Premchand Gave Me Back My Father’s Village (and His Childhood)

A tribute to the unexpected ways in which Munshi Premchand touched my life, on his death anniversary. 

3 min read
Hindi Female

(This story was first published on 31 July 2016. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Munshi Premchand’s death anniversary.)

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

This sentence was coined by linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957 to show how a grammatically flawless sentence could still be entirely meaningless; that you could play by the rules of language and still fail to communicate.

Except, it ended up meaning a lot of things to a person some 13,600 kms and half a decade away.

Through the tenuous spiderweb of association, whenever I remember, or dream of my grandfather’s village, it is this apparently nonsensical line I wake up to. The colour of those dreams is always green; dew drops-on-banana-leaves, will-make-you-ache-with-the-vitality-of-life green. And this remembrance will invariably be tied up with Premchand, the ultimate chronicler of India’s rural lives, the writer who gave me back my ancestral village, and my father’s childhood.


In a childhood spent in the city, excursions to my father’s place of birth, DhakNagla, a remote village in UP’s Aligarh, were few and far between. The business of urbanity and growing up, with its thousand demands, would have severed even this fragile link had my father not given me a collection of Premchand’s short stories when I was 11.

I would come to understand the true meaning behind the gesture only much, much later – in a culture that stifles open emotional expression for men, this was my dad’s way of telling me he wanted his kids to understand the world he had left behind.

Premchand’s short stories provided me with the vocabulary to understand and imagine the world of my father’s childhood. I greedily memorised the ordinary objects of rural life ­– khat or cots made of rough jute, green-handled kerosene lamps, atta chakki, cow-dung cakes, open chulhas, feeding troughs – mentioned in stories like Namak ka Daroga, Poos ki Raat, Maa, Putr Prem, Holi ki Chutti, Idgah and Hira aur Moti. It became possible to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the world dad grew up in; his past gathered colour and substance, became less shadowy.

A tribute to the unexpected ways in which Munshi Premchand touched my life, on his death anniversary. 
Premchand provided me with the means to understand my father’s childhood better. (Photo: Bharat Discovery)

Sometimes, Premchand’s fiction would shake loose a memory I didn’t know I harboured. Scenes of men sitting ona takht with chillum, sharing sorrows at the end of a hard work day reminded me of languid, smoky evenings when my grandfather would preside over a small gathering of men at home, with his hookah and his turban.

They would discuss their yields, the rain, their livestock,and their neighbours; sometimes there would be singing, and stories for the children. Chai made with fresh full-cream milk, the kind poor kids in Premchand’s stories were always dreaming of, would be passed around. In keeping with the rural clock, everyone would retire early, our beds narrow cots beneath open starry skies, our lullaby the wail of a nilgai somewhere in the distance.

At the same time, Premchand’s critical eye saved me from falling into the trap of romanticising village life, and holding it up as an idyll to aspire to. In his stories, as in life, poverty and remoteness often bred ignorance and discrimination. The tensions that permeate the world of Premchand’s characters — prejudice, caste hierarchies, endless drudgery, gross inequalities, unjust laws — are ones I saw repeated in the conversations, lifestyles and practices of Dhak Nagla, eight decades after the writer’s death.

Similarly, recurring motifs in his work – lives cramped by poverty, all-consuming love for one’s land and what it yields, familial discord due to limited resources, the cyclical, endless nature of drudgery – were apparent for any eye to see in the stories of my grandfather’s village. The march of time and technology had altered the view, since mobile phones, automated farming implements, vehicles and cellular towers dotted the landscape, but the human drama remained eerily same.


My idea of both my ancestral place and my dad’s childhood is necessarily impressionistic; formed out of a messy intermingling of lived experience and fiction. On the canvas of memory, there are both broad brush strokes – the life-giving green of wheat fields and cow pastures, the melancholy violet-orange of twilit skies – and fine details, like the texture of kaccha cow dungfloors.

Remembrance and association are not facts; but you need them, for without them, you have no past, no roots, no identity, nothing.

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Topics:  Premchand 

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