A Fine Balance: Nandshankar’s Karan Ghelo and the Downfall of Gujarat’s Last Rajput Ruler

19 July 2015
Nandshankar Mehta was the first Indian headmaster of an English-medium school in Surat, and later Diwan of Bhuj. His "Karan Ghelo" is a historical novel set at the crossroads of Gujarat’s history. It tells the story of the conquest of Gujarat by Allauddin Khilji—the second ruler of the Khilji dynasty—and the defeat of her last Rajput king, Karan Vaghela
Public Domain

Early critics of Gujarati literature list three Ns—nannā—as the founders of its modern canon: the poet and essayist Narmādshankar , the novelist Nandshankar,  and the playwright and critic Navalrām, all of whom lived and wrote in the 19th century. These writers appear to be the first generation of Gujarat’s intellectual elite to be influenced by India’s encounter with western thought.  They were fluent speakers and readers of several languages, such as Vraj Bhasha, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and Sanskrit. Perhaps these languages came easily to those who belonged to a community that had served the Nawabi and whose knowledge of Sanskrit was part of the homegrown culture.  Previous generations of writers had fitted their compositions into metrical formats, and preferred the use of Vraj Bhasha—a language that is believed to have descended from Shauraseni Prakrit and is commonly viewed as a western dialect of Hindi. However, this generation of writers experimented with prose written in Gujarati, hitherto neglected.

Unfortunately, apart for a few poems by Narmadashankar, very little of their writing is available in English. Had they existed and been accessible, these translations would have introduced a richer and more complete picture of Gujarat and its 19th century intellectual elite to the wider non-Gujarati reading public. An understanding of Gujarat’s past  would have been equally engaging for the present generation of Gujaratis, most of whom  do not have any links to their region’s literary past. Furthermore, the work of intellectuals from the 19th century, placed as they were at the cusp of modernity with one foot still in the pre-modern world, would provide serious interpretations a  distant past while speaking to the present and to the globally emerging Gujarati identity.

Aban Mukherji and Tulsi Vatsal’s translation of Nandshankar’s Karan Ghelo fills some of this long felt need with grace.  It is faithful to the original text and eloquent in its rendering of the rhythms of the original prose.  Their translation of songs, in particular, is arresting:

Bound by attachment, puffed with pride

The fool makes plans.

Know that without Me you cannot take a step.

What is destined with surely come to pass.

Sheltering under a cart,

The dog doubts not

That his is the strength that holds it up.

What is destined will surely come to pass

Nandshankar’s Karan Ghelo is a historical novel set at the crossroads of Gujarat’s history. It tells the story of the conquest of Gujarat by Allauddin Khilji—the second ruler of the Khilji dynasty—and the defeat of her last Rajput king, Karan Vaghela, in language that is touched by the sung rhythms of the charans and bhats of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Nandshankar Jeevan Chitra that was published in 1916, his biographer Vinayak Mehta  emphatically asserted that “Karan Ghelo, is a daughter of narrative poetry”.  Bardic literature, however, is not the only source of Nandshankar’s story.  He turns to Farsi chroniclers in the part of the novel that deals with Allauddin’s invasion of Gujarat and the consequences of Karan’s defeat, when his chief wife becomes Allauddin’s favourite and his daughter is married to Allauddin’s son Khizr Khan.  Karan Ghelo is an amalgam of very different languages and different voices, all filtered through the author’s historical imagination.  The novel’s importance and what it reveals about Nandshankar’s acculturated sensibilities, arguably exceeds its novelistic merit.

Unlike later writers such as KM Munshi, AK Majumdar and Dhumketu, Nandshankar does not question the historicity of his Farsi sources. He accepts the events as they were presented by the sufi poet Amir Khusrau:that Kaularani—Karan’s wife—became a part of the emperor’s seraglio, and that Devaldevi—the Rajput king’s daughter—wedded Allauddin’s son.According to Mehta, Nandshankar’s concern was to dispassionately incarnate the past before the readers’ eyes, to present character and events as chroniclers recorded them, even though he was writing about a period in history fraught with emotion.

Contrary to traditional accounts, that unanimously portray Karan as not offering any resistance to the invasion, Nandshankar presents Raja Karan as a heroic figure, who embodies the virtues of the warrior caste: “he is a full-blooded Rajput, whose courage exceeds a lion’s.”   This warrior’s shortcomings, as seen through a Brahmanical lens, are presented as the major character flaw in his otherwise engaging character.  More impetuous than a child, insanely eager to act swiftly, he does not fear the consequences of his action.  In short, he is a picture of “thoughtless and reckless humanity.”   “She was created only to be mine,” exclaimed king Dushyanta upon seeing Shakuntala in the forest hermitage, according to the Sanskrit writer and poet Kalidasa’s depiction of events.   In this context, Nandshankar’s imaginative intervention on behalf of Karan: “If my mind be drawn to her, then undoubtedly she belongs to a Kshatriya” seemed to have the sanction of the great fifth century poet. .

Like Dushyanta, Karan lusts after and stakes his claim to Roopasundari, his able minister Madhav’s beloved wife, and arranges to have her abducted. In the ensuing melee, Madhav’s brother Keshav is killed, Keshav’s wife commits Sati and Madhav flees.  Vowing revenge, Madhav sets out for Delhi and, many adventures later, earns an audience with the emperor Allauddin Khilji.  Madhav has no difficulty in persuading the emperor to conquer a kingdom of which he was until recently the first minister.  He finds Allauddin at an opportune moment: having secured his position on the Delhi throne, the emperor is aiming to become a second Alexander—the Greek conquerer. “Your majesty, Gujarat is the wealthiest and most fertile kingdom in all of Hindustan,” Madhav seduces the emperor with appeals to his cupidity, to his aesthetic sensibilities and to his pragmatist instincts:

It is the granary of the land. . .Rivers and canals abound. There are beautiful forests and tall mountains. …the country is like paradise. But the king, Karan Vaghela, is an evil treacherous and stubborn man, and an unpopular ruler. . .  To one like you conquering Gujarat will not be difficult. .. many units will desert to your side out of loyalty to me.’

Madhav, the betrayer, is Nandshankar’s alter ego. He belongs to Nandshankar’s own Nagar Brahmin sub-caste.  An able administrator, just as Nandshankar was, he has earned his way to the top as Nandshankar did.  His beloved wife is much younger than him as was Nandshankar’s.  Above all, he is rational and Karan Ghelo contains paeans in praise of this rationality. Yet, Nandshankar makes clear by way of  Karan’s former feudatory Harpal’ taunts   taunts and Madhav's own guilty conscience that in betraying  Karan, Madhav is betraying his native land. Does Nandshankar then hold Madhav responsible for Gujarat’s downfall, for bringing Mlecchas—barbariansto a land “where tulsi plant and peepal trees were worshipped and Vedas and Puranas recited?”

In the 14th century, Padmanabha, the author of 15th century Kanhadade Prabandha, had raised the same question and held Madhav responsible. Nandshankar examines the issue within an ideological framework derived from a special rendering of karma—the idea that individuals fabricate the web in which events finally become entangled. History then, is a force born of untold individual actions. No single human being has willed the loss of Gujarat; the loss is a result of historical necessity.  Would this imply that Madhav was merely an instrument of historical forces set in motion by the protagonists? The foolish Raja Karan whoplunges headlong into battle without considering the ramifications, bears some responsibility, as do various coincidental events, such as Madhav’s rescue of the crown prince, which won him an audience with the emperor Allauddin.  Nandshankar does not absolve Madhav of any responsibility but seeks to mitigate his guilt. He does not cast the self-pitying Karan, who believes that his misfortunes are destined, as the villain either.

The tension between the character of a warrior and that of an able administrator and lawgiver—foregrounded in the conflict between Raja Karan and Madhav—is mirrored in a dialogue between Allauddin Khilji and his chief Qazi Modhisuddin. When Allauddin seeks the Qazi’s advice on the just division of loot between the monarch and soldier, the Qazi speaks not to please the emperor but in accordance with Sharia laws. He rules that the king is not justified in retaining the largest share of the loot. “Your Majesty, your actions are in complete violation of Sharia law,” Nandshankar quotes the Qazi as he speaks truth to power. He goes on to describe a furious Allauddin subduing his anger and presenting “a brocade coat and 1000 tankas” to the Qazi.  The episode is lifted from the Muslim historian Ziauddin Barni’s largely unsympathetic account of Allauddin’s reign, written in the 14th century.  Nandshankar excludes much of the Qazi’s advice about the subjugation of the Hindus from Barni’s account and chooses to highlight an event that shows Allauddin in one of his nobler moments instead.

Nandshankar’s narrative mourns the defeat of the Rajput dynasty of Gujarat, without placing the entire blame on Muslims. When the armies face each other, generals on each side of the divide refer to the enemy as dogs, and both armies are shown bringing battle to the enemy camp unfairly, at night.  Neither the Hindus, nor the Muslims are treated as undifferentiated units, instead the division within Muslim Moghuls, Pathans and Turks, and non-Muslim Brahmins, Marathas, Jains and Rajputs is built into the story—albeit in a minor register. The encounter between Raja Karan and Allauddin’s forces is brutal and presented as such.

The novel ends with a sense of loss mingled with hope for the redemption of Gujarat’s culture.

 “Since Karan’s Vaghela’s death, 550 years have elapsed.  Much has changed since then. Those Rajputs, those Muslims, those Marathas – where are they now? What has become of them? Who would believe that indolent, weak and decadent Rajputs today are descended from the valiant race of that once ruled the land? Who would believe that the weak, starving, illiterate Muslims of today have descended from the Muslims of yore?  And as for the Marathas, no trace of their former glory survives.  All have been subjugated by the white man. The bhats and the charans who once graced the courts of kings, now wander the hills and jungles.  The whole of Gujarat is under British control.  But by God’s grace, this province will once again flourish and achieve greatness in a different way, and knowledge, art and social reform will spread over this beautiful land. May it once again become a garden of paradise, the abode of Lashmi, the storehouse of all virtue. Astu! Astu! So be it.”

Nandshankar Mehta was a schoolmaster in Surat’s first English-medium school.  True to his calling, he seeks to instruct his audience.  Karan Ghelo alternates, in parts, between reading like an introductory textbook in philosophy and one in history. Before presenting Allauddin Khiji, the good schoolmaster introduces the history of Muslim conquests to his readers.  Nandshankar, the reformer of society, steps into the historical narrative to champion women’s education, and their rightful place in society.  Nandshankar, the philosopher, arranges a conversation between Raja Karan, an inebriated sanyasi and an equally inebriated Brahmin about an individual’s responsibility to society.

A 19th century reader without easy access to libraries and encyclopaedias might pause to inform himself about the six systems of ancient thought; he might read with interest the debate between Shaivite Brahmins and ascetic Jains about the existence of God; and agree or disagree with explanations of whether ascetic practices or cultivated senses are prerequisites for leading the good life. He might even have pondered over the dialogue between Allauddin Khilji and his chief Qazi about the just distribution of property. A reader interested in landscapes would certainly find Madhav’s journey from Patan to Delhi engaging, and any residual curiosity over why a Jain Sheth should dedicate a temple to the goddess Ambabhavani would be assuaged along the way.

A 21st century reader looking for an action novel may find these diversions from the main story tiresome, unless he approaches the text with historical curiosity. The authors’ epilogue, in which Tulsi Vatsal and Aban Mukherji provide scholarly details about the sources of the 19th century Gujarati novel, the social setting in which Nandshankar wrote and his career in the British administration, would have served readers better as a preface to the novel.

Radhika Herzberger Radhika Herzberger is currently Director of Rishi Valley Education Centre.She has worked on current issues in education and the area of early Indian thought.