When it comes to the most celebrated writers in India, Munshi Premchand’s name is undoubtedly the most favourite one among the readers of Hindustani literature. He is perhaps the greatest Indian Urdu-Hindi writer of all time. The genre of short stories in India owes a lot to this great writer who had significantly contributed to give a new direction of storytelling in India. Premchand’s prolific style of writing gives the reader an in-depth critical analysis of various social issues, such as moral bankruptcy, the plight of women, farmer’s plight, caste injustices, blind faith, patriarchy and many more. He highlighted these issues through his 14 novels and more than 300 short stories. The enigma of his writing can be inferred from the fact that this great writer remains as relevant today as he was more than a century ago.
Premchand was born as Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava on Saturday, 31 July 1880 (age 56 years; at the time of death) in a village called Lamahi in Benares State, British India. Most of his childhood was spent in Lamahi. At the age of seven, he started attending a madrasa in Lalpur, near his village Lamahi, where he learnt Urdu and Persian from a Maulvi.
When he turned eight, his mother, Anandi Devi, left the world. Thereafter, he was raised by his grandmother who also died soon. After the demise of his mother and grandmother, Premchand became an isolated and lonely child; as his father was a busy man, and his elder sister had already been married. Soon, his father received a transfer order and moved to Gorakhpur where he got remarried. Reportedly, Premchand couldn’t develop a rapport with his stepmother; a theme that he often used in most of his literary works. Makers of Indian Literature by Professor Prakash Chandra Gupta The incidents like his mother’s demise and ill-treatment by his stepmother left Premchand in search of solace, which he ultimately found in fiction. It is believed that his fascination for books was developed after hearing the stories from the Persian-language fantasy epic ‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba.”
His fascination for books led him to become a bookseller for a book wholesaler, which is also considered his first job, and there he got an opportunity to read a lot of books. He went on to read several works of fiction in English, especially George W. M. Reynolds’s eight-volume ‘The Mysteries of the Court of London” while learning English at a missionary school in Gorakhpur.
In the mid-1890, he attended the Queens College in Benares (now, Varanasi). After his father’s demise in 1897, he passed his matric examination with the second division, but he could not further his studies at the Queens College; because only the first division holders were entitled to get the fee concessions at the Queens. Premchand then tried to get himself enrolled at the Central Hindu College; however, he couldn’t get admission there too because of his poor arithmetic skills; leading to the discontinuation in his studies.
Family & Caste
Parents & Siblings
Munshi Premchand’s father, Ajaib Rai was a post office clerk in the British India Government. His mother, Anandi Devi belonged to a wealthy family of the Karauni Village in Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that his mother was most probably the inspiration behind the character of “Anandi” in his 1926 novel “Bade Ghar Ki Beti.” Here’s an excerpt from Bade Ghar Ki Beti –
जिस तरह सूखी लकड़ी जल्दी से जल उठती है, उसी तरह क्षुधा (भूख) से बावला मनुष्य ज़रा-ज़रा सी बात पर तिनक जाता है।”
Guru Sahai Rai was his grandfather who was the village land record-keeper (better known as “Patwari” in north India). Premchand was the fourth born child to his parents. Apart from Suggi Rai, he had two more sisters who died as infants.
Relationships, Wife & Children
In his life, Premchand got married twice. His first marriage, which was arranged by his maternal grandfather, took place when he was 15 years old and was studying in 9th standard at the Queens College in Benares in 1895; the bride was from a rich landlord family and was older than Premchand. Reportedly, it was not a happy marriage, and they often had quarrels over frugal family issues. After one such heated argument, his wife left him and went to live at her father’s home. It is believed that Premchand never tried to brought her back to his home. When he got remarried to a child widow named Shivarani Devi in 1906, the contemporary conservative society condemned this act; as getting married to a widow was a social stigma at that time.
After Premchand’s death, Shivarani Devi published a book titled “Premchand Ghar Mein” in which she revealed many facets of Premchand, including his affairs with many other women.
Premchand had three children with Shivarani Devi; two sons – Amrit Rai (an author) and Sripath Rai, and a daughter – Kamala Devi.
As a Teacher
Reportedly, after his matriculation, he became a tutor to an advocate’s son in Benares, on a monthly salary of Rs. 5. Wikipedia Soon, a headmaster of a missionary school at Chunar in the Mirzapur District of Uttar Pradesh offered him the job of a teacher on a monthly salary of Rs. 18, which Premchand had accepted happily. His other assignment as a teacher was in 1900 when he became an assistant teacher at the Government District School in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh on a monthly salary of Rs. 20. Three years later, he was transferred to Pratapgarh’s Government Inter Collge, and it was there that he was bestowed with the title of “Munshi.”
In 1905, after a brief stint of training in Allahabad, he was transferred to Kanpur, where he stayed for the next four years. In 1916, Premchand was transferred to Gorakhpur on promotion as an Assistant Master at the Normal High School.
He quit his teaching job in 1921; after attending a meeting of Mahatma Gandhi held on 8 February 1921, where Gandhi had summoned all government employees to relinquish their jobs to participate in the non-cooperation movement. In 1931, he again took the job of a teacher and briefly taught at Kanpur’s Marwari College; before leaving it due to some differences with the college administration.
As a Novelist & Story Writer
Reportedly, Premchand had first composed his literary work during his stay at Gorakhpur; when he was still a primary student, though this work could never be get published and is now lost. Premchand’s first published novel is considered to be ‘Asrar-e-Ma’abid’ (Devasthan Rahasya in Hindi), which was published in 1903. In this novel, he exposed corruption among the temple priests and the sexual exploitation of poor women. His first published short story is ‘Duniya Ka Sabse Anmol Ratan,’ which was published in the Urdu magazine Zamana in 1907. In the same year, he published a short story collection titled ‘Soz-e-Watan’ in Zamana, which was banned by the British Government officials on the pretext of being seditious in nature.
During his four-year stay at Kanpur (1905-1909), he extensively published many articles and stories in the Urdu magazine, Zamana.
In his second novel, ‘Hamkhurma-o-Hamsavab,’ the issue of widow remarriage was like a bolt from the blue for the contemporary conservative society. Premchand’s first Hindi story “Saut” was published in a magazine called ‘Saraswati’ in December 1915, and in 1917, he published his first Hindi short story collection, “Sapta Saroj.”
“Seva Sadan” was his first breakthrough novel for which he earned Rs. 450 by a Calcutta-based publisher. Seva Sadan was originally written in Urdu titled Bazaar-e-Husn. “Godan” is considered the best literary work of Premchand, which was also his last completed literary work. Here’s an excerpt from Godan –
जीत कर आप अपने धोखेबाजियों की डींग मार सकते हैं, जीत में सब-कुछ माफ है। हार की लज्जा तो पी जाने की ही वस्तु है।”
Mangalsootra (published in 1936) is considered his last published novel, though it was incomplete. Premchand’s last published story is ‘Cricket Matching,’ which was published in Zamana in 1938, after his death. Many of Premchand’s stories were published in a number of collections, including the 8-volume Mansarovar (1900–1936). Mansarovar is considered one of his most popular story collections. Here’s an excerpt from Mansarovar –
बच्चों के लिए बाप एक फालतू-सी चीज – एक विलास की वस्तु है, जैसे घोड़े के लिए चने या बाबुओं के लिए मोहनभोग। माँ रोटी-दाल है। मोहनभोग उम्र-भर न मिले तो किसका नुकसान है; मगर एक दिन रोटी-दाल के दर्शन न हों, तो फिर देखिए, क्या हाल होता है।”
As an Editor & Publisher
After quitting his job as an Assistant Master at the Normal High School in Gorakhpur, Premchand returned to his hometown Benares on 18 March 1921, and in 1923, he established a printing press and publishing house “Saraswati Press” in Benares, and some of his acclaimed literary works such as Rangabhumi, Pratigya, Nirmala, and Gaban, came out during this time. Here’s an excerpt from Gaban –
जीवन एक दीर्घ पश्चाताप के सिवा और क्या है!”
In 1930, he started a magazine titled “Hans,” which was a political weekly, and in which he extensively wrote against the atrocities of the British Rule in India. After Hans ran at a loss, he started another magazine called “Jagaran,” but it too ran at a loss.
After leaving the job of a teacher from Kanpur’s Marwari College in 1931, he again returned to Benares and joined a magazine called “Maryada” as an editor. Meanwhile, he also worked as the headmaster of the Kashi Vidyapeeth.
He also edited a Lucknow-based magazine “Madhuri.”
As a Script Writer
Premchand had also tried his hand in the Hindi Film Industry. After arriving in Bombay on 31 May 1934, Ajanta Cinetop (a production company) gave him a scriptwriting job on an annual salary of Rs. 8000. Thereafter, he got an offer to write the script for Mohan Bhawnani’s directorial film “Mazdoor” in 1934. However, due to the objections from the elite business class in Bombay, the film was banned; as they (factory owners in Bombay) believed that the narrative of the film was against the business class, and it could incite the labour class to stand up against them.
Premchand couldn’t survive in Bombay for a longer period of time; as he had started feeling suffocated by the commercial environment of non-literary works in Bombay, and on 4 April 1935, he left Bombay for his hometown Benares, where he stayed till his death in 1936.
- Seva Sadan (published in 1919)
- Nirmala (published in 1925)
- Gaban (published in 1931)
- Karmabhoomi (published in 1932)
- Godan (published in 1936)
- Bade Bhai Sahab (published in 1910)
- Panch Parameshvar (published in 1916)
- Boodhi Kaki (published in 1921)
- Shatranj Ke Khiladi (published in 1924)
- Namak Ka Daroga (published in 1925)
- Poos Ki Raat (published in 1930)
- Idgah (published in 1933)
Premchand is often referred to as “People’s Writer;” as most of his literary works speak the language of the common people. His writings had touched almost every social fabric of India, whether it’s the feudal system, child widowhood, prostitution, corruption, colonialism, or poverty. Many renowned people from the world of literature have quoted him as the first Hindi author to feature “realism” in his writings. What was Premchand’s own point of view towards literature can be inferred from an interview when he said,
We will have to raise the standard of our literature, so that it can serve the society more usefully… our literature will discuss and assess every aspect of life and we will no longer be satisfied with eating the leftovers of other languages and literatures. We will ourselves increase the capital of our literature.”
His articles are believed to have greatly influenced India’s freedom movement. Whether it was writing for the moderates like Gopal Krishna Gokhale or the extremists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, he touched almost every facet of the national activism in India. Some of his writings also reflect the essence of the Gandhian principle.
It is believed that it was Premchand who had introduced “social realism” in Hindi literature as compared to “feminine eulogy” in contemporary Bengali literature. While talking about the concept during a literature meet, he said,
Hamein khubsoorti ka mayaar badalna hoga (we have to redefine the parameters of beauty).”
He always tried to rediscover his writing style and often experimented with new thoughts and ideas to knit his characters. It was Premchand who, even after being a Hindu, often introduced Mulsim characters in his literary works. The character of “Hamid” from one of his most celebrated stories “Idgah” is one such Muslim character that is still a part of various school curriculums in India. The story of Idgah depicts a beautiful relation between a boy “Hamid” and his grandmother “Ameena.” Here’s an excerpt from Idgah –
और सबसे ज्यादा प्रसन्न है हामिद। वह चार-पांच साल का गरीब-सूरत, दुबला-पतला लड़का, जिसका बाप गत वर्ष हैजे की भेंट हो गया और मां न जाने क्यों पीली होती-होती एक दिन मर गई। किसी को पता न चला, क्या बीमारी है। कहती भी तो कौन सुनने वाला था। दिल पर जो बीतती थी, वह दिल ही में सहती और जब न सहा गया तो संसार से विदा हो गई। अब हामिद अपनी बूढ़ी दादी अमीना की गोद में सोता है और उतना ही प्रसन्न है। उसके अब्बाजान रुपए कमाने गए हैं। बहुत-सी थैलियां लेकर आएंगे। अम्मीजान अल्लाह मियां के घर से उसके लिए बड़ी अच्छी-अच्छी चीजें लाने गई है, इसलिए हामिद प्रसन्न है। आशा तो बड़ी चीज है और फिर बच्चों की आशा! उनकी कल्पना तो राई का पर्वत बना लेती हैं।”
Premchand’s many works are believed to be influenced by the Left ideology, but he never restricted himself to any particular ideology, and he always took something from various ideologies; from the Gandhian philosophy to the Bolshevik Revolution. The Hindu
- Premchand was often criticized by his fellow writers for leaving his first wife and getting married to a child widow.
- His second wife, Shivarani Devi was also not happy with him; owing to his affairs with other women, a fact that she had mentioned in the “Premchand Ghar Mein.”
- Two of his senior workers at the “Saraswati press,” Vinodshankar Vyas and Pravasilal Verma had accused him of doing fraudulent activities.
- He was also criticized for using orthodox tactics to treat his daughter when she was sick. Wikipedia
- Writing Genre: Fiction
- Novelist: George W. M. Reynolds (a British fiction writer and journalist) Makers of Indian Literature by Professor Prakash Chandra Gupta
- Writers: Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, John Galsworthy, Sadi, Guy de Maupassant, Maurice Maeterlinck, Hendrik van Loon
- Novel: “The Mysteries of the Court of London” by George W. M. Reynolds Makers of Indian Literature by Professor Prakash Chandra Gupta
- Philosopher: Swami Vivekananda
- Indian Freedom Fighters: Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Premchand spent his last days in his hometown Varanasi. He died on Thursday, 8 October 1936, after suffering from a chronic illness. After his death, a memorial was made in his native village Lamahi.
- Premchand wrote most of his articles under two pen names – Munshi Premchand and Nawab Rai.
- He was nicknamed “Nawab” by his uncle, Mahabir who was a rich landowner. Premchand A Life by Amrit Rai
- Premchand wrote his first novel, ‘Asrar-e-Ma’abid,’ under the pseudonym “Nawab Rai.” However, many literary critics including Siegfried Schulz and Prakash Chandra Gupta criticized this novel; terming it an “immature work.”
- He wrote his second novel ‘Hamkhurma-o-Hamsavab’ under the pseudonym ‘Babu Nawab Rai Banarasi.’
- During his stay in Pratapgarh (Uttar Pradesh) as a teacher, he got the sobriquet of “Munshi.”
- When his first short story collection titled ‘Soz-e-Watan’ was banned by the British Government officials in 1907, the district magistrate ordered him to burn all its copies that he had and also warned him to keep himself away from writing that kind of thing in future. The Penguin Digest
- Munshi Daya Narain Nigam (editor of the Urdu magazine Zamana) was the person who had suggested him the pseudonym “Premchand,” and from then onwards, Dhanpat Rai became Premchand.
- 1914 was the year when Premchand started writing in Hindi for the first time; by that time he had already become a popular fiction writer in Urdu.
- Premchand did a cameo as the leader of the labour union in the 1934 Hindi film “Mazdoor.” He had also written the script of the film.
- Ironically, the workers at the Saraswati Press in Benares, which was being run by Premchand, had launched a strike against him for not being paid with their salaries; an issue that was depicted in his film “Mazdoor.”
- At one point in time, he was so debt-ridden that he had to sell his collections of books to get rid of several debts.
- Premchand was elected as the first President of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow, a few days prior to his death in 1936.
- Unlike his contemporaries like Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand never travelled outside India or studied abroad; the reasons often cited for the lack of international appreciation for him.
- In 2016, on his 136th birthday, Google honoured him by making a doodle.