It would be no exaggeration to call Tridip Suhrud one of our greatest living Gujarati scholars and translators. Based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, he has dedicated a good part of his career to interpreting and translating works by or related to Mahatma Gandhi during tenures at various educational and heritage institutions. It is largely due to his scholarship and leadership that we have a vast digitized archive of these works and a more nuanced understanding of Gandhi, who remains a complex, often polarizing, international figure. Suhrud has also translated the longest and most influential canonical work of Gujarati literature: the nineteenth century classic, Sarasvatichandra, by Govardhanram Madhavaram Tripathi (G. M. T.). This novel quartet of more than two thousand pages broke new ground for how it encapsulated the entire Indian Renaissance period that powered the Independence movement when it emerged and continues to captivate and intimidate generations of Gujarati scholars and readers. But it didn’t become more widely accessible until Suhrud’s 2015 translation. Another significant fictional work Suhrud has translated is a novella by Suresh Joshi, arguably the most committed of Gujarat’s postmodernists to experimentation, titled Crumpled Letter. In late 2022, a translation of G. M. T.’s biography of his beloved daughter, Lilavati: a Life, was published. And, sometime in 2023, we will see the second volume of the Diary of Manu Gandhi, the young woman who was among the Mahatma’s constant companions during his last years and who cradled the dying Gandhi’s head in her lap after he was shot.
In this conversation, we discussed the state of Gujarati literature, both in the original language and in translation, Gandhi’s influence on literature and translation (Gandhi remains one of the most translated writers in Gujarat even now), what it will take to see our literary treasures read and valued, and what the discipline of literary translation means to Suhrud.
Jenny Bhatt (JB): My mother used to tell us this funny (to us kids) story about the seventeenth-century poet Premanand Krushanram Bhatt. When he heard the following duha, he took a vow that he would not tie his topknot until he was able to prove through his akhyan poems that Gujarati was also worth a full sixteen annas.
idharudhar (Hindi) ka solahi anna, atheikathei (Marwadi) ka baar
Ikdamtikadam (Marathi) athai anna, su-sa (Gujarati) paisa chaar
Translation: “Hindi is worth sixteen anna, Marwadi worth twelve; Marathi is worth eight anna, and Gujarati worth four paise.” [Note: An anna was a currency unit used in British India. One anna was worth four paise. So this little verse places the worth of the Gujarati language and literature at 1/16th that of Hindi.]
Could we please start with your view of where we stand today with Gujarati literature in comparison to literatures from other major Indian languages? In terms of creativity, innovation, diversity, volume, and recognition? Do we have contemporary works that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other lauded works of world literature or even, closer to home, the likes of the Booker-winning Ret Samadhi (Tomb of Sand) by Geetanjali Shree? If Premanand was to time-travel to these times, would he keep his topknot untied?
Dr. Tridip Suhrud (TS): I am probably not the best person to speak or write about contemporary Gujarati literary writing. My relationship to the contemporary in Gujarat and Gujarati has become distant. My intellectual engagement has been with the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, I have not moved beyond January 30, 1948, the day M. K. Gandhi was assassinated, leaving us with a moral dilemma as to how, as a society and people, we would reckon with his violent death.
I do think I am better qualified to reflect on the Gujarati intellectual tradition, in areas of inquiry and expression, other than literary modes. We in Gujarat have not seriously reflected on the state of society, polity, culture, economy, materiality, with our relationship with the past and with the rest of the world, and about our propensity for both violence and nonviolence in any serious way. Our sociocultural and historical imaginations have been frayed and have become more so in the recent decades. This, I assume, has a relationship, however elliptical, with literary imagination and production. I do believe that we have not thought about ourselves in our tongue with as much rigor and originality as we ought to have, or the seriousness with which language communities like Marathi, Bangla, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam have done.
JB: And then in terms of Gujarati literature in translation, where do you believe we are on the translation pyramid? The British Council recently released a study on Indian Literature and Publishing. They were looking at the challenges faced by Indian publishers, agents, authors, translators, and industry bodies in making literature written in Indian languages more widely available to an international audience. Gujarati didn’t even make their top ten translated languages across the Indian publishing ecosystem. Is there a lack of translators or do our works not travel across into English as well as, say, Hindi and Bangla works? Personally, I feel as if most publishing gatekeepers aren’t even aware of the literary landscape in India beyond a handful of languages. The reasons likely run deeper than I know, so I’d love to hear your take, please.
TS: We in Gujarat have a very keen sense of commerce, of profit. We quite often place Laabh (prosperity) before Shubh (goodness). Thus, we have tended to translate from other languages of the subcontinent and the world more than we have been translated. We have in that sense “enriched” ourselves. We have, for example, translated treasures from Bangla, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, as also, at one point, from Russian literature. The same enthusiasm has not been shown by other languages when it comes to translating Gujarati. It is also, in some ways, a reflection of their assessment of the worth of the literary offerings from Gujarat. The lines from Premanand that you cite have been taken seriously outside of Gujarat as well. This is their loss.
In the period between 1915 and 1948, other languages looked at Gujarat differently. This had much to do with the intellectual tradition around M. K. Gandhi. They translated Gandhi but chose not to engage with writers and intellectuals around him or of that period. I have not been able to comprehend this reluctance.
In the more recent past, the work of my friend Rita Kothari stands out, not just as a very fine translator but because of the depth of her understanding of translation as a mode of thought. She has played a very large role in making both the world of publishing and the scholastic community aware of the riches of Gujarati language and literature. But your larger point stands. It is also a reflection of the state of higher education in Gujarat. We seem to value, and with good reason (or so we think), more applied disciplines over “general” tracks. Humanities, liberal arts, and social sciences are seen as likely to contribute to a sense of cultivation of the mind with limited “application.”
JB: A lot of the history behind where we are today with Gujarati language politics goes back to pre-Independence, with Gandhian influences, our mercantile communities, and the state’s language policy post-independence. Gandhi was emphatic about the position of Gujarati language and literature within the region’s culture. He founded the Gujarat Vidyapith University in 1920 to ensure, as he wrote in Harijan in 1942, that “. . . rich provincial languages [like Gujarati] and the people who speak them are to attain their full height.”
You’ve translated a huge body of work by and related to Gandhi. He himself was a bilingual writer and translator and deeply influenced by European thinkers. In one of your essays, you’ve written how he worked to learn other Indian languages because “[Gandhi’s] lifelong quest was to be able to communicate with the people of India in their own tongues and in their own idioms.” He participated actively in translations of his own works. Today, he is one of the most translated writers from Gujarat. How did he view the practice of Gujarati to English translation of our literary works during his time? Did he think it was necessary, sufficient, relevant?
TS: Gandhi was a very close reader of languages and literatures. Those who have read his writings closely, and in all the three languages in which he wrote, would bear testimony to the fact that Gandhi had deep affinity with the poetic—imagination, sensibility—and with poetry. The Ashram Bhajanavali that was done under his care, and to which he contributed immensely, is a very fine anthology of Bhakti poetry. His writings and utterings are suffused with poetry.
Gandhi claimed to have no possessions. We forget (and, granted, we should) that he made a gift of ten thousand books from his personal collection that became the foundational collection of Ahmedabad’s public library, the M. J. Library. His notion of nonpossession did not extend to books. (Those which survived the neglect of our public institutions have been digitized and placed on the Gandhi Heritage Portal, M.K.G. Collection, M. J. Library.) He had great attraction for books, the world of ideas, and read incessantly in various languages. He was also a translator. Let us remind ourselves that he translated Unto This Last (the John Ruskin book-length essay) as Sarvodaya, rendered the Gita in Gujarati, and did prose translations of the entire Ashram Bhajanavali. He had, in Mahadev Desai and Valji Govindji Desai, exemplary translators. So, yes, he was aware of the long tradition of translation across the subcontinent and in the world and contributed to it.
JB: In your translator’s note for Sarasvatichandra, you discuss how the multi-volume novel was not just a massive undertaking logistically for G. M. T. but that he had very high aspirations and goals for writing it. He wasn’t just trying to capture the challenges faced by India at the time or even to express new insights about them. He wanted to share a utopian vision of the ideal society and to bring people from darkness to light. The novel was praised highly by Gandhi and other literary luminaries and scholars. The educated youth of Gujarat were smitten by it. Yet, despite being a canonical text for over a hundred years, it went untranslated until 2015. You’ve written about how the reason for this ran deeper than the usual responses of 1) its intimidating length; 2) the paucity of bilingual intellectuals; and 3) a sociocultural focus on the applied sciences versus the social sciences. You’ve posited that translation was not attempted due to a fear of G. M. T.’s Gandhian vision and the towering figure of K. M. Munshi, who had a different and more influential ideology. And, of course, there’s a certain cultural self-identity in Gujarat that is at odds with the society that G. M. T. presented or idealized. How much do you think all of this still shapes us as a culture and weighs on the state of Gujarati literature and its translation?
TS: G. M. T. and Sarasvatichandra will be an enduring part of the Gujarati self-identity. There will be times when that awareness becomes recessive, as it has now. The questions that the novel raised about the nature and scope of “foreign” influence, the notion of conjugality, the idea of a household, the nature of the ideal state, and society’s relationship to the ascetic community that seeks to shape its virtue are grand themes with which we continue to grapple, albeit through a different prism. Sarasvatichandra needs to be read alongside Lilavati Jivankala (published in English in July 2022 as Lilavati: a Life), a unique text in modern Indian literature of a father writing a biography of his deceased daughter and, through that act, struggling to come to terms with this act itself.
Translation is a cultural choice. Let me give a non-G. M. T., non-Gandhi example. We have had a fascinating relationship with Rabindranath Tagore; we have translated almost everything that he wrote, including letters. And yet we “forgot” to translate his very fundamental work Nationalism. Is this amnesia not a reflection of a cultural choice? We know that the work is a severe indictment of the philosophy and trajectory of nationalism. The reason we did not translate it into Gujarati till 2017 was our response to the ideas contained in that book. I did point this out to Professor Niranjan Bhagat who, in a good Gujarati way, turned around and said that I should translate it and make clear my own “cultural” choice, which I did.
JB: Recently, you were on the committee for the New India Foundation’s Book Fellowships. In a video interview, you’d mentioned how there are so many of our classic texts written by Jain monks and other intellectuals that you’d love to see translated and made accessible to a new readership. Given that they were either written in Sanskrit or old Gujarati, I’m guessing it’s likely harder to find translators to take these on. Surely, there are linguistic scholars, though, who might be able to do so? What needs to happen at a larger political or cultural level so that we don’t lose these treasures forever?
TS: I do not know. I have only partial responses. One way is to make sure that these texts are preserved and made available to the scholastic community. The repository of the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Institute of Indology is a rare cultural resource in the world. The trustees have decided to endow the entire process of conservation of this collection of over four million pages and nearly one hundred thousand manuscripts and digitize them. This will be soon placed in the open source portal and I am glad that, after working on the Gandhi Heritage Portal (which has over 2.5 million pages), I have been part of this endeavor as well. Making resources available in an open, noncommercial platform is a basic task that we need to ensure. The translation of classical texts and languages is linked to the training that our higher education institutions and universities do or don’t provide. And some of these intellectual endeavors have been at the margins of our universities for a long time.
JB: You’ve discussed elsewhere how the standardized literary Gujarati of our classic works, like G. M. T.’s Saraswatichandra, was heavily Sanskritized. Throughout the centuries, though, there have also been various linguistic influences on our language—from Arabic to Urdu, Persian to Portuguese, Bangla to British. And nonliterary, local speech dialects retain even more distinctive influences. In our time now, English and Hindi can be heard everywhere in Gujarat. Rita Kothari has used the term “Gujlish” to describe how some of us speak Gujarati now. Yet, despite this capaciousness of our language and the ability of Gujaratis to wear our linguistic multiculturalism with ease, we don’t see this kind of wealth flowing outward from Gujarati into other languages. Why is that still the case and what needs to happen for that to change?
TS: In some ways, it is also a reflection of other literary cultures and their relationship with Gujarati. It should also be driven by their curiosity about what is being written in Gujarati. They seem to think that we have little of worth to offer, which is disappointing.
Translation needs to be institutionalized in our universities; Rita Kothari is making one such effort at Ashoka University. Something similar has been conceptualized at Ahmedabad University.
But this is not to deflect from our apathy when it comes to translating our literary and philosophical wealth. The fact that Gandhi’s collected works in Gujarati remain incomplete even after two decades of the project being completed in English and Hindi is a commentary on institutional apathy and lack of expertise. The same holds true of the diaries of Mahadev Desai. So yes, there have been some efforts, but there is also large-scale apathy and inability.
JB: If we could come to your own practice of literary translation. Your academic background is in history and political science. And your doctoral thesis was on Narmad, Manilal Dwivedi, and Govardhanram Tripathi. At what point did you decide you’d work in literary translation? What drew you particularly to this discipline? Because none of us grow up thinking of literary translation as a career or even a side hustle, really.
TS: My formal training is in economics (which mercifully left only as much impact on me as I have on that wonderful discipline) and political science. My scholastic work has taught me some history and I have developed a deep affinity with literature. I grew up monolingual—speaking, reading, and writing Gujarati. But my world was deeply enriched by literature which I only later realized was literature in translation. I read Premchand, Tagore, Sarat Chandra, and even Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in translation. It was only by the age of twelve or thirteen that I began to read and enjoy reading English, and even then the world that came to me was also through translation. Notes from Underground read differently in English and, certainly, so did Crime and Punishment. The magic of García Márquez would not have been possible without Gregory Rabassa, and no Calvino without George Martin. I grew up believing more in the reality of fiction than the empirical harshness of politics.
My translation activity began quite by accident. I was moved by an impulse other than understanding the world through the act of translation. I translated Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed from English into Gujarati as teaching material, as the classes I taught then were in Gujarati and it seemed unfair that this cohort should not have access to the text, not even in translation. And it has been an unending process. I have learned to think like a translator, experience texts in translation, and enjoy being able to grapple with text in two tongues.
JB: One of the constant threads running throughout your essays, translator notes, and interviews (at least the ones I’ve read) is how the act and process of translation means so much to you. You’ve used words like meditation, recovery, responsibility, gift, duty, riyaaz, wholeness, sanity, even transformation. You’ve talked about translation as a mode of reading, of comprehension, of thinking. Each time I came across one of these references, I wanted to weep for joy because I see my translation work as a vocation or a calling and, definitely, as literary activism. Of all the works you’ve translated, which moved you the most or transformed you the most?
TS: Translation has given me more than I deserve, and for that, I am grateful (I guess to Saint Jerome). I have come to think of the kind of work that it has allowed me to do as an act of grace, and I hope not to lose sight of what a joy this has been. I never imagined that I would be able to translate the unpublished letters of M. K. Gandhi; and then Gopalkrishna Gandhi, in his abundant generosity, made me a translator and a coworker on the book Scorching Love. The four-volume biography of Gandhi by Narayan Desai, which I translated as My Life is My Message, gave me the opportunity to apprentice to the life of Gandhi as no other scholastic study would have done. Sarasvatichandra was important personally and as an intervention in the cultural politics of my times in Gujarat. Lilavati: a Life, in some ways, completes that engagement with G. M. T. and the nineteenth century. Now I will be working firmly in the first half of the twentieth century, finally.
But the most transformative experience has been the work on the two-volume project of the Diaries of Manu Gandhi, of which the first part has already been published and the second will hopefully be published sometime late next year. Manu, who cradled Gandhi’s bullet-ridden body and bore witness to his death, was the least acknowledged and most misunderstood of Gandhi’s associates and chroniclers. What we know of Gandhi’s last phase owes a great deal to her meticulous recordkeeping, her instinct of preserving every scrap of paper that came her way, and her need to capture the walk through Noakhali, Bihar, Calcutta, and his last tormented months in Delhi.
JB: Finally, which one or two classic or contemporary Gujarati works in English translation would you recommend to a reader just coming to Gujarati literature? Ones that you consider foundational and as gateways to get started with Gujarati literature?
TS: Rita Kothari’s translation of Joseph Macwan’s Angaliyat [The Stepchild] and Suresh Joshi’s novella, Crumpled Letter, which I did. If you are on a sabbatical, do read Rita and Abhijit Kothari’s translation of the Munshi novels [the Patan Trilogy]. And if you are still not bored, do try Sarasvatichandra.
Copyright © 2023 by Jenny Bhatt. All rights reserved.