Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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PRELUDE
Women were perhaps the barometers that Munshi Premchand used to show the sensitivity and humanity index of our society. As it is, hundred years back or in present times, gender based struggles indicate the maturity and tolerance levels of our people.
 
Premchand, in his own life, contended with women that comprised various shades of the rainbow. His young widowed mother, his child bride of a turbulent marriage that ended in separation and his eventual marriage with a child widow with whom he shared deep camaraderie must have afforded him this comprehension of his heroines. His Marxist leanings enthused in him a passion for equality for all and his women protagonists became a medium to showcase the deep bias and dichotomy of thought prevailing in our system.
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Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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Godaan (The Gift of a Cow), published in 1936, was Munshi Premchand’s very last literary offering. In this intricately woven story, he presents a cross section of our society at a time when the nation was battling subjugation at various levels. Though the story is set in a village and revolves around the life of a poor peasant – Hori, we are also introduced to the rich industrialists, the intelligentsia, professional women, the youth and the urban house wives.
 
This novel, like all of Premchand’s other works, bestows on the reader a wealth of emotional experience that may never be encountered in a cocooned, routine life. After reading and re reading this book, I resurface more empathetic towards my fellow beings who live on the margins, with whom my physical path may never cross but I can feel their compulsions, small aspirations, their delicate joys and the immense importance of their infrequent smile. The situation is tragic with these characters still living in deep pathos even after 80 years of the book been penned. An independent nation continues to persistently and heartlessly pilfer from these people a life of dignity.
 
One among these amazing people was Miss Malati.

Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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MISS MALATI, ESSAYED BY SANEA SHEIKH

Ring by Zariin

Blazer is by S&S by Shreeja & Shweta

Sari and blouse by Marg by Soumitra Mondal

Miss Malati is one of the most contemporary characters created by Munshi Premchand. I identified with her when I was a college girl and I deeply appreciate her now.

One of the two daughters of a wealthy father and having studied medicine in London, Malati possesses spirit, courage and determination. In the beginning, the author sets the trap for his readers to label her as a lightheaded flirt by showing her interacting boldly with men, either by teasing them or by making a mockery of their behavior, wearing high heels and by juxtaposing her with a righteous housewife of one of her ardent admirers, Govindi. By doing so, he throws light on our incessant propensity to stereotype people.

Malati has a romanticised view of Philosophers that attracts her to Mr. Mehta, a highly learned and philanthropic person. Perhaps to gain proximity with Mr. Mehta, Malati gets involved in working with the impoverished villagers and her path crosses with that of the Hori and his family.

She finds fulfillment in serving the poor and credits Mr. Mehta to turn her interest towards service when she was getting immersed in pursuit of mindless luxury. She consults poor patients without any charge and is kind with them but is unable to forgo her interest in clothing, cosmetics and fine dressing “to let go of colour-powder was more tough for her than her internal, intrinsic changes”.

In her interactions with poor village women, she tries to understand their deep sense of sacrifice. Though she finds herself appreciating these women and feels embarrassed about her own excessive lifestyle, she also realises that by erasing their individuality, these women were doing disservice towards the future generations, “agreed, that men are cruel but they are the sons of these women. Why do they not educate them to respect women? Perhaps because these women have lost their sense of self worth and identity. No, it would not do to erase yourself. For the welfare of society, the women will have to fight for their personal rights.”

Another aspect of her personality comes into light when Mr. Mehta proposes marriage to her and professes himself to be a jealous lover who, if she ever falls in love with another man, would not hesitate to kill her and himself. Here Malati rejects this, up until now, much sought after proposal as she feels that “love is above the pettiness of doubt. It is not a thing of body but of the soul. There is no place of doubt in love and violence is a result of doubt. It requires surrender.”

She clearly states that she is serving the poor not because she is selfless rather because she puts her own joys first. She sings to please her own soul and not because it is helping the listeners. When, a much-chastened Mehta, proposes marriage again, she flatly refuses, “by setting up a small house hold, we will just imprison our souls and forfeit all chances of merging with the infinite. Rare are the humans who, with heavy chains of domestic responsibility, are able to tread the path of progress. Though I agree that for an absolute growth, family and sacrifice is important, but I don’t feel I possess the strength to walk this path when I am confronted with maternal love as, I’m convinced, it will shrink my world. Mehta, I refuse to pull you downwards. The world needs selfless people like you today, along with yours make my life relevant as well.”

The reader watches intently as Mehta touches Malati’s feet in deep reverence for an evolved nurturer who is committed to progress and growth. They remain friends and enablers to each other’s ambitions.

Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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SEVA SADAN

It has been a remarkable feat of author Munshi Premchand to not just reach out to a person like me, who looked at all things non English with a sense of disconnect but also to guide me towards forming an opinion and to bring in me a sense of tolerance towards people who hold an opinion contrary to mine. His one book that pushed the envelope a little more than others is surely Seva Sadan.
 
Written in 1919, at a timewhen India was getting prepared for its ‘tryst with destiny’, winds of change were sweeping through the country blowing away age old set of beliefs, inter religious camaraderie, morality, tolerance, the erstwhilestatus of women and we were training our sight through the view finder of new age education and the influence of our English masters.
 
At an apparent level, this novel is the story of Suman who is raised with indulgence and the good things of life. Since her father is convinced that the scourge of dowry is about to come to its end, he never saves for it and descends to accepting a bribe upon realising that he cannot get his daughter married off without a substantial sum of money. He is caught red handed, in his novice like attempt and put behind bars. This forces the family to move in with a poverty stricken uncle who arranges the marriage of Suman to an old, poor, miserly man living in the cheap side of Banaras.
 
Suman finds herself in a small, dark room where the curtain has to always stay down to save her from the eyes of many a young Romeos who are waiting to catch a glimpse of her. She stays dissatisfied and unfulfilled in her marriage and tries to find amusement in other avenues. Not able to handle Suman’s intense zeal to explore life and longing for tiny luxuries, the husband throws her out of the house. One person who gives her a dignified shelter is her neighbour – Bholi – who is a prostitute.
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Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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SUMAN, ESSAYED BY JULIA DATT

Gorgeous top with intricate work depicting a flight of freedom and a skyline of religious domes is by amazing Purvi Doshi
The jewelry used as a gilded bondage adorned with golden chairs is by talented Mrinalini Chandra.
Khadi palazzo pants worn as petticoat is by Upasana
Location courtesy by kind Geetu Hinduja
Hair and makeup by Megha Kothari
Assisted by Niyati Kothari
 
In our Indian literature sphere that is replete with silently suffering women who are pious, righteous, accepting of their life conditions, however pathetic they may be, Suman sticks out like sore thumb.
 
Her father indulged her with good things of life – clothes, food and a governess. Though Suman’s younger sister was content in her gifts; Suman always wanted more. A lack of dowry led Suman to be married to a poor, old man living in a confined place in Varanasi.
 
In all fairness, Suman did try to make it work, finding her joy in some tasty treats being sold by vendors or by showing off her silk saris to the neighborhood women, though acutely aware and envious of her prostitute neighbour, Bholi. While pious Suman was lonely and bored, Bholi was surrounded by interesting men; while Suman with her beauty and charm was clothed in cheap, coarse garments, ‘fat’ Bholi was adorned in silk and jewels. Suman tried to attain the higher ground of morality over ‘the fallen women’ by turning towards religion till the night when festivalof Ramnavmiwas being celebrated with great gusto in the local temple. She, the bhajan singing devotee, could not find a place to stand and there was Bholi, sitting in the courtyard of the temple surrounded and entertained by religious men.
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Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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POOS KI RAAT

While talking about one of the popular short stories among Munshi Premchand’s many,’Poos ki raat’ (coldest night of the year), it is only fair that I should furnish a spoiler’s alert.
 
One would think that being born and brought up with encountering impoverishment of the worst kind all through my growing up years, I would have acquired a stoic attitude and I must confess I had (and still have it somewhere) until this story came along and broke my heart with its wistful, tender portrayal of a young couple leading a destitute life in a village.
 
This story is of a podgy farmer called Halku (lightweight), his wife, Munni and their skinny mongrel like dog called Jhabra (heavyweight). The farmer’s meager savings for buying a blanket to survive those cold nights that he spends guarding his farm is taken away by amoneylender towards interest of an unending loan that has dried them up of every penny. As he confronts the cold night, the reader witnesses it through Halku’s eyes as a cruel, unyielding, unending struggle to survive the harsh six hours. In a tender moment, we see Halku hugging his smelly dog, for they are both in need of warmth to survive the night, with Premchand describing Halku’s character as a kind one who was capable of imparting the same affection to a dog as one would to a human being.
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Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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MUNNI, ESSAYED BY MARIETTE VALSAN

Intricately hand woven sari by Gaurang Shah for Vaya
Stunning handmade neckpiece by En Inde
Hand crafted belt by Olivia Dar
Bullet kurta by SuketDhir
 
Though this story is predominantly the story of Halku who plays out the humiliating, miserableand stressful existence of the farmers in our country. Always vulnerable to multitude of deceitful elements who pray on them – cruelly and consistently – be it politicians, money lenders, police, mafia or unaffected us, the informed middle class, it is unfathomable how, these providers of our daily bread, are able to hold on to their humanity and kindness.
 
Halku’s pathos is evermore heart wrenching when witnessed through the eyes of Munni, his young, firebrand wife. We are introduced to fearless Munni when she is ready to take on the slimy moneylender to ensure that her husband’s blanket, his means of survival, really, stays safe. She is not the one to take their pitiable state as ‘God’s will’ and is ready to put up a fight.
 
A loyal partner, who is ready to let go of their farming land for the, relatively, peaceful existence of being labourer. We see her absolutely undaunted at the prospect of letting go of her home and her known life to take on a menacing, unknown metro just for the sake of exploring the possibility of a basic living for her husband.
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Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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GABAN – EMBEZZELMENT

 
This book, published in 1931 is an absolute page-turner with events happening at a pace that keeps the reader riveted with the canvas encompassing the humble homes of lower middle class and the freedom movement happening at a national level. It’s only later that the ominous scenario for a future nation that is populated with the parvenus middle class is comprehended.
 
Jalpa is a young girl who is obsessed with jewellery, pretty much like any girl today who is obsessed with a LV rucksack. She dreams, imagines, deeply wishes for a ‘Chandrahaar’, an expensive and opulent necklace among other pieces of jewellery. She is married off to a good for nothing Ramaakant, son of a poor government clerk. To impress his beautiful new bride, Ramaa, grossly exaggerates their financial standing. To satiate Jalpa’s demand for ‘Chandrahaar’, Ramaa, commits a small fraud and uses government money to buy Jalpa’ s jewellery, only to get so scared that he runs away from home and reaches Calcutta. He is kindly given shelter by an old couple, Devideen and his wife, who lost their young, handsome boys during a non-cooperation movement demonstration. Here Ramaa gets embroiled in the workings of corrupt police force and is lured into being a false witness to indict innocent people for a bomb blast. In the meanwhile, Jalpaa there pays off the government amount to clear Ramaa’s name. She comes to Calcutta looking for Ramaa and gets deeply involved in the struggle for saving fifteen innocent young people from tyrannical British government. She implores with Ramaa not to give false statement and save the lives of the innocent. Eventually, the court releases Ramaa and the other accused. They end up happily leading their life with honesty and hard work.
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Munshi Premchand’s Iconic & Eternal Heroines

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JALPA, ESSAYED BY DAYANA ERAPPA

‘Chandrahaar’ isan antique embroidery piece from royal family of Ahmedabad, saved from a men’s ‘mulmul’ ‘angrakha’, apersonal piece of my fashion forward, connoisseur of beautiful things friend-Jyoti Gwalani. FB page coming soon.
‘Tree of life’ beautiful sari is by DeepikaGovind
Forehead and hand jewellery, handcrafted by Breathing Space
Handwoven belts worn as jewellery are by Olivia Dar
Silver Rings, cuff and wooden bangles with gold plating are also from JyotiGwalani
Chain neckpiece and rings are from Zariin
 
Jalpa, surely, epitomizes the potential that we, insignificant kernels, have to grow into majestic oaks. As a girl, Jalpa’s obsession with baubles is given a positive stroke by her parents who indulge her every whim. In fact when she wants silver ‘Chandrahaar’, she is quickly admonished and firmly guided to accept only a gold one. No such strict parameter is set, naturally, for her education or any other intellectual progression.
 
There is this certain resilience, a certain quality to evolve beyond belief, when confronted with a formidable situation that Munshi Premchand celebrates about his heroines. I reckon he was always making a case for women to be encouraged by society, through higher education or by their exposure to a bigger picture, to take a position of strength as an informed and influential member. The progression of Jalpa is an exemplification of Premchand’s belief.
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