The Biography of Famous Personalities of India will tell you about the controversies, the dark sides of a person that you may have never heard of.
National Movement Era of Munshi Premchand
National Movement Era
Like timidity, bravery is also contagious.
Munshi Premchand was deeply moved by the events following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and sympathised with the policy pursued by Mahatma Gandhi.
Premchand in December 1919, was planning to attend the Amritsar session of the Indian National Congress, “I wish to go there. And I think I may have some money to undertake the journey. For the Gujarati edition of Prem Pachisi, I have been offered one hundred rupees. This will be enough to take me to Amritsar. The very thought of discomfort of journey, however, makes me hesitate. Dysentery has immobilised me. And, when I am not well, what fun can I ever derive from the session? I may, in fact, think of running away from there. In a situation like this I should be staying put.”
And, in fact, he did not go to Amritsar-in spite of his deep feelings for the events in Amritsar and Lahore.
“The non-cooperation movement has resulted in great havoc in Lahore,” he wrote to Taj ten months later. “Let us see which way the wind blows.”
When after the autumn session of the Congress in Calcutta and the annual session at Nagpur, Mahatma Gandhi started on a tour of northern India, Premchand was anxiously watching. He was excited. “Gandhiji is due here today,” he wrote to Taj from Gorakhpur.
A raised platform was erected for Mahatma Gandhi in the Gazimian Maidan, and the audience from Gorakhpur and the neighbouring villages that collected there numbered 200,000. Premchand had never seen such a vast concourse of people making their way to hear the Mahatma.
Just recovered from his acute dysentery and still sick, he went to hear the Mahatma, and also took along his wife and his two children. Such attendance by government servants, incidentally, was frowned upon by the government. While his wife took a vow not to use ornaments—in a country where the average income in four and a half annas (28 paise), women had no right to put on ornaments—Premchand became a follower of the Mahatma. “A glimpse of Gandhiji,” says Premchand, “wrought such a miracle that a half-dead man like myself got a new lease of life.”
Within a day or two, Premchand responded to the call of Mahatma Gandhi asking teachers and professors and students to leave the schools and colleges, the lawyers to leave the courts and the government servants to resign their jobs, so as to bring the administration to a standstill.
Knowing fully well that he had passed his FA and BA examinations and had already sent in his admission fee for the MA examination, only with the idea of improving his prospects in the education department, of getting a professorship and retiring on a handsome pension; and well aware that he would lose a total monthly income of about ₹ 125, with little prospect of an alternate employment, Premchand decided to resign.
The conversation took place between the husband and the wife. The repressive measures that came in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy had become unbearable. “We knew that each one in the country had to stand together against these laws and measures.” She agreed with Premchand’s proposal to resign because it was the duty of everyone to respond to the call of the times and also because the sudden recovery of Premchand from illness a little earlier had given her a new faith in the future.
Premchand wrote out his resignation and handed it over to the headmaster of the school. Knowing that he had just recovered from illness, and the acceptance of his resignation might mean some difficulties for the family, he insisted that Premchand should withdraw it. But Premchand was firm. “I won’t withdraw the resignation,” he said, “and I shall not be attending the school from tomorrow.”
The headmaster asked Premchand to consult his wife before he insisted on its acceptance. “She has been consulted,” said Premchand, “and in fact she has encouraged me to resign.”
For some six days, it appears, no decision was taken on his resignation. On the seventh day the headmaster himself called at Premchand’s house and asked him what had come over him that, having just recovered from a prolonged illness, he had resigned.
“I don’t want you to be rash,” he said, “and am not willing to forward your resignation.” He thought Premchand might have second thoughts. Premchand, however, was firm and adamant.
“My conscience, Mr. Headmaster,” said Premchand, “does not permit me to serve the Government any longer. I am being forced from my within to resign.”
On February 15, 1921, Premchand wrote to his friend Nigam that he was through with government service and that his resignation had been accepted as from that date. None was more sorry than the headmaster and his colleagues. No less sorry were his pupils, many of whom wanted to leave the school to join the non-cooperation movement.
It was characteristic of Premchand that he tried to persuade them to continue their educational career in the interest of their future. “The path I have chosen,” he said, “is a difficult one. But I am in a position to earn enough to feed myself and my family. You, however, are not so placed in life. If you leave the school without completing your studies, you would land yourself into difficulties.” However, a few of the pupils did leave the school.
But Premchand himself was inadequately equipped to jump into the non-cooperation movement. The only training that he had had was for journalism and book-writing. He toyed with the idea of starting a weekly Urdu paper from Gorakhpur, and again thought of establishing a press for the purpose, and asked for collaboration with Nigam. The old scheme of setting up a printing press was taken out of the shelf, as it were. There was, however, little progress.
He took to the manufacture and popularisation of the charkha, the then principal Congress plank. For this work he joined hands with his friend and publisher, Mahavir Prasad Poddar, who shifted Premchand and his family to his house in village Maaniram, some thirteen miles from Gorakhpur. And to make it convenient for Premchand’s family, he shifted his own also to the same village.
While Premchand would sit at the doorstep of Poddar to supervise the manufacture of the charkhas, Poddar would go to the town of Gorakhpur every day. Returning home he would bring medicine for Premchand, which did the latter some good in due course.
As Premchand’s health shown improvement, the two families shifted back to Gorakhpur again and rented a house where ten handlooms were installed. The charkhas made at the village were also brought to Gorakhpur and sold.
While this work and the scheme for a weekly, in collaboration with D.P. Dwivedi of Swadesh Press, made little progress, Premchand decided to popularise the charkha in Lamhi also. For this purpose he shifted in March 1921 to his village, secured some wood from the local zamindar, got charkhas manufactured and, after explaining their economics and working, distributed them free to the peasants. He also devoted some time to his literary pursuits.
He was writing an article per week for Aaj and also doing sundry work for a publishing house in Benares where his brother was employed. Premchand’s routine consisted of getting up in the early hours of the morning, ablutions, a few snacks and continuous work till mid-day when he would bathe, and then luncheon, followed by rest for an hour. After the rest he would again devote himself to work.
At about four o’clock, he would require some recreation in the form of fondling and playing with children, for whom he would sweep the threshold of his house and collect leaves, straw and sand, to be used for teaching the young children of the neighbourhood new games.
Later in the evening he would talk to cultivators in the village, with whom he would discuss their problems and difficulties. These discussions provided him with material for his “rural classics.” He would also propagate the ideals of swaraj in political and economic fields, specially the implications of the new legislation that might be pending. His aim was also to help the villagers arrive at social cohesion.
Premchand felt, life in the village, was not all that easy. His output of stories declined. He could not write more than two or three a month, bringing him on an average about forty rupees a month. The final draft of Premashram too was not ready yet. It required sustained work, preparing the final copy for the press means as much work as original writing. His frequent visits to Benares involved considerable strain. The revival of the old bickerings between the stepmother and his wife demolished the idyllic picture of the village life that he had painted in his mind. He wished to get out of this atmosphere.
The scheme to bring out an Urdu weekly in collaboration with Dashrath Prasad Dwivedi, had fallen through. His scheme to bring out one of his own was also nowhere near fruition. He had naturally to try for some job. The attempts made were in two directions: for the post of the headmaster of the Marwari High School in Kanpur, and also for the post of the secretary of the Municipal Committee of Benares. While negotiations for the latter were going on, the former was fixed up with the assistance of Nigam and Vidyarthi whose word counted with Mahashe Kashi Nath who worked on behalf of the managing committee of the school.
Within a few months of his resignation from the government school at Gorakhpur, Premchand had thus accepted a job of headmaster—of course, in a non¬governmental school.
He reached Kanpur towards the end of June 1921, leaving his family at Allahabad where a few days earlier, his father-in¬law had expired. He returned to Allahabad, told his wife about his new assignment and, after a flying visit to Lamhi, joined duty. The stepmother wanted Premchand’s family to stay on, but seeing the affairs in the joint household in Lamhi and the advanced stage of pregnancy of his wife, he insisted on the family accompanying him to Kanpur.
It was in his house on Maston Road in Kanpur that Premchand’s second son, Amrit Rai (Bannu), was born a month or so later. Shivrani Devi had a long confinement. Premchand himself was sickly—once he was down with fever for more than ten days followed by an acute attack of dysentery.
Premchand’s illness, however, did not deter him from devoting considerable time to writing. The most important work of this period was the preparation of the final draft of Premashram which, it seems, had been finalised only in February 1922. It monopolised most of his time. Stories conceived, or written, at this time included Mooth, Purva Sanskar, Nag Pooja, Svatva Raksha, Selani Bandar and Adhikar Chinta, etc.
1930 was a year of ordinances in India some nine of them were issued within a short period of six months! These ordinances imposed drastic curbs on the life of the community, in particular, on the functioning of the Press. Suspension of the publication of newspapers, however, gave a fillip to the movement of national liberation. Rumours spread like wild fire. People got agitated and excited. More and more of them came forward to offer satyagraha. The proclamation of martial law was a common occurrence.
“You probably know,” Premchand told Nigam, “that the city is a military camp. If I get arrested or am knocked down, and my soul leaves its earthly abode, please look after those whom I leave behind. You should not rest content with mere expression of pity and mercy. I am saying all this because these days anything is possible.”
Surprisingly, however, the person who got arrested was not Permchand but his wife. Moved to tears by a fiery speech delivered by Mrs. Motilal Nehru at Lucknow, Shivrani Devi joined a band of eleven women who formed a Mahila Ashram to serve the cause of national liberation through mobilising womenfolk. The Ashram soon grew into a very large body with some seven hundred members.
Shivrani Devi was among those elected to the working committee. On November 10, 1930, she was arrested along with six others, on a charge of picketing the shops selling foreign cloth.
An account of her arrest has been recorded by Shivrani Devi in the autobiographical issue of Hans (February 1932). Her close association with the national movement and her incarceration, incidentally, provided her with some themes for short stories.