Premchand, Shaani and communalism
The writings of these stalwarts reflected the plural character of Indian society
Every year on the occasion of Id, I am reminded of Premchand’s heart-rending story “Idgaah” which celebrates a poor child’s love for his grandmother. While we find short stories and even novels — Amritlal Nagar’s “Shatranj Ke Mohre”, for example —focusing on the Muslim elite, Premchand is perhaps the only exception as he depicts the life of a poor Muslim family in this story. A five-year-old boy Hamid, who has lost his parents and is being brought up by his grandmother Ameena, spends whatever little money she had given him to buy sweets and toys in the Id fair, on buying a chimta — a long iron tweezer used for taking out rotis from a choolha (oven). As he used to see Ameena burning her fingers everyday while making rotis, he bought the chimta for her.
This year, when Id was celebrated this past Monday in a rather subdued atmosphere, I recalled another of Premchand’s short story “Mandir-Masjid” (Temple-Mosque) which shows an old Muslim landlord respecting both temple and mosque equally as the “House of God” and willing to make any sacrifice to uphold this principle and safeguard the sanctity of these places of worship. The way this story, published in 1925, portrays the mechanism of the production of communal violence, one feels that it was written very recently.
Similarly, his article on Hindu-Muslim unity, published in “Hans” in November 1931, remains as valid today as it was at the time of its writing. I found this article in the Premchand Number of the now-defunct literary journal “Uttargatha” that the late Savyasachi used to edit from Mathura. A selfless Marxist writer who sank most of his lecturer’s salary into bringing out such magazines and publishing booklets to propagate progressive views on social, cultural and political issues, his real name was Shyamlal Vashishth and he brought out this special number on Premchand in January 1981. It contains rare archival material and has become a collector’s item.
Even in those days, beef was an important issue affecting Hindu-Muslim relations. Premchand informs his readers that beef is primarily eaten by those who are so poor that they cannot afford mutton or chicken. Also, most of the so-called “untouchable” Hindus too eat beef. In the Arab lands, cow is not found. Therefore, there is no question of Islam prescribing eating of beef. He feels that if the two communities come closer and start respecting each other’s sensitivities, Muslims will themselves give up eating beef as those Muslims who live in close proximity of the Hindus in villages do not eat beef. Towards the end of the article, Premchand reminds the readers that the wars that took place between medieval rulers were for political power and not for religious reasons. He points out that in 1857 both the Hindus and the Muslims had voluntarily accepted the weak Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader and presented a sterling example of a united Indian nation. Fortunately, Premchand did not live to witness the horrors of Partition as he died in 1936.
After Premchand, one finds Muslim characters only in Yashpal’s writings. Shaani, whose novel “Kala Jal” (Dark Waters) was the first to depict the life of an aristocratic Muslim family that had fallen on bad days and had become rather poor, had shaken the Hindi literary world by raising the question about the absence of Muslim characters from Hindi fiction.
Shaani’s short stories offer a poignant phenomenological description of how a member of the minority community feels in post-Partition India. His question regarding the absence of Muslim characters in Hindi fiction led to the inevitable next question: “Is Hindi literature really a Hindu literature?” He posed this question while taking part in a long and illuminating discussion with three well-known Hindi writers — critic Namwar Singh, poet-critic Vishwanath Tripathi and fiction writer Kashinath Singh.
The discussion was published in two parts in Sahitya Akademi’s literary journal “Samkaleen Bharatiya Sahitya” (Contemporary Indian Literature) in 1990. Later it was included in “Shaani: Aadami Aur Adeeb” (Shaani: Man and Writer), edited by Janaki Prasad Sharam and published in 1996, a year after Shaani’s untimely demise. The discussion offered a tentative reason behind this absence and the discussants felt that perhaps Hindu writers are not really familiar with the Muslim family life and its expression in social sphere.
Shaani is an Arabic word for enemy. When Gulsher Khan, a Pathan living in Bastar’s Jagdalpur town, adopted this nom de plume, he believed that one was known by the worth of one’s work in literature and he wanted to be known simply as Shaani. But very soon, he realised that this was just a utopian dream and people were not willing to forget, or let him forget, his Muslim identity.
All his life, he kept struggling with this unsavoury reality. He was the only writer who could see through the class differences in the Muslim society and how they determined people’s attitudes. His short story “Biradari” (Community) is a fine example of this. Premchand had felt that both Hindus and Muslims must be familiar with each other’s religious traditions. If they are familiar, they will have respect for each other. Perhaps he was right.