In his famous 1936 address at Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, Premchand explicitly spoke about the role of literature in the society. He said that literature can be defined as a criticism of life; and it is the need of the hour to insert literature as a social unit with man and society at large.

He believed that sentimental art isn’t of much use and the only art that matters is the one that leads to action. His large body of work reinforces this belief as his work instigated both attention towards and reflection on the many social evils of his time, including caste, class and gender discrimination. Did we say “of his time”? Look around you.

Premchand’s last collection of short stories, Kafan, was deemed a highlight of progressive literature because of its exploration of the harsh socio-economic conditions of the working class and its deep investigation into the human psyche. It combined the inner and outer worlds of the ordinary Indian under colonial rule.

In spite of the time that has elapsed since then, these stories continue to reflect the actions that we as active participants in society take, and highlight consequences that are far more absurd and unjust than they were under colonial rule. The contemporary relevance of his work has only grown.

Premchand’s earlier short stories, like Idgaah, Namak Ka Daroga, or Sadgati display staunch idealism in the face of an unjust society. Even though his work drew on a nationalistic tone as he regularly followed Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches, quit his job during Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation, and became involved in debates over the correct course of action for independence, Premchand’s writing never lost the realistic touch that was primarily concerned with the common man’s trials and tribulations.

Form and language

Today, the stories that were written in the early twentieth century project the heavy burden of truth and reality of twentieth-first century Indian society. Premchand was criticised for less than perfect command over form, and was continuously cited as a writer who was growing but was “not just there yet” but for Premchand, the content of his writing preceded form. He considered writing a duty towards society and said that mere talent without an understanding of social life, economic disparities, philosophy and history was why Indian writing was bearing the brunt of accusations of being just “entertaining”.

Scholars of Urdu and Hindi literature are in continuous debate over Premchand’s use of language. He wrote his first novel, Bazaar-e-Husn, in Urdu but its Hindi translation Sevasadan was published first. Premchand switched to Hindi later simply for economic reasons, as Hindi publications paid better than their Urdu counterparts, owing to higher sales and circulation. His writings relied more on the simplicities of the spoken form than on Sanskritised Hindi.

Premchand treated English as the foreign language that it was, and discouraged writers from depending heavily on it. He simply believed that the plight of the people could not be expressed in the language of the oppressor. But he read European writers and philosophers extensively, and stated that writers should subscribe to the intellectual, moral, spiritual and emotional discipline suggested by Aristotle.

Writing a real India

The themes of his novels and short stories revolved around caste discrimination, debt, colonial oppression and the struggle for everyday survival. Premchand never attempted to provide morals or messages – rather, he sketched raw portraits of human suffering. The story Sadgati deals with caste oppression and depicts Dalit lives in the same way that he did in several of his other writings. Yet, literary critics of Dalit literature only regarded his work as empathetic to their situation, but unable to garner real action for the community.

Regardless, Premchand’s work remains essential to the construction of the imagination of the Indian nation, as he took it upon himself to write the people into fiction as they were. In many ways, he created recognition – which he himself sought as a writer – for rural and working-class Indians.

When I look at this old photograph of Premchand and his second wife Shiv Rani Devi, my eyes wander from the smile on his pursed lips to his torn shoes. In that one moment, Premchand embodies Halku, Dukhi, Hori, Amarkant and Hamid all at once. His characters weren’t mere reflections of the social life that he witnessed around him, but they were derivatives of his own existence.