Image Credit: Rediff books
I think of each book as a travel that I undertake to a different part of the world. So this time I decided not to travel too far and read Premchand’s “Godan,” which literally means “giving a cow as a gift.” And indeed the novel revolves around the story of Hori and Dhania, two peasant farmers, for whom their cows mean everything. Godan chronicles their lives, their trials and tribulations, as they cope up with the mean Zamindars, the greedy moneylenders and plotting well-wishers. The characters are all portrayed with a certain poignancy with all the flaws that make them human.
While Hori and Dhania along with Datadin and the Zamindars represent the workings of a village, Malti, Mehta and the Khannas provide a window to life in the city. Premchand’s epic has been hailed as one of the jewels of Indian fiction and I absolutely second that. The vast sweep of issues and characters that Premchand presents to the reader is intricate and well-wrought. Hori is one of the many simple minded peasants who are perpetually in debt due to the scheming moneylenders and the rich Zamindars who take advantage of his naivete. Dhania, his wife, although more spirited, is equally pure at heart. Through them and their son Gobar, Premchand beautifully portrays life in the villages, which was perhaps tougher than in the cities. Through the presence of other characters he shows their attitudes and thoughts on religion, politics and other matters. But most importantly he shows the crucial role of bribery and corruption, which has been at the root of India’s rotting heart and remains so even today.
Malti and Mehta stand out as symbols of the city and its thinking. Malti is a modern woman who believes in equal rights for both sexes. She and Mehta have frequent arguments over this topic and they prove to be Premchand’s stage to show that city life is no less daunting than in the village. The attitudes in the city contain biases, judgments and criticisms as much as that in the village. Just on a different angle and scale.
Gobar and Sona, Hori’s children, stand in for the transition that is taking place in the villages towards modernism. They represent young India too with their outlook and smartness.
But in the end the paths of all characters cross in some way or the other making for a nice interleaving of stories. Premchand has juggled so many subjects in the book with ease that it makes for some riveting reading. But I could not get the soul of the book because mine was a translated version and a very bad one at that. Rife with spelling mistakes, the translation sounded jagged and unrefined. The worst were the renditions of proverbs in Hindi, which were done word to word making it very stilted. There was also a glaring mistake right in the beginning of the book when Hori sets out of his house to visit the neighboring village when ‘the sun of June’ is just streaking the sky. When he arrives he finds that the village is in the middle of preparations for Dussera. If you have not already noticed the discrepancy, how can Dussera be celebrated anywhere near June when it falls somewhere near October every year? I don’t know if this was a translation mistake or if Premchand had got his dates wrong.
Premchand, who was born as Dhanpat Rai, is known as Munshi Premchand in India and his stories have been immortalized through television serials too. All in all, Godan is a brilliant evocation of peasant India, set in the 1930s, and its characters speak volumes that cannot be encompassed in this small space.
Verdict: Truly a classic