Those who are trying to paint Premchand red or saffron are doing the brilliant author the greatest injustice. Every great writer has his contradictions

Even nearly eight decades after his death, Premchand continues to remain the greatest fiction writer in Hindi. His understanding of rural India with all its complexities and specificities, his grasp of the psychological make-up of people belonging to different castes and classes, his empathy with suffering women, and his deep insight into the process of increasing pauperisation of the rural poor under the weight of a ruthlessly exploitative colonial-feudal system remain unmatched so far. Many major fiction writers such as Jainendra Kumar, Sachchidanand Hiranand ‘Agyeya’, Amritlal Nagar, Phaneeshwar Nath ‘Renu’, Yashpal, Mohan Rakesh, Amarkant, Nagarjun, Shrilal Shukla, Rahi Massom Raza, Shaani and Vinod Kumar Shukla –– to name just a few –– made their appearance on the literary scene since his departure, but none could attain his stature or displace him from the hearts of the reading public in the sprawling Hindi region. There is no denying the fact that in terms of literary technique and sophistication, his successors were way ahead of him. They broke new ground and immensely contributed to the progress of Hindi fiction, but none could endear himself so much as to come anywhere near Premchand.

Little wonder that even now, Premchand remains the most relevant contemporary writer as is evident from the controversies currently raging about the real nature of his work and thought. Like the proverbial six blind men who variously described an elephant as a pillar, a rope, a thick branch of a tree, a solid pipe, a big hand fan and a high wall depending on the part of the elephant’s body they touched, critics and admirers are showing Premchand in such different lights that it becomes nearly impossible to believe that they are talking of the same man. Strangely, two processes are at work at the same time. There is an attempt to appropriate Premchand to suit one’s own ideological-political inclination by selectively quoting him.

There are those like Kamal Kishore Goenka — a serious anti-Left scholar who has sincerely devoted himself to study and research Premchand and has produced an extremely valuable body of work — who are trying to prove that the celebrated writer had no sympathy for the Bolshevik Revolution or the Left-oriented progressive thinking and was in fact ideologically much closer to the present-day proponents of Hindutva. They portray the incident of Premchand throwing himself enthusiastically and wholeheartedly into the work of opening branches of the nascent All India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in various small towns and presiding over its first session in Lucknow in 1936 just a few months before his death as devoid of any real significance. They try to prove their point by quoting from his articles to suggest that he viewed communism as worse than capitalism. His association with the Arya Samaj is also being cited as evidence to buttress the claim that his involvement with the PWA was merely incidental –– rather a fleeting affair.

On the other hand are those who insist that Premchand was really a votary of the Left ideology and politics. They also cite many quotations from his literary works as well as speeches and articles. In their zeal to appropriate Premchand, leaders of both the rival camps forget that he evolved over a period of time both as a first-rate literary writer as well as a social thinker. Yet, he did not embrace any structured political or social philosophy and his main concern always remained to explore the best way to attain independence from foreign rule as well as freedom from social evils. He began as a Gandhi enthusiast but later developed doubts about the efficacy of his idealist path. He was also very much impressed by the Bolshevik Revolution and whatever news he got about the social and economic progress being made in the Soviet Union. But this did not make him a committed Marxist, nor was he a committed Gandhian. He was certainly an admirer of the Arya Samaj that championed women’s education, launched campaigns against social ills and religious superstition, and struck a blow to the ideology of caste discrimination. But, he was never a communalist of any kind. Those who are trying to paint him red or saffron are doing the greatest injustice to him. Every great writer has his contradictions and it is they that often act as the driving creative force. Premchand was no exception.