By Gaganjeet Singh Jul. 31, 2017
Premchand’s characters are out there; they still make up most of India and are routinely mentioned in election speeches. But their Premchand is missing.
It is the first year of college. I am 18, as are 800 freshers packed into an IIT Bombay auditorium with a capacity of 300. To this day, I believe whoever came up with Cubic Closed Packing unit cell structure, the most efficient form of packing known to man, was unaware of what we had just pulled off.
Each club wanted to lure in as many freshers as possible, so there would be enough bodies to run the club when more students get conjunctivitis than calculus. When Fourthwall, the institute’s dramatics club, staged Bade Bhaisahab, a short story written by Munshi Premchand, it was a path-defining moment for me.
Prior to this, I’d never seen a play. I had seen a Ramleela when I was a stupid child. Stupid because when Raavan pushed Ram, I got so angry that I jumped on stage and started kicking Raavan. Now 13 years later, I had no such plans.
This was the first time I was meeting Premchand. I have an elder sister and Bade Bhaisahab reminded me greatly of her. We were separated by two standards and I would often get better grades than her, to which she would say: “Jab humari class mein aaoge tab pata chalega.” Even now, I have no idea which class she was talking about.
The actors who were on stage playing brothers, were considered legends, or in IIT Bombay parlance, “phodu”. And I wanted to be one of them as badly as I wanted to be Spider-man when the first movie came out. So I went on to read other stories from Premchand in a bid to figure out what I could perform. It was also the first time I’d considered reading a book outside the confines of my syllabus and know that the world works fine without pulleys and that there is no wedge inclined at 45 degree waiting for you to drop a ball at the top.
I turned to Premchand for a piece of home. Coming to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh, meeting people in an institute where students invent words faster than you can say “lingo”, a whole new world of words had opened up to me. The way I spoke was changing every day.
I continue to love Premchand’s characters. They are real people, not black and white like those in the Ramayana or other epics.
One day, I’d be preparing for a presentation and to avoid sounding stupid, I’d watch three episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and say things like, “Could the grain size be any bigger?” The next day, I’d be chilling with Bihari seniors and talking like a character out of Gangs of Wasseypur. My mother tongue had changed and my mother didn’t know. Unable to understand half the words I’d say to her on the phone, she’d complain to my equally lost father, “What does ‘chamak gaya’ mean? He is saying ‘test phod diya’. Is that good or bad?”
A friend of mine often said, “My proficiency in English is increasing linearly and decreasing exponentially in Hindi.” He was right. Premchand ensured that the axis of my language stayed closer to the Baghelkhandi dialect spoken in eastern parts of Madhya Pradesh and southern Uttar Pradesh.
Lamhi, Premchand’s village, is not far from Sidhi, where I grew up. Varanasi and Allahabad are an integral part of the culture and economy of both these places. Reading words and phrases which are not part of everyday Hindi, like “pahudd gaye” (to lie down) or “kiwada” (door) in Premchand’s stories, felt like a taste of homemade dal.
While I was lost to Premchand at college, my parents were beginning to get stressed about my career. My CPI, or Cumulative Point Index graded on a scale of 10, had no 8s or 9s even after decimal. My reply to their, “Kya chal raha hai” was almost always, “Rehearsal”.
All they wanted of me was to get a good job and they knew that poor grades were not the way to go about it. My father would swing between cool dad and Amrish Puri, while my mother was in denial. I’d resist going home as often as I had in the first two years because I’d spend summers clearing the course I’d failed the last semester.
It took a trip back home for my second meeting with Premchand. It was Diwali, and I was on the terrace stringing up the lights. My father came and gave me a stare which could only mean one of three things: He had spotted the difference in the length of the loops; or the wire was too short and wouldn’t reach the plug point; or he had just watched 3 Idiots.
But he just told me to come down and do the rest after lunch. As we sat down for a meal of rajma chawal, my dad said, “We’d sent you to do engineering and you’ve started doing plays.” I fully expected a thorough dressing down, but all my father said was, “You are a grown up now. Except for your beard everything is probably bigger than me. So take this,” and handed me a collection of Premchand’s short stories. “If you are going to do it, might as well do it well,” he said. I learned two things that day: One, that my father likes Premchand, and two, rajma chawal makes dreams come true.
I continue to love Premchand’s characters. They are real people, not black and white like those in the Ramayana or other epics. They are multi-coloured, multi-faceted, multi-layered individuals. But most importantly, Premchand wasn’t judging them while writing them and that’s the reason they come alive. They are people you could meet in a street.
Yet, I haven’t met Premchand for a third time in my life. Now I live in a world populated by characters that need a Premchand. As P Sainath writes in Everybody Loves a Good Drought, “Poverty and deprivation get covered as events.” The human faces of these tragedies are missing.
Premchand’s characters are out there; they still make up most of India and are routinely mentioned in election speeches. Yet, they aren’t a part of mainstream Indian literature. Finding them in cinema is another challenge.
His characters have gone mute. They are waiting in a queue, for someone to write their lines in the powerful play of life and their chance at dialogue. But their Premchand is missing. He resides neither in the museum that the government has commissioned for him, nor in the tribute festival organised on his birth anniversary. Would he wait for his characters’ living conditions to be so bad as to show up in the news? Premchand wouldn’t. He’d write.
Gaganjeet Singh is an Engineer in search of a plan, a writer in search of a story, and a human in search of the meaning of life and the perfect paratha - whichever comes first.