Thoughts on Premchand's "Godaan"

The first surprise in reading Premchand's 1936 masterpiece Godaan is just how different it is from the blurb describing it. Here, for instance, is the standard blurb, lifted in this case from Wikipedia:

The protagonist, Hori, a poor peasant, desperately longs for a cow, a symbol of wealth and prestige in rural India. In a Faustian twist of fate, Hori gets his cow, but pays for it with his life. After his death, the village priests demand a cow from his widow to bring his soul absolution, and peace (Godaan). The narrative represents the average Indian farmer's existence under colonial rule, with the protagonist facing cultural and feudal exploitation.

It's hard to imagine anyone having the patience to read a 400 novel on a subject as limited as this, but fortunately the novel itself is much more than a single villager's cow-related struggles. There are several parallel plots: the story of Hori and his wife, Dhaniya, mentioned above; the story of Hori's son Gobar, and his wife, Jhuniya, who leave the farm in rural UP for an urban life in nearby Lucknow; and the story of the Rai Sahib and his friends in Lucknow. The Rai Sahib owns the land on which the village is situated, and as the novel develops his circle of friends, including especially a philosophy professor named Doctor Mehta, an English-educated single woman named Miss Malti, and the sugar mill director Mr Chandra Prakash Khanna, all become major characters with their own personal and familial plots. Even in the village, new plots begin to spin out involving characters who seem minor at first, but who begin to play more important roles as the story develops.

The novel is in short, a big story in the manner of the grand Victorian novels, with about fifteen major characters. The two nodal points are Hori, the poor villager (whose life really isn't that oriented to the idea of the "gift of a cow"), and Rai Sahib, the powerful Zamindar in Lucknow. In the plot of the novel the two characters are shown meeting once, at the beginning, but from that point onwards their stories go in different directions (though certain incidents, do keep the two characters in each others' orbit).

Another misconception about Godaan comes with its form -- namely, "social realism" -- which might lead one to expect this to be mainly a political novel, with the Zamindar and his high-caste agents as villains, while the poor Kayastha (Kshatriya) and Chamar villagers are heroes. In actuality, Premchand gives full and equal psychological depth to both the high-born urban characters and the poor villagers, and the novel's politics are much more subdued than one might expect from a key figure in the Progressive Writers' movement, writing at the height of the era of anti-colonial agitation. This is undeniably a novel that dramatizes the crisis of rural poverty and the corruption of the ruling class, but what comes across more than the socio-political critique is Premchand's remarkable characterization and plot.

My favorite moments in Godaan are the everyday arguments and debates amongst the characters, which make almost every chapter interesting in its own right. Most of the debates (in both the village and the town) are about status, property, gender-relations, and caste. Here's an example of a fight between a husband and wife that I found particularly powerful. Khanna and his wife Govindi are here debating what to do about a sick child; Khanna has been having a longstanding flirtation with the beautiful and cultured Miss Malti (an England-returned physician), and as a result has been neglecting his wife:

Bhisham was their youngest son. Sickly ever since birth, he seemed to have something or other wrong with him all the time. One day it would be a cough, the next a fever; sometimes he'd start having chest pains, other times it would be diarrhea. Ten months old now, he looked only five or six months. Khanna had become indifferent toward the boy, convinced he wouldn't live anyway. But Govindi for that very reason cared more about the baby than about any of the other children.

Khanna assumed an air of fatherly concern. 'It's not good to get babies in the habit of taking drugs, and you have a fetish for doling out medicines. You call the doctor at the slightest excuse. This is only the third day. Wait another day. The fever'll probably drop all by itself today.'

'It hasn't come down for three days,' Govindi persisted. 'All the home remedies have failed.'

'All right then, I'll make a call. Whom should I send for?'

'Call Dr. Naag.'

'Very well, I'll get him, but remember that a big name doesn't mean the man's a good doctor. Despite the high fees he collects, I've never seen his treatment cure anyone. He's notorious for dispatching his patients to heaven.'

'Then call anyone you like. I only suggested Dr. Naag because he's been here several times.'

'Why don't I send for Miss Malti? Her fees are lower and a lady doctor knows more about children than any man could.'

Govindi flared up. 'I don't consider Miss Malti a doctor.'

Khanna glared back at her. 'I suppose she was in England digging ditches. Besides, thousands of people owe their lives to her today. Doesn't that mean anything?'

'Maybe so, but I have no faith in her. She may have the remedy for men's ailing hearts, but she can't cure anything else.'

That did it. Khanna began to thunder, and Govindi let loose a torrent. Malti's name was like a declaration of war between them.

Khanna flung all the papers on the floor. 'Life with you has really gone sour,' he declared.

There are similarly vivid arguments with the other couples in the novel, suggesting that Premchand knew the ins and outs of arguments that can happen between husbands and wives. I found it interesting here that the argument is over how to treat an ill child; it says a lot that one option is to simply let the child continue to be feverish without even calling a doctor. The high infant mortality in India at this time is only too evident from the plot of Godaan, as throughout the novel, we see several major characters lose young children to illness. (Happily, the child mentioned in the passage above does survive.)

There are several transgressive romances in the novel involving major characters, including Hori's romance with a widow named Jhuniya, which causes grief and scandal for his family (though the family does eventually recover from the sanctions imposed on them by the local village council). Another important transgressive is the romance between a Brahmin named Matadin and a Chamar woman named Siliya. The latter is a starker example of caste-transgression, and a confrontation over it provokes one of the more disturbing scenes in Premchand's novel:

Siliya's father Harkhu was an old man of sixty, dark and thin, wrinkled as a dried pepper and just as biting. 'There's no trouble, thakur. Today we'll either make a chamar out of Matadin or shed his blood along with our own. Siliya is a woman, and she has to go live with some man or other. We have no objection to that, but whoever takes her must become one of us. You can't make brahmans out of us, but we can make chamars out of you. If you're willing to make us brahmans, our whole community is agreeable. As long as that's not possible, then become chamars. Eat with us, drink with us and live with us. If you're going to take away our honour, then give us your caste.'

Datadin raised his stick. 'Control your tongue, Harkhu. Your girl's over there. Take her anywhere you please. We haven't tied her down. She worked and she got paid. There's no shortage of labourers around here.'

Siliya's mother shook her finger at him. 'Bully for you, pandit! You're being terribly fair! I'd like to see you talk that way if your daughter had run off with a chamar. We're chamars, though, so of course we don't have any honour! We're not taking Siliya away alone. We're taking Matadin with her--the one who ruined her. You're so pious--you'll sleep with her, but you won't drink water from her hands. No one but this bitch would tolerate all that. I'd have poisoned such a man.'

'Didn't you hear what these people are saying?' Harkhu challenged the group with him. 'What are you standing there gaping for?'

At this, two of the chamars sprang forward and grabbed Matadin's hands while a third tore off his sacred thread. Before Datadin and Jhinguri Singh could wield their sticks, two chamars had stuffed a big piece of bone in Matadin's mouth. Matadin clenched his teeth but the abominable thing caught between his lips all the same. Overcome by nausea, he opened his mouth involuntarily--and the bone slipped inside.


The vomiting over, Matadin stretched out almost lifeless on the ground as though his back were broken, as though he only wanted a cupful of water in which to drown himself. The ritual propriety which had allowed him to flaunt his passion and his pride had been wiped out. That piece of bone had polluted not only his mouth but also his soul. His religion depended on absolute purity in eating and drinking; not that righteousness had been cut off at the root. (305-306)

In part, it's surprising here to see the Chamar group as in effect initiating an act of physical aggression -- in much modern Indian literature, caste violence is seen as always 'top-down'. It's also interesting to me that the characters choose this particular kind of embodied 'pollution' as revenge for a Chamar woman being 'taken' as a mistress by a Brahmin: a piece of bone forced into the mouth becomes the equivalent of a sexual relationship.

* * *

There are also some passages in Godaan that flirt with a more moral and philosophical quality, though for the most part I tend not to find these quite as gripping. One exception is the climactic scene involving the reconciliation of Khanna after his mill is burned, and his estranged wife Govindi -- as it occurs in front of Miss Malti, the woman who has in fact distracted Khanna from his wife in the first place. In some ways, the philosophical revelation below is the follow-up to the scene of crisis I quote from above:

The dawn of married life is rosy with an intoxicating desire whose golden rays illumine the horizons of the soul. Then comes the scorching heat of noon, when whirlwinds blow and the earth begins to tremble. The golden shelter of desire melts away. Stark reality emerges. After that comes restful evening, cool and peaceful, when, like weary travellers, we discuss the day's journey with a detachment as though seated on some high mountain top removed from the clamour below.

And here is the original Hindi, using Google's Transliterate function to roughly render the Devanagari:

वैवाहिक जीवन के प्रबात में लालसा अपनों गुलाबी मादकता के साथ उदय होती है और हदय के सारे आकाश को अपने मधुये का सुनहरी किरणों से रंजित कर देती है. फिर मध्याह का प्रखर ताप आता है, क्षण-क्षण पर बगूले उठते है, और प्द्थ्वी कापने अगती है. लालसा का सुनेहरा आवरण हट जाता है और वास्त-किकता अपने नग्न रूप में सामने आ खादी होती है. उसके बाद विज्नाममय (*) संध्या आती है, शीतल और शांत, जब हम थके हुए पथिके की भाति दिनभर के यात्रा का वतान्त कहेते और सुनते है, तटस्थ भाव से, माने हम किसी ऊचे शिखर पर जा बैठे है जहा नीचे का जन-राव हम तक नही पहुचता.

* * *

Roadarmel's terrific 1967 translation has been widely praised, and Vasudha Dalmia, in Indiana University Press's 2002 reissue of Godaan, decided to leave it untouched. As far as I can tell, Roadarmel is pretty consistent in rendering the Hindi source accurately and effectively into English. Dalmia does point out that Roadarmel makes a couple of small but telling changes here and there, however:

If at a dramatic moment in her encounter with the police official Dhaniya speaks of the futility of trying to gain 'suraj' as she calls it, that is svaraj (self- or home-rule), on a moral basis as slim as that presented by the new leadership, Roadarmel elects to omit these few lines with their immediate reference to impending political disaster altogether. He also omits another telling sentence, in order perhaps not to belittle Hori, when Gobar calls his father a 'gau' (cow)--that is, a man too simpleminded and submissive to survive village politics--linking him ironically to the very object he so desperately seeks to own. (xv)

I do have the Hindi original text of the novel, though I've only been looking at it sporadically. (I haven't found the passage where Gobar calls his father a 'gau' yet, but am looking for it.)

* * *

Godaan, in short, is fundamentally a modern novel in both form and content. Its form clearly resembles multi-plot late Victorian novels by writers like Thomas Hardy, and in some ways its content is Hardy-esque as well -- though thoroughly transplanted to the Indian/Hindi context without a trace of 'derivativeness'. The novel rings true both in its village scenes and in its urban/high-culture passages, and many of the debates and arguments its characters have, over issues such as caste- and gender-relations remain relevant today. Despite Premchand's reputation as a political writer (which he himself reinforced in his public statements in support of the Progressive Writers), Godaan does not hit the reader over the head with politics. It's satisfying to read for its psychological insights (especially regarding relationships between men and women), and I could certainly imagine teaching Roadarmel's translation to American undergraduates; when I do, perhaps I'll add a bit more.