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Realism from two points of view


In 1936, three events occurred on the literary scene relating to India: Coolie, by Mulk Raj Anand, was published in England;Premchand was elected president of the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) in Lucknow and published Godan. The PWA urged writers to address social issues rather than write novels of fantasy and escapism. Writers were asked to deal with hunger, poverty, social degradation, and foreign domination using the civilisation and culture of India as well as that of foreign countries for inspiration. Anand and Premchand followed these guidelines and their works can be seen as the exemplars and illustration for the doctrine of the PWA manifesto.

Mulk Raj Anand was born in Peshawar, graduated with honours from the University of Lahore and went to London in 1925 on a scholarship to obtain a doctoral degree in 1929 from University College. He lived and wrote in England for twenty years and was a member of an urban intelligentsia that was strongly influenced by Marxism. In 1935, with the help of some other young Indian writers, he founded the All India Progressive Writers' Association and issued its manifesto. He was an iconoclast who felt that the way to reform was through a reconstruction of the social order: man was cruel because of the inequality of class and would regain his goodness only through the destruction of an exploitive social system. The characters in his novels become stereotypes and emblematic of the pernicious evils of modern society.

The treatment of the heroes, Hori in Godan and Munoo in Coolie, differentiates Premchand from Anand. In Hori, we see a full, well-rounded, complete person - his generosity, kindness, humour, family, craftiness, faith, and sense of duty. The reader knows him, experiences the weight of his suffering, laughs at his jokes, enjoys his successes, and gets angry at his losses. We get annoyed at him for his lack of forcefulness and self-esteem. Premchand knows Hori well since Hori's fictional village is located in the same province as Premchand's own, Oudh.

For Anand, Munoo is a vehicle by which he can satirise and repudiate the values of a society crushed by imperialism, capitalism, and tradition. Coolie is presented as a picaresque novel in which the rogue, Munoo, lives by his wits and conning in the service of various masters who represent the repressive and exploitive elements that ultimately overcome him. We know almost nothing about Munoo except that his parents are dead and his mean-spirited uncle takes him to work in the home of a low-level bank clerk in the city. This sets the stage for Anand to criticise the Indian who works for the British;the groveling Indian who loses his self-respect by treating others as the British treat him.

Premchand and Anand, through Hori and Munoo, differ in their ideals for their heroes: Hori longs for a cow, the beautiful goddess who brings wealth, health, prestige, and good fortune. On the day the cow appears, Hori is greatly excited - as though a goddess had descended from heaven. At his death, he gives his prized possession to the Brahmin priest as his "godan, " his gift of a cow. The cow becomes a symbol of the prosperity that would have allowed him to fulfill his family duties on earth and to fulfill his traditional religious duty at death.

Premchand is practical in his hopes for relief: a good harvest and a good monsoon will solve Hori's problem. His only need for money is so that he can convert it into land. Enough land would make him equal to a zamindar. The importance of caste in Indian society is woven into the fabric of Godan. Hori's fear of being made an outcast by the panchyat leads him to further indebtedness because he believes that they are the voice of god. Hori is fearful, "God forbid that anyone fall victim to a Brahmin's fury. "

For Anand's Munoo, the symbol of success is a pair of shoes. Having to walk from the village to town, his feet hurt him and his uncle promises him that with his first week's earnings, Munoo will get a pair of shoes. When he is presented to his uncle's employer, an English banker, Munoo is awed by the pair of slack boots he is wearing and wonders if he will ever be able to "possess such a pair. . . . he had to be dragged away from the contemplation of the Babu's black boots. " The shoes are symbols of wealth and prestige accrued in terms of money and city life in contrast to village values measured in terms of the cow as 'the living image of prosperity. '

Anand used the modern tools of social revolution for his answer to the evils of corruption and exploitation: the union and the strike;his allies are other coolies and factory workers. Hierarchy is expressed in terms of money - the rich and poor. Caste has little importance except that Manoo realises that his being a Kshatriya will not alleviate his poverty. Anand's lack of reference to caste in Coolie reflects his belief that the causes of poverty for people like Munoo are the injustices of capitalist businessmen and landowners. A classless and casteless society is to be led by the working class, as shown by the character of the poor labour leader, Ratan. The English-educated elitist labour leader, Lall Onkar Nath, is scorned and satirised as harshly as his English overlords.

The differences between Premchand and Anand are clearly illustrated by the last actions of each of the main characters : Godan begins and ends with the need for a cow. Hori gives the godan, the gift of the cow, to the Brahmin priest, while Munoo wants to return to Bombay to join a union, which is fighting moneylenders and company managers.

The writer is curatorial consultant for South Asian Art at the Lowe Art Museum of the University of Miami, Florida

Reader's opinion (2)

Abhilash BishtDec 22nd, 2010 at 14:22 PM

I hav read godan...nd its just awesm..:)

Reshmi ChandrasekharJan 19th, 2011 at 10:35 AM

I did read both writers ,both are evolutionary in style their work speak volumes.Today a farmer would dream of a tractor or SUV.Writers like RK Narayan or Nissim Ezekiel or Kalki give abundant exposure to Indian culture.

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