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Friday, February 20, 2009

Premchand & Manto


I was at a meeting earlier this week, where one of the topics discussed was the several languages of the South Asia. Hindi and Urdu are the main (and official) languages of India and Pakistan.
Shorn of the excesses of linguistic Puritanism and zeal on part of the establishments in India and Pakistan to distinguish the languages (and force officialese on the people), there really isn’t any substantial difference between the two. The word Hindustani captures the true essence of how hundreds of millions of people speak Hindi and Urdu language in large swathes of South Asia.

Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) and Sadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) wrote in Hindustani. Manto used the Urdu script. Premchand alternated between Hindi and Urdu. I don’t know whether they ever met. I would imagine they must have met considering they were contemporaries and both wrote in Urdu. Both were tremendously influenced – their works indicate this in ample measures – by humanism. Both were overtly political but used literature to voice their views.
Not for them the empty rhetoric of form versus content or the argument of whether art should be for art sake or should art be a catalyst for socio-political change. They were firmly believed in using art as means to highlight the ills in the society they lived in. Both were briefly involved with the Hindi film industry as writers.

It’s perhaps my misfortune that I’ve read both only in English translations. I can’t read Urdu, and though I can read Hindi, I prefer to read fiction in English; I guess that’s because of habit and nothing else. I have read Premchand’s Godaan and a few short stories by Manto’s – Toba Tek Singh, Thanda Gohst (Cold Meat), among others.

Manto immigrated to Pakistan after the Partition of the subcontinent, and died soon thereafter. But before his premature death – triggered I think by the acute depression caused because he had to leave Bombay – created masterpieces of prose form.

Toba Tek Singh is one of them. I’m no literary expert, but I can’t think of too many parallels in world literature that can match Toba Tek Singh’s stark brutality. It evocatively depicts the lunacy of the Partition of the subcontinent through the experiences of the lunatic Toba Tek Singh.

This is how the story ends: “After fifteen years on his feet, he was lying face down on the ground. India was on one side, behind a barbed wire fence. Pakistan was on the other side, behind another fence. Toba Tek Singh lay in the middle, on a piece of land that had no name.” (Translated from Urdu by Richard McGill Murphy, available at the Words without Borders website: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article.php?lab=toba

Premchand is said to have brought realism to Indian literature. Godaan’s simplicity hides the inherently unjust nature of the traditional Indian society. For a scholarly exposition on the novel, please take a look at the Literature section of Indianetzone website. The URL is: http://society.indianetzone.com/literature/1/godan.htm. The anonymous author of this piece emphasizes the new introduction to the book by Vasudha Dalmia.

Dalmia’s introduction to Godaan states: “Premchand presented in his fiction an understanding of the social reality decades before academic scholarship could “squarely face it”. She suggests the use of some essays from the volume of Subaltern Studies published in the early eighties for a greater comprehension of Godaan through political and social history of Awadh.”

Premchand’s international fame is also because the foremost Indian film-maker Satyajit Ray turned two of Premchand’s works – Sadgati and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) – into memorable movies. Also, several short stories of Premchand (most memorable of these was, undoubtedly Kafan) have been turned into television films by Doordarshan. Also, while researching about Premchand on the internet, I discovered an absolutely amazing blog called Munshi Premchand’s Stories.

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