On the great litterateur Munshi Premchand’s 137th birth anniversary today this morning I simultaneously read his two celebrated short stories ‘Idgah’ (1933) and ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ (1924). One felt entranced by the descriptions of the life in the early 20th century by an author in complete command of his supreme literary craft.
It was by some coincidence that I read two short stories that depict life at the two ends of the economic spectrum of the era. ‘Idgah’ deals with poverty at the edge of society with charming subtlety and dignity while ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ talks about two decadent feudal lords addicted to playing chess utterly oblivious to the world around them seems to be spinning out of control.
It is a tribute to the genius of Premchand that in just a few deft sentences he lures the reader into four or five-year-old Hamid’s penurious but still uplifting world. Hamid’s decision to buy a pair of tongs for his grandma who regularly burns her fingers while making rotis (bread) rather than sweets and toys to celebrate Eid like other children leaves one heartbreakingly touched. The author employs his much celebrated craft in ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi to bring alive the characters of Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mirza Roshan Ali, the two unabashed hedonistic chess players in Lucknow.
It is extraordinary how in a dozen or sentences Premchand paints such captivating portraits of the two contrasting realities. In ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ he writes about the extent of how unconcerned everyone had become by saying that even beggars used their money to buy opium rather than bread. In ‘Idgah’ he captures in one sentence a telling detail of life then when he writes about how people rushed to a local oil merchant with their hardened leather shoes to soften them with oil.
By any measure Premchand (July 31, 1880—October 8, 1936) ranks as one of the world’s great writers so completely immersed into the sociocultural realities of his time. It just strikes me that he died at 56, having created a remarkable body of work. I am at the same age with absolutely nothing to show for myself other than being alive.