a family at home. So the financial situation was still very grim; only recently he had had to sell his woollen coat. This job was perhaps the only lucky break he had had. The future was altogether dark. He could afford to be a little circumspect. But he did not think twice; he openly supported the Maulvi because Premchand was convinced that the authorities were being unfair to him. The result was that when the axe fell, it fell on him too, and before the year was out he was back on the streets.

Fortunately, however, through the good offices of Mr Bacon, the Principal of Queen's College, who liked this bright young man and whose word carried some weight with the Depart ment of Education, Premchand was able to get a job in a government school-at Bahraich, as fifth master.

After this, until 1921 Premchand worked in government schools at various places: Partabgarh, Allahabad, Kanpur, Hamirpur, Basti, Gorakhpur. These frequent transfers, every two or three years, were not good for his health but there is no doubt that they were good for him as a writer. Richness and variety of life-experience is a writer's biggest capital; he keeps adding to it and drawing upon it throughout his life as a writer. The day his fund of experience dries up the writer dries up too, and ceases to write any more. Premchand, however, was rich in this respect. He had had a difficult time but, ironically, this provided rich raw material for him as a writer. And now this moving about from place to place, with at least his daily bread assured, was the best thing that could happen to a writer in his formative years.

It was, therefore, quite natural that he should have taken to writing seriously at about this time-around 1900. Un fortunately, none of this early writing has survived; the earliest piece that came to light a few years ago is a short and evidently unfinished novel in Urdu called Asraar-e-maabid (Mysteries of a Temple) which was serialised in an obscure weekly from Banaras, in very short bits, from late 1903 to early 1905. The novelette exposes the gay life of a temple mahant (high priest). The style is that of the old romances, which had been his staple reading in the past. The difference, however, lies in the writer's attitude to his writing: he is not writing merely to entertain but also to educate his readers—as creative literature educates. Another, somewhat bigger, novel written at about this time, Ham Khurma o Ham Sawab was published in a Hindi translation as Prema in 1907. One has often read about the sad plight of widows in Hindu society in those days. those unfortunate women who lost their husbands early in life and were forced, according to custom, to stay single ever after, living arid lives. Prema deals with the life of a child widow and we are shown the idealistic hero marrying her. That Premchand truly believed in the justness of this cause and wasn't merely preaching it, was proved shortly after this, when after his first marriage had failed, he married a child widow, Shivarani Devi in 1906, the woman who became the mother of his six children, three of whom are living today.


Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the first man in the Indian National Congress who thought of the struggle for freedom in terms of mass-awakening and mass-action. Before this the national movement led by the Congress was largely confined to discussions and negotiations by a few politicians with the British regarding the possibility of Indians being given a share in the governance of the country. But, unfortunately, Tilak was not there for long. The British arrested him and sent him away to Mandalay in 1908. Premchand however, was greatly impressed by Tilak. Besides, the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, sparked off by Curzon's nefarious plan to divide the province, drew Premchand to the struggle for freedom as nothing had before. The Swadeshi Movement had, in turn, given rise to several secret societies (which, later, spread to other parts of the country) committed to armed action against the British. It was natural that these secret societies, with their bands of dedicated and death-defying revolutionaries, should fire the imagination of the people. They stirred young Premchand's imagination too and inspired by them he wrote several pieces. He also wrote short biographies of the great Italian heroes, Garibaldi and Mazzini; of Vivekananda, who had triumphantly affirmed the greatness of Indian civilisation and forced the West to take a new look at India. Vivekananda was certainly a new kind of Swami, a revolutionary Swami, whose message to his countrymen is as fresh and vital today as it was then. Here it is,as quoted by Premchand in his short biographical sketch:

My young friends, be strong. This is my only advice to you. You can achieve freedom much more easily by playing football than by studying the Gita. You shall be able to follow the teachings of the Gita much better when your muscles are strong and powerful. The teachings of the Gita were not addressed to cowards but to Arjuna, who was strong and brave.

During this phase he wrote several patriotic short stories beginning with one called The Most Precious Jewel'. The story is in an old style, like the romances in vogue at the time but it has a new and urgent ring when it finally concludes that the drop of blood shed in the country's battle for freedom is the most precious jewel in the world. This and other short stories in the same vein were collected and published in a book entitled Soz-e-Vatan (Sorrows of the Motherland). It was published in 1909 and very soon drew the attention of the authorities. The book was published under the name of Navab Rai but the authorities did not take long to discover the identity of the writer. As Premchand describes the incident:

At that time I was a Deputy Inspector in the Department of Education in Hamirpur district. One evening, six months after the stories had been published, while I sat in my tent, I received summons to go at once to see the District Collector who was on his winter tour. I harnessed the bullock-cart and travelled about thirty or forty miles through the night and reached the next day. In front of him lay a copy of my book. My head began to throb. In those days I wrote under the pen-name of Navab Rai. I had had some indication that the secret police were looking for the author of this book. I realised they must have traced me and that I was being called to account.

'Did you write this book? the Collector asked me.

I told him I had.

He asked for the theme of each one of the stories. Finally he lost his temper and said, "Your stories are full of sedition. It's fortunate for you that this is a British Government. If it were the Mughal Empire, then both your hands would be cut off."

The judgement was that I should give up all copies of the book into custody of the government and that I should never write anything else without the permission of the Collector. I felt I had got off lightly.

In a way, he had. But the other stipulation that he must never write without the permission of the Collector, was an impossible condition. Navab Rai was not prepared to do this, so he changed his pen-name to Premchand and continued to write as sharply as before. The quiet man had his inner reserves of strength. Far from knuckling under the strong-arm me thods of the British, almost the first thing he did was to bring home and display prominently on the wall a photograph of the fourteen-year old revolutionary Khudiram Bose who had been hanged very recently!

The period from 1905 to 1921 was a critical and dynamic period in the history of India and the world:

  • The emergence of Tilak as a national leader;
  • The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905); 
  • The secret revolutionary societies with their bombs and guns; 
  • The Minto-Morley Reforms (1909);
  • World War I (1914-18); The Russian Revolution (1917);
  • Gandhi's return to India from South Africa, in 1918. Gandhi started recruiting soldiers for the British Army as a gesture of co-operation with the British war effort. The British reciprocated with their two faces, one suave (the Montague Chelmsford Reforms in 1918) and the other brutal (the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919).
  • Gandhi's Non-cooperation Movement (1921).

It was certainly an eventful period. At this time Premchand was living in the small towns and villages of U.P., sometimes miles away from the nearest rail-head. But he struggled and made great efforts to see that he was not cut off from the world. An avid reader of the newspaper, he managed to get some of the better ones even to the remotest places despite the delay in transit. It was, therefore, not altogether accidental that he was so quick in his responses to current national and international events. He was among the very first in the country to react to the Socialist Revolution in Russia. Barely six months after it, despite the international blackout of news, one can see an approving reference to it in the novel he was working on at the time,namely Gosha-e-Afiyat, the original Urdu version of the Hindi novel Premashrama. This emerges still more clearly, when he writes to a friend on December 21, 1919 where he condemns the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms which were then very much in the air:

... the only merit the Reforms have is that they give some additional facilities to the educated classes, thereby creating conditions for them to cut the throats of the common people, but now as rulers and in the same way as they had been sucking their blood all this time as lawyers.

Premchand was certainly moving with the times-if not a step or two ahead. His health was not good. Chronic amoebic dysentery had reduced him to mere skin and bone, but he would not accept defeat. The national upsurge did not find him indifferent. He drove himself hard. He knew no rest. After a day of very hard work at the school he would write late into the night or sometimes (to escape his wife noticing) get up at the dead of night, quietly light his oil-lamp and work till morning. Then there would be some household chores to attend to, and then the school. He worked like one possessed but outwardly, it was all very quiet to the unobservant eye because he made no fuss about his writing. Like all truly busy men he had time for everything. Nevertheless, he had his built in devices for working in a steady, regular manner, like the peasant who goes out every morning to the fields with his plough and oxen. There was nothing 'arty' about him. He did not believe in the theory of the 'creative mood', his artistic inspiration was made of sterner stuff. The man had so conditioned himself that he could sit down anywhere any time. and write: he was the master of his mood and not its slave. This possibly came from a great sense of dedication to the people and the cause of their freedom as much from British slavery as from the slavery of indigenous exploiters. So deep was this dedication that one sometimes wonders if Premchand thought of himself as a soldier of freedom, with a pen for a rifle. Despite the various handicaps that beset him, he wrote a great deal in this period: numerous short stories, six big and small novels, a translation of Tolstoy's Parables and Tales, and several essays on the vital current issues where he defined freedom in the peoples' terms long before the national movement began to spread the message and make the concept a reality. The novels include Jalwa-e-Isar or Vardaan, a work on the lines of. Bankim Chandra's Anandmath, with a patriotic Swami for its hero; Bazar-e-Husn or Sevasadan, which deals with the social malady of prostitution;and Gosha-e-Afiyat or Premashrama, which deals with another social malady-the institution of the landlord, who does not till the land but owns it, and, like a parasite, sucks the blood of the peasant who tills it for him. The solutions offered may strike a modern reader as a little idealistic, but that is beside the point; the important thing is that Premchand posed these questions at that point in time, more than half a century ago, and that he posed them in his novels and short stories, which were until then mere romantic chronicles. Premchand now used them for more important purposes and thereby created the genre of the serious novel and the serious short story in two languages, Hindi and Urdu.


Gandhi had taken over the leadership of the Congress and was now touring the country, preparing the people for the coming struggle. He went to Gorakhpur on February 8, 1921 and, as everywhere, called upon government servants to give up their jobs. Premchand was also present at the meeting and the call was addressed to him as much as to anyone else. The fact, however, was that Premchand was himself dissatisfied with his job and had been thinking of leaving it and working ex clusively for the national movement. For some months he had been writing to friends to look for a private job for him. He would have no connections with the British any more. His indignation was turning into active resentment and resistance against British authority. According to local legend, Prem chand had had two encounters with British officers.

One was with the District Magistrate, over a cow. The cow belonged to Premchand and had strayed into the District Magistrate's garden. The District Magistrate was furious and said he would shoot the cow. When Premchand heard this he rushed to the spot. He was gentle to begin with, perhaps a little apologetic too, but nothing seemed to assuage the Magistrate's temper, whereupon Premchand also flew into a rage and dared the officer if he had the guts to shoot the cow!

The other encounter was with someone high up in the Education Department itself. He often passed Premchand's quarters and saw Premchand sitting out in the verandah. The Sahib's imperial snobbery made him expect that Premchand would come out and salaam him each time.

"What nonsense! After school hours I am my own master," Premchand said, and stood his ground.

He had had enough of this and really wanted to get out but it was not an easy decision to make. His health was now worse than before and he was going through a period of acute mental depression, having recently lost a son to smallpox. Moreover, Premchand had not been able to save anything and the future was altogether dark and forbidding. As a man with a family, consisting of a wife and two children, he could not afford to be without a job. It was a difficult decision, and only after deep thought over a whole week did Premchand resolve to throw up his twenty-one year old government job and the pension that went with it. His wife, a hardy and strong-willed peasant woman, stood by him and maybe helped him out of his vacillations.

So now they were back to square one, not knowing where their next meal was to come from. For a short while Premchand opened a Khadi Centre, but he soon realised that this was not suitable or absorbing enough. Then he tried to get an editor's post in a local magazine; but nothing came of it, so he decided to move from Gorakhpur to Banaras. There, for a few months, he worked as Editor of a Hindi magazine, Maryada, and then took up a teaching post in the school section of the Kashi Vidyapeeth. But that, too, was not for long, and Premchand went to Kanpur as Headmaster of the Marwari School-but also not for longer than a school session.

By 1923 Premchand was planning to live quietly in his village home and to start a printing press and a small publishing house in the city just four miles away. The idea had gripped him ever since he came in contact with Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, around 1916. It is a pity that so little is known about this great man-except that he became a martyr to the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity. That, however, is only a part of the man. One of the finest people thrown up by the freedom movement, a man of extraordinary courage and integrity, a veritable human dynamo, he changed everyone who came in contact with him. He had founded the Partap Press at Kanpur and made it the nucleus of a publishing house dedicated to the struggle for freedom and social justice. No wonder that Premchand should have also felt inspired to do something similar. But what Premchand perhaps did not take into account was that an enterprise of this kind must have two things to make it function-some working capital and a talent for business, one's own or made available by others. Prem chand had neither. So the press and publishing house became a milestone round his neck which he carried for the rest of his days. Indeed, things became so difficult, that he was once again forced to look for a job-and this time he found it in Lucknow, as Editor of Madhuri. But the management gave him no assistance. What was worse, they pushed on him a lot of other office routine work, such as the preparation of text books. Premchand was, thus, reduced to a drudge-as some office wit said, "a race-horse had been turned into a pack-horse!"

Premchand was finding it more and more tiresome every day and finally decided to quit. Meanwhile, he had started a mag.zine, Hans, from his publishing house at Banaras. So, in May 1932 he once again moved to Banaras, with all his unfulfilled dreams, to pick up the threads which he had left six years ago.

It was the same old grind. But this did not seem to bother him; it had become his way of life. Moreover, there was once again, after many years, a tide in the national movement and when duty called nothing else mattered. Hans was a big headache but now Premchand was going to publish a weekly, Jagaran (The Awakening), although he had no resources to back it up. A fairly cautious man in small personal matters, he could be reckless when it was something big like the freedom of the country. It was the recklessness of utter dedication. Maybe that is the only way to do big things in life. Too great a concern with pros and cons often goes to make a small man, however successful he may be.

The press presented numerous problems. Sometimes there would be no money to pay the workers or to pay the paper merchants-all told, a sad story. But Premchand was happy and his spirits high. It was the happiness of a man at peace with himself. That explains the man's unflagging creative energy more than anything else. No matter how difficult his con ditions of life, his writing went on consistently. With all the drudgery that was his lot at Lucknow, he managed to write, besides short stories, two small novels Pratijnan (The Vow) and Nirmala, and one big novel Gaban (The Embezzlement), just as before going to Lucknow, while he was busy setting up his press at Banaras and running it on almost nothing, he had found the time and the energy to write two massive novels, Rangabhumi (Life is a Stage) and Kayakalpa (The Transformation), and two plays Sangram (The Battle) and Karbala, to say nothing of his many short stories and other prose writings. And now, back at Banaras, he was working on another big novel Karmabhumi (The Field of Action), based on the national movement of 1931-32. Like a watchful sentinel, he was quick to respond to all that was happening on the national scene. This single-mindedness of purpose is, indeed, Premchand's greatest strength. A letter written about this time to Banarasidas Chaturvedi, a well-known journalist and a nominated member of free India's Parliament for several years, gives a good insight into the psychological make-up of the man:

I have no ambitions in life. At the moment my only ambition is that we should be victorious in our struggle for freedom. I have never had any craving for wealth and fame. I get enough for my creature needs and such things as a car and a bungalow hold no attraction for me. True, I do long to write a few high-class books but the objective remains the same-victory in the fight for Swarajya. 1 have no great ambition about my two sons either. All I want is that they should be honest and true and strong in their determination. I should hate to see my children wallowing in luxury, to see them crave after riches and cringe before authority. I don't want a life of quiet repose either; I wish to be doing something always for my literature and my country. As to my needs, I ask for nothing more than my plain rice and curry with just a little butter to go with it and a minimum of the simplest clothes.

In another letter written three years later to Banarasidas, in declining an invitation to go to Calcutta and meet the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, Premchand throws fresh light on his inner world:

The world has lots of people with big minds. But you need an acute power of discrimination to be able to tell who among them is truly great and who is a fake. I really cannot imagine a great man rolling in wealth. The mo ment I see a man who is rich, all his big talk of art and wisdom ceases to have any appeal for me. I begin to look upon him as a person who has in a way submitted to the present social order which is based on the exploitation of the poor by the rich.... It is quite possible that my own failure in life may be working behind this mental conditioning. With a fat bank balance may be I would have been like the others-unable to resist the lure of riches but I am happy that nature and destiny have helped me by casting my lot with the poor. It gives me spiritual peace.

He had plenty of this spiritual peace. He was working steadily on his novel Karmabhumi, and then on Godaan (The Gift of a Cow), to say nothing of the many short stories that were smoothly flowing from his pen. Besides these, he had his two magazines and was attacking the British ceaselessly. This was no small happiness either. It was sheer bliss.

Economics, however, has its own laws. They have little to do with one's personal sense of well-being or one's spiritual peace; their concern is hard cash and of that Premchand had remarkably little. Both the magazines had run up huge debts huge in relation to the debtor's capacity to pay. It was at such a time that he got an offer from Mohan Bhavnani of Ajanta Cinetone, Bombay. Premchand was wary of going to the film world but at that moment he had little choice; creditors were pressing for payment and money had to be found. Therefore, much against his will, he signed a contract with Bhavnani for one year. But as Premchand had rightly suspected, he was a complete outsider in that world. He wrote to the novelist Jainendra Kumar:

... None of my intentions in coming here seem to have been fulfilled. The producers, are not prepared to budge an inch from the kind of stories they are used to handling. For them, vulgarity is entertainment value.

To Mr Ghori in Hyderabad he wrote:

The people who control the destiny of films unfortunately think of it as an industry. What has industry got to do with taste or reforming it? Industry only knows how to exploit and here it is exploiting the most sacred sentiments of man.

Premchand had had enough and decided to pack up even before the year was out. Bhavnani pressed him to stay on for at least another year but Premchand was adamant. His mind was set on going back to his village where he really belonged. Just then Himansu Rai, who had recently returned from England, stepped in and tried to sign him up but the refusal, though polite, was firm. He had to get back to his village (from the glamorous world of show business!). As he wrote to Jainendra:

I have to write the last pages of my novel (Godaan) but here I cannot bring myself to work on it. My only wish now is to say goodbye to Bombay and go back to my old place. There may be no money there but it is certainly a lot more satisfying. Here I constantly feel that I am wast ing my life.


And so he left Bombay on April 4, 1935.

Ten months in Bombay had made him a physical wreck. He arrived in Banaras a sick man, with his liver in a state of near collapse. Yet, there was no rest for him. Godaan was weighing on his mind, the book that was destined to be his magnum opus more than any other among his novels and his claim to univer sal farne. (The book is now published in English as The Gift of a Cow in UNESCO'S Asian Literature Series.) It is the story of an honest and god-fearing peasant's suffering and death which, in the telling of the story, lays bare the whole system of exploitation of the poor by the rich as one sees it in a village. It is a book written with great compassion and equally great, if mute, indignation against the whole army of village exploiters. Struggling against heavy odds, Premchand had at last finished it in early 1936-and true to his style, started on another novel, Mangalsutra (The Auspicious Thread). With an impoverished but famous writer as its hero, it has a clearly autobiographical ring, but one does not know how the novel would have ultimately shaped for the writer did not live to finish it.

Some time in 1935 a group of young Indian writers in England-among them Mulk Raj Anand and Sajjad Zaheer -had founded an organisation called the Indian Progressive Writers' Association. In April 1936 they were going to have their first all-India conference at Lucknow. They wanted Premchand to chair it. Premchand readily accepted, for he knew what the movement stood for and had, in fact, welcom ed it in an editorial in his magazine, when the news of this writers' organisation had first come from England. His inspiring address at the conference laid the cornerstone of the newly founded movement for many decades to come. Literature committed to the social and moral well being of the people was what Premchand stood for all his life, and he was naturally glad that a body of new writers was to keep the tradition alive.

The other great question that exercised his mind related to language. He was convinced that the severely compartmentalised existence of Hindi and Urdu as two purist languages, one excluding the other, was suicidal for both of them. With his unquestioned stature as a writer in both languages he naively imagined that he could serve as a bridge between them, and prepare the basis for their eventual fusion some day, in the distant future. This idea had so gripped his mind that it became his life's last great mission. Premchand rushed up and down the country, in pursuit of his ideal-from Lucknow to Lahore and from there to Nagpur-where a meeting on the subject of the common Hindustani language was going to be organised under the chairmanship of Gandhi. But soon enough it became clear that he could never convert his dream into reality and was only chasing a mirage. The purists on both sides killed the dream. Naturally, it caused great pain to Premchand.

Of a different kind, but no less a pain lay in store for him, when he had to give up one of his most cherished ideals. Having clung to it with minor changes for almost two decades, Premchand was convinced in the last days of his life that to expect the rich to give up their riches through a change of heart was like expecting a leopard to change his spots. How very painful this admission was is clear from these words from his last and incomplete novel The Auspicious Thread: 

Yes, there have been and always will be angels. They still find the world moving in accord with religion and ethics. They martyr themselves and leave the world. But why call them angels? Call them cowards, wrapped up in themselves. An angel is he who defends justice and lays down his life for it. If he knows and pretends that he does not know, he fails as a moral being. But should this evil system not even hurt him, then he is both blind, foolish and no angel. Nor is there any place for angels here. It is these angels who have perpetuated this immorality by spreading myths of fate and God and his worship. But for them man would have finished these myths by now or finished this society itself, which too should have been a lot better than going on like this. No, we shall have to be men among men. Living among beasts of prey we shall have to arm ourselves. It would be stupid and not angelic to let them tear us to bits.

Summer 1936. Premchand is back from his 'Hindustani' campaign-very tired, but still there is no rest for him. He often gets up at the dead of night, as in the old days, and writes as though a desperate kind of creative fever had gripped him. Or maybe it is a kind of premonition that he is nearing the journey's end and must speak out all that he has to say, the of a hard life's experience, while there is yet time. Besides the novel he is working on, the short story 'Kafan (the Shroud), perhaps the greatest of many great stories he wrote, showing the dehumanisation of man as a result of chronic hunger and privation, and the bitter essay 'Mahajani Sabhyata', (The Capitalist Civilisation) in which he condemns capitalism and hails, socialism, were both written in this period. With the unfinished novel they constitute the writer's last will and testament to his people whom he so dearly loved. However, the enfeebled body could take no more: Premchand fell ill. On June 25, 1936 he threw up a lot of blood. The doctors called it a gastric ulcer. Various doctors and various systems of medicine were tried but were of no help. His condition worsened day by day and what was earlier diagnosed as a gastric ulcer had now turned into dropsy and cirrhosis of the liver. The medical jargon did not make sense to him or anyone in the family; but it was clear that he was in great pain and also that he knew he was going to die. But this did not perturb him. He was at peace with himself so he needed no god nor minister of god. He had lived his life, every minute of it, creatively, meaningfully. What more can one ask for? And now it was time to say farewells. True, he would be missed by his near ones but life goes on all the same. He was a mere skeleton now, with his pale, sunken cheeks, and in great pain. Yet he remained calm and retained his natural good cheer. So when the end came on the morning of October 8, 1936 it was a shock for everyone. Barely a dozen people, friends and relatives from the village, attended the funeral: an end as humble as the beginning.


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