Mission Delhi – Premchand, Kamla Market
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The life of this betel leaf stall owner is marked by two special facets. First, his modest (but long-time) stall is situated directly beneath the landmark clock tower of the Kamla Market in central Delhi. Second—and perhaps this is even more special—he shares his name with one of the greatest Indian writers.
“Yes, I’m familiar with some of Premchand’s work,” says Premchand. It is afternoon, there are no customers for the moment and the gentleman finds it harmless to spend some time on literary matters. Premchand is particularly fond of one story written by his 20th century namesake, who has left behind several short stories and novels set in the milieu of the stall owner’s own part of the world—UP heartland. Premchand, the writer, was born in Benares. Premchand, the betel leaf stall owner, spent his childhood in a village in Jaunpur, a district close to Benares.
Premchand doesn’t clearly remember the name of the beloved Premchand (writer) story, but thinks that it might be titled ‘Mantra’. He shares what (or how) he remembers from the tale. “It is about a rich man and a poor man. The poor man’s child is seriously ill so he takes him to the rich man, who is a doctor, but the rich man is enjoying his daily walk so he refuses to check on the child, who dies. Much later, the rich man’s child suffers from a snakebite and it’s the poor man who comes to the rescue.”
Premchand recalls that he first came across this Premchand story as a 9th standard student in Shri Ram Inter College. “I read it at least three or four times. It was easy to understand the emotions. I’m from a poor class, and I have directly experienced this divide between the rich and the poor.”
Some three years after first reading this story, Premchand finished his schooling and left his village “to take over this stall in Delhi, that was started by my father.”
It’s his 21st year in Delhi. Premchand’s father is enjoying his retirement in the village—perhaps reading Premchand’s fiction? Premchand smiles, shaking his head. “Both my parents are angootha-chaap (illiterate)… they could not read Premchand… they probably named me so without even thinking of that other Premchand.”
Now, as a customer arrives, Premchand gets busy in preparing a paan.
[This is the 388th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
A tale of two Premchands