Gaban, a Novel by Munshi Premchand

I read the book as a response to a challenge that my father threw at me on a recent visit to Kolkata. We were in the midst of a discussion and he quoted an article from a Hindi daily, one among the many newspapers he reads everyday, and I replied in a dismissive manner.This prompted him to say that people like me don’t take anything seriously unless its written in English, a gross generalization to which I took immediate umbrage. The old man knows his game and asked me the name of the last Hindi book I had read.I was stumped and told him the name of a Nirmal Verma translation.But since I have studied Hindi for 12 years in school that was unpardonable.After all I go on and on about what a great privilege it is for me to be able to watch Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen films without subtitles.

I forgot about this conversation till I spotted a copy of Gaban in Hindi at the international airport.If they have it, people must be reading it, after all shelf space is a costly commodity.I picked it up and while waiting for my flight, managed to read 20 pages.Premchand truly deserves those blurbs that appear on the back of crime thrillers about being a page turner and gripping you by the throat.The joy of the written word in a language that I speak everyday came back to me and enveloped me like an old and comfortable duvet that has suddenly been rediscovered and revived in the winter sun.

The novel revolves around Ramaa, a young man of malleable moral values and his intrepid wife Jaalpa who seems outwardly flaky and greedy for gold ornaments but hides a much stronger core.Ramaa’s world is build on a mountain of lies and hubris. Jaalpa is young and restless and believes all the tall stories her handsome husband tells.Rama soon finds himself committing fraud(Gaban) to buy her ornaments which leads to a huge misunderstanding thanks to his cowardice. Gaban tells its story with impeccable empathy for all its characters.

The novel is a broad exploration of middle class hypocrisy and cowardice especially among men.Premchand paints in rich shades of grey unlike the bulk of the cinema of the time.By contrasting the relatively higher moral ground occupied by a low-caste character called Devideen , with Ramaa’s many weaknesses, he seems to be making a comment about the petit bourgeoisie of the time .This is also a novel about the inherent strength of women and how a faulty understanding of their psyche and considering them as mere objects, lead to the downfall of Indian society.

As Mrinal Sen, the master filmmaker, said in an interview, that Premchand has an amazing contemporary sensibility, his work never feels dated if we read it with an open mind.The unproductiveness of gold as an asset class and its greed as a pervasive malaise in the India with our disproportionate gold imports becoming a huge drag on the economy, was highlighted by Premchand nearly a century ago.Premchand also intuitively pointed out that post independence the country will be handed over to a corrupt bureaucracy and the problems of the common man may become worse.

In the process of reading Gaban I began to rebuild my broken bridge to Hindi literature.It led me to wonder what is wrong with our education system or society that we forsake our vernacular literature totally while devouring foreign writers translated into English? Is there a social stigma attached to reading anything written in the vernacular? Then why do I find my Bengali friends so much better off in still reading their literature in the original form ? Is it an issue of lack of ownership of Hindi language or has it been completely hijacked by Hindi cinema? Why must we relish the pleasures of Hindustani only from films set in rustic cow belt as is the current trend?

Of late I have been watching NDTV Hindi on the internet and find Ravish Kumar a wonderfully erudite and eloquent speaker and anchor. He comes across as being vastly superior to his counterparts on the English flagship channel, including Barkha Dutt. And I find his guests far more forthright and entertaining than the talking heads on the English channels.By no means is NDTV Hindi a channel I endorse or whose quality of journalism I can vouch for but it’s definitely better “info-tainment” than the English news channels.

Now I know what I was missing.What I do about it remains to be seen.