July 31 is the 136th birthday of world famous short story writer and novelist Munshi Premchand. Each year this day routinely comes and goes. There are some articles on his life and times which surface or at best on his literary works and then as the day fades away waiting to appear next year.
Idgah, one of Premchand’s most popular short stories, is about a young boy Hamid, who goes to the city with his friends to offer Namaj on the occasion of Eid and join the festivity. The scene of Idgah where Hamid offers prayers is so graphically described. Praising the religion as classless, Premchand goes on to say that the seating on the floor is not based on any hierarchy. Everyone is seated in rows next to each other irrespective of one’s position or affluence. They all are praying together. All heads are bowing and rising in harmony and in perfect synchronisation.
Describing and praising one religion in such a forthright, bold and fearless manner was Premchand’a forte.
Premchand was a Hindu Kayastha. He need not have gone overboard to extol the virtues of a religion that did not belong to him yet he emphasised the positivity of the faith. This is perhaps as a writer, he wanted to highlight equality in the religion so that his wider readership understood the message of unity and harmony which he subtly put across.
When Idgah was written in the early twentieth century, the society was perhaps not so polarised on communal lines as it is prevalent today. Premchand, the visionary that he was, wrote this piece for posterity and peace. That’s why he remains relevant even today and would continue to remain so in years to come.
Another short story by Premchand — Juloos (the procession) — stands pertinent in view of the forthcoming Independence Day celebrations as this story was written by him when Mahatma Gandhi had stirred the nation by his non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements. India was reeling under a vibrant phase with satyagrahis pitching in on the streets defying authorities by resorting to non-violence yet stepping up their call for independence. Against this backdrop, Juloos has Ibrahim as the central character and the story revolves around a dedicated band of freedom fighters.
Premchand choosing a Muslim figure (Ibrahim) as the main protester and satyagrahi mobilising public protests and agitation in a Uttar Pradesh city speaks all. The description is heart rendering on two counts. One, Ibrahim is the local leader of the movement with a mass following of all religions and castes. He is also progressive and farsighted. He is respected by one and all. Two, he is a Gandhian – a hardcore non-violent character who received fatal lathi blows from the hands of a majority high caste ambitious police officer. Till his death, Ibrahim did not physically hit back at the authorities though the agitators had sufficient provocation to do so. None of the followers dared defying Ibrahim. That’s the beauty of Premchand wherein he had so succinctly weaved the story conveying a loud and clear message for non-violence, tolerance and national unity. He sacrificed his life without compromising principles essential to forge communal amity.
Another significant feature of Juloos is the role of women. Ibrahim’ wife is equally dedicated to the cause of freedom struggle. Similarly, the police officer who inflicted lathiblows on Ibrahim was ostracised by his wife for being violent on a freedom fighter. Women force is aptly demonstrated in this story. They are part of the Juloos in good number and in a proactive and constructive manner .
It is nearly eight decades since Premchand’s demise but his works live on and they are getting more and more worthy of emulating as the fissiparous forces are constantly looking for space and opportunity to foster communal discord and disunity. Such forces need to be defeated.
Best tribute to Premchand on his birthday will be to widely disseminate his literature harping for a pluralistic society with tolerance and peace as the hallmarks of an exemplary national unity. Such dissemination includes story telling of Premchand’s works to the students and youngsters lest they are not drawn towards the parochial forces with limited vision, who are constantly threatening to split the society on communal and caste lines.
The author is a retired police officer and a freelance writer. Views are personal.