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Godan was authored in Hindi in the year 1936 by Munshi Premchand (1880-1936), one of the pseudonyms of Dhanpat Rai. The novel was translated into English in the year 1957 by Jai Ratan and P. Lal. Premchand was born in a village near Varanasi on 31 July 1880. He is one of the most prominent writers of Hindi and Urdu. Premchand’s writings are characterized by social realism and are sympathetic of the poor, the marginalized peasantry, and the underprivileged. The selection of ordinary people as chief characters is another characteristic of Premchand’s writings. His intent is consistently reformist. Jai Ratan and P. Lal write on the blurb that “Godan, a story of stark realism, is Premchand’s most outstanding novel.
Godan is the story of Hori, a poor agricultural labourer who lives with his wife Dhania, their eldest son Gobar and two daughters Sona and Rupa. Hori has a strong desire to keep a cow which he can gift to a Brahman before dying in order to attain moksha. Once he manages to buy a cow from Bhola, a cowherd who agrees to take the payment in installments. Hori’s dream, however, is again shattered when he finds his cow poisoned to death soon after. He suspects that his estranged brother Heera has poisoned the cow because he is spotted near Hori’s house the night it is poisoned and also because Heera leaves the village the very next morning. Hori could never buy another cow due to lack of money. Gobar marries Bhola’s widowed daughter Jhunia in secret but they continue to live in their respective parental homes. When she becomes pregnant with his child, he sends her alone to his house assuring her that he would follow in a while. Instead he goes away to Lucknow in search of work. The village panchayat imposes a fine on Hori for accepting Jhunia in his house. Datadin’s son Matadin lives separately with the Chamar woman Selia. Yet, he does not allow her to touch his utensils or to claim any part of the grain that she grows on his land. He mistreats her and is one day punished by Selia’s family and a few other Chamars for abusing her. They avenge Selia’s mistreatment by thrusting a bone into Matadin’s mouth and breaking his sacred thread. As a result, Matadin abandons Selia and she is given shelter by Hori and Dhania. The annoyed panchayat, once again, imposes a heavy fine on Hori and his family. Gobar returns from Lucknow with some money, however, annoyed by Hori’s submission to the exploitative practices of the money lenders, he goes back to Lucknow with Jhunia and his son. Meanwhile, realizing that the Brahmans would not accept him back in their fold, Matadin returns to Selia for good. Till his death, Hori and his wife spend their lives working in the fields of Datadin and other landowners to settle their debts. Hori dies without being able to make the gift of a cow to a Brahman.Godan focuses on the socioeconomic exploitation of the poor. Since most poor people were Dalits and Shudras, caste features in the novel as well. As mentioned in the Introduction, unlike Dalits, Shudras form the lowest section of the varna system but were sometimes treated at par with the Untouchables. Godan depicts broadly the difference between the life of Shudras and of Dalits.
Hori and his ilk represent the masses in India who continue to slave as agricultural labour but fail to ever improve their economic and social conditions. Premchand describes the debilitating effects of penury and hardships through his delineation of Dhania: “And what was her age? Ordinarily nobody would describe a woman of thirty-six as old. But her hair had already turned grey and her face was creased with wrinkles. Her youthful body had declined; the glow of her swarthy complexion had turned sallow and her eye-sight dim. All because of the canker of poverty”. The extreme poverty of the family leaves Hori and Dhania with no choice but to marry their younger daughter Rupa with Ram Sewak, who is almost as old as Hori. The lives of the rural poor in Godan are thus marked by the motif of poverty and deprivation.Premchand ascribes the poverty of the peasants in Godan largely to the oppressive matrix of industrialists and the Zamindari system. Dhimant Parekh remarks: “Page after page you get the same sinking feeling that Hori gets when his spirit is crushed every waking moment by the machinery comprising of the Zamindari system, the police, the money lenders, the religious zealots, the caste system and prestige”.
Untouchable was first published in 1935 and its focus, as is evident from the title, is mainly on the life of the protagonist who suffers untouchability and caste-based oppression. It was Anand’s first novel and the first Indian novel in English on the Dalit theme. Like Premchand, Anand also highlights social issues through his writings. Born in Peshawar, Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) is acknowledged as one of the leading Indian English writers of the twentieth-century. He received many prestigious awards for his writings, including the Padma Bhushan in 1967 and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1971. Anand’s disgruntlement with the exploitative and discriminative social order finds voice in many of his novels. The protagonists in most of his novels are victims of oppression.In Untouchable, Bakha’s encounter with debilitating untouchability and verbal and physical abuse during the course of a single day forms the plot of the novel. Bakha’s father Lakha has three children; the eldest being Bakha, followed by Sohini and Rakha. Lakha cleans the latrines in the town of Bulashah (Bullandshahar). One day he falls sick and sends Bakha for cleaning the latrines. During the day, Bakha faces severe caste-based oppression and untouchability. He is slapped and abused by a passer by when he accidentally brushes against him. When he goes near the temple to sweep, he is abused by the priest Kalinath for climbing the temple steps. His anguish is further aggravated when he discovers that his sister Sohini had just then been molested by Kalinath. Bakha and Sohini walk home where Bakha tells his father about him being slapped and abused but does not share the horror of his sister’s molestation. Lakha placates the distraught boy with words of experience and after a while Bakha leaves home to play hockey with his friends. On his return, he sees a big hoarding the words on which he cannot read and wishes he were literate. He then meets the Christian missionary Colonel Hutchinson who tries to convince Bakha to convert in order to escape untouchability. Bakha walks away thoughtfully from Hutchinson and further on stops to hear Mahatma Gandhi addressing a crowd in a ground. Gandhi exhorts the Savarnas to embrace Untouchables and the Untouchables to be clean and to abstain from liquor. After listening to the speech, Bakha overhears a young poet Sarshar talking to a friend. Sarshar suggests that to a large extent, the introduction of the flush system can solve the problem of untouchability by eliminating manual scavenging. Bakha returns home impressed by Sarshar’s suggestion and hopes that some day the lives of the Untouchables would be better.
Through this novel, Anand not only describes the impact of the caste system on society but also presents some of the remedies being debated at that time. Anand highlights the miseries of the outcastes when untouchability is practised blatantly with Bakha whose agony is accentuated by his extreme poverty. The influence of humanism makes Anand expose the feudalistic, communal, racist and capitalistic ideology of powerful people in his novels.Premchand exposes the exploitative practices of the moneylenders is Godan. He writes about how interest becomes more than the amount of loan Hori takes from Pandit Datadin and moneylender Mangru. Premchand further elucidates the debilitating effects on Hori and other peasants of the village, debt lay on the village like curse. Despite his focus on class-based exploitation, Premchand is not caste-blind. Godan describes untouchability and caste-hierarchy as part of the village reality. Selia is a Dalit character portrayed by Premchand, he shows how Datadin’s son Matadin not allowing Selia to touch his utensils and cook for him, even though he has no qualms in having sex with her. The rigidity of untouchability revealed when Hori’s family is boycotted by his community for giving Selia shelter in their home.
In Godan caste walls in the village are insurmountable. On the other hand, description of Dalit life in Untouchable is realistic in this manner. Anand was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote Untouchable in the age when the freedom struggle was at its peak. Gandhi’s influence is evident on Anand and in his depiction of the life of the deprived and Dalits. The setting of the novel highlights the filth that Untouchables were coerced to live in: “The absence of drainage system had,through the various seasons,made of the quarter a marsh which gave out the most offensive smell. And altogether the ramparts of human and animal refuse that lay on the outskirts of this little colony, and the ugliness, the squalor and the misery which lay within it,made it an uncongenial place to live in “. Through this novel, Anand not only describes the impact of the caste system on society but also presents some of the remedies being debated at that time. Anand highlights the miseries of the outcastes when untouchability is practised blatantly with Bakha whose agony is accentuated by his extreme poverty. Anand also describes the Dalit basti not merely as the background but in order to bring out the conditions to which Bakha and his community are unfairly confined; and consequently, to explicate Bakha’s responses to the various incidents of discrimination and oppression that happen to him through the course of the novel. It is clear through Anand’s substantive description of the Dalit basti that he had a deep understanding of Dalit life.
On the contrary, Premchand does not describe the Dalit basti in Godan at all, thereby making it difficult for the readers to understand his Dalit characters. Women exploitation is also a common theme which Premchand and as well as Anand illustrates in their novels Godan and Untouchable. Premchand also gives a realistic description of the misery of the women in the village owing to the patriarchal structure of society. In addition to indigence, Dhania faces abuse and violence from Hori. When Hori and Dhania find their cow dead, he lets slip that he suspects his brother Heera had poisoned the cow. Dhania wants to take the matter to the police but an infuriated Hori beats her for wishing to have his brother arrested. When she opposes Hori’s decision to bribe the policeman, who comes to search Heera’s house, Hori threatens to beat her again. Dhania is not the only woman who is beaten by her husband as her son Gobar also beats his wife Jhunia and Heera beats his wife Punia. Wife-beating is considered a normal everyday affair by both the men and women of the village. Selia is oppressed even more than Dhania and Jhunia. She is treated like a sexual object, exploited as a labourer and then ostracized by Matadin. Premchand traces her relationship with Matadin in terms of retrogression: “Earlier he cunningly exploited her love for him; now she was no more than a machine which worked at his bidding”. Datadin is also pleased with the opportunistic and unfair relationship of Matadin with Selia: “As for Selia, we are happier with her than with a Brahmin’s daughter. A Brahmin’s daughter will sit in the house like a bride all the time. She may do some cooking. But Selia does the work of three men. And we give her nothing but two meals a day. Sometimes we give her a sari”. Even as Selia stands silently listening to Matadin’s abuse, her parents, brothers and a few other Chamars arrive suddenly on the scene. Selia’s mother rebukes her: “You wretch, if you had to work you could as well work at home. If you are the keep of a Brahmin, live like a Brahmin! After bringing a bad name to our cobbler’s community what was the idea of still remaining a cobbler? Go and drown yourself for shame.
Premchand has often been criticised for biased portrayal of Dalit characters in his writings, including in this incident of Godan. He is accused of showing Dalit characters as animalistic and inhuman and the above incident lends credence to this charge. Omprakash Valmiki rejects Premchand’s narrative in a personal interview by asking vehemently: “Dalit kya jeb me janvaron ki haddiyan lekar ghoomte hain?” “Do Dalits walk around with animal bones in their pockets?”. In this context, Untouchable differs from Godan the sexual oppression of Dalit women by caste-Hindu men. Anand enmeshes their oppression as a thread contributing to the overall canvas of oppression of Untouchables. While cleaning the ground of the temple that morning, Bakha hears the arti being sung inside the temple. Fascinated by the prayers, Bakha is drawn to the temple and climbs the first five stairs leading up to it. As soon as Pandit Kalinath notices him, he begins to shout and castigates Bakha for defiling the temple: “Get off the steps, you scavenger! Off with you! You have defiled our whole service! You have defiled our temple! Now we will have to pay for the purification ceremony. Get down, get away, you dog!”. On hearing Kalinath’s tirade many people gather around and Bakha notices that Sohini is also standing there. In this long and powerful episode, Anand juxtaposes the practice of untouchability with the sexual oppression of Sohini. Kalinath had molested Sohini when she was alone ‘cleaning the lavatory of his house’ and the devotees led by another priest were busy performing arti in the temple. While returning home later, Sohini breaks down and tells Bakha that the priest who had abused him had also molested her.
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