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.