Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci identified two types of intellectuals: traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are autonomous of the economic structure, and Gramsci argues that even though they are independent of social hierarchy, they somehow legitimise the ruling group. On the other hand, organic intellectuals are the ones who are born out of social structures and usually want to eradicate the existing inequalities in social and political spaces.
Born on 31st July, 1880, in a Kayastha family, Munshi Premchand grew up to be one of the most prolific writers in Hindustani literature, writing about the struggles of women and people from lower castes. Alluding to Gramsci’s categorisation, Premchand is somewhat of a traditional intellectual. His upper-caste position has led many of his readers and critics to question his understanding of the pain of the downtrodden in Indian society.
Even though his birth caste legitimises the caste system, the choice he made with his privilege is what set him apart and made him the voice of the backward and marginalised communities of the country. His writings were scathing indictments to the unequal and inhuman social landscape of India. He constructed his characters incisively and asked questions morally.
With a collection of astutely tailored books and short stories constantly posing challenging inquiries to the world around us, Godaan (1936) is considered Premchand’s best work and easily one of the most poignant pieces of Indian literature. Godaan means the gift of a cow. The story lays bare the haunting exploitation within Indian peasantry that goes on to reflect on the capitalistic taxation of the have-nots.
Kafan (1936) is another of Premchand’s major works where he depicts two alcoholic Dalit protagonists. The debauched and irresponsible portrayal of these Dalit men has earned Premchand a lot of criticism. However, the devil is in the detail as Premchand built these characters to be a representation of the alienating experience of the downtrodden, their repetitive subjugation in the system, and the utter desperation in their struggle to live.
“Out there in the field, jackals and kites, dogs and crows were picking at Dukhi’s body. This was the reward for the whole life of devotion, service and faith,” reads the last line of Sadgati. This is another short story treading on themes of untouchability and class discrimination. Sadgati means a good death, which is an ironic title through which Premchand satirises the prejudiced norms in Hindu society.
The clever use of ironies exposes the deep entrenchment of casteist practice of the master and devotion of the servitor. All this once again displays Premchand’s literary mastery and sincere understanding of the tangibility of the caste system. Premchand’s vociferousness for the rightfulness of women doesn’t come across anywhere better than in Thakur Ka Kuan (Thakur’s Well). It’s a short story portraying a revolutionary Dalit woman named Gangi, who fetches water for her ailing husband from the landlord’s well. Set in a social structure where being a Dalit and a woman work against her, the boldness of her character is not be romanticised, but protected and learned from.
Incidents like beating up and destroying the crops of a Dalit couple in Madhya Pradesh, the body of a Dalit woman being taken off a funeral pyre in Agra because the cremation site was not to be used by that community lay bare that the caste system has been weaved into Indian society. It may have been criminalised on paper, but the grassroots brutality of Dalits reveals the systematic and structural violence that cannot simply be done away with by a single stroke of pen. It requires, among other things, persistent activism, regular unlearning and united resistance to each and every form of minority slaughter.
Even communalism has grown by leaps and bounds and has become the order of the day. Events such as the enactment of the CAA-NRC Act, the Delhi pogrom, revocation of Article 370 and the communalisation of a pandemic are some of the events that have disfigured the secular fabric of India. These events are horrific but not isolated; communalism has raised its head with every thought process, every perception and diminutive instances of inaction.
Premchand teaches us to be communally tolerant, resist the marginalisation of the marginalised, and rid ourselves of indifference towards injustice. Hence, on the occasion of Munshi Premchand’s 140th birthday (31st July, 2020), we must not only celebrate his work, but also use his vision and voice as a prism to glance at the realities of 21st century independent India. His writings were way ahead of his times and have unfortunate relevance even to this day, as the same issues continue to plague our social order.
Factors such as religion, caste and gender are still so profoundly ingrained in our society that their manifestations go on to show that maybe discrimination is no longer a part of our society but it is the society. Thus, for some, Premchand is just another writer, but for others, he’s a guiding manual.