This is a tough one: there are several collections of Munshi Premchand’s translations in the market, and to at-tempt a new ‘best of’ is a daunting challenge to take on. But Rakhshanda Jalil takes on this tricky task ably: her translations of seventeen short stories sift through more than three hun-dred of Premchand’s short stories to give us an eminently representative collection.
A father figure of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the twentieth century, genera-tions of readers have met Dhanpat Rai Shri-vastava aka Munshi Premchand in Hindi text-books at school. Widely lauded for his portra-yal of despairing poverty, the inequality of the caste system and the moneylenders in the North India of his time, Premchand is cre-dited with inaugurating a new paradigm of writing in Urdu as well as Hindi. His writings bring to life the lives of an entire population, skillfully and subtly; the odours, the noises, the silences, the perspiration, the sense of a com-munity of an India that most readers generally consider ‘a very real world’ even today. I’ll return to this sense of truth and reality a bit later; let me get to the translation under review for the moment.
The collection includes some well-known and anthologized stories, such as ‘The Temple and the Mosque’ which gives the collection its title, as well as ‘The Thakur’s Well’ (Thakur ka Kua’n), ‘Salvation’ (‘Sadgati’), ‘The Shroud’ (‘Kafan’), ‘A Tale of Two Oxen’ (‘Do Bailon Ki Katha’), ‘The Salt Inspector’ (‘Namak ka Da-roga’), ‘Idgah’ or even ‘Bade Bhai Saheb.’ The stories exemplify a few of Premchand’s typical concerns: the brotherhood of mankind that transcends religious identities (‘The Temple and the Mosque’), the plight of ‘lower’ caste workers (‘The Thakur’s Well,’ ‘Salvation’) or the wretched existence of the landless labou-rers caught in the clutches of usurious money-lenders or exploitative landlords (‘A Quarter and One Ser of Wheat,’ ‘A Winter’s Night’). There are also stories that muse on the ties of communitarian bonds (‘A Tale of Two Oxen,’ ‘Old Kaki’). ‘Why Do People Marry’ offers a taste of Premchand’s deceivingly mild irony while ‘Intoxicants, Both,’ or ‘The Salt In-spector’ submit yet another take of the writer on his world.