the world of premchand

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the world of premchand

Sunday, 30 September 2018 | Kalyanee Rajan

the world of premchand

A collaborative enterprise of around 70 translators working on 300 stories, the project boasts of several short stories being presented in English for the first time. Jamia Millia Islamia Professor M Asaduddin shares with Kalyanee Rajan the journey of the making of these volumes, the unique characteristics, and his future projects

Premchand: The Complete Short Stories, published in four volumes by Penguin Random House, has been edited by author, critic, and translator in several languages M Asaduddin. A collaborative enterprise of about 70 translators working on 300 stories, the project boasts of several short stories being presented in English for the first time. Taken together, the volumes constitute 3,264 pages of dense printed material, running into more than 1500,000 words. The volumes present Premchand’s entire short-fiction oeuvre for the delight of the English-speaking world.

Along with a comprehensive foreword by Harish Trivedi and an extensive introduction by the editor, M Asaduddin, this pathbreaking anthology features several stories not hitherto available either in Hindi or Urdu. Also included are comprehensive notes that provide the publication history of each story — highlighting the differences, sometimes significant and radical, between the Hindi and Urdu versions of the same story — as well as a definitive chronology, making this a truly singular collection. Prof M Asaduddin shares the journey of “the making” of these volumes as it were, the unique characteristics, and his future projects.


Premchand: The Complete Short Stories in four volumes is a massive project. Please tell us about its inception and the journey.

It all started as a part of the UGC-SAP-DRS project awarded to the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi) in 2004. But as happens with such ventures, it met several roadblocks along the way and at one time it seemed that it would never be completed. It remained in limbo for quite a few years until I managed to revive it in 2016 and gave it a major push. I always felt that it was a work that needed to be done, and failure to complete the project would have meant a major setback to the Premchand Scholarship. 


What were the major challenges before you, both as an editor and a translator, as you embarked upon this ambitious project?

The foremost challenge was to gather a large number of translators with adequate bilingual competence and knowledge of cultural nuances. We organised quite a few workshops to train translators in honing their skills. Translators came to several rounds of three-day workshops with their translations and worked with mentors to polish and finalise them. Special lectures were organised during the workshop to familiarise translators with the cultural world of Premchand and the peculiarities of his style. Premchand was not simply writing in Urdu and Hindi, but fashioning modern prose in these languages. As an editor, my challenge was to see that there is some stylistic uniformity, given such a large number of translators and each translator having his own individual style.     


What are some of the unique features of this set of short stories compared to existing translations?

The four volumes, for the first time, endeavour to present the entire corpus of Premchand’s short stories in English translation. A proper chronology has been established by painstakingly exploring the publishing history of each story. This has never been done earlier. Before this, there were several anthologies in circulation — good, bad, and indifferent — that showcased a limited number of stories, mostly less than 20. They were awfully inadequate to give the reader an idea of the range and complexity of the writer. The current volumes address this inadequacy.

However, the most unique feature that sets these volumes apart from any other existing volume is the fact that they have combined both the Hindi and Urdu versions wherever such versions exist. Typically, most of the other volumes used only the Hindi original, and in doing so, they presented only a partial version of Premchand’s larger vision. It is because of this that the volumes are expected to give a fillip to Premchand studies — by presenting both versions and also by making available materials that were not available earlier.


What kind of archival sources did you need to access and what were some of the challenges you faced while locating and accessing the primary texts?

The editions of Premchand’s work in Hindi and Urdu that claim to be definitive are not definitive at all. There are differences among versions. As far as possible, my effort was to track down sources where the stories were first published. For instance, a large number of his stories in the first phase were published in Zamana, an Urdu journal published from Kanpur. Fortunately, I could lay my hands on all the Zamana files from the Premchand Archives at Jamia Millia Islamia that contained these stories. Similarly, I tried to access archives in Pakistan and the US for other stories. In the process, some new stories were discovered from these sources that are not available in any of the existing collections of Hindi and Urdu, not to speak of English.

How far do you think Premchand is relevant to the current literary and socio-political scenario?

Premchand is considered the greatest writer in Urdu and Hindi, with respect to both his popularity and the range and depth of his corpus. His enduring appeal cuts across all barriers of class, caste, and social groups. In fact, few, or none of his contemporaries in Urdu-Hindi, have remained as relevant today as him, in the contexts of the women question, Dalit discourse, Gandhian nationalism, Hindu-Muslim relations, and the current debates about the idea of India that is inclusive of all groups and denominations irrespective of caste and creed. Hence this project, which not only places Premchand’s short fiction in a reliable chronological order, but also underscores the need to revisit Premchand in the light of the new materials that have been discovered.

Please talk a bit about Premchand, his life and times, and Premchand as a writer.

When Premchand began to write in the opening decade of the 20th Century, novels and short stories, as we understand in the modern senses of the terms, were yet to emerge. The atmosphere of dastaan or prose romances hung heavy on fiction writing in Hindi and Urdu. It can be seen in Premchand’s early stories too. But he soon grew out of it and made his fiction more socially relevant by giving it the hard, gritty texture of realism. In this sense, he can be regarded as the father of modern fiction in both Urdu and Hindi. The Hindi-Urdu controversy was virulent at the time, vitiated as it was with rank communalism and the Hindu-Muslim relations had touched their lowest depth. It goes to the credit of Premchand that he negotiated all this with courage and conviction, untouched by any kind of sectarianism. It was nothing less than heroic, given the vitiated atmosphere of the time.


Since you have been working on Premchand for quite some time now, could you briefly touch upon what has been the history of translations of Premchand’s oeuvre in India and abroad?

A limited number of Premchand’s stories have been translated into all Indian languages. Some of his popular stories, like ‘Idgah’ and ‘Boodhi Kaki’, have been a part of school syllabi in every part of the country. So most of the educated Indians have encountered Premchand either in their schools or at some stage in their lives. Six out of his 14 novels have been translated into English so far. Quite a few anthologies of his short stories in English have also been published. As far as translation of Premchand’s works in foreign languages is concerned, I have dealt with this in a volume, Premchand in World Languages (Routledge), edited by me. Preference for Premchand’s work picked up for translation was, in most cases, determined by the ideology and the image of India that the translators wanted to project through their translations. Premchand was hugely popular in the Leninist and Stalinist Russia, presumably because of his concern for the underdogs and marginalised sections of society. 


Premchand translated quite a few foreign writers during his lifetime. What were his objectives in translating them? What are the kind of concerns you engage with while encountering his own translations or translations in his own lifetime?

Premchand translated Leo Tolstoy, the Russian maestro, Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian-French writer, and Charles Dickens and George Eliot, the English Victorian novelists. He also translated John Galsworthy. In each case, the choice of his texts was driven by ideological impulse. He translated Tolstoy’s short stories for their simple morality and folk wisdom that appealed to him. He translated Maeterlinck’s play Les Aveugles (as Shab-e Tar Yaani Andheri Raat), as he found the play extremely relevant in post-Jallianwala Bagh India, and he translated Eliot’s Silas Marner (as Sukhdas) because he felt a special affinity with the protagonist’s simple view of life. In all these cases, his translations were fairly close to the originals. However, when he rendered his own novels and short stories from Urdu to Hindi or the other way round, he often took recourse to rewriting, changing them significantly in the process. One can mention the novel Sevasadan (Bazar-e Husn in Urdu) and the short stories, ‘Poos ki Raat’ or ‘Mritak Bhoj’ as illustrations.


Premchand’s stories are marked by a stark, ruthless realism mingled with a great deal of idealism. How do you think, as a writer, Premchand viewed the world around him and what kind of solutions did he offer, if any?

The best of Premchand’s stories deal with social iniquities. It will not be incorrect to say that the readers of Hindi and Urdu fiction encountered such stark realities in literature for the first time. His idealism consists of his belief in the goodness of human heart and the possibility of human beings transforming themselves. Quite a few of his stories attain denouement through the strategy of change of heart of the protagonist. Yet, it will be fair to say that Premchand was aware of the human potentiality for both good and evil in equal measure.


What are some of the recurring themes in Premchand’s short stories and do you believe he fleshed them out to a logical culmination? Does he leave some of them unresolved or unsatisfactorily done?

The plight of the common people, exploitation of the marginalised sections of society, agrarian distress and peasants’ struggle, women empowerment, caste injustice, Hindu-Muslim relations, life in the village and the city — these are some of the themes that occur in Premchand’s works again and again. He treats these themes from different angles. No aspect of the society of the time has remained untouched in his fiction. It is possible to recreate a comprehensive picture of contemporary Indian society from Premchand’s fiction and non-fiction.


Premchand had to face enormous censorship during his time. In these times, we are faced with lingering, uncomfortable questions of freedom of expression with respect to both the citizen and the litterateur. What would be your observations?

Premchand was writing under a repressive colonial regime where there was very limited freedom of speech and expression. His first volume of stories, Soz-e Watan (The Dirge of the Nation) was banned by the British Government. Later in life, he had to submit a security deposit of `1,000 (a substantial sum) several times at the mere whiff of writing political material in his two journals. Premchand was a popular writer, who had extraordinary reach and penetration, and hence, the nervousness of the colonial Government was understandable. Today, we live in an independent country and Premchand would have expected every citizen of India to enjoy freedom of thought and expression in full measure. The recent phenomenon of intolerance of each other’s views and faith and ideology would have pained him deeply. Right through his life, he fought all kinds of narrowness and sectarianism, and never made any compromise with the forces of obscurantism.


What are the difficulties faced by translators today? Specifically in terms of their engagement with the language, do translators get the freedom to translate as is, without mediation and are they able to express the topical, historically rooted themes and idioms, however controversial they may sound, in the globalised, modern world of today?

As far as translation is concerned, more specifically translation from Indian languages into English, India is passing through a good phase. The entire nation seems to be engaged in translating India into English. The general axiom that one usually translates into one’s own mother tongue has been turned on its head in India. The multi-lingual nature of our society and polity requires that we must translate into English in order to make our own literature accessible to a pan-Indian and foreign readership. For various reasons, Indian literature in English translation is in great demand today. It has grown both in volume and quality over the past couple of years. The art of translation has been the subject of countless seminars in the country. It is now being studied as an academic subject with potential for jobs. All this has contributed to making the art of translation and the discourse around it more nuanced, refined, and complex. The environment in India is now quite conducive for an aspiring translator.       


You have been awarded by the Sahitya Akademi for your translation of Ismat Chughtai’s Kaghazi Hai Pairahan. You have contributed extensively to the Premchand Scholarship. What are your current and upcoming projects?

I have recently completed translating a collection of animal stories by Syed Muhammad Ashraf. This was sponsored by Aleph Books and is being published this summer. Then there is a project by Penguin Random House to translate a comprehensive collection of stories by Intizar Husain, the foremost Pakistani writer. I have also been approached for a re-translation of Premchand’s Godaan. So much needs to be done, and the time at one’s disposal is so limited.

The writer teaches English literature at a DU college

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