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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Gift of a Cow

by
Premchand


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Gift of a Cow



Title: The Gift of a Cow
Author: Premchand
Genre: Novel
Written: 1936 (Eng. 1968)
Length: 437 pages
Original in: Hindi
Availability: The Gift of a Cow - US
The Gift of a Cow - UK
The Gift of a Cow - Canada
Godaan: The Gift Of A Cow - India
गोदान - India
Godan: Le don d'une vache - France
  • Hindi title: गोदान
  • Translated by Gordon C. Roadarmel
  • The English second edition (2002) has a a new introduction by Vasudha Dalmia
  • Previously translated as Godan by Jai Ratan and P. Lal (1957)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a good broad canvas of life in India

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Yale J. of Intl. Affairs . Summer-Fall/2005 Thomas Jandl


  From the Reviews:
  • "Godaan should be required reading for all those charged with designing development programs in communities where traditional cultures still hold sway. On occasion, we may come to the conclusion that the key question is not how traditional culture can be preserved for the sake of a better life of the poor, but how it can best be overcome for the very same purpose." - Thomas Jandl, Yale Journal of International Affairs

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Gift of a Cow is set in Oudh (now Uttar Pradesh), in the area around Lucknow. The novel follows the stories of many characters, but the central one is Hori Ram, who lives with his family in the small village of Belari.
       Hori is a poor farmer, a decent soul but, like practically all the other villagers, deeply indebted (and trapped in a vicious circle of inescapable, ever-increasing debt). Hori believes in the order of the day, which also means putting the welfare of the local zamindar (landowner) Rai Sahib Amarpal Singh ahead of that of his family. Hori's wife, Dhaniya, is more practical, preventing some of Hori's worst excesses -- but not all of them.
       The title of the novel -- Godaan in the original -- refers to, as the glossary explains, "the gift of a cow made by a pious Hindus to a brahman at the time of death", but while Hori's longing for a cow to call his own plays a role in parts of the book this -- and the hope he will have one to give at his death -- isn't an overwhelming part of the plot. Instead, Premchand offers a far broader tapestry. Aside from Hori's family, several other characters' lives and fates are closely followed, and the book also shifts back and forth from country life (Hori's village) to that in the city.
       Getting a cow is something Hori does dream of:

It was his life's ambition, his greatest dream, since any ideas of living off bank interest, of buying land or of building a mansion were too grandiose for his cramped mind to comprehend.
       In fact, however, the book begins with his dream being fulfilled -- but the perfidy of a ne'er-do-well brother means that this happiness lasts only a short while.
       Among the consequences of his having accepted the cow, from a herdsman from a neighbouring village, Bhola, is that Hori's son Gobar falls head over heels in love with Bhola's widowed daughter, Jhuniya, and begins an affair with her. When she gets pregnant Gobar brings her to his family's home -- or almost does: he sends her ahead, then high-tails it to town (where he will make some good money, but completely ignores his family for a year). The proper thing for Hori and his wife to do is not to allow Jhuniya over their threshold, but they are decent folk (which, in this society, means they are weak), and they do the right thing and take the poor pregnant girl in. This casts all in dishonour (including Jhuniya's dad), and the whole village is outraged.
       Caste is one of the central features of this society. The villagers are largely of the same caste, and it is the main thing that binds them together, making them a sort of extended family. But caste brings obligations with it, and violating the rules can mean excommunication. Bringing someone like Jhuniya -- who has dishonoured her family by her actions -- into their home is a major no-no. Hori is only fined -- though that too is a devastating blow -- but there is at least one dramatic excommunication in the book, in which chamars (an untouchable caste) defile a brahman and make him an outcaste. (Lots of cash then bring him back in the fold, but even so no one will eat food he has cooked or truly treat him as one of their own again.)
       The village is a place of odd contrasts: on the one hand everyone (except Hori) is trying to screw everyone over, trying to turn things to their own advantage and gain an edge -- or a bit of money -- wherever possible (and there are many opportunities). On the other hand, there is an often surprising generosity of spirit and a willingness to help those who are down on their luck.
       The major problem in the village is that everyone is deep in debt -- and that the debts keep growing. Borrow thirty rupees and, before you know it, what with fees and compound interest you owe two hundred. Premchand devotes considerable space to money-lending practices -- understandable, since money-lending is so central to all these lives. (The unavailability of ready credit at reasonable terms is convincingly presented as one of the main reasons why the life of the villagers is as miserable as it is, a social problem requiring a solution.)
       Cash problems don't only plague the poor and rural folk: much of the novel also centres around a rich, urban class: the zamindar and his circle of acquaintances, which includes lawyers, professors, industrialists, doctors, newspaper editors, and businessmen. Several of them also have money-trouble -- though things work out much more easily for them (Premachand not treating their difficulties as seriously, and solving them far too easily). But even they recognise that the system has gone wrong, Raj Sahib lamenting:
Our parasitic existence has crippled us. (...) Sometimes I think the government would do us a big favour by confiscating our lands and making us work for a living. (...) We've fallen prey to the system, a system that's completely destroying us. Until we're freed from the chains of wealth, the curse will keep hanging over our heads and we'll never reach those heights of manhood which are life's ultimate goal.
       Yes, The Gift of a Cow is a political novel, and Premchand occasionally preaches -- but generally he concentrates more on recounting the lives of these many characters and showing by example. (An interesting aspect of Premchand's approach is the almost complete absence of any British colonial presence, despite being set in pre-independence times.)
       The contrast between village and city life is quite well handled, and there is considerable cross-over between the two, involving several of the characters. Gobar is the main one bridging the two worlds: first he does well in town, but then returns to do the right thing in his village. Taking Jhuniya back to the city with him everything then goes wrong there.
       Premchand suggests the ways in which each locale goes wrong, approving of the political awareness in town, but concerned by the lack of personal connexions, the fraying of the social fabric holding much of society together (despite his strong opposition to aspects of those connexions, especially the often unreasonable demands of caste).
       Premchand describes individual incidents well, and when he focusses on unfolding events the book is often very impressive. Juggling many stories he does, however, lose track of -- or ignore -- some, bringing them back when convenient without adequately accounting for the transitions that have occurred. Gobar's absences are only the most obvious; many of the rich folks' stories are also only partially told.
       Premchand is very ambitious, and he does tell a good story, offering a good, teeming picture of Indian society of this time. Still, it's more than he can handle, and too much is ultimately reduced to a too simplistic level. But the book is still impressive and, if anything, one wishes that he had been more patient and taken more time to fully realise the many fascinating stories he offers brief glimpses of.
       It's not a happy world -- "If there weren't injustice in the world, why would people call it hell ?" -- but the novel offers a rich picture of humanity, and fairly well-presented social criticism . And it's a good, engaging read.

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Links:

The Gift of a Cow: Reviews: Premchand: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Premchand (Dhanpat Rai; मुंशी प्रेमचंद, منشی پریم چند) lived 1880 to 1936. He wrote in both Urdu and Hindi, and is considered one of the great Indian writers.

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