About the Book
Premchand is the most famous Hindi novelist, and Godaan is Premchand’s most celebrated novel. Economic and social conflict in a north Indian village are brilliantly captured in the story of Hori, a poor farmer, and his family’s struggle for survival and self respect. Hori does everything he can to fulfil his life’s desire: to own a cow, the peasant’s measure of wealth and well being. Like many Hindus of his time, he believes that making the gift of a cow to a Brahman before he dies will help him achieve salvation. An engaging introduction to India before Independence, Godaan is at once village ethnography, moving human document and insightful colonial history. Out of print for many year, this translation is regarded as a classic in itself.
About the Author
Premchand (Dhanpat Rai) was born in Banaras in 1880 and died in 1936, a few months after the publication of Godaan. He began writing while teaching at a government school, and adopted this pen name after his first book of short stories was labelled inflammatory and burned by the British colonial government. His other work include Sevasadan, Nirmala, and many other novels and short stories.
The selection of Premchand’s Godaan as one of the first Hindi novels to be translated into English and published in the West will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Hindi literature, for Premchand is generally considered the greatest of Hindi fiction writers, and his last novel-Godaan, published in 1936, as his best or at least his most important work. These factors in themselves make it desirable that the book be accessible to English readers whose impressions of Indian literature, being based almost entirely on works written by Indians in English, are likely to be inaccurate.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Hindi fiction, still in its infancy, was dominated by romantic treatments of Indian legend and history recounting the adventures of high-born heroes and heroines Although twentieth-century developments in Hindi fiction can not be attributed solely to the influence of Premchand, there is no doubt that he played a very important part in shifting the focus of the novel to a contemporary social context in which individual characters particularly those from the lower and middle levels of society, were developed.
The author’s first book, a small collection of short stories in Urdu was published in 1908 under the pseudonym ‘Nawab Rai’, but when the British government discovered that these ‘inflammatory pieaces’ had been written by Dhanpat Rai, a teacher in a government school all available copies of the book were burned and the author found it expedient to change his pen name. The name ‘Premchand’ appered on his first major novel, Sevasadan, in 1918, and Dhanpat Rai wassoon well known in Urdu and Hindi literary circles by that name. First an Urdu writer, Premchand soon found it easier to get his work published in Hindi translation, and he gradually shifted over to writing and publishing primarily in Hindi.
Premchand was born near Banaras in 1880, the son of a village postmaster of the kayastha caste. Educated first in Urdu and Persian, he later attended a Christian mission high school in Gorakhpur and then a high school in Banaras, a four-mile walk from his village home. Unsuccessful in gaining university admission because of deficiencies in mathematics, he taught in various small schools before being selected for teacher’s training and being appointed as a sub-inspector of schools. At the age of thirty-nine, he completed a B.A., and within three years he was devoting himself almost entirely to literary and journalistic pursuits, rejecting government employment in Gandhian protest against foreign rule.
Premchand’s mother had died when he was about eight years old. His father soon remarried. At fifteen, Premchand himself was married in accordance with his parents’ wishes. His father died not long after. Quarrels between Premchand’s stepmother and his wife led the wife to return to her family home some ten years after the marriage, but at the age of about twenty-nine, Premchand married again, choosing the daughter, widowed as a child, of an ardent Arya Samaj reformer. Satisfaction over the literary acclaim won in the years before his death in 1936 was somewhat dimmed by the author’s chronic ill health and by the heavy debts and government restrictions which dogged his efforts to establish and run an independent press. Some of these financial and domestic tensions, Premchand’s concern for political and social reform, and the conflicts aroused by his exposure to both village and city life, are reflected in the characters and themes of his novels and short stories.
In the preface in his first collection of short stories, Premchand noted that the tales revolve primarily around the theme of social reform and commented that ‘such books are badly needed by the country in order to impress the stamp of patriotism on the coming generations’. Social reform had been a burning concern with many Indian intellectuals since the early nineteenth century, and the twentieth century brought rising demands for political reform also.
Premchand’s didactic intentions may intrude at times on contemporary literary sensibilities, but to the reader who views this novel not only as an isolated literary work but also as a kind of historical and social document, the occasional digressions, the moralizing and the romanticizing can be appreciated as a source of insight into the writer and his time. ‘Idealism has to be there,’ Premchand said in a lecture in Madras in 1934, ‘even though it should not militate against realism and naturalness. Similarly it would be good for the realist not to forget idealism. We have’ to portray noble, idealistic aspirations. Otherwise, what would be the use of literature?’ To Premchand, the alternative to this ‘useful’ literature seemed to be a literature intended only ‘to entertain and to satisfy our lust for the amazing’, the stories of magic, of fairies and ghosts, of princes pursuing their beloveds which were found in most of the early Hindi novels. Fortunately Premchand’s view of ‘usefulness’ was tempered by a desire to depict characters ‘according to the existing possibilities’. The writer could be expected ‘to awaken us, and broaden our view and mental sphere’, but he was to do so by presenting ‘an honest critical view of life’.
In Godaan, the utopian solutions found in most of Premchand’s earlier novels have been discarded. The area of conflict in this novel has become more complex, suggesting that there are no easy answers to the problems of either the village or the city, though there is the possibility of improvement and some hint that a better social order is likely to emerge. There seems to be a faith in basic human goodness which, if freed from external and internal pressures, could be the basis of a new society. Although Premchand seems to suggest that certain specific reforms are necessary such as the abolition of the zamindari system, this novel suggests that he believes the change of heart to be the most potent force for change.
The changes of heart in Godaan allow the author to end the novel on a hopeful note despite the tragic end of the protagonist. Khanna is changed by exposure to financial disaster and by the recognition of his wife’s devotion, Mirza is changed by illness, Mehta is changed by philosophical investigation, and Malti is changed by her exposure to Mehta. Among the village characters, who are generally more convincing throughout, there are fewer of these drastic personality changes, but with Matadin and Gobar especially, one sees again a movement away from self-centredness toward self-sacrifice and humanitarian service. Premchand is at his best in portraying the conflicts of Indian village life, and it is that picture of rural life which has made Godaan a classic in modern Hindi literature. Some of the forces operating in the village of this novel have been modified over the years in Indian villages, and some of the forces were especially characteristic of rural life in the section of north India known now as Uttar Pradesh, but the basic struggles depicted in Godaan can still be found in much of contemporary Indian rural life.
When Premchand turns to middle and upper class urban life, his portrait seems less convincing, although many of the ideological clashes continue to be live issues today. The reality of those clashes, however, does not negate the fact that the author’s ideas and theories are not fully integrated into the narration, and that the city characters often seem to be delivering speeches rather than conversing. Such discussions would certainly be more likely in the city than in the village, but the settings for them are at times improbable, and one suspects that the characters are speaking more for the author than for themselves.
Critics have charged that Premchand did not understand the middle and upper classes as he did the peasants, and this may be true, but such a judgment must be weighed in terms of his literary intentions. However well he may have understood such people, it is possible that his desire to depict certain ideals and certain conflicts may have overweighed the desire for more realistic characterization. The author did say that development of character counts above everything else in a novel, but he felt that such character development should serve a definite function, ‘to bring finer and deeper emotions in to play.’
In any case, the inclusion of both rural and urban life allows the author to present a total view of society that a concentration on either one would have eliminated. And the testimony to Prcmchand’s artistic success would seem to be that, considering the novel as a whole, there does appear a wide range of vivid characters whose conflicts, though perhaps oversimplified at times, reflect a range of internal and external problems credible in the Indian setting. It is perhaps fortunate that Premchand did not fully resolve his own conflicting views about traditional and modern forces. Idealising the poor and the humble, he was nevertheless painfully aware that they bring on many of their own difficulties. And distrusting capitalism, he could still recognize that it offered an escape from some other forms of oppression. As a result, the human factor pushes through the political and social and economic statements, and Gobar finds hope not in some system but in recognizing that ‘whatever one’s situation, greed and selfishness would only make it worse.’
Readers unfamiliar with Indian life may feel at a loss in understanding some of the motivations, following parts of the narration, and picturing some of the settings. Novels in English dealing with India usually spell out the unfamiliar cultural details for the Western reader. One of the attractions, however, of novels written first in an Indian language is that one can explore the situation from within the local context, not feeling that the author is catering to the interests of English readers, that he is dealing not with the curious or the exotic but with matters of concern to those within the culture.
As a result, the reader or critic of a novel such as Godaan is challenged to share an experience within a distinctively though not exclusively Indian frame of reference. For example, the awareness of conservative Hindu views about the responsibilities of married women makes Malti’s choice to remain unmarried so as to perform social service more credible than it might appear from a Western point of view. Similarly, Hori’s attitude towards his rebellious brother reflects a traditional Indian view of family loyalty, honour and responsibility. And a number of the details-the touching of people’s feet, the shoe beatings, the repeated references to women as goddesses, the apparent sentimentality about motherhood-need to be understood as natural for the Hindi reader and within the Indian context. By not adding explanatory notes in the text or in footnotes, the translator has accepted the fact that some readers may miss or misinterpret certain allusions, in the novel but this seems less offensive than intruding on the author’s work and disturbing the pleasure of other readers.
Premchand wrote Godaan over a period of some three years, at a time when he was harassed by problems with his press, during which he went to Bombay for a while to write film scripts, and during which he was trying to establish a magazine reflecting the best literature being produced in all the Indian languages. His attention, then, was frequently diverted from the novel he was writing, and this may partially explain the looseness of structure and of detail. The fact that he died some four months after the initial publication of the novel may also help to explain why some of the inconsistencies in the plot were not corrected. Readers who compare this translation closely with the original will find that a few changes have been made to smooth over chronological and other inconsistencies. In general, however, the wording of the translation is intended to follow the original. so that the reader can judge both the strengths and the weaknesses of the author’s work. A reader who carefully plots the time sequence and keeps in mind the details of the story will find a number of inconsistencies. When critics mentioned such matters in discussing earlier works by Premchand, the author passed them off usually as being irrelevant to his literary intentions. So if certain threads of the plots are left hanging, or if some of the comments and descriptions seem inappropriate, one can only accept these as reflecting a view of literature in which concise statement, tight plot structure and realism were not always given top priority, and appreciate the novel in the context of the author’s intentions, his personal background, and the literary climate of the period in which the book was written.
Godaan can no longer be considered as representative of contemporary Indian or Hindi fiction, but there seems little doubt that it will always be considered as something of a classic in the development of Indian and Hindi fiction, and its portrayal of both village and urban society will undoubtedly continue to have relevance for the under- standing of India for many generations.
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