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Premchand (pronounced [mʊnʃi preːm t͡ʃənd̪] (31 July 1880 – 8 October 1936), better known as Munshi Premchand, Munshi being an honorary prefix, was an Indian writer famous for his modern Hindustani literature. He is one of the most celebrated writers of the Indian subcontinent and is regarded as one of the foremost Hindustani writers of the early twentieth century. Born Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, he began writing under the pen name “Nawab Rai”, but subsequently switched to “Premchand”. A novel writer, story writer and dramatist, he has been referred to as the “Upanyas Samrat” (“Emperor among Novelists”) by some Hindi writers. His works include more than a dozen novels, around 250 short stories, several essays and translations of a number of foreign literary works into Hindi.
“Intoxication” – A Tale by Munshi Premchand (as penned by this author)
This story has been written in the first person.
Ishwari, my friend, was the son of a wealthy and a powerful landlord. I, Bir, on the other hand, was the son of a poor and lowly clerk who owned no property and who in fact, was a wage-earner and labourer. Ishwari and I were constantly having heated debates. I would speak very derogatorily about landlords calling them fierce predators, blood-sucking leeches and power-hungry parasites. Ishwari was in a weaker position and had no real arguments to defend himself. He would only go so far as to state that any society always has a system of hierarchy and that all humans are not born equal. It was difficult to prove the correctness of these arguments, based on either human or ethical principles. While I sometimes became very harsh, critical and hurtful concerning this subject, Ishwari forever remained good-natured about it all.
Ishwari always spoke rudely to the servants – he had plenty of the callousness, inconsideration, heartlessness and arrogance that is to be found in the wealthy. He lost his temper for the most trivial of things. He had no patience with laziness or indolence of any kind. Yet, with his friends and especially with me, he was always empathetic, sympathetic, kind-hearted and gentle. Perhaps in his position, I too would have developed this callous attitude because my love for the people was based not on principle but on my personal circumstances. In my position, Ishwari, would most likely remain lordly because he loved pleasure and luxury.
I had decided not to go home for the Dassehra holidays. I didn’t have the money for the fare and I didn’t want to trouble my family by asking for it. I was concerned about my studies for the upcoming exams. I didn’t want to stay alone in the boarding house either. So, when Ishwari invited me to his house, I accepted without hesitation. Despite Ishwari’s wealth, he is hard-working and intelligent and I felt that I would be able to study well in his company. Ishwari took the time to caution me not to denounce landlords in any way while I stayed at his home. Things would get complicated and his family would feel hurt. All landlords – and labourers alike – feel that God has made the workers so that they might serve the land-owners. If I were hence to state that there exists no basic difference between landlords and workers, it would be the end of the landlords.
Ishwari felt strongly that I would change my attitude when I got to live with his wealthy family members. I pointed out that he was mistaken in this notion. Ishwari remained silent on this point and just as well, otherwise, I would have felt offended.
I had never traveled by the intermediate class, let alone the second class. The train was due at 9 p.m., yet in our eagerness to get going, we arrived at the station in the evening. We walked around for a bit before proceeding for food at the cafeteria. It did not take the cooks long to figure out from my dress and demeanor who was the master and who the hanger-on, yet I resented their insolence. Ishwari paid for the entire meal and gave the cooks a handsome tip of eight annas. Yet I expected them all to wait on me with the same alacrity and humility and I was much disappointed when it was not the case. I didn’t enjoy the meal and these distinctions took all my attention. When the train came, the cooks saluted Ishwari but they did not deign to give me so much as a glance. I began to express vocally my resentment to Ishwari telling him that it was due to the large tip that he had got this unstinting respect. Ishwari felt however that good manners and politeness were ingrained into the mind of any worker.
Our train – a mail train – set out from Prayag and stopped at Pratapgarh. A man opened the compartment door and I immediately shouted out to him in Hindi and then in English that this was the second class compartment and that he should descend at once. The man spoke contemptuously to me and came and sat down on the middle berth. I was overwhelmed by embarrassment and settled for silence instead.
At dawn, we reached Muradabad. Two respectable gentlemen and five peasants, enlisted as free labourers, were waiting at the station to welcome us. The peasants lifted our luggage and the two respectable gentlemen walked behind us. One was a Muslim called Riyasat Ali and the other was a Brahmin named Ramharakh. They both looked at me inquiringly as if to ask what a crow was doing in the company of a swan. We were like chalk and cheese – so noticeable was the difference in each of our statuses.
Riyasat Ali asked Ishwari if I was his room-mate. Ishwari wholeheartedly agreed; he stated with alacrity that it was only due to me that he stayed on in Allahabad to study. Ishwari claimed that he had compelled me to join him at his home despite several urgent and expensive telegrams, to the contrary, that had supposedly arrived from my home. The two gentlemen looked downright astonished and had to make a visible effort to look impressed. To the statement that I dressed very simply, Ishwari stated that I only wore khadi since I was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi. He claimed that I was actually a prince who had set fire to all his fine clothes and that my estate produced a princely amount of two hundred and fifty thousand a year. Ishwari dispelled all their doubts by stating that they should not be misled by appearances which actually seemed to give the impression that I had just emerged from an orphanage. Ramharakh stated respectfully to this statement that the rich rarely exhibit such a temperament of simplicity and humility and that one could never tell just be looking at me. Riyasat Ali compared my simple appearance to that of the Maharaja of Changli. I felt embarrassed by this shower of praise, yet for some reason, these white lies did not seem absurd to me in the least. Each such sentence seemed to bring me closer to this imagined glory and I reveled in it.
Two thoroughbred horses were waiting to transport us. In my childhood, I had ridden horses that were used only to transport goods. I was quaking with fright and took the time to ride at a slow pace, lest I broke several of my limbs. Ishwari seemed to understand my plight.
Ishwari’s home was not a house but a fortress. It had a gate as large as a mausoleum and a watchman stood at the door. There were numerous servants and a tethered elephant. Ishwari introduced me to his father and to several other relatives giving the same white lie of who I actually was. Everyone, including the servants and even the family members, started showing me great respect. They were landlords, yet they were rustics and despite their great wealth they were humble enough to consider a police constable as an officer. Several of them started addressing me respectfully as, “Huzoor.” Ishwari himself started referring to me as Kunwar Sahib.
Later, I questioned Ishwari privately as to why he was intent on poking fun at me. He replied that such a trick was necessary otherwise no one would even bother to give me the time of day.
Just then, the barber arrived to press the feet of the ‘two tired princes.’ Ishwari insisted that the barber should press my feet first, while I lay on a string bed. Rarely if ever has anyone pressed my feet. I used to always tell Ishwari that this practice was the whim of the aristocrats and the arrogance of great men. Yet, here was I pretending to be from the manor born!
Ishwari’s family was traditional minded. At ten o’clock, we were summoned for the night-time meal. We went first to bathe. I left my dhoti lying on the floor, just as Ishwari did. I felt ashamed to rinse out my own dhoti, with my own hands, even though this was my usual practice at home. We went inside. In the hostel, we used to sit at the table with our shoes on. Here, it was necessary to have one’s feet washed before eating. The water- bearer washed Ishwari’s feet and then I held out my feet to be washed likewise. Where had all my earlier high-fangled ideas gone?
I had planned to concentrate on my studies in the countryside but here the whole day was spent instead in entertainment of some kind or the other. We went on the river in a barge; we hunted birds or went fishing; we watched wresting matches and played chess. Ishwari would make egg omelettes in our room while we were constantly surrounded by an army of servants. All one had to do was to wag one’s tongue and the work got done. A man helped us to have a bath; when one lay down another servant appeared to fan one.
Mahatma Gandhi’s princely disciple not only became famous, I was honored and respected both inside and outside the house. Everything had to be done in a timely fashion and exactly as per the Kunwar Sahib’s wishes lest he get offended or annoyed. I had become, or been forced to become, even more demanding and exacting than even Ishwari himself. Ishwari might make his own bed with his own hands, but how could his guest, the prince, spread his own bedding? It was asking for too much and I was far too grand for that.
One day, exactly such an occurrence arose. Ishwari was delayed in the house, perhaps talking to his mother. It was already past my bed-time and no servant had showed up to lay out my bedding. How could I, the prince, be expected to lay out, with my own hands, my bed? When a servant, a presumptuous fellow, who had been held up with household chores, came running at ten-thirty, to finally make my bed, I gave him such a “telling-off” that he would remember it.
Another day, the lamp was not lighted even though it was already dusk. The lamp was lying on the table, but how could the prince be expected to light it? I was getting highly agitated and irritated at this obvious oversight. The newspaper was lying on the table but I couldn’t read it because no one was present to light the lamp for me. I was getting very angry with each passing minute. When Riyasat Ali entered the room, I rebuked him sharply and spoke so rudely and insolently to him, that he himself – a respectable gentleman – lit the lamp for me with trembling hands.
A Thakur, a capricious fellow, but a prime devotee of the Mahatma, came by one day. He always showed me great respect but was shy about asking me about anything. One day, finding me alone, he asked me respectfully, with folded hands, if we would get self-rule once the landlords left. I answered grandly that the landlords knew no better than to suck the blood of the poor. If they did not give up their land willingly, it would have to be seized from them. I stated that my family was ready to transfer all their land to the labourers, as soon as we had self-rule.
I was sitting with my feet on a chair. The Thakur took to pressing my feet. He referred to me as “your honour” and asked me humbly for a job on my estate. I promised him that as soon as I was in a position of authority and inherited some property, I would have him learn driving and make him my chauffeur.
I heard later that the Thakur took lots of opium that night; beat up his wife and got ready to fight with the village moneylender.
The vacation was finally over and Ishwari and I set out for Prayag. Many villagers came to bid us farewell. The Thakur accompanied us to the station. I acted my part well till the end, leaving the imprint on each heart of courtesy and divinity appropriate to the God of Wealth that I was. I would have liked to have given a substantial tip to the servants but how could I afford it? When the train arrived it was packed beyond imagination. This was the last train and there was not an inch of breathing space in the second class. The intermediate class was in an even worse condition. We could not miss this train by any means and boarded with great difficulty into the third class. Our grandeur made an impression but I was very upset by this sort of discomfort after all the pleasures and luxuries that we had enjoyed. There was barely place to move in the compartment.
Some educated men, in the third class compartment, were praising the British rule. They praised the sense of justice and fair rule of the British where courts had even ruled against kings.
A man with a big bundle on his back was traveling to Calcutta. He was very uncomfortable and kept going and standing by the doorway, in the hopes of getting some fresh air. I was sitting just by the doorway. Inadvertently, the bundle kept rubbing against my face, again and again. I was getting increasingly annoyed because it was, as it is, difficult to breathe and to top it all, this rustic kept standing right in my face, as if determined to suffocate me. For some time, I tolerated this horrific inconvenience. Then I suddenly flew into a rage. I caught hold of the man, by the throat, pushed him back roughly and slapped him hard, twice across the face. The man objected, naturally, and asked me why I was intent on slapping him when he too had paid the same fare as me. I glared at him and in response gave him two or three more slaps.
A commotion arose in the compartment and reproaches rained on me from all sides. They started telling me that if I was such a great and ‘delicate’ man, why did I not travel by first class instead? Another stated that he would not hesitate to slap me back if I so much as dared to raise a hand against him. Another asked me if I, a rich man, had completely lost my humanity – after all, this poor man was just trying to get a breath of air. Another villager claimed that it seemed possible that I could not even get a clerkship, yet I was so unfeeling and arrogant.
Ishwari said then in English, “What an idiot you are, Bir!” And now, my intoxication seemed to be wearing off a little bit.
The “intoxication” in this story refers to the absurdity of snobbish ways.
It is a story of how simple-minded, poor or middle-class people can get to be hypocritical, superficial and fickle-minded in the face of sudden and great wealth. It tells us how society will forever be ridden with a class system and that indeed, in this system of hierarchy, all human beings are not born equal. The rich shall forever feel that it is their right to exploit workers, servants and labourers and in turn, the latter consider it their lot and their fate to serve the rich, even when some of the tasks that they are forced to perform are menial and demeaning.
It is a story that tells us how the hostilities and communal hatred and violence between Hindus and Muslims are a politically-motivated game where the politicians gain from promoting a policy of “Divide and Rule.” In reality, Hindus and Muslims can co-exist peacefully and can be gainful neighbours to each other.
In the end, the protagonist of the story, Bir, realizes what a laughing stock he has made of himself. He had become as power-hungry, lustful and greedy as the landlords themselves who he was so fond of verbally denouncing. This intoxication had made him into a typical “nouveau riche” (newly rich) person and he had undoubtedly made a complete fool of himself. He experiences a sense of anti-climax and realizes that he must be down-to-earth and accept his lot in life cheerfully. If he wanted to be treated as a rich man, he should have either been born into wealth or he ought to work hard to earn that kind of wealth, in the first place.
This is not the first time that the intoxication and scent of money and the lust for power and status has led to a complete detrimental change in a person’s character and personality. It will certainly not be the last time when the uncontrollable
greed for gold leads an individual to make a total fool of himself.