PREMCHAND (1880–1936), prominent Hindi-Urdu author. Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, better known as Premchand, is widely regarded as the most important Hindi-Urdu author of the twentieth century. He has to his credit fourteen published novels, three hundred short stories, plays, film scripts, translations from English, and a vast number of editorials and essays. Born in Lamhi, a village near Benares (Varanasi), the son of a poor village postmaster, he acquired education by dint of his own efforts. His first career was as a primary school teacher, and he later became an educational administrator. He wrote first in Urdu but switched later to Hindi at the suggestion of his publishers. He remained important in both literary streams, and would continue to be claimed by both as a master storyteller.
Srivastava began writing under the pseudonym Premchand when early in his career he aroused the ire of the British government for writings that were considered inflammatory and seditious. He resigned from government service in 1921 in answer to Mahatma Gandhi's call for noncooperation and remained ideologically indebted to him, though his later politics were also clearly colored by socialist thought. His writings reflected this confluence of thought. He considered it important to portray noble and ideal aspirations, and to provide some ground for activism and optimism; his social realism was deliberately peppered with idealized figures and Gandhian resolutions to conflict. He himself participated actively in the political and social reform debates of his day; he wrote short stories not only for the premier journals of his times, Saraswati and Naya Zamana, he was editor of the important Hindi journal Madhuri (1927–1931) and of his own journals, Hans (1930–) and Jagaran (1932–), which he continued to publish until the end of his life, though plagued by government restrictions and dogged by heavy debts.
Premchand's novels and short stories drew from his own vast experience of the conflicts of village life, caste tensions, excessive revenue demands, and the never-ending chain of debts entailed by these. If these were grim tales, they were both deepened and lightened by psychological insight, irony, and humor, and the broad canvas on which they were drawn, which came to link country and city in a manner previously unknown in Hindi-Urdu fictional literature. Women's issues, particularly in the urban sphere, occupied a large amount of space in his writing. He wrote women-centered stories for the radical women's journal Chand. Two well-known novels, Sevasadan (House of service; 1918), his first success, and Nirmala (1927), focused on the plight of attractive young women, yoked to older men for lack of dowry. In the one case, the young woman took to prostitution, where she achieved a measure of independence, only to be cast into fetters of another kind by the efforts of social reformers. In the later novel, the ending was much more tragic. Suspected of a liaison with her stepson, Nirmala experienced psychological pain and loss of almost unbearable intensity. Of his peasant novels, Godaan, the Gift of a Cow (1936) is considered a classic of modern Hindi-Urdu literature. Written at the end of his life, it is set within two overlap-ping narrative frames, one provided by the social codes of village life on the North Indian plains and the other by the wider network of colonial and nationalist politics in the city of Lucknow. Godaan is Premchand's most mature novel; it presents a clear-eyed vision of pre-independence politics with little utopian relief provided for the memorable peasant characters, Hori, Dhania, and Gobar.
Premchand was elected president of the newly formed Progressive Writers Association in 1936. His view of the aim of literature, as presented in his address to the first meeting of the association in Lucknow, has remained formative for succeeding generations of radical writers in Hindi-Urdu: "Now literature does not view the individual as separate from society, on the contrary, it sees the individual as an indissoluble part of society! Not so that the individual should rule over society and make literature a means for pursuing his self-interests, as if eternal enmity existed between him and society, but because the individual's existence is dependent on the existence of society, outside of which his value is next to nothing." (The Oxford India Premchand )
Premchand. Godaan, the Gift of a Cow, translated by Gordon C. Roadarmel, with a new introduction by Vasudha Dalmia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
——. The Oxford India Premchand (42 short stories and the novels Nirmala, translated by Alok Rai and Gaban, the Stolen Jewels, translated by David Ruben, with an introduction by Francesca Orsini). Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Rai, Amrit. Premchand. His Life and Times, translated from the Hindi by Harish Trivedi, with an introduction by Alok Rai. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.