To name Premchand’s story “Kafan” as proof of the author’s anti-Dalit proclivities is to miss the point
Premchand is known for his realistic understanding of caste oppression in the countryside and his soul-stirring portrayal of the lives of the lower castes and the ‘untouchables’, now known as Dalits. His short story “Sadgati” (Deliverance) was turned into a memorable telefilm by none other than Satyajit Ray. It’s by no means incidental that Ray chose only Premchand’s short stories for his two Hindi films, the first one being “Shatranj ke Khiladi” (The Chess Players). When he was alive, Premchand was the target of fierce and abusive attacks from Brahmins and other upper castes because of his sympathetic portrayal of the oppressed lower castes and untouchables. He was dubbed as “anti-Brahmin” by his upper caste detractors who accused him of spreading hatred against them. It’s an irony of fate that the same Premchand is being dubbed as “anti-Dalit” these days by many Dalit writers and critics.
A majority of Dalit writers and critics firmly believe that only a Dalit can write authentically about his community, as a writer belonging to an upper caste does not have those experiences that are specific to the Dalits. They may have a point but their insistence on its absolute validity robs it of literary relevance. By this logic, no male writer can create an authentic female character and express her feelings, emotions and thoughts as he is not privy to her experiences qua woman. In fact, some women writers do argue in this manner to buttress their case for building a body of literature devoted to ‘feminist discourse’. However, those who adopt such stances forget that literature is not a mere re-presentation but a re-creation of reality through the mediation of imagination, experiences, talent and creativity. Had it not been so, Tolstoy could not have created an Anna Karenina and Premchand a Nirmala. Who can forget the women who inhabit the works of the great Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya or Hindi’s very own Jainendra?
Premchand, who was only 56 at the time of his death in 1936, evolved as a writer over more than three decades. While his early stories show ‘untouchables’ having full faith in the beliefs of the Hindu religion and accepting the unjust caste hierarchy and oppression associated with it, stories like “Kafan” that were written shortly before his death show them free from such notions. Surprisingly, it is “Kafan” that has drawn maximum flak from Dalit writers and critics who read into it many things that are not quite there. Even relatively more liberal writers like Omprakash Valmiki have reacted strongly against it. They allege that Premchand has shown the father-son duo — Gheesu and Madhav — in poor light and they come through as villainous characters on account of their negative portrayal. Dalit thinkers see in it an attempt to mock at the ‘untouchables’ in “Kafan”, a charge that looks truly preposterous if one takes into account Premchand’s writings in their totality. A few like Dharmvir let their imagination run riot and attack the story for those episodes or relationships that are not found in it but which, according to them, logically flow from it. This is nothing but turning the methodology of literary criticism upside down.
As Marxist critic Kantimohan points out, “Kafan” is really not about the caste problem. Gheesu and Madhav are landless agricultural labourers who act as free agents and refuse to work if they are not in the mood or if the terms are not agreeable. They cannot be forced to work by the upper castes as used to be the case earlier. However, a life of suffering and want has completely dehumanized them. Madhav’s wife Budhiya is about to die in childbirth. However, neither of them is concerned about saving her. Unlike the Dalit characters of earlier stories, they question the custom of wrapping the dead body of a woman, who never got a new sari in her life, in a new shroud. They raise money for her funeral and spend it on drinking liquor and eating tasty food to their hearts’ content. Premchand’s artistic intention is not to portray the condition of the Dalits, but to bring the feudal-colonial exploitation of the peasantry into sharp relief because despite working much harder than Gheesu and Madhav, peasants did not fare any better.