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Premchand: गोदान (The Gift of a Cow; Godan: A Novel of Peasant India)

Premchand’s novel paints a very dismal picture of life in this North Indian village (near Lucknow), with the vast majority of the characters, rich and poor, leading very unhappy lives and with much going wrong for them, often because of their own fault. While Premchand shows us both rich and poor, his sympathies are with the poor and it is they who are the focus of this novel. The main character is Hori Ram, a man who is almost saintly in his behaviour, willingly accepting the established order and never challenging it, even when it is clearly against his interest and causing him and his family much harm. He is a poor farmer, who, like much of his fellow villagers, is heavily in debt to a variety of money-lenders who charge outrageous rates of interest. His family consists of his wife, Dhaniya, a good woman but more practical than her husband, and their three children – a son, Gobar and two daughters, Sona and Rupa. He has two brothers, though the three have fallen out.

Much of the story is about how a series of misfortunes befall the family and their finances go from bad to worse, as Hori is forced to borrow more and more at outrageous rates of interest and, finally, to mortgage his land. It starts early with the gift of a cow. He meets Bhola, a neighbour and widower. Bhola has cows, while Hori has none. Bhola, however, is short of feed and wants a new wife. As Hori can help with both, Bhola agrees to give Hori a cow. However, while the benefits of the cow – primarily milk – are welcome, there is the cost of upkeep and lack of space for her. Nevertheless, he does take the cow. During the course of the book, this proves a bad move as the cow is poisoned by his brother, Hira, who then disappears for several years and, when Hori does not produce a wife, Bhola demands payment for the cow and extracts it in the form of Hori’s only bullocks, which are used for ploughing, causing more problems for Hori. Problems mount when Gobar gets Bhola’s daughter, Jhuniya, pregnant and then himself disappears, leaving Hori and Dhaniya to look after her and her son, as Bhola completely disowns her.

As we follow the mounting problems of Hori, we also follow the fortunes of Gobar in Lucknow, where he manages to make some money and, eventually, comes back for Juniya and to advise his father how to deal with his mounting debts. We also follow the fortunes of the rich, in particularly the love quadrangle of the banker Khanna and his wife, the philosophy professor, Mehta, and the woman doctor, Malti. Mehta worship Mrs. Khanna (who is despised by her husband) while Mr. Khanna worships Malti who really loves Mehta. Of course, this more or less sorts itself out during the course of the novel. And they too have their financial problems, albeit on a somewhat grander scale. The sugar mill (partially owned by Khanna) and where Gobar works, burns down after a strike caused by wages being cut. Despite the somewhat artificial ending – the bad landowner, who looked as though things were going to turn out right for him, suddenly finds that not to be the case, while for Hori, things sort of improve. Premchand tells a story that shows the difficulties that Indian peasants faced and manages to give us a fairly complex story, with a rich cast of characters, against this background.

Publishing history

First published in 1936 by Hindī-Grantha-Ratnākara-Kāryālaya
First English translation 1968 by Allen & Unwin
Translated by Gordon C Roadarmel