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Negative Capability

Munshi Premchand's hidden gifts

By VINEET GILL | 1 July 2018

MAXIM GORKY, one of Soviet Russia’s most influential writers, and a champion of the “socialist realist” school of art, delivered a rousing speech from the stage of the Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow in August 1934, a couple of years before his death. His subject was the future of Russian literature and Europe’s degenerate past. European writers—from Shakespeare to Fielding, Molière to Maupassant—had a history, Gorky said, of pandering to the bourgeoisie. They made loving portraits of feudal lords, knights and monarchs, and glamourised “rogues, thieves, assassins and agents of the criminal police” in their books. Rather than grappling with real problems of the real world, these writers preferred shutting themselves “in the solitude of their soul” to pursue a kind of anarchic individualism.

In Gorky’s analysis, Russian bourgeois literature had been subject to the West’s pernicious influence, and had spawned a profusion of “superfluous” literary types —the “playboy,” the “contrite noble,” the “crank and cross-headed person.” Against this, it was the Russian writer’s responsibility to depict “our heroes of labour, who represent the flower of the working class.”

These ideas were hugely influential at the time, and their impact was felt beyond the Soviet Union. Distinct echoes of Gorky’s anti-Europe tirade can be heard, for instance, in Munshi Premchand’s famous address, delivered in April 1936, at the inaugural meet of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow. The AIPWA was set up by the Urdu writer and Marxist ideologue Syed Sajjad Zaheer, and its manifesto of progressive literary ideals—aiming to popularise anti-imperialist and democratic values through literature—was supported by such luminaries as Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali, for whom Premchand was a guiding light.

Entitled “Sahitya Ka Uddeshya”—“The Purpose of Literature”—Premchand’s speech was a Gorky-esque appeal, urging Indian writers to wake up from their romantic slumber, stop thinking of themselves as mere entertainers and assume a more socially responsible position. The writer’s job, Premchand declared, was nothing less than to reinvent literature and rethink beauty.

We need a new touchstone of beauty. Until now this touchstone was determined by wealth and debauchery. Our artist always hung on to the coattails of the rich, his identity depended on their appreciation and the objective of his art was the depiction of their sorrows and joys, their hopes and regrets … His gaze was directed at harems and bungalows. Shanties and ruins were not deserving of his attention. He considered these outside the purview of humanity.

Ethics and literature, Premchand believed, have the same objective: infusing moral values into the public sphere. It was incumbent on all writers to “reflect on life’s problems and to solve them.”

When Premchand heard of Gorky’s passing, in June 1936, he was severely ill and just about four months away from his own death. Yet, as the novelist and actor Bhisham Sahni has written in his preface to a 1987 edition of Premchand’s selected stories, the tragic news from Russia both saddened Premchand and galvanised him into leaving his sickbed in the middle of the night to pen a tribute to Gorky. He was to read it the next day at a memorial event but was too sick to do so. He sat in the audience as someone else read out the speech on his behalf.

Premchand looked up to Gorky. The two writers had a common worldview—a shared belief in the power of literature to change the world. However, Premchand’s understanding of literature was never as programmatic or party-political as that of the Russian author. In Premchand’s literary philosophy, there was room for negative capability—the faculty, as conceived by the poet John Keats, that allows writers to accept life’s mysteries and contradictions “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He was more open-minded than Gorky in this regard, and more susceptible to forming unlikely intellectual alliances.

In his speech, Premchand defined literature as “criticism of life,” directly borrowing from the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold’s definition of poetry as “this high criticism of life.” Unlike Arnold, though, Premchand was not arguing to preserve the artist’s “noble sphere,” nor championing “the best that has been thought and known.” He was never interested in canon-building, instead exhorting writers to get down and dirty with reality. Premchand wrote in his essay “Upanyas” (“The Novel”), “Art for art’s sake”—the phrase is written in English in the original text—“is for a time when a country is prosperous and happy.” When social conditions are inimical to general prosperity, every choice a writer makes has to be justified in a political context.

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Disclosure: The Caravan’s Books editor translated two stories for The Complete Short Stories.

Vineet Gill is a Delhi-based journalist currently working with the Sunday Guardian. His writings have appeared in Guernica, Himal Southasian, Open and the Hindu Business Line, among other publications.

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