I first read the great Gujarati author Gunwantrai Acharya’s brilliant novel ‘Dariyalal’ about the seafarers and settlers in Africa from Kutchh and Saurashtra as part of my school curriculum. Notwithstanding that it was required reading in school, it left a deep impression on me. I have started reading it again after 40 years. It is captivating.
The novel is set in the 17th century when seafaring merchants and traders from the region of Gujarat known as Kutchh and Kathiawad had established trade links with East Africa. As Acharya notes this was a century and half before the Europeans began arriving on the Dark Continent. In particular, the author deals with the rise of the slave trade and the role played by a leading Gujarati firm called Jayram Shivji. The protagonist is a man called Ramjibha whose reputation as the chief of the slave department of the firm spread terror through East Africa.
Ramjibha would lead frequent raids on Bomas or African villages and ransack them with utterly cruelty. “A thousand Habsi (African) women would curse and damn his name but that caused neither fear nor fright in Ramjibha,” Acharya writes.
Acharya’s descriptions of the raids and capture of the would-be slaves are graphic and stunning. Take this passage for instance. My translation does not do justice to the original Gujarati. “Every slave’s back was raw; on their bare backs, bare calves, bare, arms there were lacerations and swelling. There were blood smeared wounds. When drops of sweat fell on the wounds an intense burning pain would run through them. Jungle flies and other insects would sting on their wounds causing an excruciating, flaming pain.”
As exhausted slaves sat down to take a break, Ramjibha would curse them and whip them. “Are you here for your father’s wedding?” he would shout. I suppose I am not spoiling anything by telling you that the same Ramjbha goes through a metamorphosis and becomes a passionate campaigner against slavery and slave trade.
As Acharya says in the preface to the first edition published in 1938, he drew on many real life people and events and carried out intensive research to produce a fictionalized account of the era. The authentic feel of the novel has everything to do with the author’s meticulous research.
There is a fantastic film waiting to be made from this book. While watching ‘12 Years As A Slave’ recently I kept thinking about ‘Dariyalal’. Of course, Dariyalal’s canvas and scope are so much bigger because it looks at Africa from several different vantage points, including the passion for seafaring and trading among the people of Kutchh-Kathiawad.
If I had the means, I would love to option this novel for an epic movie. It is cinematic in its descriptions and yet so sociologically telling. It is obvious that Gunwantraibhai had internalized the era of seafaring. In a career spanning nearly 40 years he wrote some 125 novels, 20 collection of stories and 50 other books. I look at his body of work and feel utterly worthless.
For your edification I have translated below a passage:
Author Gunwantray Acharya
“Nazambi or Mother Nature has loaded it up with her bounties. Fruits fall from its sky-high trees. Clusters of cloves scatter everywhere. Resin drops drip and coconuts crash on their own. Nothing requires to be harvested or plucked or picked or scratched or dug out. Like a mother serving everything to her child, Nazambi is full of blessings.
Everything on this Dark Continent is on a gigantic scale—the forests are gigantic, the mountains are sky-high, the lakes are overflowing with enough water to quench the world’s thirst and the animals are enormous.
When night falls on this continent, there is surreal quiet and the wind blowing through its thick forests unleashes a frightening scream.
But something even scarier has cast its deep shadow on this continent for the past three hundred years.
Bandits overrun Bomas (villages), torch settlements, massacre the old and the children, capture young men and women, and shackle them.
There is always a boat anchored along the coast under its shroud-like sails. The bandits would force their captives on to the boats and set off.
The boat would then leave for Turkey, Iran or America.”