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Godaan “The Gift of a Cow” is a novel by Munshi Premchand.

It was first
published in 1936 and was translated into English by Gordon C.Roadermel in
1968. This novel is the last novel of Premchand and is considered as “a Classic
in itself”. Godaan is the act of donating a cow in charity as it helps in absolving
one of sin, and incurring divine blessings.

Premchand’s ‘Godaan’ produces the rustic, simplistic and heart rending lives of
the peasants. Far, from exaggeration, ‘Godaan’ is a novel of stark reality. It
deals with dreams, despairs and day to day events of Hori, the protagonist of the
novel and his family. Through the peasants, Premchand has portrayed the
pathetic life of rural arena. Hori is an embodiment of peasant- virtue, simplicity
and truth. He leads an inconsistent life with his Dhania, and his three children.
Their unstable financial situation always tends to lend them frustration and
despair. A tension-free life is not theirs. If they spend a quarter of their lives in
starvation, they spend the rest paying unwarranted loans. The money-lenders
take full advantage of their poverty and therefore take unreasonable interest
from them. Premchand writes:" A loan was an unwelcome guest, once in the
house, dug himself into permanent fixture." The money-lenders also exploit the
ignorance and gullibility of the peasants. The village-folk in the higher strata of
society, who are financially sounder, take advantage of the village-peasants. In
the novel, we find, we find how Dulari mounts a small amount of money into a
hundred rupees within a small fraction of time.
The zamindars are no exception in this regard. They make maximum use of the
tenants and extract manual labour from them. Hori, already old, and fatigued
from poverty has to do strenuous work in order to make both ends meet. The
cow he eventually gets hold of is mercilessly killed by his cruel brother Heera.
Their ambitions and dreams are also made apparent by the novelist. While some
of them love their soil, the younger generation opts for city life. For them,
material prospects hold more water than than sentimental values. Hori therefore
does not approve with Gobar to shift to the city. For Gobar, material prospects
hold more water than sentimental values. Therefore Hori does not embrace the
idea of moving to the city. A typical peasant, his land is everything to him.. He
regards the cattle also as a member of the family. Isolated life does not appeal to
them and they long to thrive and integrate with the community. This becomes
apparent when Hori is willing to pay the fine imposed by the village for
admitting Jhunia. Hori does not want to be treated as an outcaste. He tells
Dhania that he wants to live with society and not outside society.
The lack of education of the peasants can be considered a major factor in their
backwardness. Superstitions are prevalent. We have a humorous account of how
news spreads in the village of Dhania's over-powering the inspector. After the
incident, people flock around Hori's hut to have a Darshan of Dhania. They
undergo all the rites, to protect the newly arrived cow from the evil eye. They
cannot fling away their false pride even in the face of dire poverty. Even
though, Sona's bridegroom does not demand any dowry, they pay it as it a
matter of prestige in society. Again, the caste-system very much exists . We
find Heera admonishing Punia for quarrelling with a low caste man.

Women are not portrayed as equal to men. We find Damri exclaiming to Hori
how his son ran away leaving his wife with another woman. Subsequently, his
wife gets married to another man. Damri gets revolted only with the infidelity of
women and not men thereby practicing double standards. The husbands ill treat
their wives after drinking. Dhania talks of Hori's ill-treatment and quips how it
would have been if it were the other way around. Heera also abuses his wife.
Though Gobar is affectionate towards his wife in the beginning , gradually their
relationship deteriorates. "Early married life throbs with love and desire; like
the dawn the span of life is suffused with a roseate glow. The afternoon of life
dissolves illusion into its stinging rays, but brings face to face with reality."

Some of the scenes will always be memorable. Like, for instance, when Rupa
sucks on a raw mango in starvation. The handing over of the child-like Rupa to
the elderly man in marriage. The deserting of the aged parents by Jhunia and
Gobar, who bore all pains and social stigma for them. The economical system
came as a blessing, but Jhenguri Singh makes maximum use of it to manipulate
people. The most heart-rending scene is the death of Hori or more precisely his
last moments. His being religious and magnanimous, the family does not
possess the adequate means even to complete his final rites. The novel thus ends
in a tragedy.

Premchand’s greatness lies in the fact that he transcends the concepts of vision
and conception characterising Balzac, the author of the Peasants, and Tolstoy
about whom Lenin wrote as “Tolstoy had a surpassing knowledge of rural
Russia, the mode of life of the landlords and the peasants”. Premchand has the
same historic significance as that of Dickens for England, Balzac for France &
Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky for Russia. Premchand surpasses all of them in his
social vision in so far as for him the peasant is not just the victim of the
historical process; he is also beginning to emerge as the agent of reversing
history in his favour. The novels of Premchand mirror no doubt the harsh
realities of rural peasants in India under colonial and feudal regimes but they do
much more, they capture realistically the faint rumblings of peasant class
consciousness as they identify the seeds of challenge to the colonial and feudal
regimes. The tragedy of Indian Peasant uprooted from the age old village
system is captured by Premchand with poignancy, dept and intensity of feeling
unequalled by any historical writing, the colonial peasant emerge as a dramatic
personae in Premchand’s writings on account of his deep historical insight into
the circumstances of colonial India on the one hand and his exceptional gifts of
literary imagination on the other. These two qualities – sense of history and
literary sensibility – combine to create the immortal but the tragic character of
Hori in Premchand’s ‘Godaan’, as the living personification of the colonial
peasant. Here is an unforgettable character which combines in his person for the
Indian peasant’s tenacious will for survival with his sense of utter hopelessness
within the colonial economic order.

In order to comprehend the misery of the colonial peasant, it was necessary for
a writer like Premchand to transcend the class outlook and the emotions of
semi-feudal landed gentry and the colonial middle class. The colonial peasant
would not, therefore, secure his emancipation without identifying not the “bad
landlord” but the whole colonial and semi-feudal system as the source of his
misery;; and he could not become a social capable of challenging this system
without outgrowing myths of villagism, paternal landlordism, and narrow
peasantism, and without merging with the forces of anti- colonial and anti-
feudal social, economic, and political transformation outside the village..From
Premchand’s example one can see why literary representation by the masters of
the craft goes beyond mere delineation of social reality; it develops into a
critique of this reality. It is obvious that without a critical attitude to reality,
Premchand would have failed to capture the misery of the colonial peasant who
was exploited not only through economic and political means but also by means
of ‘false consciousnesses’. It is when Premchand turns towards a critique of this
false consciousness perpetuated by the upper castes and classes privileged
within the colonial and semi feudal social order that his writing reaches a high
level of social consciousness as in ‘Godaan.’

It should be noteworthy that even though Premchand was very responsive to

Gandhian perspectives, his literary sensibilities as reflected in his perception of
social realities often rises above and goes beyond the ideological limits of
Gandhism. In ‘Godaan’, Premchand’s heightened literary sensibility is able to
shake off the constraints of the Gandhian social outlook and to capture all the
major contradictions of the village reality. Premchand’s perception in Godaan
encompasses not merely the anti-colonial contradiction (the village v/s the town
conflict) but more fundamentally the anti-feudal contradiction (the peasant v/s
the landlord –money lender –trader conflict on one hand and the peasant vs/ the
priest, the blood sucking government officials, the exacting Biradri and the
oppressive and divisive cast hierarchy conflict on the other). In Godaan the
focus is simultaneously on the human agents of colonial and feudal oppression
as well as on their victims in the vast country side.

In depicting and evaluating the role of landed gentry Premchand like Gandhi is
inclined to treat them as the victims of colonialism themselves than as
exclusive landlords of the countryside and principle agents of exploitation.
Both, Gandhi and Premchand focuses on the fact that the colonial rulers have
corrupted the native aristocracy, who have reduced the native ruling class to a
position of impotence and created vast hiatus and tension between landed elite
and the peasant masses. This interpretation is articulated by Rai Saheb in
Godaan. “People imagine that we, zamindars are in great comfort. But he who
has neither pride nor respect is doomed…He who licks the boots of masters
above him and oppresses the masses below him has lost all manhood…
Parasitism has crippled us. We are only adept in the art of flattering our British
masters and terrorizing our subjects…This Zamindari has become a noose
round our neck,(Godaan pg 15)

Premchand perceives the dominant feature of the social reality in terms of

cleavage between the parasitic and aggressive town dwellers on the one hand
and the passive and toiling rural masses on the other. This acute self pity of the
colonial peasant is presented in much bolder strokes in Premchand’s Godaan. Its
immortal character, Hori , personifying the hopelessness of the colonial peasant,
expresses this sentiment of self pity in ringing words as follows:-

“Who says you and I both are humans. Where is our humanness? He alone is
human who has wealth, power and skills. We are like bullocks that have been
born only to be yoked to the plough and to slave for others.” (pg 22)

Premchand makes no ideological compromises in portrayal of realities; he

gives up the attempt to provide a way out of the peasant problem within the
given system through the change of heart of the propertied and power wielding
classes. The focus shifts here from the enlightened landlord to the peasant
awakening to a higher level of consciousness. Godaan is a story of Hori, a
peasant cultivating five bighas of land and perennially oscillating between kisan
and majoor status on account of unbearable burdens of rent, interest, taxes and
Begar. Hori’s only ambition is to possess a small plot of land and a cow and he
makes all the compromises necessary to realize his small peasant utopia. But his
Utopia remains unrealised ; nay it is shattered by the brute forces of a colonial
system and a class society. Premchand is no longer satisfied with the focus on
the enemy outside the village – the absentee landlord, the trader, the lawyer and
the government official invading the village like locusts from time to time. In
Godaan, Premchand puts in the centre of the picture the enemy inside- The
Gram Panchayat, the Biradri and the priests operating on behalf of the rich
peasants, the village moneylender and the village based Karindaas of the
landlord. Premchand puts in the centre of the stage the peasant’s own fatalism,
his submissiveness and his proneness to compromise and to make peace with
his oppressors. Godaan epitomise the tragic finale of the path of compromise
and submission as depicted in the last outburst of Hori, the hero of Godaan, in
the following words:-

“ Hori could not utter even a single word .He felt as if he was sinking deep in
the bottomless pit of unbearable humiliation. Today after fighting tenaciously
for thirty years of life, he felt totally defeated crushed. He felt he had been made
to stand on the gate of the town and whoever passed that way spat on his face.
He felt as if he was screaming aloud saying: “Brothers! Have pity on me. I did
not care for the scorching sun of Jeth, nor for the heavy showers of Magh. If
you pierce this body – you will find it injured beyond repair and crushed and
debilitated. Ask it whether it has a moment’s rest.’ On the top of it then this
humiliation. Oh you are still alive, O coward, O wretched being”!

Hori’s faith which having become deep had rendered him blind and blunted his
sensibilities for all these years, had been shattered today and destroyed forever”
(Godaan pg 295)

The death of Hori symbolises the total collapse of the peasant utopia and of the
path of submissiveness and compromise. The ousting of Hori’s family from the
peasant way of life and the exit of his son Gobar, to the town for livelihood are
also symbolic of the inherent vulnerability of the small producers, of the
ultimate triumph of the cash nexus over the old society, the death of the peasant
of the old type is symbolic of the death of the old society which could be
reformed from within..

Thus to conclude, the penetrating and moving insight into the deep and
insoluble crisis of the small peasant within the colonial framework which
Premchand offers in Godaan, cannot be found in elegant treatise of economists
but in the novels of writers of the stature like Premchand.