A Note on Premchand and the Proletarian Context


“अब तो शहरों में मजदूरों की मांग है, रुपया रोज खाने को मिलता है, रहने को पक्का घर अलग। अब हम जनिंदारों का धौंस क्यों सहें, क्यों भर पेट खाने को तरसें? —  प्रेमाश्रम (Premashram)

While Premchand’s stories have numerous references to proletarian life, they generally portray a realist sad picture of a rickshaw-puller, of workers and the cesspool of urban life. However, a careful reading of Premashram shows how the presence of wage labour gave peasants of Awadh a context to act transcending the fatalism of rural life. 

The greatness of a fiction writer depends on her awareness of those aspects of reality which are essential to produce its fictionalised model and, of course, on her ability to connect them sensitively to generate such a model, which is then incubated to develop a full-scale narrative. It is not any “scientific knowledge” of the reality, but its sensitive awareness, which helps her uncover and/or discover those irrational and rational socio-psychological aspects, which non-fiction cannot even imagine to reach. 

It is important to remember that reality is not simply the real, i.e., what is, but what is not too, the unreal, the imaginary that stays with us as possibilities — again not just as actual possibilities, but also as remote and abstract possibilities, constituting the horizons of our imagination. Fictions work at the level of those horizons.

Premchand’s Premashram demonstrates his awareness of the rural reality of Awadh and of the constitutive conflicts.  He is able to capture the passive revolution that was changing the rural setting, and emergent class consciousness and solidarity among the rural poor grounded in their everyday class experience and conflicts.

The novel is able to provide us an insight into the antinomies of Indian nationalism too — we have characters representing patriarchal humanism of the rentier class, incipient calculative rural bourgeois landlord interests, enlightened bourgeois utopians, diverse levels of indigenous bureaucratic class, proletarianising peasantry, all feeding into the constitution of this nationalism.

The global context of  socialist movements, the Russian revolution and productive-technological evolution too become important elements in the novel as a constant background and through their discursive contributions. Many critics have of course mentioned this. 

But an element of the contemporary reality which in my view is very crucial to grasp the novel and Premchand’s astuteness has generally been ignored or has not been identified. It is the fact of rural-urban migration and wage labour which in this novel at least exists not as a sign of distress, but as an opportunity and freedom for the rural poor. Migration and wage labour are escape routes that allow the rural poor enough confidence especially among the youth to engage in open conflict with rural oppressors. 

It is not to say that Premchand considers wage labour to be an opportunity for a better life (in many of his stories he has shown the plight of migrants and wage labour). However, he is definitely aware, at least in Premashram, that the rural poor’s militancy is derived to a large extent from the proletarian context.