Fifty-six million people speak Gujarati, and a smaller group is able to read and write it. In Ahmedabad, my hometown and the largest city in Gujarat, with a population of eight million, big bookstores—all three of them—primarily use their Gujarati sections for books translated from English, religious texts, self-help books, second-rate nonfiction, and a few established masters. When I explore the city’s Gujarati-specific, smaller, and more local bookstores, they also fail to yield any exciting young talent. In terms of translation from Gujarati to English, there is, among other shortages, a lack of poetry collections, commercial/genre fiction, writers who are women, and diaspora writers. Languages like Bengali and Hindi dominate the North Indian market for writing from Bhasha. Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu are equally popular in the South. Primary and secondary school Gujarati textbooks are filled solely with folktales, moral classics, and ancient poetry. For me, a twenty-something writer and aspirant translator, finding contemporary Gujarati stories to translate, especially those written by women, requires either monumental effort or knowledge of ongoing Gujarati periodicals and magazines that are circulated largely among those over the age of forty. Recently, though, an anthology titled The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told was published. The volume’s discovery of contemporary Gujarati writers is exciting and refreshing. While the collection is mostly focused on caste as theme, which I find important but also fatigued as a topic, it was pure joy for me to read three stories out of twenty-three that were inclusive of gender, sexuality, and economic class, and even more joy to discover that they were written by younger writers. However, there were no formally experimental stories in the collection; it is possible that none have been published in Gujarati in the past decade. I believe there is an urgent need to cultivate and embolden experimental and inclusive Gujarati literature, because our culture is worth celebrating in all of its rich traditions and contemporaneity.
Speaking of traditions, the three books featured below, all written and translated by men and the only novels translated from Gujarati to English in India in 2022, were published and are set more than five decades ago. In the case of Lilavati: A Life, its original publication date was more than a century ago. Regardless, the works are engaging and relevant, comprised of beautifully distinct voices and styles that burst with authority. A repentant father writing about his daughter; a rural caste-based murder victim; a young soldier who is inquisitive about the world—these are some of the characters that populate these Gujarati books in translation.
Vultures by Dalpat Chauhan, tr. by Hemang Ashwinkumar
Dalpat Chauhan is a well-established Dalit writer whose energetic prose is filled with nuance that elevates his writing to literary iconoclasm. Hemang Ashwinkumar’s translation of Vultures is vivid and stark, leaving a sour taste in the mouth, courtesy of ingenious descriptions of carrion and fields that took me right back to my father’s native village. The result is a story laced with hierarchical, complex subtexts between indentured laborers and landlords, the animals and the ecosystem, and questions of who gets to love whom. In his translator’s note, Ashwinkumar emphasizes that Dalits are frozen in the despair of their own collective memories, a concept that Chauhan attempts to subvert in the plot. The tale is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Though the unfulfilled attraction between our protagonist, Dalit Iso, and the upper-caste Diwali results in a predictable, lurid murder, the terror of the story is not in its bloody details. The inability of the narrator to extricate himself from trauma, the virulent hatred expressed in segregated geographies and untouchability practices, and the unflinching callousness of the ecosystem that surrounds the characters all make for a horrifying reading experience. Interpolated verses passed down in Gujarati’s rich oral traditions lend a cultural texture that resonates throughout the oppressed characters’ melancholies. A loud, resilient community of residents alleviate the heaviness of the subject matter. In its portrayal of caste-based violence, Vultures tells a story that is as shamefully human as it is demonic, as valiant as it is pitiful.
Lilavati: A Life by Govardhanram Tripathi, tr. by Tridip Suhrud
Govardhanram Tripathi is a giant of Gujarati literature, notable for his Saraswatichandra tetralogy, which is widely considered to be a masterpiece. His personal life and fictional plots frequently intersected, as evidenced by the notebooks, which he called scrapbooks, that were discovered after his passing. Life was a convoluted imitation of art for Tripathi, who, according to his own words and those of translator Tridip Suhrud, went about “raising” his wife and daughter according to self-generated ideals for familial behavior and women’s education. Lilavati: A Life is an elegiac biography of his daughter Lilavati as recounted by a prideful, repentant, and, more often than not, disastrously inflexible father. Tripathi has broken up the book into three parts, with traditional, poetic, and epistolary styles, with himself as an unreliable narrator who, in his own preface, “[has included] only these aspects of [Lilavati’s] life which were considered worthy of being enshrined in the hearts of the people [ . . . ].” Suhrud’s introduction to the book is almost brutally honest about its intrigue, opacity, and shortcomings. The translator warns the reader not to judge Tripathi’s morals based on contemporary ideas and labels. It is lamentable, nevertheless, that the biography reveals more about the writer than its subject. Which is to say: Tripathi can be described as an egregious, erratic parental figure who destroyed his family’s lives, leading to the untimely deaths of his wife and daughter. And still, the pages kept turning. Lilavati’s life, so influenced by her father since infancy, is shown in detail with instances of homeschooling, filial piety, and, above all, self-sacrifice. Obsessed as he was with virtuosity and the philosophy of consumption, Tripathi’s writing is both a memoria and a warning of the dangers of trying to live beyond one’s sustainable capacities. Lilavati could not live a long or painless life, but as far as freedoms go, it can be said that she exercised her will to the utmost within the limitations of her upbringing.
The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir by Nariman Karkaria, tr. by Murali Ranganathan
Nariman Karkaria was a young Parsi man from Gujarat who served in World War I, World War II, and the Balkan Wars. He traveled much of the world during the volatile socioeconomic environment of the 1910s and the decades that followed. His writings are full of vigor and humor as well as characteristic vulnerability regarding his existence in the world. His translator Murali Ranganathan’s dazzling research flows through the sentences and descriptions of Karkaria’s travelogue, which is full of dire and dirty circumstances, like watching his fellow soldiers split apart because of bombs. The book is a smooth ride across bumpy terrains, keeping the reader engaged and skeptical, with liberal exclamation points and keen observations. Delight, wonder, terror; Karkaria’s emotions guide his writing but his extreme curiosity comes across as his most vital characteristic. The Parsis, an ethno-religious group that fled Iran to escape the Islamic persecution of Zoroastrian people and settled in India, are known nationally for their entrepreneurship, charity, and ingenuity. Karkaria’s insistence in comparing seemingly every human in every nation on Earth on a scale of Parsiness to non-Parsiness is roaringly funny, but his genuine interest in Persian history and Iranian conquests, as well as his nostalgia for his home in Navsari, keeps the prose from being irredeemably comical. While some of his views are obviously outdated, like his opinions on “muscular” women and “cheap” Asian citizens, Karkaria has the ability to find some good anywhere he goes, as he embraces diverse eating, drinking, and clothing customs as the natural order of the world. With hilariously titled sections such as “The End of Fashion” and “Expression of Martial Enthusiasm Within Me,” Karkaria’s unique memoir of the wars as an Indian man is unmissable.
Vultures by Dalpat Chauhan, translated from the Gujarati by Hemang Ashwinkumar (Penguin Random House India, 2022).
Lilavati: A Life by Govardhanram Tripathi, translated from the Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud (Penguin Random House India, 2022).
The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria: A Memoir by Nariman Karkaria translated from the Gujarati by Murali Ranganathan (HarperCollins India, 2022)
© 2022 by Shalvi Shah. All rights reserved.