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A new anthology of Premchand’s stories underlines his intellectual engagement with the collective cultural life of India

March 02, 2018 01:35 am | Updated 01:35 am IST

Short stories, big impact  Premchand

Short stories, big impact Premchand

Can one pay searching attention to nuanced cultural specification of the text and yet change everything in order that it means to be the same? Seemingly improbable task is often fulfilled by the accomplished practitioners of the soft science – translation – that gained more prominence in the era of globalisation. The popularity of the culturally meditated texts and automated writings that pays more attention on fluency and readability infuriates Milan Kundera who thunders that the translator’s supreme authority should be author’s personal style but most of them obey another authority of the conventional version of “good French” or “good English” (Testament Betrayed).

Not many translations came up to the standard set by Kundera, especially if it relates to a writer who perceptibly juxtaposed two different narrative traditions. It looks incredible that semantic import of Premchand, a proud recipient of great Perso-Arabic and Indian storytelling, is meticulously disseminated in a voluminous anthology “Premchand: The Complete Short Stories” published by Penguin Random House recently. A four-volume anthology edited by a renowned translator and critic Asaduddin unfailingly captures the tone and tenor of the celebrated author’s oeuvre.

Asaduddin

Asaduddin

The anthology, carrying 300 stories is destined to blaze a new trail in Premchand studies as one can find that accuracy is fitted into proper flow by a careful browsing of different versions of short stories that appeared in Hindi and Urdu. The collection betrays a deeper level of his intellectual engagement with the collective cultural life of India and stories are told with an array of narrative devices. Premchand is not introduced to the Anglophone world in a fluent but off the mark prose that translators conveniently employ to conquer the readers but Asaduddin, a reputed author and translator in several languages, has impeccably produced a corroborative text by taking both the Hindi and Urdu version into account. He sifted through several old literary periodicals to track down several short stories such as “Dara Shikoh Ka Durbar”, “Janjal” and two parts of a three-part story “Daru-e-Talkh”, which were not available earlier in Hindi or Urdu and got them rendered into English. Premchand still dominates the literary and cultural landscape of the subcontinent and his creative prowess can easily thwart the contemporary narrative of hatred and violence and no other author can vie with him on this count. In his academic rigour filled and astutely argued introduction, Asaduddin delineates Premchand’s relevance:

“Few or none of his contemporaries in Urdu-Hindi have remained as relevant today as he is in the context of Women Question (Stree Vimarsh), Dalit Discourse ((Dalit Vimarsh), Gandhian Nationalism, Hindu-Muslim relations and the current debate about the idea of India that is inclusive of all groups and denominations, irrespective of caste and creed.”

Notwithstanding Prem Chand’s enormous popularity, no serious attempt has been made to publish his entire corpus in an authentic chronology and here Asad tries to supplement what has been missing and the Penguin anthology becomes central to a complete understanding of iconic writer of Urdu and Hindi and the compiler rightly points out: “Studies on Premchand have remained woefully inadequate because his entire corpus was or is still not available in either Hindi or Urdu, not to speak English. Researchers had to remain content with only one of the corpuses (either Urdu or Hindi) accessible to them. Fortunately, it is now being made available in English by combining and assimilating both the archives. Moreover, some new material not accessible so far either in Hindi or Urdu, are being made available for the first time in English.”

Rich thematic range

Asaduddin’s detailed introduction highlights the author’s thematic range and stylistic variations with remarkable ease. Premchand’s writings in no way reveal his blind allegiance to a religion or a political ideology or a social movement and his stories go beyond portraying the lives of underdogs, untouchables and marginalised section but what turns reading Premchand into an exhilarating experience? For Asad, it is the pulsating depiction of family life that leaves the reader awe-struck. Through poignantly told stories of marital row, heart wrenching plight of stepchildren and co-wives, Premchand creates narrative space where, according to Asad, conflict between legitimate aspirations and meanness of opportunities occurs and there is also the cycle of debt that ruins families.

For many feminists, Premchand is the voice of patriarchy as he cannot imagine a fully empowered women. He is being pilloried for widely-acclaimed story “Kafan” (the shroud) as he cited child birth (the inherent frailty of female anatomy) the cause of Buddhiya’s death. Simply it amounts to absolving the husband and father in- law of the criminal negligence but Asad seems to be quite dismissive about it and argues: “The labels of pro-feminist and anti-feminist are not very helpful in understanding Premchand’s stories as these labels inevitably carry the elements of reductionism inherent in them.”

Harish Trivedi’s percipient foreword explores the nuanced connotations of Premchand’s signature vocabulary which according to him draws its sustenance from seva and daya (service to others, sacrifice and compassion)

The work deserves accolades for bringing out such a comprehensive view of Premchand and it is destined to bring a new respect to the art of translation and Asaduddin’s work reminds us of Gregory Rabassa.

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