Author: Munshi Premchand
Publisher: Oxford University Press (India)
Price: Rs 325
Translated by: Snehal Shingavi
Cover Photograph: "Lucknow Woman", Abbas Ali (1874)
One thing guaranteed to send me into raptures of delight in India (apart from visiting old stomping grounds,meeting old friends and family, ofcourse) is a visit to a bookshop for small local publications by Indian authors. In the past, the offering has been quite generous because India has a large number of English writers, but this year, with a whole crop of new translations of the old classics, I found the bookstores just bursting with reading delights - books that had previously been unavailable to me because they were written in one of India's 1000 different regional languages, were now waiting expectantly for me to take them off the shelf and into my suitcase.
One such book was Munshi Premchand's "Sevadasan". Munshi Premchand lived from 1880-1936. He was a schoolteacher and he is largely credited with being the initiator of realism in Indian fiction (before him, Indian fiction largely comprised of mythological tales and stories of the gods etc.) He also introduced the genre of the short story here in India. Premchand was a social reformer and a follower of Gandhi, so it is but natural that his books revolve around social issues of those times like, child marriages, widow remarriage, dowry issues, the caste system, colonialism and so on.
"Sevadasan" is a novel set in Varnasi, one of India's holiest cities and it examines the descent of one very beautiful Brahmin lady, Suman, from rich, doted-on daughter to prostitute. Suman's luck changed all because her father ( a highly-respected police inspector) succumbed to taking a bribe so that he could incur the dowry expenses for her wedding. He was sent to jail and after his wife spent all their earnings trying to have him released, Suman was sent to her uncle's house where she was ill-treated by his family. In India, especially in the early part of the 20th century, it was a herculian task trying to marry off a penniless girl, but Suman's uncle, Umanath, managed to find her a poor man, Gajadhar, to marry but Suman, who had been used to luxuries in her father's house, found it very hard to be the perfect wife to a poor man. Finally, her husband, dissatisfied with her as a wife, asked her to leave. Having nowhere to go, Suman becomes a tawai'if or courtesan.
Being a courtesan in those days was to have sunk to the lowest low. If a courtesan had siblings it is unlikely anyone would ever marry them because of their association to the courtesan, but, at the same time, courtesans effortlessly held sway over all the rich and powerful men of the village who would throng to their dance and song performances every night. Through "Sevadasan" Premchand exposes the double standards of the leaders of those days. Suman finally ends up in Sevasadan (House of Service) an educational institution set up by the social reformers of that time to house reformed courtesans.
This is my first exposure to Premchand's writing and I was absolutely enthralled by his ability to know and depict human nature so well. His character sketches are simply enchanting, even when the characters are not likeable. He was a writer with his finger on the pulse of everyday life in northern rural India and with his keen eye he observed how society's demands could make and break its people. "Sevadasan" besides being a very interesting read is also a vital document on the cultural history of that period. Interestingly enough, the book was supposed to have had the titillating title, "Bazar-e-Husn" or "Bazaar of Beauty", but given the senstive social climate of those days (1917) the publishers thought it was better to have the staid and uninspiring title of "Sevasadan" instead.
"Jaipur Woman" by Gobindram Oodeyram from inside flap of book. Courtesy Harappa.com