Rajendra Prasad, Premchand & Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui : Life in early 20th century in India

For this exercise, I have chosen three autobiographies;Rajendra Prasad, Atmakatha, Sasta Sahitya Mandal, 1965 Premchand, Premchand ki atmakatha, edited by Madan Gopal, Prabhat Prakashan Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqui, Ashufta bayani meri, Maktaba Jamia

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Autobiographies are written in order to tell us about the life of the author. There is always this susceptibility that they tell us only about the view the writer has about own self. Just like any other document, there are biases. But, while telling about himself writer also talks of his surroundings, happenings around him, things which just come like truth of his time, such facts are embedded in common sense or subconscious of the time and may help us in understanding the time of which the author is talking. 

In this paper I will be talking of such facts which help us in understanding the first half of the 20th century better. We rarely think about how much life has changed in the last one century or so because of technological innovations, innovations in education, in dressings, in eating habits and most importantly in medical sciences, but it has. Here I will be trying to look for such changes that occurred in our society and of which we never think about how the world was before. 

For this exercise, I have chosen three autobiographies;

  1. Rajendra Prasad, Atmakatha, Sasta Sahitya Mandal, 1965
  2. Premchand, Premchand ki atmakatha, edited by Madan Gopal, Prabhat Prakashan
  3. Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqui, Ashufta bayani meri, Maktaba Jamia

Rajendra Prasad, Atmakatha

Atmakatha is the autobiography of the first president of India Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Written in Hindi this book sketches his life right from childhood to 1947. Each event in life is written as a different chapter. He was born in 1894, so the story starts from the last decade of the 19th century. 

Rajendra Prasad

We all in our school lives after passing 8th standard got promoted to 9th and it sounds so normal and the only possible way. But it wasn’t so at the start of the 20th century. Rajendra Prasad notes that how he took admission in 8th standard after passing it got promoted to 6th instead of normal 7th and in this way he gradually went up (or down) to the standard one. After that he took admission in F.A, which in those times was equivalent to intermediate. So in those times one started school from 8th standard and used to move towards the 1st standard, which used to be the final class of any school.

 Sachchidananda Sinha: A Great Son of Bihar as described by Dr. Rajendra Prasad

While writing how many of us can think of a way, in schools, where we don’t have pens, pencils and even paper? During those times there used to be a wooden slate to write upon, which had to be painted each time to overwrite. A bamboo made nib was used for writing by dipping it in the ink each time. This wooden slate was called takhti. Even when in higher standards and colleges paper was being used instead of wooden slates pen used was this nib pen. As he recalls that in 1905 he purchased his first Stylopen (pen in which ink can be stored/ simply fountain pen) which was foreign made and in his hostel only he had such a pen.

In those times when transportation and refrigeration technologies were not so developed not all fruits can be easily bought from the market. He notes that grapes at that time in the start of 20th century were not something that could be sold in open market as they were when he wrote about it fifty years later. Mangoes and bananas were the only fruits available in market in Bihar, obviously as they were local fruits of the region. 

Biggest breakthrough for human civilization in the last one century or so is the advancement in the field of medicine. He recalls deaths in family because of cholera which used to be a deadly disease once. When his brother was ill, for as simple a test as urine for sugar content, urine sample was sent to Patna from Chapra. And, surgeons to treat came from Calcutta and Patna. 

Telling about his marriage he tells of going 18-20 kos (more than a mile) in two days. Within a hundred years we are at times when it is a distance of an hour or hardly two. Such is the advancement in transportation technology.

Prasad was from a rich family and was also having his own income source in scholarships. But even for such a person he did not have shoes. Shoes as we look at them today were not so essential in the last century.

People are debating over public display of affection these days. But merely a hundred years ago when Prasad was married he could not even see his own wife. For the purpose of copulation a maid would come and take him to wife’s room after everybody was asleep, in the darkness of the night and before the morning same maid would escort him back. 

In today’s world when we cannot think of a life without electricity but hundred years back it wasn’t there and people used to have special servants to fan. There work was nothing but to fan. Imagine in your bedroom you have that extra person who is like human fan.

When Shah Omair warned Rajendra Prasad of Kisan Sabha’s anti-Congress activities

Most importantly we have always been presented with selfless image of leader like Prasad but how much they could have been when he himself writes that after the death of his brother his debts were actually paid two distinguished industrialists of that time Jamnalal Bajaj and Birla. In other words it was not about party funds or funds for some constructive work. These were the personal loans made so that dowries can be paid in high amounts according to the ‘prestige’ of the family and other such expenditures.


Premchand, Premchand ki Atmakatha

Premchand is considered to be one of the finest story writers in Hindi as well as Urdu. His original name is Dhanpat Ray Srivastava while Premchand his pen name. He wrote his autobiographical articles in a series called ‘Jivan Sar’ in ‘Hans’ which was published in 1932. Apart from these his other autobiographical writings were also collected and published under the name of Premchand Ki Atmakatha. 


While in this age of IT we cannot think of such a thing but there were times when it took days to send message through letters from one city to another or some times within a district. He tells about Kajaki who was a postman and worked under his father (who happened to be a clerk with postal department), Kajaki used to collect letters from the villages and bring them to his father at the post office and after staying there overnight would return with the letters and came back the next evening. In this way letters took a whole day to even reach post office.

Munshi Premchand and Islam

People around us seem to be quite nostalgic about the 50 paisa and 25 paisa coins. For us a rupee means 100 paisa and it seems as if it is the only way possible. But it wasn’t like that. Earlier one rupee used to have 64 paisa divided into 16 anas where each ana had 4 paisa. So it wasn’t always a 100 paisa a rupee thing. 

He tells how he used to have no footwear when he attended Queens College, Kashi. And, how in festivals or some important occasions people used to wear Chamraudha shoes (it’s a kind of coarse leather) about which he laments that those had been replaced by so called finer leather. Polished leather industry also came about at large scale in the last one century.

At many places in his autobiography Premchand talks of unemployed youth in India because those were the people who left their colleges during non-cooperation movement. This is also something which must have some effect on the society as a whole because once the movement was over all those students who left colleges would have nowhere to go. He himself got a cheap assistant who was a college dropout because of non-cooperation.

In the field of medicine innovation has changed the way we live. He writes of being down with a fever for two weeks and just eating neem for cure and also black pepper. But paracetamol, antibiotics etc were just not there. Without which today we cannot think of getting cured. 

He writes of going home from Bhagvantpur, where he walks for six hours in the night but only to almost come back at the point he started. Not only does it tell us about transportation facilities of the time but also lack of proper roads, sign boards and street lights. How different a world we can just imagine.

Still we have a certain respect for government jobs in the society but 100 years back it was much more. His father need not pay any chadawa for arti which even Zamindar had to because he was a government servant and hence much more respectful in the society. 

While a common image of Anglo-Indian is Ruskin Bond Premchand records a certain Bill Jackson who resides in jungles near agricultural lands and a river with his mother. He was a son of some English army officer and his cook. He served British army outside the country but took voluntary retirement and was living on a pension. He was doing job of protecting fields of the villagers from wild animals for which he was being paid. 


Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqui, Ashufta Bayani Meri


Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqui is a famous Urdu satirist and essayist. Born in Jaunpur (U.P) he studied at AMU and later taught there. He belonged to a rich land-owning Shia family of Jaunpur.

Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui

Siddiqui writes that every year there used to be spread of cholera epidemic in the region and in those times school was shifted to the temple. So that students and teachers can avoid being sick by making gods happy. It again brings us to the point which runs common in all these works and that is the medical help available in those times for the diseased.

Jamhoor, Aligarh: Champion of Democratic Values

In this autobiography he has devoted a whole two pages to the postman who used to bring money order when he was in hostel clearly shows the importance of postman in those times. As well as it tells us about the times when online money transfer or bank to bank money transfer were not possible and money order used to be the only medium to transfer money.

The lintel ceilings without which cannot think of a building are also not something very old. Siddiqui tells us about the ‘Kadiyo’ made ceiling, which were the wooden based ceilings with mud and dried grass stuffed in it. Building technologies have also seen a great advancement in the last one century or so.


These three autobiographies throw considerable light on how life was there in north India around a hundred years back. We can compare the life now and then. There were some common threads in all three works like all three shows that compared to know how backward medical science was then and how diseases like cholera which were once considered deadly are now nothing to be afraid of. Simple fevers are not week’s affair. How transport and communication technologies have seen a revolutionary transformation is also underlined fact coming out of these autobiographies. Also there were some startling revelations like classes were ordered in decreasing number. In a nutshell through the autobiographical works we can bring out the facts about those times. Make a picture of the world a hundred years back and then can research far deeper into it with the help of more material.


(Author is a well known Historian)

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at www.awazthevoice.in