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I do not remember exactly when I first heard of Munshi Premchand. It must have been during routine family conversations about my grandfather, grandmother, and old times. My father had a good collection of Hindi literature, and one of the perks of his job was that we would get all kinds of newspapers and magazines at home every day. I got into the habit of reading very early (at the age of 7) in my life.
The first story I read was Idgah in Class VI. A small boy Hamid saves his pocket money to buy a chimta for his grandmother because her fingers got burnt while making chapattis. This was a short story written in Hindi vernacular. I remember that when I read the climax of the story, I was moved to tears. I can feel even now the effect it had on my tender mind and soul. It taught me a lot about compassion in life.
My grandmother, Late Shyama Devi, who had spent a long time with Premchand Baba, would tell me fascinating stories about him. She talked about how he loved eating arbi, and how his laughter was so loud that people would throng to see him laugh. He loved to write while lying on the bed. She also told me that he lived an ordinary life.
He was simple to the core, and a true Gandhian.
The next story I read was Kafan, and subsequently I consumed a lot of stories written by him in a matter of months. I think by the age of 12, I had also realized that he was my oldest grandfather, and took great pride in the fact. I would boast to my friends and teachers about this newfound affiliation of being related to him.
Of his novels, I first read Karmbhoomi, followed by Nirmala. I was floored by the characterization and treatment of the subject against the backdrop of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, and dowry respectively, in both his works. His ability to use contemporary social evils like dowry, widow-remarriage, untouchability, etc. to formulate stories set him apart from his contemporaries like Jaishankar Prasad and Sharatchandra Chattopadhyaya.
As I grew up, I also read the works of Prasad, Devkinanadan Khatri, Sharatchandra, Jainendra Jain, Mahadevi Verma, Mohan Rakesh, Shivani, Ageyaya, Maithilisharan Gupt, and a host of other distinguished litterateurs. Since I was studying in the ICSE Board, I devoured Shakespeare and Wordsworth too. Keats, Lord Byron, and RK Narayan were absolute favourites. The more I read the works of these literary giants, the more I realised Premchand’s greatness.
His ability to write in Urdu and Hindi (vernacular mostly), illustrate the misery of farmers, and denounce social evils set him apart from most of these writers.
Getting back to his work, I read Godan and Gaban when I was around 23-24 years old. It was a marvellous experience. He described the plight and misery of farmers so accurately that I could empathise with the protagonists Hori and Dhaniya to the core. It also gave me a view of feudal lords that existed then, and their oppression of farmers. The title of Upanyas Samrat was conferred on him by critics after the publication of these two novels. Then I laid my hands on Sevasadan, Mansarovar, and lot of his earlier works, like Soz-e-watan.
The title of the biographical book – Kalam ka Sipahi, written by his son Amrit Rai – aptly summarises the literary pursuit of Baba. He was a true soldier who lived his life in penury, but did not relent in his pursuit of writing. His works continue to teach us that life is for love, compassion, and helping underprivileged people.