Gujarat boasts a vibrantly active and industrious 24% of India’s overall seacoast. At 1,600 kilometers, this is the longest coastline of all Indian states and, since ancient times, has invited an unceasing influx of travelers, traders, and warriors from all over the world. The region connects with present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan via northbound land routes through the Sindh desert and what is presently known as Rajasthan. Its eastern mainland adjoins the rest of northern and central India. And in the south, it neighbors agriculturally productive and highly industrialized towns and cities like present-day, cosmopolitan Mumbai. The state’s topography is also filled with extremes and contrasts, from the salt deserts and marshes of Kutch in the northwest to the arid and semiarid scrublands of the western Kathiawad peninsula to the forested mountains and fertile plains in the southeast. Frequented by migratory tribes and clans of pastoralist warriors, pilgrims, and traders, these age-old routes and vastly diverse ecologies have allowed for a fascinating hybridization of cultures and languages from all around the country and the world. Even the name Gujarat originates from a tribal dynasty, the Gurjara-Pratiharas, who came from the north in the mid-eighth century to defeat the local rulers and rule the region along with much of northern India.
Given all of the above, the Gujarati language has never been a discrete or stable entity despite the pre-Independence attempts by British colonial officers, Gandhi, and other Indian nationalist leaders to codify it as such. As scholars like Riho Isaka, Samira Sheikh, Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Rita Kothari, Aparna Kapadia, et al. have proved, the language is a richly complex linguistic system without fixed boundaries that has evolved through centuries of economic, political, and cultural interactions between speakers of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Gujari, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch, Urdu, Sindhi, Hindi, and more.
This plurality enabled the flourishing of numerous ethnolinguistic identities within the region, which, in turn, have engendered diverse literatures and cultural artifacts through the centuries. Arguably, though, Gujarat had its major literary renaissance in the late 1800s. In part, this was due to cross-pollination with the growing number of literary translations from English and other Indian and European languages. And, in part, it was due to a sociopolitical awakening among Gujarat’s literati—most of whom were educated elites—driven by anti-colonialism, nationalism, and the independence movement. Both of these factors led to a profuse blossoming of the modern Gujarati short story, groundbreaking first novels and memoirs, literary criticism approached as a rigorous art form in itself, travelogues that became established as a literary genre, and modern poetic forms that deviated from all previous traditions. Writers, poets, critics, and dramatists like Dalpat, Narmad, Nilkanth Sr., Navalram Pandya, Nandshankar Mehta, and others led the initial charge.
During this pre-Independence peak era of literary output, the historical novel genre became notably dominant because it also grappled with identity-building, a sense of nationalism, and state formation. Gujarati historical novels of this time are, in themselves, sources of history—beyond the stories they contained, they were also modes of collective consciousness, social reform, and earnest attempts to transcend history itself. This pre-Independence rise of Gujarati historical fiction was deeply influenced by the likes of Scott, Tolstoy, Cervantes, and others. The first-ever Gujarati novel, Nandshankar Mehta’s Karan Ghelo, published in 1866, was historical fiction. Next came the canonical, near-historical novel quartet Sarasvatichandra, by Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi, published from 1887 to 1901. With over 150 characters and 2,000 pages, its length surpassed Tolstoy’s War and Peace and it preceded Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Writers like K. M. Munshi and Dhumketu published several historical fiction series set in pre-British India. Jhaverchand Meghani painstakingly collected ancient oral folklore from different regional communities into multi-volume works. Gunvantrai Acharya created swashbuckling tales of the nautical adventures of Gujaratis who traveled far and wide.
Yet, the first-ever English (or any language) translations of a handful of these works have only emerged in the last decade or so. The rest remain like faint memories of long-buried treasures despite the recovery and preservation efforts of a few stalwarts in every generation. In particular, many works remain unknown even to the Gujarati readership because they came from marginalized Gujarati communities—for example, the Parsi Gujarati community, which was much smaller than the Hindu majority but produced relatively more books at the time.
We can draw a line connecting the aforementioned Acharya to his daughter, the celebrated and prolific author Varsha Adalja, whose fiction opened this collection. Crossroad is a multi-generational historical novel set during the time of India’s independence movement. Written when the author was in her seventies, the work is groundbreaking for several reasons. In particular, despite Gujarat giving India its two most well-known Independence leaders—Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah—and Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad being Gandhi’s political base, this is among the handful of contemporary Gujarati novels to carefully explore those volatile times. That it does so mostly through the lives and experiences of women is another singular feat. Adalja’s prose is colloquially lyrical and true to its time and place. It is also cinematic and immersive, while not shying away from the worst sociopolitical issues like the infanticide and rape of young girls. As I finish my translation of the novel, I am frequently struck by the depth of her craft and research. And I am reminded of how much we still need to learn about Gujarat during those decades beyond the lives and works of Gandhi, Jinnah, and the intelligentsia.
Immediately after independence from the British in 1947, Gujarat became part of Bombay State, and the Mahagujarat Movement for a separate state became the next big political drive. From 1947 to 1960, a Sanskritized version of the language became more standardized, relegating the many regional variations to dialect status. This is also when, as translator Meena Desai writes in her introduction to a ghazal by Befaam (the pen name of Barkat Ali Ghulam Husain Virani), the Gujarati ghazal form came into its own as part of the “burgeoning movement toward an independent identity of a much-colonized country.” Tracing its origins back to seventh-century Arabic love poetry, the ghazal had gathered Persian influences as it spread across South Asia in the twelfth century through Sufi mystics and Islamic Sultanate courtiers. Ghazals continue to enjoy popularity today—especially in Bollywood—in different languages and regions of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Even noted American poets have composed ghazals in English. Though difficult to translate because of their layered meanings, repetitions, and symbolism, Gujarati ghazals continue to flourish both in India and among the diaspora.
Shortly after Independence, another upheaval in Gujarat—particularly the large regions of Kathiawad and Saurashtra—involved the unification of more than two hundred independent princely states. In British India, these states had functioned more like allies rather than subordinates of the British Raj. The newly-formed Indian government pushed hard to integrate the nearly six hundred total princely states, which made up more than half the country. But legacies, traditions, and memories lingered on, as we see in an excerpt of Hasmukh Shah’s upcoming memoir, Dithu Mai . . . (From the Margins of History), translated by Mira Desai. Shah describes markers of a world that was quickly disappearing at that time—a Muslim ruler, his integrated team of Hindu and Muslim drivers from across caste and class hierarchies, and his garage filled with expensive and difficult-to-maintain British and American vehicles. From the child narrator’s innocent point of view, all of this is fascinating and impressive. We know the child grew up to become a key staff member for three separate Indian prime ministers. Undoubtedly, some of his diplomatic and negotiation skills had begun developing in those humble yet culturally syncretic beginnings.
That idea of cultural syncretism is also brought forth in Bharat Trivedi’s poem about Ahmedabad, an ancient city with a rich history named after a fifteenth-century Muzaffarid Sultan. As Mira Desai writes in her translator’s note, “Beyond the Hindu, Muslim, and Maratha dynasties and the British colonial rulers, there were also the Siddis, descendants of shipwrecked Africans, who bequeathed an intricate and famous carved stone screen (referenced here as Siddi Sayyed ni jali) to the city.” Though it has seen much communal tension in the last two decades, Ahmedabad has always been a political and intellectual hotbed, particularly during the Gandhi years. And while it is a constant muse for poets, writers, filmmakers, and songmakers, the walls of this city guard many untold stories still. I lived in the sprawling outskirts from mid-2014 to early 2020 and continue to explore its past and present in my own fiction. Once it grabs hold of your imagination, Ahmedabad remains a perpetual state of mind.
The third poet we’ve featured, Jayesh Jeevibahen Solanki, grew up in a village close to Ahmedabad and was a prominent, brave voice in the Gujarat Dalit Movement for most of his adult life. As translator Gopika Jadeja writes in her introductory note, “These poems give us a glimpse into a promising young mind, a poet and activist who envisioned a different future for Dalit and marginalized communities in India.” The objects described starkly in these two poems—stolen mangoes, torn kites, ice lollies for a rupee, a shirtless torso, and shoeless feet—all reveal the impoverishment that Solanki experienced throughout his life, which he tragically ended in October 2020. During my time in Ahmedabad, when I was fictionalizing the 2014 Dalit flogging incident in Una for a short story, I found a few videos of Solanki talking to journalists and reciting his poetry. His grounded convictions and passionate energy will forever haunt all who encountered him, virtually or in person.
It takes both a deep passion and a certain kind of energy to persist as a bilingual poet and writer, as Pratishtha Pandya writes in her personal essay, “Writing in Mother Tongue and an Other Tongue.” Pandya traces her lifelong encounters with different languages and literatures to understand how her translation practice made her “more attuned to the sounds, nuances, and even limitations of the languages I was working with.” More profoundly, she investigates how there are things she can write in the “other tongue” that she cannot approach in her mother tongue because of cultural conditioning. This linguistic hopscotching about may feel ungainly at times, she writes. Still, there is joy in the spontaneous discoveries it can yield for those willing to jump past boundary constructs and land on just the right words to express themselves fully.
Sachin Ketkar also talked about the pleasures and challenges of bilingualism in my interview with him. As a Marathi-speaking Maharashtrian who grew up speaking Gujarati in Gujarat and working with English as a scholar and academic, Dr. Ketkar experienced “subtractive bilingualism”—a phenomenon I have also experienced since leaving India in 1991 but had not been able to name until this conversation. This is when, as he told me, the acquisition of an elite and powerful language like English results in the depletion and deprivation of linguistic, cultural, and creative resources of the language(s) in which one is raised. We discussed his own literary and translation journey and how intricate questions of cultural identity, tradition, modernity, and relevance stared at him with every step of that journey. Translation, for him, is primarily a creative process of negotiating through those questions. As he also shares in the interview: while creative bilingualism or multilingualism has been additive in nature for literatures in other Indian languages (e.g. Tamil, Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, and more), it has not been the same with Gujarati literature for various reasons.
In a country with so many languages, translation is, as Rita Kothari put it in my interview with her, “an un-self-conscious act [that’s] in the air, in the cosmos. And it’s hidden by being most proximate and natural.” As a multilingual scholar, translator, academic, and author, she has written extensively about Gujarati literature and translation theory. She has also co-translated, with Abhijit Kothari, the most famous historical fiction in our literary canon: K. M. Munshi’s Patan trilogy. Here, we discussed the evolution and craft of Gujarati literature in translation. This is my third interview with Dr. Kothari, and one of the recurring themes is how she sees languages as sociopolitical constructs that are, beyond their uses for communication, about power and identity. Given the evolutionary aspects I described above, this is truer than ever for the Gujarati language. In closing, Dr. Kothari recommends another great Gujarati-to-English translator, to whom we turn next.
Tridip Suhrud is renowned for his Gandhian scholarship. He is also the only Gujarati-to-English translator who has been brave enough to take on the work of translating the canonical Gujarati historical quartet, Sarasvatichandra, which I mentioned earlier. In this interview, we discussed some of his milestone translations, and I asked him where Gujarati literature stands with respect to literatures from other Indian languages in terms of creativity, innovation, diversity, volume, and recognition. He reflected on the Gujarati intellectual tradition overall, and said that “. . . we in Gujarat [ . . . ] 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.” Regarding the Gujarati translation scene, he has also discussed elsewhere how we Gujaratis are very good at bringing literary wealth from other cultures into ours, but not so good at sharing our own wealth.
Though that last bit was also a good-humored dig at the age-old Gujarati stereotype as the mercantile, business-minded community, when we look at the three Gujarati-to-English translations published in 2022 (excluding my own Dhumketu translation, which was the US edition of the 2020 Indian publication), it bears out. In her omnibus review, Shalvi Shah writes that they were “all written and translated by men and the only literary works translated from Gujarati to English in India in 2022 were published and are set more than five decades ago.” As a young translator herself, she calls out the difficulties of finding daring, new, experimental works. Sadly, this latter point also bears out, although I’m grateful that we have rare translations of books by a Gujarati Parsi and a Gujarati Dalit among those three.
Earlier, I mentioned a literary renaissance period for Gujarati literature as the independence movement got underway. The next big turning point came in the post-Gandhian era of the 1950s and 1960s with avant-garde writers like Mohammad Mankad and Suresh Joshi. Though Joshi was trained and well-read in Western literary traditions, he chose to write in Gujarati. To date, there has been no other who can match Joshi’s experimental aesthetics and prolific works of fiction, literary prose, literary criticism, and translations from several languages. In his 1992 essay collection, Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie writes this about meeting Joshi:
To go on in this vein: it strikes me that, at the moment, the greatest area of friction in Indian literature has nothing to do with English literature, but with the effects of the hegemony of Hindi on the literatures of other Indian languages, particularly other North Indian languages. I recently met the distinguished Gujarati novelist Suresh Joshi. He told me that he could write in Hindi but felt obliged to write in Gujarati because it was a language under threat. Not from English, or the West: from Hindi. In two or three generations, he said, Gujarati could easily die. And he compared it, interestingly, to the state of the Czech language under the yoke of Russian, as described by Milan Kundera.
(Joshi’s stance predates that of contemporary writers like J. M. Coetzee, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Minae Mizumura, who have all also made the political choice to write against the hegemony of English by first publishing their books in Spanish, Gikuyu, and Japanese respectively.)
Today, there is still a language pyramid in India where Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam, and others sit at the top. The language and history scholars I mentioned earlier have explored the whys and wherefores in their various books and papers. Globalization continues to diminish the ranks of Gujarati readers and writers by increasing the dominance of English. A quick check on Amazon India shows that, beyond academic texts, the Gujarati-language bestsellers are self-help and how-to books translated from English alongside the perennial favorite books about Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. With each generation, the body of Gujarati literature seems to become less abundant, vibrant, and innovative than it was during Joshi’s time. The Indian government and a handful of Gujarati literary institutions do what they can. For example, in 2007, the Gujarati Sahitya Akademi created a prize to recognize and encourage Gujarati authors and poets below the age of thirty. At last count, there are at least twenty different Gujarati literary awards. The Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, the oldest literary organization, has at least thirty different literary awards.
And yet, consider this: Gujarati has fifty-six million speakers worldwide. It is the sixth most spoken language in South Asia and the third most spoken language in the South Asian American diaspora. By some accounts, the Gujarati diaspora is spread over 125 countries. But my 2022 translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu, was the first ever Gujarati-to-English literary translation to be published in the US. It was also the first ever book-length translation of this modern Gujarati short story pioneer, who published nearly twenty-six volumes of short stories alone.
For any literary culture to thrive, its readership must grow within its own societies and beyond with more translations into and from the language. This first-ever collection at Words Without Borders is a cultural intervention to bring these works to a wider readership, and to also help raise visibility within Gujarati society, especially the global diaspora. For translators from under-represented languages like ours, the act of translation can also be a mode of recovery and reclamation. Together, this small sample reveals rich glimpses of the diverse, complex, and ever-evolving literary traditions of Gujarat. It is an effort to share some of our literary wealth and celebrate our Gujarati ways of being.
Copyright © 2023 by Jenny Bhatt. All rights reserved.