Hindi Belt Authors

Not just Premchand’s wife

In the Hindi literary world, Shivrani Devi is known as the writer of the unique book “Premchand Ghar Mein”(Premchand At Home) and as the woman who fiercely guarded her independence and self-identity and never allowed her immensely famous husband to overshadow her. In fact, it was she whose critical opinion and advice Premchand regularly sought, respected and followed.

The re-publication of “Kaumudi”, a collection of her short stories originally published by Saraswati Press in 1937, after a gap of 83 years offers us a chance to familiarise ourselves with another aspect of her creative personality. “Premchand Ghar Mein”, a veritable feminist document,too had been unavailable for a long time. Now, Nayee Kitab Prakashan has republished both these books and well-known Hindi fiction writer and translator Sara Rai, daughter of Premchand’s eldest son Sripat Rai, has edited and written new introductions for both of them.

Premchand was married in 1896 when he was a student of ninth standard and barely 16 years old. This was an incompatible marriage and within a very short period, his wife returned to her parental home. It is doubtful if their marriage was ever consummated. After a while, he decided to get married again but only to a widow. This was a revolutionary decision in those times.

In 1905, he chanced upon a matrimonial advertisement given by one Munshi Devi Prasad, resident of district Fatehpur in U.P. for his daughter who was a child widow.

According to Amrit Rai, Premchand’s younger son whose biography of his father titled “Kalam Ka Sipahi” (Soldier of Pen) can be compared only with that of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan written by his historian son Sarvepalli Gopal, it was published in a small newspaper edited by an Arya Samajist Shankarlal Shrotriya of Bareilly.

Premchand promptly responded to it and asked for a photograph of the girl, another unusual thing in those days. Yet, Munshi Devi Prasad complied with it and also sent a booklet titled “Kayasth Bal Vidhwa Uddharak Pustika”(Booklet for the Uplift of Kayasth Child Widows) along. He himself had penned it. However, Sara Rai in her introduction to “Kaumudi” says that the matrimonial advertisement was a part of the booklet. In 1906, Premchand married Shivrani Devi. She died on December 5, 1976 but her date of birth is not known.

Sara Rai underlines the fact that Shivrani Devi had to face a three-fold erasure and her identity as a woman permeated all the three. Her primary identity was that of a woman who was also a writer. And her third identity was that of the wife of a literary colossus like Premchand. Things have not changed much over a century as many women writers even today face such charges—sometimes levelled explicitly and sometimes through innuendoes and insinuations — that their works have been written by their husbands or male friends.

Many people alleged that Premchand was the actual author of the short stories that were published in Shivrani Devi’s name. Things came to such a head that Premchand himself had to issue a contradiction. Sara Rai quotes Banarasi Das Chaturvedi who, while paying his tribute to Shivrani Devi, wrote that Premchand issued a contradiction, written in English, to say that Mrs Premchand was a warrior whose fighting spirit was speaking in every line that she wrote. He also added that a man of his peaceful nature could never think of such fighting plots involving women.

The story titled “Tarka” offers a textual proof as its characters speak to one another in Awadhi that was the dialect of Shivrani Devi’s village Salempur in district Fatehabad in Uttar Pradesh. Premchand’s mother tongue was Bhojpuri. Sara Rai also raises the question if the short stories are worth reading in their own right or simply because the writer happens to Premchand’s wife?

She finds that Shivrani Devi speaks in a creative language and tone that was very different from that of Premchand and her women characters often come through as arrogant and churlish. She was not merely a house wife who also wrote, but she actively participated in the social and political struggles of her time. On many occasions she went to jail and her husband was proud of this fact. In this respect, she was very much like her contemporaries like Mahadevi Verma and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan who had started to make their presence felt in the Hindi public sphere.

“Kaumudi” contains 16 short stories whose emphasis is more on independence and self-reliance of women and less on self-sacrifice, moral purity, sexual chastity, bashfulness, and maryada as was the vogue those days. Her women characters also look much more self-confident and courageous than men. As Sara Rai points out, even while reminiscing about her husband in “Premchand Ghar Mein”, she was crafting a ‘feminist past’. Today’s feminists can perhaps learn a few things from her.

The writer is a seasoned literary critic

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 8:23:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/not-just-premchands-wife/article30750280.ece

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