132- Rediscovering Premchand.
As i opened my old school trunk, just as i always do during the annual pilgrimage to my village during diwali vacations, which houses infinitely more treasure than its humble capacity, i chanced upon the 8 novels by Munshi Premchand - the giant of Hindi literature. In hindsight, why did i read them as a school kid, when i possesed niether the linguistic proficiency to understand him, nor the maturity to comprehend it, still baffles me. Knowing myself, i am sure it would have been some early strains of narcisissm or a crass display of showing off. That not withstanding, i decided to re-read 'Godaan' (Cow - donation) - his last novel and perhaps the most brilliant one.
Godaan has three broad set of characters, each depicting the then socio-cultural mileu of 1900-1930's. Each of these set of characters depict the complex web of social relations that existed within thier classes and also with each other - carrying with them hundreds of years of social history, its peculiarities, the colossal sanction for exploitation availabale to higher castes and classes and the early signs of redemption that an individual initiative could provide.
Hori is a poor small farmer who is caught in a web of usurious debt to pay off the cost of everyday existence like buying seeds, marrying children, bringing up an extended family and who personifies the helpless life of an Indian farmer - emboldened by hope of good times but razed down by oppressive social and economic circumstances. Dhania is his loudmouth, bitter, complaining but well meaning wife, who is burdened by Hori's sense of duty, innocence and naivete, but who does not hesitate to back him up in the most trying of circumstances, particularly those which were morally right but socially blasphemous, like giving shelter to his unmarried pregnant daughter in law and literally selling off thier young daughter to a much older but rich groom. The plot is thickened and brought to life by a broad set of characters. The money lenders of all castes, the patwari, the village priest, sahukar, so on and so forth, who had money but no moral compunctions, who broke all social laws and sought comfort in the shudhikaran(purification) ceremonies avaliable to them but not to the poor. The sense of outrage and tragedy is difficult to miss in the turn of events. Hori has but one ambition - to see a cow in his house.
The second set of characters revolve around the Raisaab - the feudal lord who owns the villages, has the right to tax them, ask for gifts and donations - only to maintain the standard of life and pretence that is traditionally the forte of the class of Raisaabs. While the politics of pre indepence india gets depicted as a sub plot, it wholesomely bares the hypocrisy of this class - who are torn between thier traditional penchant to exploit and yet participate in the lofty ideals of liberation of the downtrodden. The helplessness of Raisaab to let go of the comforts of his stature with the accompanying rights to exploit his aasaamis (constituency)and to still be seen as THE RAISAAB is comical but piognant.
The third set of characters include Mr Mehta - the fiery idealist, professor of Philosophy, who is driven by a higher purpose in his life, bound by social duty, uncorrupted by money and charms and who has clear views about the role of women in the society. The second character is the charming, beautiful and educated Miss Malati, who has no compunctions in using her education and charms to get her way in a manner unthinkable for women then, but who goes through her own discovery of ideals, morals and sense of social and national duty in the pursuit of the hesitant Mr Mehta, who is the only one who refuses to be bewitched by her charms in the beginning. This is an engrossing depiction of the tussle between the traditional role of women, thier angst in the fight for liberation and thier discovery of meaning somewhere in between.
Godaan is a must read for many reasons - again and again. Vernacular literature gives more insight into the complex history of our society, more authentic, more lively and more nuanced. It opens us to a world that English literature may not be able to do ever. As Hori dies on the last page and the everyone cries for a Godaan - the ultimate daan for a chaste Hindu, Dhania cries, gives off a thread of cotton as daan - that being the only material possession they are left with - alongside Hori, a part of you dies, 2011 not withstanding.