By Munshi Premchand Translation Dr Hasan Manzar
Novels that remain incomplete owing to the death of their writers, and are published later, are rarities in the Subcontinent, though elsewhere they do mount the printing presses quite frequently.
In some instances — as in the cases of Russian writers Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol — posthumously published works have won their writers accolades.
Here, one can make special mention of Gogol’s classic Dead Souls, which came out in 1842. The novel was divided into two parts; the first was acclaimed by critics, but the second half was destroyed by the novelist himself a few days before his death in 1852, when the genius had fallen prey to depression.
A close example in our part of the world happens to be Mangalsutra, which was written by the stalwart of Urdu/ Hindi fiction, Munshi Premchand. He could not proceed beyond four chapters before he passed away on October 8, 1936. He was then merely 56 years old. He could not even revise what he had already penned.
A publication of the incomplete last novel of the giant of Hindi/ Urdu literature tantalises and grips, but leaves the reader frustrated
It was four years later that Mangalsutra was published in Hindi — the language Premchand persisted with in the latter part of his career, though initially he had written in Urdu, which came to him easily because he had studied Arabic and Persian in his boyhood.
The slim volume — published by the Anjuman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu, Pakistan — comprises the Urdu translation by Dr Hasan Manzar of Premchand’s four chapters, in addition to chapters on the novelist and his personal life written by academician Dr Anwaar Ahmad. The introduction written by Premchand’s son, Shripat Rai, is highly informative; in it, Rai claims that Mangalsutra was almost autobiographical.
The foreword, written in her inimitable style by Zahida Hina, is captivating. She maintains that, despite the physical discomfiture he had been experiencing in his twilight days, the novelist did not refrain from practising his love for literature.
Premchand’s better half, writer Shivrani Devi, was grief-stricken by Gaodaan [Cow Donation], the classic novel Premchand had authored five months before his death. It portrayed the plight of the poor villagers in Uttar Pradesh (known as the United Provinces until Independence) and the realistic narration pained her intensely.
Premchand told Shivrani that she would feel better if she read, or at least heard, the story of Mangalsutra, but the lady refused to lend her ear — something she would regret for the rest of her life.
The unfinished story of Mangalsutra, spanning four chapters, begins with Sant Kumar — the wayward son of the widely respected writer Dev Kumar — insisting that the family property the old man had sold for what Sant called a pittance, ought to be acquired back. He asks his father to get Sant’s inheritance back from the moneylender to whom it had been sold.
Sant Kumar wants to go to the courts of law, but he has no money to pay for legal costs. A lawyer friend advises Sant to prove that his father had lost his mental balance when he disposed of the property. The fourth chapter concludes when Dev Kumar is given a handbag brimming with wealth by an association peopled by his affluent admirers.
In one chapter, Sant Kumar’s wife — disturbed by her husband’s blind love for wealth — is pleasantly surprised to see a group of poor women going home after a hard day’s work in a highly exuberant mood, singing a ditty in a chorus. Their clothes are dishevelled and faces untidy, but their disposition is spirited.
Will the property be reacquired? Is there even any need for it to be taken back? These questions remain unanswered because the novel is left incomplete.
Let us return to Gaodaan for a moment. One should recall that, while Premchand’s major contribution to fiction is in the realm of short stories, this particular novel is a landmark in the field of Urdu/ Hindi literature. Set in a rural sphere, it shows how the common man — be it a farmer or a labourer — is exploited (read: cheated) by landlords, moneylenders and even petty government officers. Realism is the keynote of Premchand’s stories, which is why he ranked well above his predecessors Abdul Haleem Sharar, Mirza Hadi Ruswa and Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar.
Gaodaan was made into a memorable Hindi film in 1963, starring Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal. While on the subject of films, we cannot ignore the fact that no less a filmmaker than Satyajit Ray adapted Premchand’s short story Shatranj Ke Khilaarri [The Chessplayers] for the large screen.
The writer could have made a fortune had he branched out into cinema. As it was, television had not made its debut in Premchand’s lifetime, otherwise his short stories, relevant as they were, would also have been delicious morsels for TV producers.
What is surprising about Mangalsutra, however, is that — barring one line — no reference is made of Premchand’s presiding over the first-ever conference of the Progressive Writers in April 1936, a few months before he called it a day.
Considering that this was a congregation of accomplished writers and literary figures belonging to different languages, it was a well-deserved honour for Premchand. It would have been quite appropriate to have reproduced excerpts of, if not the entire, presidential address that he had presented on the occasion.
Eminent writer Sajjad Zaheer had written about the occasion, and Premchand’s reluctant agreement to preside over the conference, in his absorbing and highly informative book Roshnaai [Ink]. A new edition of this book is in the process of being brought out by the Karachi-based publishing house Maktaba-i-Danyal.
Coming back to Mangalsutra, one can say that Dr Manzar’s translation from Hindi to Urdu is laudable, as is his rendition of Shivrani Devi’s narration of her life with her widely admired husband. This latter work had also been brought out earlier by the Anjuman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu under the title Premchand Ghar Mein [Premchand at Home].
Likewise, Dr Anwaar Ahmad’s introduction to Premchand is readable and informative, to say the least.
An important question, however, remains unanswered: who chose the title of the incomplete novel?
The mangalsutra is the necklace of black beads worn by Hindus to symbolise their marital status. Seen against the context of Premchand’s four chapters, the title doesn’t seem to be too relevant.
The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 19th, 2022