There are many things in life that you appreciate and understand better over a period of time. What one made of a book or a movie in one’s school days need not be what he/she makes of it 10 years later. Godan was a book that the elders in my home often praised. But I never got a chance to lay my hands on it and I am not sure whether I would have read it if I got a chance to do so. A review of Godan might seem passé in today’s times – when regional language literature is often held with contempt and is getting fewer takers by the day. While reading Godan, we will see it attacking each of us somewhere as Premchand’s pen is often unforgiving.
A story of epic proportions cannot be summarised easily. Perhaps this might explain as to why Godan ( the movie starring Rajkumar and Shashikala) flopped at the box office and was declared a screenplay disaster. Gobar with his family consisting of his stoic yet shockingly assertive wife Dhania, his rebellious son Gobardhan and his daughters Sona and Rupa go through the ups and downs any peasant would go through. They are starved yet optimistic, unlettered yet experienced, and unsophisticated yet know the ways of the world. The story begins with their desire to own a cow. As the book unfolds, Premchand takes us through the domestic clashes between Hori and his brothers, the ambivalence of the Zamindars (who suck the blood of the peasants, yet are at the receiving end of the British Raj), the tragic-comic lives of the journalists, stock-brokers , industrialists and the urban labourers, which are all very much relevant. A chat with any worker in Dharavi will give us the same experience that Premchand gives us through Gobar. The experience of Hori will find take a million takers in the farmers of India. Today, when live-in relationships are being debated, you have Malti and Mehta deciding to go ahead with it without any hullaballoo. At a time when feminism is trying to find a new definition for itself, you find the same strife going on in the Women’s Societies of Godan. The lives of Dhania, Selia, Jhunia, Malti and Govindi resonate with those of the true unsung heroines of India- its women. Life itself can be revelation with a work of art and it becomes so with Godan.
Many consider Godan to be the tale of the farmer Hori and his family, who traverse a path of pathos, momentary joys, ups and downs, always hoping that things will fall in place one day. Godan is a commentary on the Indian society and to call it purely a rural epic would be a misnomer. It is as much about the life of the socialites, intellectuals and urbanites as it is about the zamindars, Pandits and rustic villagers. The lecherous moneylenders, the dogmatic priests, hypocritical minds and debt-ridden farmers are all hallmarks of any novel on rural India. But what sets Godan apart is the shocking realism, the dexterity with which Premchand plays with the tragic-comic situations of human life and how it is ruthless before hypocrisy. The characters, like real-life, are a bundle of contradictions. On one hand you see Dhania being beaten up by Hori and on the other you see him standing helpless, when she, with her acerbic tongue, rubs their neighbours and her own husband the wrong way. The characters, be they rich or poor, are a mixture of the good and the evil, a relief from cardboard caricatures. Life in Godan is very much practical and the life itself fights for its place against pretence. If Hori accepts the illegitimate child of Jhunia, born of his son, then the doctor Malti prefers to live-in with her friend Mehta for the rest of her life. Characters like Mehta and Malti are symbolic of the transition of the human mind – from rigidity to aceeptance, from pretension to simplicity and from elitism to realism. In fact, Godan can be seen as a tale of transformation. The dogmatic Matadin, goes on to accept his low-caste wife; the unsophisticated Gobar, learns the ways of the world after his brush with urban life and earns respect; Malti, who is cut-off from realities becomes a self-conscious woman, free from bias; Mehta a doctrinaire understands the meaning of life from Malti; and even the playful Sona and Rupa transform from little girls into ‘women’ as they understand that life’s not a game played on their father’s lap.
The small and big tales of Godan have lived the test of time. One realises that life isn’t as straight as it seems.Godan was the swansong of Premchand. Perhaps, providence wanted so to save Premchand from the herculean task of bettering his own masterpiece. Humanity survives even in the most inhuman circumstances. Premchand’s Godan is a testimony to that.