This Munshi Premchand novel has always been associated in my mind with the Doordarshan TV serial based on the novel that was telecast in DD's Golden Age of the 1980's and early 90's. However, I was too young to remember the exact story, and so I took up reading this novel.
Premchand's typical style, word & idiom usage continues here, in describing the feckless Nirmala's life. Her life has no real cheer in it, right from her early childhood when her marriage is first fixed upto her death. Forced to marry a once-married lawyer, Totaram, 20 years older to her, she finds herself in strange circumstances. Her father's sudden death changed her life this way, and she suddenly has to mind a household which has three young boys from the earlier marriage of her husband, the eldest son being a year older to her.
From then on, whatever she touched, turned out to have adverse consequences. Her husband's sister is cruel to her right from the beginning, though her attitude softens and becomes much more sympathetic toward the end. Her husband tries a lot of different things, from the noble to the ridiculous, to please her and to assuage his own feeling of guilt, but Nirmala sees through him and remains cool toward him, although serving him faithfully on a day-to-day basis. Her attempt to win over the children results in a terrible misunderstanding about her relation with the eldest son, Mansaram, and this ultimately leads to splits in the family and ultimate ruin. She even, unwittingly and by sheer chance, plays a role in the destruction of her friend Sudha's family. It's not a cheerful story to read.
What Premchand excels in is in exposing the social evils of the day, most of which continue to this day. The custom of dowry is the real turning point in the life of the child Nirmala, when her greedy in-laws-to-be refuse to marry their son to her after her father's death. In orthodox India, all morality comes down to the nature of the male-female relationship, which plays the central role here in the destruction – physical & mental – of not just Nirmala, but her entire family. Nirmala's character is, however, kept flawless throughout the novel – her desires never being allowed to come to the surface, her sense of duty, service and sacrifice always coming to the fore. Her thorough goodness is understood only in the end by her husband, foster sons and her sister-in-law, by when it is too late to remedy anything.