I lovingly call my grandmother Amma.

Like all grandmothers she has taken the utmost care in my upbringing, but what makes her even more special to me is that she’s been my story teller since childhood. I’ve heard innumerable qissay-kahani from her.

To the world she might be a renowned Urdu writer whom everyone knows as Masroor Jahan, but to me she’s my Amma who’s fascinated me with tales of far and near, both real and utopian; of people who carry in turn a million stories within themselves.

I can’t recall the name of the author she would often quote to me, “To understand the reality better, always turn to fiction.” That’s probably why from a very young age, I was drawn to literature. The stories of people and places breathing between vanilla-scented pages, enamoured me.

But it was only after reading the works of the great writer Munshi Premchand (born Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava) that I started better understanding the meaning of that quote.

On 31st July, his birth anniversary, the literary world paid tributes to the wordsmith who understood the pathos of the downtrodden like no other. There were seminars, discussions, story reading sessions and people eulogised the ‘Upanyaas Samraat’ (Emperor of the Novel) for a day or two, and then probably got on with their lives.

But to truly pay tribute to this great writer would be to turn to his works every time a girl is raped, a person is beaten to death because of their caste or religion, a sanitation worker dies in a septic tank or children die of starvation or mothers in the hinterland breathe their last in childbirth because of a lack of healthcare facilities.

“Premchand is even more relevant in today’s times” said the great bard Gulzar (born Sampooran Singh Kalra) when I had the chance to interview him once. “After moving to cities we have forgotten our villages. It’s been over a century since Premchand wrote about the condition of villages and their farmers, but have things changed since? And if they have, have they changed for the better or worse?

“The bonded labourers of Premchand’s times are still found in families. We have just made laws on paper that ‘the land belongs to the tiller’, but has it really gone to the tiller? So, Munshi Premchand is as relevant today as he was a hundred years ago,” said Gulzar in his inimitable baritone.

To talk of Premchand’s female characters, they still resound with each one of us in so many ways. Ameena of ‘Idgaah’ reminds us of the sacrifices our mothers make whenever they try to save even a paltry amount by cutting down their own expenses. Ameena endures the pain of burns while making chapattis but doesn’t buy a pair of tongs for herself.

At times Premchand captured the pathos of women way better than women writers. However, he was a feminist of his own kind. He didn’t allow any other set notion of feminism dictate his writing. Premchand wasn’t bound by any political ideology and that’s the reason his works reflect the raw uninhibited emotions of the common man.

The joys, the sorrows, the pain, the loss and the gain, the everyday struggle that the common man goes through are not merely themes of his works, but realities that are clearly understood after reading his body of work.

One of his short stories, ‘Pariksha’, a historical fiction set in the times when Nadir Shah invaded Delhi, gives a very different take on feminism. Nadir Shah invades Delhi and sits on the Mughal city’s throne. He orders that the Begums of the Royal Palace dress themselves up and dance in front of him. As a wave of horror and humiliation sweeps through the zenana khana, the Begums eventually huddle together and present themselves before the Shah.

But Nadir Shah, tired after the siege, falls asleep on the throne, leaving the Begums shaking in fear and cursing the tyrant before them. When he wakes up, he addresses the women. “I was pretending to sleep all this while. I had heard that many of you have Rajputana blood in your veins and I was hoping you would take advantage of my falling asleep and stab me in the heart. But you turned out to be a lot of cowards who have no self-worth. A society whose women lose their self-worth is doomed.”

At first, Premchand’s tone and tenor through Shah’s character appear that of an orthodox, lecturing women on modesty, but to me Premchand stands out as a feminist in his own right. For someone like me who equally advocates the rights of a woman wanting to wear a bikini on the beach and another who wishes to wear the hijab, Premchand stands out as a feminist urging women to stand up for themselves, just like he does through the character of Nirmala in his novel of the same name.

Caste and class distinctions and the pain of those who suffer at the hands of these two evils are the axis of his stories. Whether it’s ‘Kafan’ or Godan, one is bound to reflect that nothing but only two square meals a day is the religion of those struggling to live through each day.

The mention of religion also reminds me of Premchand’s essay ‘Sampradayikta aur Sanskriti’ (Communalism and Culture). Those of us who are consumed by the madness around us and are ready to take an eye for an eye in the name of religion and sanskriti should definitely read his essay:

“Communalism always deploys the excuse of culture. It is perhaps ashamed to emerge in its real form, therefore, like that donkey which wears the skin of the lion to impose its sway on the animals of the jungle, communalism comes in the garb of culture.”

Those of us who become worried at the thought of Muslims growing in population at an alarming rate, thus posing a ‘perceived’ threat to Hindu culture, and even those who think that wearing a bindi or sindoor is an invasion on their Islamic culture, should be reminded of Premchand’s words.

“They have forgotten that now there is neither a Hindu culture anywhere, nor a Muslim culture, nor any other culture. Today there is only one culture in the world and that is economic culture; but even today the Hindus and the Muslims go on harping about culture although culture has no relationship with religion.”

He further writes, “The guardians of Hindu and Muslim culture are those gentlemen and those groups who do not have faith either in themselves, or in their countrymen, or in the truth, and therefore, perpetually feel the need of an entity which will act as an arbitrator in their quarrels. These organisations have no interest in the well-being of people; they do not have any social or political program which they could offer to the nation.”

Sadly, today those whom we elect to represent us don’t miss out on any opportunity for photo ops and launching mere spectacles to hog the limelight and befool the people, who are in turn deliberately trapped by these leaders in the quagmire of religion and caste.

All said, I thank my stars to have been brought up in the lap of my Amma who oft quoted the author I can’t recall, “To understand the reality better, always turn to fiction.”

And I’ll perhaps add to conclude, “…read Premchand’s fiction.”

Saira Mujtaba would like to acknowledge Sanjukta Poddar for translating this essay.