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,
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
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
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 –
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