EVERY YEAR ON July 31 st, the little town of Lamhi, on the outskirts of Varanasi, is decked up to celebrate the birth anniversary of one its most illustrious sons. Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav, who would later go on to write under the nom de plume of Munshi Premchand, was born in this town. But while we celebrate the birth anniversary of this remarkable writer whose words provided a new direction to the course of Hindi literature, by reorienting its focus firmly onto the trials and tribulations of the common man, it’s important to also throw the proverbial spotlight onto someone whose support and everyday presence enabled an environment for Premchand to thrive. And that happens to be Shivrani Devi, Premchand’s wife.
For long, she was seen as just Premchand’s wife, a necessary part of the author’s life no doubt, but still as someone whose biography existed solely under her husband’s shadow.
A moot question arises at this point. If July 31st is Premchand’s birth anniversary, should the focus not be on him rather than his wife? A way to answer this would be by posing another question: what makes a writer? Is the process of writing, producing a text and eventually letting it out for readers to consume the only linear way that a writer should be identified by? At least in Premchand’s case, the vicissitudes of his life fed into his creative world—and Shivrani Devi is an integral part of it. But more than just playing a part in shaping her husband’s writing, it is also important to extract Shivrani Devi from the shadow of Premchand and allow her to sing for herself. And that in turn could serve as a fitting tribute to Premchand himself.
Very little is known about Shivrani Devi’s early life. Preetha Mani who has translated portions of Devi’s memoir, Premchand Ghar Mein (Premchand at Home, 2010), from Hindi into English argues that she was born sometime in the late 19th century and died on December 5th, 1976, outliving her husband by a good 40 years. In one of the earlier biographies of Premchand, the author, Madan Gopal, gives a detailed account of Premchand’s domestic life but sheds little light on the life of Shivrani Devi herself.
Premchand, as Gopal points out, was first married at the age of 15, when he was still preparing for his Class 9 examination. This would be his first marriage, which was characterised by a marital discord, stemming primarily from what Gopal describes as a tough relationship between the new bride and Premchand’s stepmother. The marriage would eventually fall through some years later. At this time, Premchand had secured a job in a government school in Kanpur that paid him a decent Rs 30 per month, which the young writer would supplement with tuitions that brought in an additional Rs 10.
There are two surviving texts written by Shivrani Devi. A collection of short stories, Kaumudi, published in 1937, and her now-famous memoir, Premchand Ghar Mein, published in 1956, which contains a wealth of details about her
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There seems to be a distinct chasm between Premchand’s life in Kanpur and his domestic life in Lamhi, where his first wife lived. In one of his letters addressed to his publisher-friend Daya Narain Nigam, Premchand laments how his house in Lamhi ‘although the envy of everybody in the village, but [has] not a room worth living’. His letters around this time paint a picture of domestic disharmony, with constant bickering between his wife and his stepmother, which hindered his writing. This situation would come to a head pretty soon, with this wife refusing to live in Lamhi any longer. ‘My wife,’ writes Premchand, ‘was adamant that she no longer wants to live in Lamhi and wanted to go back to her village, to her parents. As a last resort, I got the dues from the land, and made the necessary arrangements for her departure.’ This departure would prove to be permanent. At one point, Premchand writes, ‘It’s been eight days since her departure and I have received no communication from her. Now I hate her very sight and God willing, this time our separation would be final.’
Madan Gopal argues that Premchand had decided that if he were to marry again, it would be to a child widow. He went through matrimonial advertisements and finally settled on an ad by Munshi Deviprasad for his daughter Shivrani who had been married at the age of 11 and was widowed just three months later. From Gopal’s biography we learn that Munshi Deviprasad was an ardent Arya Samajist who was a vocal advocate of widow remarriage and had even written and published many pamphlets dedicated to this cause. The biography quotes Shivrani Devi as saying that her father invited Premchand over to the town of Fatehpur, sandwiched between Kanpur and Allahabad, and gave a token to the young writer symbolising commitment. Gopal quotes Devi as saying, ‘The marriage did not meet the approval of Premchand’s family. In fact, he didn’t even inform them at first of his decision. His marriage to me was against all established conventions, it was a bold step, and proved to me his courage.’
THERE ARE TWO surviving texts written by Shivrani Devi. One is a collection of short stories, called Kaumudi (Moonlight), published in 1937, and her now-famous memoir, Premchand Ghar Mein, published in 1956. It is the latter text that contains a wealth of details about her and the kind of life she led with Premchand. Although the bulk of the memoir deals exclusively with Premchand, there are segments which do provide us with that rare glimpse into her world, a world exclusive to her. As Preetha Mani argues, Shivrani Devi wrote her memoir with the sole intention of providing her readers with a glimpse into the kind of life she led with Premchand, and the text is replete with little details about the humdrum interactions between the husband and wife. We get a glimpse into Premchand’s increasingly precarious financial situation as he begins to dedicate himself fully into writing, to quarrels over health. But we also receive tender moments of intimacy, both of grief and joy.
Interspersed within the text are also moments where Devi digresses to talk about herself, her interest in literature and the political climate.
For example, there is an interesting anecdote that she recounts about the publication of Premchand’s first collection of short stories, titled Soz-e-Watan (Dirge of the Nation), that came out in 1908. As Devi tells us, the book was found to be incendiary by the authorities and Premchand was summoned by the district collector to sort the issue out. The collector told him, “If you were not living under British rule, both your hands would have been cut off today. You are inciting rebellion through your stories. Turn all your manuscripts over to me. Do not even think of writing in the future.’’
Right after recounting this incident, Devi tells her husband that she hasn’t read the manuscript yet and won’t be able to because it is written in Urdu. Premchand then remarks she shouldn’t worry about not knowing Urdu as he would teach her.
She writes further: ‘I was living alone in Mahoba in those days. During his court sessions, he stayed with me and spent all his time reading his writing to me. If he was reading an English newspaper, then he would translate for me. As I listened to his stories, my interest turned towards literature. I insisted that he read to me whenever he was home. He allocated the morning hours for writing. Even during the court sessions, he wrote in the mornings before going to trial. Thus, I was given the opportunity to participate in his literary lifestyle. When he went to court, I read all day. And this is how I entered the world of literature’ (from Preetha Mani’s translation).
Shivrani Devi might be tethered to Premchand, yet, her Memoir functions also as a room of the author’s own. We can see her consciousness emerge, not only when she is talking about herself, but also her husband
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A crucial question that can be asked is how do we read a text like Premchand Ghar Mein, written ostensibly to function as some sort of hagiography of Premchand? Yet through these little asides that I have mentioned above one can clearly see how the text tries to create an idea of a feminine self. Devi might be tethered to Premchand, yet, the memoir functions also as a room of the author’s own. We can see her consciousness emerge, not only when she is talking about herself, but also her husband. In other words, it might very well be an account of Premchand’s life, but it isn’t objective. It sets out exclusively her version. It isn’t Premchand as the world knows, but Premchand as she knows. In that way, we can say that at least so far as the text is concerned, it is Premchand who is tethered to Shivrani Devi, and not the other way around.
We find this becomes more pronounced when she begins to articulate her political thoughts, as the Premchand family begins to get more involved in the freedom struggle, especially after Mohandas K Gandhi’s famous speech in Gorakhpur on February 8th, 1921, at the peak of the Non-Cooperation Movement. It was a speech which Premchand witnessed and which had a profound impact on him. But the Premchand family’s desire to participate in the freedom struggle didn’t really begin with Gandhi’s Gorakhpur speech.
In the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, we have Shivrani Devi arguing in Premchand Ghar Mein: ‘It was natural that everyone’s heart was inflamed with rage. Perhaps it was in my heart too! Next day I prepared myself for all the troubles that were to come after quitting the government service. … When I said that we have to together put an end to this inhumanity; the policies of the government are beyond the limits of tolerance, he [Premchand] laughed and said, “Before putting an end to others think of your own end! … Think over, later do not tell me that you suffered and made me suffer too! There will be many troubles ahead; you may have to go without food.” I replied—“I have thought over’’’ (from Jyoti Atwal’s translation).
The statement ‘I have thought over’ leaps out to the reader as a quiet voice of defiance. This voice, instead of being stymied, grows louder. By 1929, she had become formally involved in politics and the affairs of the Congress by becoming a member of a ‘Mahila Ashram’ in Lucknow. This participation in the Gandhian movement taught Devi to navigate through the freedom struggle, allowing her leadership qualities to grow. Historian Jyoti Atwal in an essay on Devi argues how her relationship with other women in the Ashram was quite ambiguous. Most women who joined the Ashram had barely enough to eat. Their lives revolved around the Ashram work during the day and domestic chores during the night. In such a scenario, they didn’t even know what Gandhi’s call for swaraj meant or what it would bring them. While these women found it difficult to work with Devi, given her higher class and, most probably, higher caste, they also couldn’t work without her, needing her leadership skills. But the power struggle in the Gandhian Congress became more pronounced with men, and Devi writes extensively on this. The men, for example, had begun to complain that Gandhian ashrams had more women per each man, thereby trying wherever possible to limit the involvement of their spouses. One can clearly discern Devi’s exasperation at this: ‘This is the reason why women are not happy with the Mahila Ashram. If [men] say that [women] are already large in numbers, then they want less of us to participate. Men never look at our troubles. It’s been six months since the Congress office was declared illegal. Since then the entire burden has fallen upon Mahila Ashram. They should now imagine how any work could have possibly got done without women’ (translated by Atwal).
More than just playing a part in shaping her husband’s writing, it is also important to extract Shivrani Devi from the shadow of Premchand and allow her to sing for herself. And that in turn could serve as a fitting tribute to Premchand himself
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In the 1930s, the British had banned the Congress in Lucknow. In a public meeting in the Mahila Ashram, in front of at least 12,000 people, Devi delivered a fiery speech, denouncing the colonial rule. And in November, with Premchand in Varanasi, she was arrested for picketing against foreign cloth. She writes: ‘As we sat inside the police lorry, we hailed Mahatma Gandhi and ‘Bharat mata ki jai’. There were seven of us, one inspector, and seven constables. All sisters kept singing the national song… when the inspector got down, we saw tears in the eyes of the constables’ (translated by Atwal).
Shivrani Devi emerges from her memoir as an individual in her own right, with her own consciousness. And it is not difficult to, therefore, gauge the profound impact she must have had on her husband and his writings. In fact, we see clearly how the traditional bifurcation of the home and the world that characterised Indian family life during the colonial period was repeatedly breached by her. On July 31st, when the country celebrates the 140th birth anniversary of one of the doyens of Hindi literature, it is a much-needed corrective to ensure that Shivrani Devi doesn’t remain a footnote.