Premchand

The Indian novelist and short-story writer Premchand (1880-1936) was the first major novelist in Hindi and Urdu. His writings describe in realistic detail the political and social struggles in India of the early 20th century.

Premchand, whose real name was Dhanpatrai Srivastava, was born in the small village of Lamhi a few miles from Benares. His immediate forebears were village accountants in Lamhi. His intimate acquaintance with village life began here and continued when, as a schoolteacher and subdeputy inspector of schools, he traveled extensively for 21 years through Uttar Pradesh State.

Premchand's early writing was all done in Urdu, but from 1915 he found that writing Hindi was more profitable. Hindi, using the Sanskrit-based script and borrowing heavily from Sanskrit vocabulary, was strongly promoted by the Hindu reform group called the Arya Samaj, and within a few years Hindi publications numerically outstripped those written in Urdu.

Premchand's early work in Urdu reveals the strong influence of Persian literature, particularly in the short stories. These were usually romantic love stories in which, the course of love not being smooth, various unusual devices are used to bring lovers together again. In these romantic stories and novels, however, also appear evidences of patriotic fervor and descriptions of Indian and foreign heroes who died bravely for their countries. Premchand's first collection of short stories, Soz-e-Vatan, brought him to the attention of the government. The British collector of Hamirpur District called them seditious and ordered that all copies be burned and that the author submit future writing for inspection. Fortunately, a few copies survived, and Premchand, in order to evade censorship, changed his name from Dhanpatrai to Premchand.

In 1920 Premchand resigned from a government high school and became a staunch supporter of Mohandas Gandhi, whose influence strongly marked Premchand's work from 1920 to 1932. With realistic settings and events, Premchand contrived idealistic endings for his stories. His characters change from pro-British to pro-Indian or from villainous landlord to Gandhi-like social servant in midstream; the frequent conversions tend to make the stories repetitious and the characters interesting only up to the point of conversion.

Premchand's last and greatest novel, Godan, and his most famous story, Kafan (The Shroud), both deal with village life. However, whatever the setting, his late work shows a new mastery. The characters appear to have taken over their own world. The claims of social, moral, and political tenets are secondary to the claims of artistry. Premchand died from a gastric ulcer. One son, Amrtrai, was a noted Hindi writer, and the other, Sripatrai, a talented painter.

Further Reading on Premchand

Premchand's novel Godan was translated by Gordon C. Roadarmel as Gift of a Cow (1968). The World of Premchand, translated by David Rubin (1969), brings together some of the stories. A critical study of the short stories that includes a biographical introduction is Robert O. Swan, Munshi Premchand of Lamhi Village (1969).

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