A Story of Selfless Love

Munshi (an honorary prefix) Premchand was one of the most celebrated Urdu-Hindi short-story writers, novelists, and dramatists of the Indian subcontinent of the early 20th century. Often referred to as “Upanyas Samrat” (Emperor among novelists) by many Hindi writers for more than a dozen of his novels but he was most famous for his short stories, about 250 of them. He also wrote a number of essays and translated a number of foreign literary works into Hindi. He was a social reformer, a champion of India’s freedom and an educationist by profession. Born as Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, in Lamhi, near Varanasi, on July 31, 1880 and died in Varanasi on October 8, 1936.

Premchand’s interest in stories was born in his childhood when at a tobacconist’s shop in his neighbourhood; he heard the stories from the Farsi fantasy epic, “Tilism-e-Hoshruba”. He probably started weaving his own stories in his mind at that young age. He started writing under the penname “Nawab Rai” but subsequently changed to Premchand. He first wrote in Urdu but changed to Hindi in 1914, because of difficulty in finding Urdu publishers. Later, some works were published in both languages. He wrote on political and social issues. He wrote extensively on village life and problems of the peasants. His first short story collection “Soz-e-Vatan” was later banned as it was considered “Seditious work” for stories with patriotic overtones, which inspired the Indians revolt against the foreign rule. His first published story: “Duniya Ka Sub Se Anmol Ratan” (The most precious jewel in the world), appeared in Zamana in 1907. According to this story, the most precious jewel necessary to attain freedom was the last drop of blood.

In 1920, he joined Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement in which Indians were asked to resign from their government jobs. He had recently obtained his B.A. Degree from Allahabad University and had been promoted to Deputy Inspector of Schools. He had two little boys, Sripat Rai (Later an artist), Amrit Rai and his wife was pregnant with their daughter, Kamla Devi. It was a very hard decision for him to resign from his first well-paying job, which gave his family some comforts. But his wife, Shivani Devi helped him take the decision to resign from the government service, which meant living in poverty. The couple was among many unsung heroes in the fight for India’s freedom. Premchand’s first marriage at age 15 was arranged with a very rich man’s daughter who was older to him and not good-looking. They did not get along and she returned to her father’s house. Then he married a child widow, Shivani Devi, which was a revolutionary act at that time. After resigning from the government job, Premchand launched a literary political weekly, perhaps to earn a little money but the magazine was noted for its provocative contents against the British rule and did not succeed financially.

Besides his political writings, Premchand’s main work is on social realism. In this aspect of writing he can be compared to the Nobel Prize winning Colombian author, Gabriel Marcia Marquez. But Premchand was not as lucky as Marquez. Several of his works on social realism were not appreciated by the conservative Indian society of that time. It got lost. For instance his first novel was a farce on a young man who fell in love with a low class woman. It was believed to be on an uncle. This work was never published. “Prema” exploring the important issue of widow marriage did not catch much attention at that time. “Krishna” a satirical novel on women’s fondness of jewelry was called by the literary critic Naubat Rai as a “Mockery of women’s condition” is now lost.

His first novel, “Bazar-e-Husn” written in Urdu, was first published in Hindi under the name “Seva Sadan” (House of Service). It is about an unhappy wife who becomes a courtesan and later manages an orphanage for the young daughters of the courtesans. Later, M.S. Subbulaxmi made it into a film. The novel, “Shatranj ke Khilari” (The Chess Players) on two decadent Nawabs, was made into a film by Satyajit Ray. HIs novel “Gaban” (Embezzlement of funds) focuses on excessive greed for money. His most famous novel is “Godan” which depicts the sufferings of the peasants. It was the first Hindi novel translated into English and published in the West.

It is sometimes asked why Premchand did not become as famous as Rabindranath Tagore and a possible answer is that, compared to the Guru, very little of his work was translated into English, the lingua franca of India. Just as Ghalib did not become as famous as Shakespeare because the latter wrote in English, the international language and Ghalib in Urdu and Farsi. Both the languages are very difficult to be translated into English without losing much of the beauty of the language.

In 1936, just before his death, Premchand was elected the first President of Progressive Writer’s Association. After his death, his wife, Shivani Devi wrote a book on her husband “Prem Chand Ghar Mein”  (Premchand at home).

“Eidgah” – (An open space reserved for the Eid prayers and Mela) “Eidgah” is one of Prem Chand’s most power stories. In this story, he is mainly noted for three of his remarkable observations and insights: Firstly, his thorough understanding of Muslim faith and its practices. It also shows his close and cordial relationship with the members of the other community. Secondly, his understanding of the village life, problems of the peasants anda heartfelt compassion for them. And the last, he comes out as a master of child psychology when one hears the conversations of the children among themselves, their selfishness and often cruelty to one another, which is due to their immaturity.

It is the story of a four-five years old boy, Hamid and his grandmother, Amina. Hamid’s father, Abid, died in the cholera epidemic in the village and soon after his death, Hamid’s mother also succumbed to death, probably, out of grief and hopelessness. Thus the responsibility of bringing up Hamid fell on Amina’s weak shoulders. After the bread-earner of the family, Abid gone, Amina did a little sewing for others for a very little amount of money per day to make both ends meet. She brought up Hamid mainly on her unlimited love and on very little else.

The story begins at the end of the fasting month, Ramzan, on Eid morning. Premchand draws a perfect picture of what goes on in Muslim homes on Eid morning. Muslims usually wear new clothes on Eid if they can afford it. Since the story takes place in a village where most inhabitants are poor, listen to the description of their activities early Eid morning: Everybody is up earlier than usual to go to Eidgah. One finds a button missing from his old shirt and is running to his neighbour’s house to borrow thread and needle. Another finds that the leather of his very old shoes has become hard and is rushing to the Oil Press to get it greased. Men are heaping fodder in front of their cattle because it may be late afternoon when they return from Eidgah. It is a good three miles from the village, quite far to walk on foot. There will be hundreds of people to embrace and exchange greetings with.

The boys have collected their “Eidie” to spend in Eidgah. They are happily counting and recounting their wealth. Mahmood has twelve paisas; Mohsin is richer with fifteen, to buy toys, sweets, balls etc. Hamid, the youngest of all, famished looking, poorly dressed, with no shoes and only three paisas in his pocket is happiest because he imagines that his parents will return with a lot of money and gifts from Allah then he will have more than any one else. A child’s imagination has no limits.

The villagers’ party leaves for Eidgah together. The children’s party is ahead of the grown ups. They want to reach Eidgah, at three miles distance in the city, in a jump. So they run as fast as they can Hamid ran the fastest on his bare feet and then all stopped under a tree to wait for elders to start together again. They wondered why the oldies couldn’t walk faster! They observe and comment on everything on the way. There comments are hilarious. They notice a big building and learn from the elders that it is a school for older boys. They even see some older boys with mustaches and beards, coming out and thought they must be quite dumb if they have not yet finished school.

At last, the villagers’ party reaches Eidgah. Premchand paints a beautiful picture of the Namaz (prayers) being performed together by hundreds of people, row upon row of worshippers. The newcomers quietly line up behind others. Premchand remarks: “Here neither wealth nor status matters because, according to Islam, all men are equal”. The villagers too, stand behind others after performing “Vuzu”, (washing their hands, feet and face). The prayer starts with the Imam leading the congregation. What perfect coordination of movements: Several hundred people, all stand erect, then bow down together, stand erect again, sit on their knees, go into prostration, sit up again. These movements are repeated several times with the same perfect coordination of movements. What an amazing sight.

The prayers are over, men greet each other with “Eid Mubarak” and embrace whoever is next to them. Boys rush to the Mela. First comes the Swing. In one paisa, enjoy a ride to the skies, then comes the roundabout with wooden horses, camels and elephants. Take twenty-five rounds in one paisa. Mohsin, Mehmood and Noorey mount the animal of their choice and have a fun ride. Hamid is not prepared to spend one third of his treasure on a silly ride.

The next stop is a toyshop. Toys of clay in colorful costumes: there is a soldier with a gun, a policeman in Khaki and red turban, a water-carrier (Bhishti), with the water bag on his back, a holy man (Sadhoo), in his saffron attire, a lawyer in his black coat. All life-like as if about to speak. Mohsin likes the water-carrier best, Noorey is impressed by the lawyer, and all the boys pick up the toy of their choice and brag about them. Hamid is fascinated by all the toys and would at least like to touch them, but they are two paisas a piece, two third of his wealth for just one piece of clay! If it falls, it will break instantly.

After the toys is the sweet shop. The boys choose their favourite sweets. Hamid’s mouth is watering too. The boys are relishing the sweets and offer some to Hamid but not really. Only to tease him. He reminds the boys, sweets are no good for their teeth and refuses any false offers saying he can buy them if he wishes as he has the money. Cruel Sami taunts: “All you have is three paisas, what can you buy with them?” They urge him to take out his three paisas and spend them. But he could not bring himself parting with his wealth for such temporary pleasures.

All interesting shops for the boys are finished and then comes a hardware shop selling household objects. The boys don’t even look at them and walk forward but one object catches Hamid’s eyes. It is a pair of tongs (Chimta), which reminds him that his grandma doesn’t have one and without it, burns her fingers turning the flat bread on the hot plate (Tawa). It appears to be a better buy which will save grandma’s fingers and last a lifetime than the clay toys which can break instantly and sweets whose taste lasts in the mouth for a few minutes only. How happy grandma will be to see it and shower him with blessings. Hamid knew that other boys will make fun of him for his strange toy but he was prepared to face them with strong arguments in favour of his tongs. He enthusiastically asked the shopkeeper for the price. Not seeing a man with the little boy, tells him it was not for him. But on Hamid’s insistence tells the price, which dampens his enthusiasm. It was six paisas a piece. Double of what Hamid had in his pocket! He pleads the man to reduce the price. The man brings it down to five paisas as the last price. Hamid’s heart starts sinking. But he gathers all his courage and manages to utter: ” Will you give it for three.” and prepares himself to run fast in case the shopkeeper chases him out in anger. But the contrary happened. Allah put mercy in the man’s heart. He asked Hamid to come back and take the tongs for three paisas. Hamid’s happiness was out of bounds. He proudly put the tongs on his shoulder as if it were a gun on the shoulder of a soldier. Then he joins the boys to show off what he had bought, with a resolve not to take any nonsense from them. The boys started making fun of him for this strange object, as expected, but he retorted back by enumerating the many uses of this object. They had to shut up especially when he said that with one blow from his tongs, all their clay toys would be reduced to dust and the iron tongs will live forever. The boys were truly impressed and secretly wished they could also buy one but they were not left with any paisas at all. So they started digging out points against the tongs, the jobs, it could not do such as fetching water as the water-carrier does, arguing in a court like their lawyer, maintain law and order like the policeman. Hamid utterly demolishes them by saying that all of their clay toys will carry out their jobs for it at the order of the strongest of all the toys; his iron tongs or they all will be smashed to pieces by just one blow. The boys had to accept the superiority of Hamid’s toy and started offering their toys to Hamid to hold and asked him to let them hold his tongs.

When Hamid reaches home, his anxiously waiting grandma, rushes to embrace him and showers kisses on him. Then she suddenly notices a pair of tongs in his hands and curiously enquiries about it. Hamid proudly tells her it was his Eid gift for her, thinking she would be overjoyed at it but to the contrary, she looked very unhappy and called her a foolish boy who, instead of eating something nice and buying a toy for himself, bought a pair of iron tongs. Hamid could not face the angry grandma and looking down, uttered in a low voice: “Now you won’t burn your fingers turning the flat bread on the hot plate.”

Amina’s anger suddenly vanished and her heart filled up with the deepest felt love as well as immense pride for her little grandson. In the Mela, when other boys must have been thinking only about themselves and buying sweets and toys of their choice, Hamid was thinking of her grandma, burning her fingers because she did not have a pair of tongs. She burst into tears of joy and cried like a little girl whereas little Hamid stood calm and confident like a wise old man.

Dr. Sehba Ali

Writer  is an Applied Linguist and a freelance-writer.
(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 3 Issue 28, Dated 05 July 2016)

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