Saturday, 1 August 2015

Premchand as prophet of modernity


Yesterday, July 31, 2015, was Munshi Premchand's 135th birth anniversary. I was moved to write the piece below...





Munshi Premchand: 1880-1936


Globalization, Guns and Gluttony
Munshi Premchand’s take (1928)

Aseem Shrivastava



A very dear friend enjoys her birthday today. She never fails to remind me that the greatest master of modern Hindi prose was also born exactly 135 years ago. (She never gets to the topic of who the next greatest master might be!)

Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava’s birthplace is the village of Lamhi, near Benares.  Apart from his genre-defining Hindi fiction, he also wrote some of the finest Urdu novels of his day. 

Premchand was the simplest of men, a point emphasised by all his biographers, including his devoted wife, Shivrani Devi, and their admiring son, Amrit Rai. Shivrani Devi’s Premchand Ghar Mein and Amrit Rai’s Kalam ka Sipaahi both sit on my mother’s erudite bookshelf. I have only browsed these wonderful volumes, procrastinating a fuller reading to that elusive summer of the kind that does not make itself available to reluctant prisoners of cyberspace anymore (my life ambition used to be to write without footnotes; now it has changed to going permanently offline.)

Being the simplest of men, Munshi Dhanpat Rai, was, at once, gifted with a formidably sophisticated intellect which could render the distilled essence of a complex theme in a handful of concisely penned paragraphs. If I recall any of Mishraji’s memorable pedagogy at St.Michael’s, Patna in the mid-1970s, and those stories from the eight-volume Mansarovar he encouraged us to read in school, this rare blend of simplicity and sophistication puts Premchand in an enviable ‘league of one’ (or two, if one also thinks of Manto) so far as modern North Indian writers go. I remember Mishraji’s words - ye thhe lok-saahitya ke asal baadshaah! Out come tumbling from the bucket of memory titles of piercing short stories like Idgaah, Boodhi Kaaki, Panch-Parmeshwar, Sadgati and Shatranj ke Khilaari, each a gem in its own right, alone enough to suggest the might of the pen that fathered the tales.

Premchand is renowned no less for his epic novels - Gaban, Godaan and Karmabhoomi among them. My eldest paternal Uncle, one of whose aunts was Premchand’s daughter, casually told me the story of how he was perhaps the first reader of Godaan. As a young boy he used to sit by his great Uncle and go through the unedited pages of the first draft of the novel, as Premchand penned the pages at electric speed, sitting outside the maternity ward of Dufferin Hospital in Sagar (Central Provinces), waiting for his daughter to give birth to her first child in the early 1930s. 

To inspire us to creative work, the elders never failed to remind us in childhood that our family was so closely linked to Premchand. What I can recall for myself are the meetings between our own grandfather and Amrit Rai, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when our entire home in Sagar would rock with the recurrent echo of their uninhibited laughter. Alas, No one laughs like that anymore!

I also remember the many times that we would stay at Amrit Rai’s (Allahabad waale Babba’s) lovely home Dhoop-Chhaon on Hastings Road (now Nyaya Marg), in Allahabad. Both Babba and Dadi would welcome us with memorable warmth and regale us with one story after another. Dadi’s stories for children were fabulous!

The last time I stayed there was quite recently. I had taken my friend (whose birthday also happens to be today, coincidentally) to the 2013 Kumbh Mela. Bhullu Chacha (the noted critic Alok Rai) and Rajul Chachi had welcomed us with customary affection and fed us those sumptuous moti-rotis with home-made makkhan you got only at Dhoop-Chhaon.

An obscure essay?

It was also exactly two years ago when, on this very day, July 31, my incredulous mother (a daily reader of Jansatta for as long as I remember), asked me to read a small op-ed piece in the newspaper titled Saamyavaad zyaada khatarnaak hai (‘Communism is deadlier’). The unnamed author was making an argument (which I shall share presently) to the effect that there are tendencies within the modern world which make communism an even more dangerous prospect than the exploitative capitalism with which everyone is only too familiar. That a known devil is better than an unknown one - or so it seemed from the short piece. What made both my mother and I exclaim in unison was the parenthetical postscript to the piece. The editor claimed that the piece was written by none other than Premchand himself, in an obscure journal in 1928!

Given how we were brought up to believe - by friends and cultural lore, no less than by our own family - that Premchand reserved the largest part of his great heart for the poor (many claiming that he was certainly a ‘leftist’ if not an outright ‘communist’) - this seemed, on the face of it, very difficult to believe.

It was only when I read the piece a second time, and this time much more slowly and carefully, that the lines one associated with Premchand’s unique stream of thought began to surface from the depths of the essay.

Before I tell you the story of my authentication of the article, it is worth going into the details of Premchand’s prescient and prophetic argument.


Raajyavaad aur Saamraajyavaad

Premchand begins his essay with two simple sentences. “We live in times of imperialism. Earlier eras belonged to monarchy.”

For him the difference is profound. Both political systems rest on conquest. However, he points out that in the age of monarchy, conquest was a one-off phenomenon, which would establish the victorious king’s bravery, enable him to exact tribute and, where deemed necessary and desirable, convert the conquered to his own preferred religion. 

He argues that times of imperialism are altogether different. Here the goal is not just one of the three simple ones just stated. The goal is commercial. Traders and their organisations need to expand their markets, Premchand says. And they want to do it endlessly, since there is no limit to the systematic accumulation of wealth. 

This is the key conclusion he arrives at with typically elementary economy: conquest under imperial modernity is therefore permanent, an enterprise in perpetuity. It can, as we know, go on for 500 years and more, as long as Mother Nature tolerates galloping human greed.


The Labour Aristocracy

This is where the real nub of Premchand’s argument is: “ruling over a weak nation is as important for the labourers of powerful nations as for their traders.” They too, he notices, want good food, good clothes, lots of entertainment, and so on. And if this requires their country and its traders to dominate other countries and their workers, they learn to ignore the fact.  It is a fact too remote from their own daily drudge. The entire society thus becomes complicit in the imperial venture. Premchand’s own language is so colourful while arguing this that it merits a long quotation: 

...to keep any enslaved community under control is in the interests of not only the king and trader but of the entire community, and the entire clan rules as one community. In the olden days it was the rule of one individual. He was the ‘bridegroom’ of the party. Today, every member of the bridegroom’s party, however lowly he might be - like a barber or a thakur - is a bridegroom. In the times of Tartars and Mughals water-carriers or cleaners never dreamed of ruling over a community.

Today a common coal-miner of Belgium or England knows and understands that he is ruling over a weak community. A king in earlier times could be happy or angry. All his tasks were done under the influence of his own feelings and thoughts. But to please a whole community is much more difficult than to offend it. Such is the mentality of a whole community.  Things that we cannot even think of doing individually are executed collectively without any hesitation. One individual can be an idealist, can abandon selfishness, but a whole nation cannot be idealist. It is possible that a monarch feels pity at the sight of India’s miserable plight. But it is impossible that the entire British community sacrifices their interests at the alter of pity and justice. 

Premchand probably did not know that Lenin had noticed similar facts when he pointed to the labour aristocracy of advanced capitalist nations as one of the big stumbling-blocks to a world revolution. 

Premchand was possibly aware that Rabindranath Tagore had pointed to the enormous perils of collective selfishness in his lectures on Nationalism in India, China and Japan during the First World War. However, Premchand analyses the dangers of social greed in very different words, using other images.
And what about communism?

So this is how, in brief, Premchand - a writer and man infinitely more rooted in his place and time than the writer or any likely reader of this article -   understands the modern world. Notice that Premchand is no uncritical partisan of tradition, if his novels and stories tell us anything about his imaginative conscience. But nor is he an enthusiastic votary of modernity that his socialist and other acolytes would like to claim him for. 

Here is what Premchand felt about communism in the modern world, long before even the Gulag revelations about Stalin’s devastating regime:

There was a time when communism stirred the hearts of weak nations with hope. When the proletariat will rule the world, there will no trace of slavery, subjugation or social inequality. Great hopes were pinned on communism.

However, now the experience is that the communist movement is only the victory of the labourers over the capitalists. It is not the victory of justice over injustice, of truth over untruth. There will not be any reduction in all the inequalities, injustices and selfishness which are synonymous with capitalism. In fact, the possibility of their turning more horrifying is greater.

Like Tagore, Premchand’s humanism is too deep for either side to legitimately see him as their own unique mascot. He transcends the binary of tradition and modernity, the infinitely alert eye of his soul casting its gaze dispassionately at the growing, living museum of horrors and monstrosities around him.  

Premchand was too honest to believe in the facile Utopian answers that modernity churns out in every generation, ours being only the most impatient example of the phenomenon. His perspective transcends the lazy binaries of contemporary thought, leaving us as close to the threshold of the social truth as it is possible for the written word in any language or vernacular to reach. In the bargain, he does not leave us feeling emptied and nihilistic as many critical thinkers tend to do. Like the other immortal story-teller from this part of the world, Saadat Hasan Manto, his intellectual skepticism is not stolen from the vast optimism of his heart. It is fed by it, even as it feeds it in turn. One returns from Premchand’s stories marvelling at the courage with which beleaguered actors uphold human dignity against the stiffest of odds, in the most trying of circumstances. What else could inspire greater hope!


Authenticating the article

After reading the version of Premchand’s article published in Jansatta, I set about trying to verify its bona fides, inquiring hither and thither from Hindi writers and journalists, from friends who regarded themselves to be Premchand veterans, even from so many of Premchand’s descendants, if anyone knew anything about the piece. People confessed complete ignorance. Times have declined so precipitously that one person even claimed that the piece published in Jansatta was likely part of a plot on the part of some people belonging to the Hindu Right, trying to claim Premchand for themselves, denying his involvement with the Progressive Writers Association, and so on. 

After great difficulty a Physics professor friend of mine at the University of Delhi succeeded in getting a historian friend of his, also at DU, to locate the original version Raajyavaad aur Saamraajyavaad in a CD-archived collection of a journal called Swadesh which used to be published from Gorakhpur in the early part of the last century. When I obtained the PDF, Premchand’s piece occupied just one modest, easily overlooked, page of the journal in the issue of March 18, 1928.

My mother Jayawati Shrivastava translated the original version of the article. She translated the title as Monarchy and Imperialism. I shared both the Hindi original and the translation with various friends, colleagues and students over emails. So far as I have been able to find out, no  English translation of the article has so far been published anywhere.


Learning from Premchand in today’s global world

Recently, Shashi Tharoor won himself a lot of patriotic spurs when he argued, impressively and convincingly, in the lion’s den of the British academy Oxford University, that Britain owes reparations not only to India but to scores of other countries, because of the sheer enormity of the debt - material and psychological - it lived off for  two centuries and more. Tharoor did not insist on a monetary payment, beyond a token quid a year. But he did want Britain to say “sorry”. An apology for imperialism is the morally minimalist route that Tharoor suggested to his Oxford rivals.

However, if Premchand is right, then the commercial market processes of modernity are themselves socially corrosive and ultimately destructive, regardless of whether they work to the advantage of people white in skin or brown (or black). Remember that such conquest is perpetual, as the great writer understood it. “Sorry”, in such a case, is a supine word in the context if the underlying processes that generate the structural injustices persist and continue to proudly outlive the apology.

So we must rightfully ask Mr.Tharoor, with all due respect: Don’t the corrosive market processes of modernity persist in the global world and haven’t some of them also shifted geographical and social location such that he (and a small number of we) now derive enormous material benefits from the same processes, while putting into mortal peril not merely hundreds of millions of the underprivileged, but also our own progeny, because we blithely continue to take decisions which are brutally destabilising the ecology of the Sub-Continent, even as we get morally self-righteous vis-a-vis the affluent imperial nations and their contribution to climate change? 

Somebody quickly needs to tell Mr.Tharoor that this is 2015, not 1915...he is about a 100 years behind history! What about the sub-imperialism within India? What about our very own long-standing ‘internal colonialism’ which every day systematically ravages the lives of the rural (and the urban) poor, which displaces them from their forests, lands, livelihoods, communities and cultures with the deceiving seduction of ‘better jobs’ that ‘development’ will give them, and lands them instead in urban and metropolitan slums of squalor, evicting them subsequently whenever there are events like the Commonwealth Games, which were overseen in 2010 by a government drawn from Mr.Tharoor’s political party? Is there a Tharoor to speak for such colossal injustices as the very existence of a colonial-era land acquisition act in a free, uncolonised country? Doesn't metropolitan India need to make actual reparations, in the form of a radical change of course of policy, to Bharat? Has there been a moment during his time in the Indian State when Tharoor has categorically stood aside on such issues, and waxed with the same moral eloquence he performed at the Oxford Union a few weeks ago? 

In our book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, the environmentalist Ashish Kothari and I write:

“The poorest 20-40% of India’s population will be bearing a remarkably disproportionate burden of the costs of climate change, especially since they inhabit ecologically vulnerable habitats. Just like our government likes to prevail morally on the rich countries to have exemption from emissions reductions, don’t the Indian poor have a right to ask the government to place a carbon tax on the super-rich with which the disproportionate costs they have to bear for climate change (from which the rich derive the bulk of the present benefits) can be somewhat evened out? …Yet, no one in the Indian government argues in this fashion. We remember ethics only when it comes to dealing with those more powerful than ourselves.”


Premchand’s judgment of modernity

There will be those who will think that imperialism is not the same as modernity, that you can end one and need not end the other. But Premchand has already answered such hopefuls by pointing to the even greater perils of the collective selfishness that is likely to pass for ‘communism’ in the materialist modern world. What is called globalisation is little else but imperialism and rape by another, palatably euphemistic, name. Competitive socialism will be likely more materially, politically, culturally and ecologically devastating than competitive imperialism. This was Premchand’s view. 

Today, global society is based entirely on values we associate with modernity. Modernity itself rests on competitive capitalism, not ‘Enlightenment’, as is assumed by many intellectuals.  The ideals of the French revolution “liberty, equality, fraternity” have long gone into eclipse even in the lands which gave birth to them. The rush for power and wealth is the overriding global motivation now. Capitalism is rooted  in competition, in turn a legacy and ongoing product of war. So where is the surprise if society itself has become a form of everyday warfare, leading the legendary British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to remark famously a generation ago “there is no such thing as society”? 

Society everywhere today lives by the ‘rules’ of war because it is ruled by a war-like market, which valorises competition and competitiveness at the cost of every other human value, be it friendship or solidarity, love or compassion. The economy  has now almost fully taken the place of human community and fraternity. It runs  according to rules of war, where everything is fair or foul not according to some universally shared principle, but according to who is the responsible agent of action. The same thing we allow ourselves as obligatory patriotism is seen as ‘terrorism’ when the patriotism of another people is involved. 

In a few wise vernacular paragraphs, penned 87 years ago, Munshi Premchand anticipated all of this. He understood the modern world to be, above all, a system of power. So deep and insidious it already was in his day that he felt everyone was already a devotee of power and domination. Subjugation of countless others lower in the hierarchy was a corollary of this contagious habit. 

Premchand concluded his astonishing essay with this paragraph:

In the time of monarchies only one individual was drunk on power. Under imperialism an entire community is consumed with this headiness. And they are capable of doing anything. All the affluence, all the knowledge and science, all religions and philosophies’ of the West are narrowed down today to one word ‘selfishness’, and justice, truth, compassion, grace, rationality – everything is sacrificed at the altar of ‘selfishness’. 

The only amendment worth making to the above paragraph to render it accurate for a globalised planet in the 21st century is to replace the word ‘West’ by the word ‘world’.


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Here is the English translation of Premchand's 1928 article, followed by a zoomed in PDF of the original page of Premchand's (in Hindi of course) from Swadesh, March 18, 1928. To read the latter you will have to scroll vertically and laterally.


Monarchy and Imperialism

Munshi Premchand

(Translation from Hindi: Jaya Shrivastava)


We live in times of imperialism. Earlier eras belonged to monarchy. In those days a warrior attacked another country to prove his valour, to conquer it, or to spread his religion. Once victorious, his desires were fulfilled. Either the acceptance of defeat on the part of the vanquished king or the latter’s payment of a tax was enough to satisfy him. If his only aim was to spread his religion, then the vanquished king’s conversion to the victor’s religion was enough to set him free. His defeat did not stamp him with ignominy for all times to come. When a man is imbued with valour it is natural for him to show off his strength in front of others. This is pardonable. In fact this should be appreciated. Those who are powerful have a god-given right to rule over the powerless. Slavery is the punishment for weakness. This is why day in and day out, through the ages, every group has worked to acquire moats. But the humiliation suffered by the vanquished on the battlefield was considered enough for the satisfaction of the victor. After a few years there was no difference or inequalities between the victor and the vanquished. 

But we live in the age of imperialism. Today no one attacks to prove his bravery. Bravery is out of fashion these days. Today, powerful communities come together only to suck the blood of the powerless. This ambition no longer resides in the heart of the king but in the heart of traders. Groups of traders are always in search of markets for their goods that can fetch whatever price they want. Gradually they want to capture the market in a way that establishes their rights over it for all times to come. The labouring classes also have a share in the money that comes to their country through the traders. No goods can be manufactured without labourers, and nowadays labourers’ organizations are so powerful that no nation can do anything without their consent.

These labourers cannot bear any injustice in their own country. But when it comes to securing the interests of their traders abroad, they give no pause to judge what is proper or improper, what is just or unjust. They are ever keen to help the traders. They also want pretty houses to live in, nutritious food to eat, cinema theatre entertainment. Everything is necessary for them and all this pleasure can be obtained only when the goods of the traders are being consumed regularly. That is why ruling over a weak nation is as important for the labourers of powerful nations as for their traders. And in any country there are only two categories of people, traders or labourers. Landowners come under the category of traders and farmers under labourers. Therefore, to keep any enslaved community under control is in the interests of not only the king and trader but of the entire community, and the entire clan rules as one community. In the olden days it was the rule of one individual. He was the ‘bridegroom’ of the party. Today, every member of the bridegrooms’ party, however lowly he might be - like a barber or a thakur - is a bridegroom. In the times of Tartars and Mughals water-carriers or cleaners never dreamed of ruling over a community.

Today a common coal-miner of Belgium or England knows and understands that he is ruling over a weak community. A king in earlier times could be happy or angry. All his tasks were done under the influence of his own feelings and thoughts. But to please a whole community is much more difficult than to offend it. Such is the mentality of a whole community.  Things that we cannot even think of doing individually are executed collectively without any hesitation. One individual can be an idealist, can abandon selfishness, but a whole nation cannot be idealist. It is possible that a monarch feels pity at the sight of India’s miserable flights. But it is impossible that the entire British community sacrifices their interests at the alter of pity and justice. 

There was a time when communism stirred the hearts of weak nations with hope. When the proletariat will rule the world, there will no trace of slavery, subjugation or social inequality. Great hopes were pinned on communism.

However, now the experience is that the communist movement is only the victory of the labourers over the capitalists. It is not the victory of justice over injustice, of truth over untruth. There will not be any reduction in all the inequalities, injustices and selfishness which are synonymous with capitalism. In fact, the possibility of their turning more horrifying is greater. People like Lord Olivier and   Ramsey McDonald are socialists. When the Labour party had come out victorious in England, how our hearts had leaped with hope and pride. But alas, the great Lord Olivier himself endorsed the law putting innocent Indian young men under house arrest and today we are seeing the real face of Mr. McDonald. 

In the time of monarchies only one individual was drunk on power. Under imperialism an entire, community is consumed with this headiness. And they are capable of doing anything. All the affluence, all the knowledge and science, all religions and philosophies’ of the West are narrowed down today to one word ‘selfishness’, and justice truth, compassion, grace, rationality – everything is sacrificed at the altar of ‘selfishness’. 



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3 comments:

  1. yes, insightful and reflective. clarity strikes you, as no rhetoric and nothing clever. understanding that comes from karuna and practice. you have situated it well. .

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  2. Dear Aseem

    This is truly a very insightful piece on a very happy discovery you have made of Munshi Premchand's little-known article on a very topical issue that troubles and affects us all.

    Kudos to you for bringing it to the fore-front and then masterfully linking it to the exploitations that we are guilty of in our own country, society (Samaaj) and indeed, even at the individual level.

    I am also impressed that you and Ashish had argued the same point in your book almost 5 years back.

    However, what is important is to now focus on "what we can (or should) do" instead of merely celebrating and remaining content with "what we know".

    I would like to challenge and encourage you to think of small but tangible steps that we can take as individuals to make the playing field a little more "even" for the underprivileged and the handicapped. No matter how small the "tilt correction" we achieve, it will still be a step forward.

    With all best wishes

    hemen

    ReplyDelete