Writing Life – Three Gujarati Thinkers

Writing Life – Three Gujarati Thinkers

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Book Specification

Item Code: IHL311
Author: Tridip Suhrud
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788125030430
Pages: 280
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8 Inch X 5.6 Inch

Book Description

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Writing life examines the emergence of three forms emerge in and through the movement for social and religious reform and as responses to the culture of the colonial encounter. The book argues that these cultural forms lead to the emergence of what Gandhi later called the idea of being ‘one people’. The book examines the emergence of new forms of knowledge and articulation through the lives of three modern Gujarati thinkers:

Narmadashankar Lalshankar (1833 – 1886), Manibhai Nabhubhai (1858 – 1898) and Govardhanram Tripathi (1855 – 1907). This is explored through the intertwined nature of their autobiographical writings and social and literary thought.

Writing Life also provides an understanding of the intellectual traditions that M.K. Gandhi inherited from his Gujarati milieu.

Tridip Suhrud is political scientist and a cultural historian, currently working on Gujarat of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries and Gandhian intellectual tradition. He has translated Ashis Nandy, Ganesh Devy and Paulo Freire into Gujarati, and Suresh Joshi into English. He has edited and translated C.B. Dalal’s Harilal Gandhi: A Life (Orient Blackswan, 2007) and Narayan Desai’s four volume biography of Gandhi: My Life Is My Message, into English (forthcoming, Orient Blackswan). His other projects include an English translation of Govardhanram Tripathi’s four – part novel Sarasvatichandra, and a critical edition of Gandhi’s Hindi Swaraj (with Suresh Sharma). Tridip Suhrud teaches at Daiict, Gandhinagar.



This books deals with the emergence of two cultural artefacts: the idea of being ‘one people’, and the literary form of the autobiography. The writing of autobiography itself suggests the notion of an individualized self, that is in some sense unique, and which stands at the intersection of the personal and the collective/historical. Both notions – of being ‘one people’ (a collective), and of the individual – have their roots in the movement characterized as sudhar or sudharo. Sudhar has at least two meanings. In its most prevalent usage sudhar is used to denote reform. The other meaning that is derived from the root term implies the good path, good conduct, and hence, civilization.

Sudhar in Gujarat has come to be associated with the process of social and religious reform among the ‘caste Hindus’. The appointment of Mountstuart Elphinstone as the Commissioner of the Deccan in 1818 and later as the Governor as the Commissioner of the Deccan in 1818 and later as the Governor of Bombay in 1819 signalled the decline of Maratha power and the establishment of Company rule in western India. In 1815, the Bombay Education Society established a committee at the behest of Elphinstone for the promotion of education in native languages. The committee pointed out that the lack of school books in Gujarati and Marathi was the main impediment in the spread of education in the province. This led to the establishment of the Native School Book and School Society in 1823. In 1825 Colonel George Jarvis, head of the Bombay Board of Education publicly promised a handsome reward for translators and authors who could prepare textbooks and books for adults in Gujarati and Marathi (Parekh 1976:218). By 1826 the first ten schools were established in Gujarat. Navalram Trivedi 1934/1974:8).

Durgaram Mehta (1809 – 1876), one of the first teachers to be appointed in the new schools, established Manav Dharma Sabha in Surat in 1844. He, along with his four others associates, popularly known as ‘five daddas’, met weekly to discuss cultural issues. They advocated equality of all, condemned untouchability and challenged the practice of magic spells. These meetings were attended by about 20 – 25 persons and Durgaram maintained regular minutes of the meetings. The establishment of the Gujarat Vernacular Society in Ahmedabad (1848) and Budhivardhak Sabha in Mumbai (1851) provided institutional structures to propagate modern education and new ideas. The agenda for reform consisted of three main areas: spread of literacy, including female literacy, widow remarriage and deshatan or foreign travel.

The three essays presented in this book deal with the lives and thought of three Gujarati intellectuals belonging to the second half of the nineteenth century. They are Narmadashankar Lalshankar (1833 – 66), Manibhai Nabhubhai (1858 – 98) and Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi (1855 – 1907). Gujarati intellectual and literary history classifies Narmad as a poet, Manibhai as an essayist and Govardhanram as a their response to the social reform movement. Narmad by common consensus has been seen as a radical, Manilal as a traditionalist and a conservative; while Govardhanram has been seen as occupying a middle ground between radical freeform and the conservative social order.

The essays in this book do not subscribe to this dominant classification. Narmad was a poet and a very important one. But he was also an essayist, a pioneering lexicographer, and a man who wrote the first autobiography in the Gujarati language. He was also, primarily, as the essay will argue an early theorist of history. The essay argues that it is not possible to disentangle and separate Narmad’s social thought from his attitude towards history. In fact the essay shows that it was Narmad’s engagement with the idea of history that shaped his social thought and action. The essay analyses the transformations in his social thought that accompanied his historical writings.

Manibhai Nabhubhai was a philosopher. His quest was to establish Advaita Vedanta as the philosophical basis of his society. In so doing, Manilal provided a philosophical critique of the reform movement. Manilal also desired that Advaita Vedanta should guide his life. He carried out various ‘experiments’ towards this end. The essay provides a simultaneous reading of Manilal’s personal quest and social endeavours. These were enjoined by his interpretations of Advaita Vedanta as non – duality in societal matters and as love in his individual life.

Govardhanram’s Sarasvatichandra is a canonical work in Gujarati literature; no other work of fiction has been regarded as having come even close to this four – part novel. More than anyone else, perhaps it was Govardhanram and the characters he created of Sarasvatichandra, Kumud, Kusum, Gunsundari and Vidyachature that shaped the consciousness of the Gujarati educated middle class till Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhibhai as he was called then), arrived from South Africa and set up his first ashram in India at Kochrab, Ahmedabad.

I argue that for Govardhanram, Sarasvatichandra was one half of his project of ‘shaping the minds and souls’ of his people. His attempt can only be understood when the novel is read along with the lives of Lalita, his wife, and Lilavati, his daughter. The education and raising of Lilavati was thus, equally, a part of his project, and was simultaneous with and intertwined with, the act of writing the novel. When we read the two texts, Sarasvatichandra and the life of Lilavati, as one intertwined narrative, we realize the full meaning and implications of Govardhanram’s social vision.

The Three essays together give us a glimpse of the process that we call sudhar or the ‘movement for social and religious reform’. Moreover the idea of reform, as the essays will show, was a precursor to the idea of being a nation.


The nineteenth century reform movement in Gujarat, as in other parts of the country, was a result of the profound cultural encounter between India and Europe that came about due to British colonial rule. Reform was an endeavour primarily of those who had come under British influence. It was striving to make sense of the past, the present and to provide a vision for the future. The idea of reform and the process of reform in various linguistic and social parts of India were dissimilar. But these ideas and processes, despite their differences, shared a common ground. The reform movement advanced the idea that Gandhiji characterized as ‘being one people’. This idea of ‘being one people’ was multilayered. At times it signified a caste group, or a linguistic group; at times, occupational and educational class was signified. At others, the idea invoked a broader cultural tradition of sharing a common past, common conduct and therefore the possibility of being together as ‘one people’ in the future as well. The idea of being one represented a different moral category from the idea of a nation, though it did provide the first stirrings of the possibility of being a nation. The nation for Gandhiji was distinguished by its moral possibilities. ‘It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves,’ he argued (Gandhi 1938/2000:56). Only those who know themselves are capable of self – rule. Thus, for Gandhiji the act of self – knowing was both a political and a moral act. Performance of duties and observance of morality – which for Gandhiji were convertible terms – were necessary to know and rule one’s self.

Each of the writers discussed here brings out different aspects of these issues – the idea of being one people, and the notion of the individual. The awareness of being a group of people who share a common historical ancestry as being central to a people who share a common historical ancestry as being central to a people’s awareness about themselves is brought out by the life and thought of Narmad. Manilal’s quest was overwhelmingly to be a person in his own right, not bound by social conventions or familial obligations. Govardhanram tried to vision ideal types for his people, thus very consciously eliding the social/historical/collective and the individual. He sought to give his readers portraits of ideal men and women, as individuals, as husband and wife, as persons performing other societal roles. He struggled to define an ideal family, an ideal polity and also an ideal community of ascetics. He also hoped to provide a philosophical ground from which intervention in the societal and political processes would become possible.


I also attempt to provide an idea of the intellectual and social thought and practices that Gandhiji inherited from his Gujarati milieu. Gandhiji was an acute reader of the literary and philosophical traditions of Gujarat that preceded him. The lives and work of Narmad, Manilal and Govardhanram are ‘pre – Gandhian’ not only chronologically but also philosophically and politically. Gandhiji had, in fact, read all three thinkers carefully and mentioned them often in his conversations and letters. He also insisted that his sons and other young boys and girls at the Phoenix Settlement and the Tolstoy Farm read the works of these writers.

All the three writers dealt with in his book wrote autobiographies or autobiographical narratives. The struggle to write the story of their ‘individual self’ in a form that was alien to Gujarati literary traditions is evident in the three narratives that form the basis of the present study. Like Gandhiji, the three nineteenth century writers are acutely aware of the tensions inherent in narrating the life – history of the self. Govardhanram’s notes to himself are the finest example of ‘soul – searching’ in Gujarati writing before Gandhiji.

Narmad, Manilal and Govardhanram also saw their bodies and lies as legitimate grounds for experimented with enhancing his sensual awareness. Manilal experimented with love and sexuality. Govardhanram tragically thought that his daughter was also one of the characters that inhabited his mind’s space, and he moulded her life as a ‘perfect’ embodiment of his philosophy.

But unlike Gandhiji, these three writers did not perform these experiments with the former’s overwhelming and constant awareness of being both the subject and the object of the experiment.

The thinkers discussed here did not see the experiment as a means of spiritual and political quest. It was Gandhiji who gave us a way of looking at life and society that combined brahmacharya and satyagraha as simultaneously individual and social practices.


Gandhiji defined sudhar or civilization through its moral dimension. ‘Civilisation is that mode of conduct that points out to man the path of duty’ (ibid: 53). Performance of duty and moral conduct were possible only for those who had attained mastery over their minds and passions. It was by performance of duty, observance of morality and a constant striving to attain mastery over mind and passions that ‘we know ourselves’ (ibid).

The twin notions of ‘sudhar’ as civilization and as good conduct, and of ‘nation’ are anchored in this attempt for knowledge about oneself. Thus for Gandhiji, the individual quest to know our self, to see god face to face, to attain self – realization and the societal striving for swaraj came together in one philosophical thought – process and one series of actions.

The idea of being one people represents a process by which the moral fibre of a society is being forged. It is, moreover, a process by which society is being forged. It is, moreover, a process by which society is being forged into a ‘nation’. This ‘nation – in – the making is, again, forged morally as well as politically. The idea of being one people is an aspiration and not a fact. The striving of people to know themselves is a deeply ambivalent and divisive process.

This aspiration is sought to be captured by the three lives presented her. Narmad sought to be captured by the three lives presented here. Narmad sought to understand himself and his people through historical imagination. Manilal’s striving to attain pure love was deeply personal and simultaneously societal, the societal aspect being represented by the quest for advaita. Govardhanram’s aspiration was to provide a harmonious synthesis for the future. He hoped to cultivate and nurture a people higher and stronger than his own helpless generation.

The reform movement also provided a ground from which it was possible for some to consider themselves as unique persons or individuals. It is difficult to imagine the reform movement that sought to challenge some fundamental assumptions about social conduct and social organization without personal life – histories of those who were willing to undergo tremendous suffering as ‘individuals’. The emergence of the autobiography is a part of this process of knowing oneself as both a person and as a member of society. This deeply self – conscious act aspires to capture the process of self – recognition and hopes that it would assist the pilgrim towards self – realization.


Acknowledgements ix
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Chapter 2 Narmadashankar Lalshankar: Towards History and Self - Knowing 9
Chapter 3 Love, Desire and Moksha: Manibhai Nabhubhai and the Loss of Svadharma 83
Chapter 4 Consumption as Dharma: Govardhanram Tripathi and the Dissolution of the Self 175
Chapter 5 Between Experiment and Sadhana 242
Bibliography 261
Index 265

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