The Generalist

The purpose is general, the views personal, reading it optional

Saturday, April 01, 2006


This Munshi Premchand novel has always been associated in my mind with the Doordarshan TV serial based on the novel that was telecast in DD's Golden Age of the 1980's and early 90's. However, I was too young to remember the exact story, and so I took up reading this novel.

Premchand's typical style, word & idiom usage continues here, in describing the feckless Nirmala's life. Her life has no real cheer in it, right from her early childhood when her marriage is first fixed upto her death. Forced to marry a once-married lawyer, Totaram, 20 years older to her, she finds herself in strange circumstances. Her father's sudden death changed her life this way, and she suddenly has to mind a household which has three young boys from the earlier marriage of her husband, the eldest son being a year older to her.

From then on, whatever she touched, turned out to have adverse consequences. Her husband's sister is cruel to her right from the beginning, though her attitude softens and becomes much more sympathetic toward the end. Her husband tries a lot of different things, from the noble to the ridiculous, to please her and to assuage his own feeling of guilt, but Nirmala sees through him and remains cool toward him, although serving him faithfully on a day-to-day basis. Her attempt to win over the children results in a terrible misunderstanding about her relation with the eldest son, Mansaram, and this ultimately leads to splits in the family and ultimate ruin. She even, unwittingly and by sheer chance, plays a role in the destruction of her friend Sudha's family. It's not a cheerful story to read.

What Premchand excels in is in exposing the social evils of the day, most of which continue to this day. The custom of dowry is the real turning point in the life of the child Nirmala, when her greedy in-laws-to-be refuse to marry their son to her after her father's death. In orthodox India, all morality comes down to the nature of the male-female relationship, which plays the central role here in the destruction - physical & mental - of not just Nirmala, but her entire family. Nirmala's character is, however, kept flawless throughout the novel - her desires never being allowed to come to the surface, her sense of duty, service and sacrifice always coming to the fore. Her thorough goodness is understood only in the end by her husband, foster sons and her sister-in-law, by when it is too late to remedy anything.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

'Bade Ghar ki Beti' & other stories

I am currently reading a lot of Hindi books, as much to keep in touch with the literary form of the language as to read good literature in general. This post is about a collection of short stories by Munshi Premchand.

Premchand's style strikes you the first time you read him, whether in a short story or in a novel. I think it is both a merit (consistency) and a demerit (sameness). After a certain while, the style, the vocabulary and the idioms used start becoming a bit predictable, and the story or plot itself remains of interest. This is what I thought, as a non-native Hindi reader, while reading the book.
Some of the 19 stories stand out in their plots, and I will mention a few here. 'Naya Vivaah' is about the second marriage by a middle-aged man to a young woman and the subsequent unconscious and unwilling suppression of her desires. The rediscovery of the wife's dormant desires is brought out well.

The famous 'Shatranj ke Khiladi' is a delightful read. Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali's utter callousness toward political reality in Lucknow in an age of hedonism that marked Wajid Ali Shah's reign hits you in the face.

'Do Bailon ki Katha' is unusual, in that the travails of 'mute' animals - two bullocks Heera & Moti - are described as the two animals talk to each other. The bullocks are shown to have distinct personalities. The moving story has a happy ending.

'Gulli Danda' brings out starkly the emphasis on caste differences still prevalent in India, as two people, who were gullii-danDaa friends in childhood, can no longer get back the same innocence while playing the game in adulthood because of the difference in their castes.

'Idgah' resembles O. Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi', with Christmas being replaced by Id and the couple being replaced by a little boy who, instead of buying a toy or eatable for himself, buys a useful chimaTaa for his aged grandmother from the Id fair.

The famous 'Kafan' is perhaps the best of all these stories. Two people, a father and a son, poor and good-for-nothing, couldn't care less while the son's wife dies in childbirth. Even the materials required for her last rites are contributed by villagefolk. Only the shroud, the kafan, is left, and the father-son go out in search of the cheapest possible shroud. The last shred of respect for the dead is also lost as they spend the money for the shroud on buying liquor, in a moving last scene.

'Gharjamai' is also slightly unusual in that it describes the gradual loss in the respect commanded by a resident son-in-law, as opposed to the travails faced by a wife in her husband's home. The lost respect is never regained, and the man takes it upon himself to go back to his abandoned home and start life anew.