Reading Kanhaiyalal Munshi

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Contrary to the popular urban myth that Gujarat’s mercantile culture has stifled its literary impulses, the state abounds in some truly world class writing. I am guilty of reading Gujarati literature desultorily and hence often unable to counter this stereotype effectively. It is only in the past few months that I have embarked on a personal project to read Gujarati literature in some detail.

Reading, like writing, is like swimming or cycling. One does not forget it but one requires some getting used to after having been away from either for a prolonged period. I do not read Gujarati as a matter of routine because the working language of my survival has been English for the past 32 years. As a result, there is some considerable accumulation of an equivalent of literary rust that I have to clean through as I start reading the classics. Last night, I began reading Kanhaiyalal Munshi’s (December 30, 1887 – February 8, 1971) ‘Gujarat no Naath’ (The Lord of Gujarat).

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Dr. Kanhaiyalal Munshi

I hope to be able to write Munshi’s definitive biography some day but for the purposes of this blog it might be enough to say that he remains quite easily one of India’s most iconic academic-cultural-legal-literary figures. Some might dispute my assertion but that is in the nature of any assertion. So that’s that.

Coming back to ‘Gujarat no Naath’, rather than encapsulating its theme myself let me just quote a blurb that accompanies its English translation here: “King Jayasinghdev Solanki, Queen Mother Meenaldevi, Prime Minister Munjal Mehta, as well as King Navghan and the dashing Prince Khengar of Saurashtra, are well-known figures in the medieval history of Gujarat. Based on certain historical incidents of that period, some folklore of Saurashtra, and his own intimate knowledge of the culture and history of Gujarat, Munshi wrote this immensely entertaining novel.” Dear friend Dr. Divyesh Mehta gave me a heads-up on the English translation of the novel. I have not read it yet. On whether the translation does justice to the original, Dr. Mehta says, “To some extent,for a non Gujarati,he makes it possible to relish the story. The verbal vigor is hard to capture.”

Munshi’s prose was known to be at once very erudite and yet accessible. You can sense in it the intellectual weight of the man writing it. There is both great literary finesse and flourish to it. Also, having been a journalist Munshi had a definite regard for historic accuracy. ‘Gujarat no Naath’, of course, is a fictionalized extrapolation of real life events but Dr. Munshi does not twist the basic history so much that it becomes absurd.

This particular novel first came out in 1917 and what I have is its 17th edition. These are eternal sellers as distinct from best-sellers which enjoy a dramatic but short-lived success. There have been at least 25 editions of the novel so far.

Like all truly great writers, Dr. Munshi could be picturesque and profound as needed. There is a line early on where he says while describing a particularly cold winter night along the banks of the Saraswati river. “It was the sort of night to be spent in the warm snuggle of one’s lover in a corner of one’s house. And yet, some 400-500 people were scattered out in the open across Patan.” In the same paragraph describing the effects of the various bonfires and the shadows they cast he says, “It was like a convention of demons.”

Admittedly, it requires a lot of attention for me to keep track of all the characters and their names as well as plots and subplots. Given his enormously busy public life right in the midst of India’s independence movement, both as an academic and lawyer as well as a very hands-on participant in the freedom campaign, I marvel at the sheer body of his literary output. To be able to construct a historic world for just one novel against this backdrop would have been hard but to be able to do so in many other works must have required preternatural skills.

Perhaps with mood permitting I might do another post after finishing the novel.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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