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Most villages across the flatlands of north India are bereft of any appeal that would invite a second glance. But Lamahi, 10km from Varanasi, has a special calling card. Busloads of students and tourists drop by . Even occasional literature lovers -some from abroad -visit this east UP village. For them, Premchand's birthplace is a pilgrimage spot.
The master Hindi-Urdu writer is everywhere here. There's a memorial to his name that includes a marble bust and posters of his unforgettable stories such as “Bade ghar ki beti“ and “Namak ka daroga'. A research institute dedicated to his works is ready but without scholars or a person-in-charge. His home has been renovated but the makeover men, in their misplaced enthusiasm, relaid the steps leading to the roof with granite and installed iron stairs. Barring the façade, it no longer looks like a 1930s house. “ A road is named after him, a garden, a pond and a gate. We have a Premchand Swayam Sahayta Samooh, a self-help group, and a handicrafts centre named after his wife, Shivrani Devi,“ says former pradhan Santosh Singh. This village is open defecation-free and near the primary school is a poster that reads: “Lamahi ko swachh banana hai, Munshi Premchand ka nara hai. (Munshi Premchand's slogan: Make Lamahi clean.)“ Premchand's works weave a tapestry of the lives of the miserable in rural north India. And, nowhere does this feature of his writing come more alive than in the eyes of Bechan Ram, an aging Dalit, hard of hearing and extremely poor. He resembles a character from a Premchand short story .Does he own land? A sad smile plays on his face, as if mocking the inanity of the question. Who'll he vote?
“Whoever you ask me to,“ he laughs.Life's taught him not to reveal his cards. Bechan is an exception.
Lamahi's young Dalits are more confident. “We'll vote for haathi (BSP's symbol),“ says his grandson Rishen Kumar. Dalits here are a handful but more in number in neighbouring Ade. “We've suffered due to notebandi. Masons among us couldn't get work,“ says Akash Kumar. Our families will vote for BSP, he asserts.
Lamahi is nearer to Varanasi but in Shivpur constituency . Patels dominate the village, making for 60% of its 1,300-odd voters.
“Most Patels will vote BJP,“ says Santosh, whose family says Santosh, whose family has ruled over Lamahi longer than Congress over India. His grandfather was a pradhan for 32 years. His wife, Meera Devi, has been at the helm since 2011. Santosh has also served a full-term. He'll vote for BSP's Birendra Singh, a Thakur, because he knows the politician well. “I'll lose face if I ask them to vote BSP,“ he says.Patels gravitated towards NDA after BJP allied with Apna Dal(S), led by Anupriya Patel before the 2014 polls.The village has about 10% Muslims -and one of them says he intended to vote SP , as before.
Santosh's brother Ashok, who runs a grocery-cum-bookstore, narrates: “A fortnight ago, three women from humble backgrounds bought soap, cream and paste. They told me they'd received payments after a long time and said they'd vote for anyone but BJP ,“ he recalls. Lamahi is better off than neighbouring villages.
It has a post office, a community centre, a primary school and a health centre, continues to profit for being Premchand's birthplace. “Last year a government official came here. A Premchand fan, he sanctioned money to beautify two ponds. He helped create awareness in making Lamahi open-defecation free,“ Santosh says.But anganwadi worker Sursati Devi is dejected. There's no mid-day meal since November, no salary since December, she complains. “Sometimes we don't get paid for six months.“ Her monthly salary is Rs 3,200. It's a hard life -perhaps not as grim as shoemaker Dukhi in Premchand's “Sadgati“ -but a hard life none the less.