Most folk would have seen the Google Doodle of 31 July 2016 in honour of Premchand’s birth anniversary.
My translation of Harishankar Parsai‘s essay Premchand ke Fate Joote (Premchand’s torn shoes) below. Original Hindi version from which I translated here. Its fairly rough so excuse the translation but you can get the gist of it.
Before me is a picture of Premchand, a photograph taken with his wife. On his head is a cap of some kind of thick cloth, he also wears a kurta and dhoti. His forehead is taut, his cheekbones protrude, but his luxuriant moustache fills out his face.
On his feet are canvas shoes, its laces are tied untidily. Due to the carelessness in tying, the metal tips of the laces seem to be falling off and it is difficult to insert the laces in the eyelets on the shoe. The laces are then tied any which way.
The right shoe is fine but the left shoe has a big hole and the digits stick out.
My attention is fixed on that shoe. I think – if this is the attire for taking a photograph, what is worn informally? No, this man does not possess different kinds of attire – he doesn’t possess the virtues of changing his attire according to the occasion. What he is is what you see in the posed photograph.
I then look at his face. Do you know, my literary predecessor that your shoe is torn and your toes show through it? Do you have no realisation of this? No shame, no sense of abashment or hesitance? Do you not even know that if you pulled the dhoti down a little the toes could have been hidden? And yet on your face there is a great indifference, a great confidence! When the photographer said “Ready, Please”, then according to tradition you would have attempted to smile and just when you tried to slowly draw out the smile lying somewhere in the oil of a deep well of hurt the photographer would have clicked and said “Thank You”. Strange is this incomplete smile. This is not a smile, there is derision, satire in it!
What kind of a man is this who takes a photograph of himself in torn shoes and is also laughing at someone!
If you have to take a photograph, you wear proper shoes or do not take one at all. You don’t lose anything by not taking one. Perhaps it was on your wife’s insistence and you thought all right and sat down to have your photograph taken. But this is such a great “tragedy” that a man did not have the shoes to take a photograph. Looking often at your photograph I want to cry as I feel within myself your anguish but I am stopped by the sharp, sorrow filled satire of your eyes.
You do not understand the importance of a photograph. If you did, you would have borrowed shoes before getting photographed. People borrow a coat to display prospective bridegrooms. People take out a baraat in a borrowed car. To take a photograph, even a wife may be borrowed, and you could not even ask for a pair of shoes! You do not understand the importance of a photograph.People daub themselves with attar so their photograph is fragrant! Even the worst of men have perfumed photographs!
A cap can be bought for 8 annas and shoes even at that time would have cost no less than 5 rupees. A shoe is always more expensive than a cap. Now the price of shoes has increased even more and for one shoe you can sacrifice 25 caps. You too were affected by this proportional value of shoes and caps. This anomaly has never struck me with such sharpness before as today when I see your torn shoes. So many epithets – a great writer, the king of novels, an era changing author and many more – and yet the torn shoes in a photograph!
My shoes are never very good either. Though they look good externally. My toes do not protrude, but beneath the big toe the base is torn. The sole rubs against the ground and sometimes it is abraded and bloodied by the rough ground. The whole base may fall, the whole sole may peel, yet the toe will not protrude. Your toes are seen but your feet are protected. My toes are covered but the sole is being worn away. You do not understand the importance of a curtain and here I am sacrificing myself for the curtain!
You wear your torn shoes with such pride and style! I cannot wear them so. Never will I take such a photograph in my entire life, even for a biography.
This satirical smile of yours depresses my morale. What does it mean? What kind of a smile is it?
—Did Hori gift a cow?
—On a winter night did the nilgai graze and destroy the entire field of Halku?
—Did the son of Sujan Bhagat die because the doctor did not want to leave the Club?
No, I think Madho drank away the money given for his wife’s coffin. It seems like that kind of smile.
I again look at your shoes. How did it tear, my people’s writer?
Did you keep wandering?
To escape your dues to the grocer did you take a 2 mile detour to get home?
Wandering your shoes do not tear, they are worn away. Kumbhandas’ shoes were worn away in his travels to Fatehpur Sikri. He regretted a good deal. He said – “Coming and going my soles are worn, I forgot the name of Hari”.
And to those who called to gift he said – “Looking on them causes pain, yet I have to salute them.”
When we walk our shoes wear away, they do not tear.
I think that you have been hitting something hard and immovable. Some thing that has hardened layer by layer over many years, perhaps you hit that repeatedly and your shoes tore. Some raised mound in the middle of the road, perhaps you tested your shoes on it.
You could have taken a diversion and walked around that raised mound. You can after all compromise with the obstacles in your way. All rivers do not break mountains, some simply change course and go another way.
You cannot compromise. Do you also have the same weakness that drowned Hori, the very same weakness of custom and “dharma”? That dharma was his chains. But the way you smile, perhaps this dharma is not your chains but your liberation!
Your toes seem to be signalling something to me, that which you think is hateful, perhaps towards it you do not point a finger but your toes?
Are you now making a gesture to that thing against which you collided repeatedly thus tearing your shoes?
I understand. I understand the gesture of your pointing toes and your sardonic smile.
You must laugh at me and all of us, at those who walk covering their toes and wearing out their soles, at those who bypass obstacles and walk on. You say – encountering obstacles I have torn my shoes, my toes protrude but my feet were saved and I walked on. But you were so worried about covering your toes you destroyed your sole. How will you walk?
I understand. I understand the matter of your torn shoes, I understand the gesture of your toes, I understand your satirical smile.
Even though Parsai in this piece suggests that the photograph might have been taken at the insistence of his wife (Shivarani Devi) it doesn’t appear that she has “dressed up” for the photograph either. The sari she wears is a kind that was quite simple and worn by many women in the 30s-50s, she also retains the full sleeved older kind of blouse (if we assume this as taken in the 30s). As for her shoes, those are fairly straightforward khadaun/sandals with all her toes shown:)
An earlier post on Miss Malti in Godaan – styling by Pallavi Datta.