A new volume showcases Premchand’s stories that talk of Hindu-Muslim unity.
“Communalism is forever paying its respect to culture. Perhaps it is ashamed of being seen in its true form. Like the donkey that wears a lion’s skin and lords over the animals in a jungle, communalism wraps itself in the garb of culture.”
Premchand, one of the two internationally best known Indian writers, along with Rabindranath Tagore, wrote these lines way back in 1934 as he was prescient enough to comprehend the way communalism worked to spread its influence and impede the anti-British struggle of the masses.
Elsewhere, he also wrote about the perils of unfamiliarity between the Hindus and the Muslims who, despite having lived together for many centuries, lacked familiarity with each other’s religion, customs, and culture. In his view, this was also a factor that contributed to widening of the chasm between the two communities. To fill this gap, he penned many short stories, and even a play, on the common social and cultural heritage and shared living of the Hindus and the Muslims and on overtly Islamic themes so as to inform and enlighten the Hindus about the principles and history of Islam.
He also made a definitive statement that Islam did not spread in India through the sword. However, Premchand was unsparing in his approach to communalism of all communities. He opposed the idea of identifying Hindi with the Hindus and Urdu with the Muslims, arguing that Muslims living in south India spoke the local languages such as Tamil or Malayalam or Telugu like the Hindus, just as Hindus living in the North-West Province spoke Pashto like the Muslims. He also wrote against the myth of Hindus being vegetarian, pointing out that at least 80 per cent of them consumed meat. In view of his unambiguous literary and ideological legacy, one fails to understand why pro-Hindutva writers have made many unsuccessful attempts in the past several decades to paint Premchand saffron.
Compilation of anti-communal stories
In a laudable initiative, Vaam Prakashan, an imprint of LeftWord Books, has brought out a compilation of Premchand’s short stories whose themes, tone, and tenor are anti-communal. The poet-writer Sanjay Kundan has selected and edited the slim volume titled Kuchh aur Alagoo Kuchh aur Jumman: Premchand ki Sampradayikta Virodhi Kahaniyan (A Few More Alagoo A Few More Jumman: Premchand’s Anti-Communalism Stories). He has also contributed a highly informative Introduction that gives an overview of Premchand’s literary and ideological universe.
As Kundan explain in the Introduction, these short stories can be classified into three categories. There are some that have been written to remove the cobwebs of motivated propaganda against Islam and misunderstandings and misgivings about its true nature. It was Premchand’s firm belief that ignorance of each other’s faith created misunderstanding and increased the distance between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Short stories such as Nabi ka Neeti Nirvah (Ethical Conduct of the Prophet) and Kshma (Forgiveness) fall into this category. These stories do not gloss over the inner contradictions and internal strifes of Islam and present facts truthfully. The former shows the kind of difficulties Prophet Muhammad had to face and overcome when he propounded the new tenets of a new faith without ever compromising on principles or favouring anyone. He set an example with his exemplary behaviour and it became a model for all Muslims to follow.
The short story Kshma shows how an anti-Muslim Christian youth sheds his opposition to Islam when he sees the forgiveness shown by a Muslim who spares no effort to safeguard a person who sought refuge with him.
The lives of Muslims in India
In the second category fall those stories that portray the lives of those Muslims who have been living in India. Idgah (The mosque where Id prayers are offered) and Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) belong to this category.
The third category consists of portraits of the shared living of the Hindus and the Muslims. Panch Parmeshwar (Judge is the Greatest God), Mandir Masjid (Temple and Mosque), and Muktidhan (Money for Deliverance) show how Hindus and Muslims cared for each other and had mutual respect. If they quarrelled, it was mainly for worldly, not religious, reasons.
In Panch Parmeshwar, Jumman’s aunt chooses judges on the basis of her assessment of their honesty and integrity, not their religion. As Premchand was a writer of realism, he did not invent these situations and his stories were firmly rooted in social reality. Had it not been so, people would not have believed what they conveyed. Even today, nearly nine decades after his death, he continues to remain the most widely read writer in Hindi because of his commitment to truth and realism.
Therefore, it is no surprise that in his story Jihad, Premchand unravels the process of how a hypocrite maulavi so easily provokes a community of peace-loving Muslims against their Hindu neighbours and incites violence. He also shows that ultimately, the Muslims wake up from this nightmare and realise their mistake.
Although his play Karbala is not included in this book, it is also noteworthy for its heart-touching portrayal of the Battle of Karbala in which Hussain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and other relatives were brutally killed in an uneven trial of strength. One is sure that the Hindi world will welcome it if Premchand’s articles on the communal question and other social-political problems are also put together as a book.