Premchand’s ‘Karmabhoomi’: Laying Bare the Facets of Human Behaviour

July 31, 2017 | By

Munshi Premchand has highlighted all the simple strengths and weaknesses of a human being in his masterpiece Karmabhoomi. Gunjan Joshi reviews this novel which highlights the multiple facets of human behavior and presence of several human beings in one individual. Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) was born 137 years ago on July 31 in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi.

Title: Karmabhoomi
Author: Munshi Premchand
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Synopsis of the book….
Set in 1930s, this novel of Premchand is the abstract story of a boy called Amarkant, his boyhood in Varanasi, his transition into manhood, his family, and differences among family members because of the political influences.

Each character of Karmabhoomi is intricate yet significant for the plot of story. The shrewdness of Lala Samarkant and his inclination towards material pleasures, weak self-assertion of Amarkant, selflessness of Dr. Shantikumar, Sakina’s divine love, and Saleem’s great sense of duty towards the people he had grown up with is admirable.

Even the most trivial character of the story, Munni is very powerful. All the characters of this book are malleable and mould themselves according to the prevailing circumstances. For instance, Lal Samarkant is portrayed as a greedy and religious businessman in the initial few chapters who sells adulterated grocery to people but in the last few chapters he donates land to poor people to build their houses. Similarly, the central character of the story Amarkant also undulates with the crests and troughs of his life. Hence, the author has highlighted all the simple strengths and weaknesses of a human being.

Story plot
Amarkant, the son of Lala Samarkant studies in school with his childhood friend Saleem. He has to prod his vicious father even to get money for his school fee. His father constantly reminds him of his responsibilities towards his family business which he is least interested in. He longs for the love of his original mother during this constant bickering. This seemed to me like the reflection of author’s own life. Due to the absence of a motherly and feminine affection in his life, he gets devoted to his step-sister Naina who loves him equally.

Amarkant is inclined towards socialism due to studies in his college and his mentor Dr. Shantikumar. He participates regularly in college conclaves and meetings in the appropriate company of his friend Saleem.

Doordarshan TV Serial on Premchand’s stories directed by Gulzar

Amarkant advocates austere form of living and loathes his father for robbing the meager salaries of poor people. To entitle him with a sense of responsibility, his father gets him married to affluent and progressive girl, Sukhda. She is an assertive girl who prefers affluence over simple life in the initial chapters. In order to create a consistent livelihood for her husband, she coerces him to lend a hand in his father’s business which Amarkant doesn’t enjoy. To say that the rein of their marriage was in hands of Sukhda is just a euphemism.

Eventually, he defects from his marriage because of this and gets enticed by the simple, proud, bashful, and austere beauty of Sakina, the daughter of a poor old woman. Things become worse when his father ousts him and his wife from his house because of his carelessness. As a result of poverty he drops from his school too and leaves everyone to live in a menial village near Haridwar.

Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) was born 137 years ago on July 31 in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

Saleem studies well and joins civil services and is posted to the same village in which Amarkant lives. Here, the metamorphosis of Sukhda takes place and she enters politics to serve the working class. She now lives a plain life, defends poor everywhere, and goes to jail to protect the land meant to provide housing to poor. Amarkant takes forward the uprising of farmers in Haridwar and goes to jail.

Saleem resigns from his position and helps his friend’s father to facilitate a good jail for Amarkant. Sakina harbors her pious love for Amarkant and often writes to him. Sukhda forgets her animosity for Sakina and helps her in improving the condition of her household. In the end, everyone is imprisoned for a common cause and Naina is shot dead. The result is the happy reunion of the family.

My thoughts

The transition of everyone towards ideal socialism is unbelievable but pleasant. A novel is only successful when you remember its characters years after reading it. For instance, characters like Hamlet, Hori, Caliban, Surdas etc are immortal. Similarly, characters like Sukhda, Naina, Saleem, and Sakina make a permanent imprint on your mind. The dichotomy in the characters of Sukhda, Amarkant, and Lala Samarkant is beyond comprehension but can be explained as a simple adaptation of human behavior towards ever-changing conditions of outside world.

The novel also highlights the multiple facets of human behavior and presence of several human beings in one individual. To know how Sukhda spearheads the public uprising in Kashi; how Amarkant unites the farmers against the government; and how Lala Samarkant helps the mob in getting the land for their housing back – read Karmabhoomi the masterpiece by Premchand.

Premchand Classics on Film

Below are two classic films based on Munshi Premchand’s stories made by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray that explore the class and caste-divide in Indian society.

Sadgati (1981)

Starring Smita Patil, Om Puri and Mohan Agashe, Sadgati exposes the social malaise of untouchability and the blatant exploitation of the deprived classes.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

Starring Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi, Sir Richard Attenborough, Amjad Khan and Victor Banerjee, Shatranj Ke Khilari explores the blinding opulence of the feudalistic society and their disconnect with the real world through the passionate obsession of two noblemen with the game of chess who are blissfully oblivious to annexation of India by the British.

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Gunjan Joshi is a Delhi based Editor who loves to explore every facet of art and literature. A nature-lover and an avid bibliophile, she loves classics in every form. A perfect weekend evening for her is smelling the waft of a classic hardback in her bed followed by a classic movie.
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2 thoughts on “Premchand’s ‘Karmabhoomi’: Laying Bare the Facets of Human Behaviour

  • Vijay Kumar

    Nice review.

    I have read most of Premchand. To my mind, he was a fine novelist but an extra-ordinary story writer.

    In his earlier novels he seemed to lack finesse. Also, his novels had too may characters, much like some of the Russian novels. A comparison of Premchand with Sharat will appear apt. Sharat operated in a narrow woman-centric domain but was exceptionally impactful.

    Premchand operated on a larger canvas and his concerns were largely societal than individual. Thus his novels did not emote as much as Sharat’s. But Premchand the story writer still has no peer – Tagore included – in any of the indian languages. The moment he shrunk the theme sweep – necessary for a story – he just became a world beater.

    His best story, in my view is Kafan.

    Ray woke up to Premchand little late. Yet he created a masterpiece – Shatraj ke Khilari. Sadgati was equally great but it was a short film.

  • Gunjan Joshi

    Thank you for your generous comments Vijay Ji.

    Yes, all of his stories have too many characters akin to Russian stories. Although, he is the Shakespeare of Hindi, but his stories overshadowed other Hindi writers such as Mahadevi Verma.

    Kafan is definitely best story but Karmabhoomi is the best novel after Godaan. Sad that Doordarshan didn’t make a series on it, otherwise it would appeared like Ramesh Sippy’s Buniyad which too has numerous characters.

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