There is a photograph of Premchand in front of me, he has posed with his wife. Atop his head sits a cap made of some coarse cloth. He is laid in a kurta and dhoti. His temples are sunken, his cheekbones jut out, but his lush moustache lends a full look to his face.

He is wearing canvas shoes and its laces are tied haphazardly. When used carelessly, the metal lace-ends come off and it becomes difficult to insert the laces in the lace-holes. Then, laces are tied any which way.

The right shoe is okay but there is a large hole in the left shoe, out of which a toe has emerged.

My sight is transfixed on this show. If this is his attire while posing for a photograph, how must he be dressing otherwise? I wonder. No, this is not a man who has a range of clothes, he does not possess the knack of changing clothes. The image in the photograph depicts how he really is.

I look towards his face. Are you aware, my literary forbear, that your shoe is torn and that a toe can be seen? Do you have no inkling of this/ No shame, hesitation or bashfulness? Don’t you know that by lowering the dhoti a bit you can cover the toe?

Even then, your face looks carefree and confident. When the photographer must have said “Ready, please”, then, in keeping with tradition, you must have tried to summon a smile and just as you were in the throes of dredging up a smile that lay at the bottom of pain’s well, the photographer must have “clicked” and said “Thank you!”

This smile is strange. This is not a smile, this is derision, this is satire.

What kind of man is this, who himself poses for a photograph in torn shoes but is also laughing at somebody.

If you wanted to get a photograph taken, you could have worn proper shoes or else you need not have posed at all. No harm would have been caused if a photograph had not been taken. Perhaps, giving in to your wife’s entreaties, you said “Okay, come” and sat down. But what a big tragedy it is when a man does not have a pair of shoes to wear even while posing for a photograph.

While staring at your photograph, I feel your deep distress within me and want to weep but the sharp, satirical pain in your eyes stops me from doing so.

You do not understand the importance of photographs. If you did, you would have borrowed a pair of shoes from someone.

A photograph, an essay, a story

Premchand ke Phatey Joote, often used as a text for schoolchildren, comes alive with the photograph that inspired it. We tried to trace the photograph, or at least recreate it with illustrations based on Parsai’s description.

In 2015, while browsing for images of Premchand, a grainy black and white studio photograph popped up. The description matched the picture Parsai was inspired by. A simple zooming in clearly revealed the torn shoe!

An email to the Flickr account used for the pictures yielded a response a few days later. Rashid Ashraf, a chemical engineer from Karachi, Pakistan, had found the photographs of Premchand in a commemorative volume of Zamana, a prominent literary magazine published from Kanpur after Premchand’s death in 1936.

Premchand, as his biographers tell us, had published a number of short stories in Zamana. Earlier, under his first pseudonym Nawab Rai, Zamana had published his collection of stories Soz-e-Watan, which was banned in 1909 for being seditious in nature. Of the 1,000 copies printed, 300 were sold and the rest seized from the office of Zamana and burnt.

Ashraf, along with some friends, has undertaken a project (zinda kitabain) to revive Urdu literature, re-publish rare Urdu books and scan and upload old books on, absolutely free. Research scholars from India and Pakistan have benefited greatly from this project.

Ashraf had stumbled upon old copies of Zamana and other Urdu magazines in Karachi’s old book bazaar, almost 79 years later. He uploaded them on the Internet and a connection, across time and geographical borders, was made.

Excerpted with permission from Premchand’s Torn Shoes, Harishankar Parsai, translated from the Hindi by MJ Pandey.