A novel of epic proportions written in four parts from 1887 to 1901, Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi's Sarasvatichandra is both the enactment and embodiment of the life philosophy of one man and his sole mission. Part III, Ratnanagari’s Statecraft, details the efforts of Maniraj, an enlightened ruler of the princely state of Ratnanagari and his able minister, Vidya Chatura, to create a responsible and inclusive polity in times of decay and change.
Translated by Tridip Suhrud, the novel holds up a fascinating mirror to Gujarati society and life in the princely states against the backdrop of pre-independent India, in transition at the turn of the nineteenth century—culturally, politically and ideologically.
The following are excerpts from the book.
Sarasvatichandra is not ‘one’ unitary text. The novel was not only published in four parts but was also written in four parts over a period of fifteen years. Each part has a distinct thematic content, its own cast of characters and independent beginnings and ends. This is not to deny either the aesthetic or thematic unity of the novel. But readings which privilege one story—the story of Kumud, Sarasvatichandra and Kusum—as the principal theme and consider all others as unnecessary diversions do not allow an appreciation of the complete text.
The increasing influence of the East India Company in the affairs of the ‘native states’ provides the backdrop for the first part, Buddhidhan’s Administration (1887). It deals with one individual’s sustained efforts to assume complete control of the administration of a native state, Suvarnapur, and to rise above his circumstances. Govardhanram describes Buddhidhan’s impoverished beginnings, his constant victimisation by Shathrai, the prime minister of the state, and Buddhidhan’s opportunistic alliance and friendship with Bhupsinh—a cousin of the ruling king and a claimant to the throne. Together they seek support of the British Resident oficer of a neighbouring area, and with his intervention, Bhupsinh is declared the legitimate ruler.With patience, wisdom and foresight, Buddhidhan is gradually able to secure the complete trust of the new ruler, and to rid the state's administration of the influence of Shathrai. He also regains the post of prime minister which his family had traditionally held.
Part II of the novel, Gunasundari’s Household (1892), deals with the state of a Hindu joint family in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Gunasundari and Vidya Chatura were married as children. Vidya Chatura was educated in Bombay and appointed as a teacher in an English school at Ratnanagari, another native state. He also obtained the post of tutor to the young prince, Maniraj of Ratnanagari. Gunasundari had acquired functional literacy, but as her name suggests, she was endowed with virtues ‘natural’ to women. Vidya Chatura trained and educated his young wife, enabling them to indulge in the pleasures of the mind and thereby avoiding the fate of many couples married in childhood. But just as they begin to experience a ‘conjugality’ driven by circumstances, Vidya Chatura’s relatives come to live with them as dependents. From being a young, joyous wife, Gunasundari has to perforce become a grihini and manage a household of thirteen to fourteen people, all with different needs and personalities.
In this second part, Govardhanram achieves the height of his descriptive powers as a novelist. His minute descriptions of the dynamics of a joint family, his observation of human nature and its strengths and fragilities, his unencumbered prose and his characterisation have made this part most endearing to generations of readers. Govardhanram describes with a touch of humour—otherwise, entirely lacking in his prose—the interpersonal conflicts in the joint family, and pregnant Gunasundari’s constant struggle to keep the family united and each member contented. She and her father-in-law, Manchatura, together succeed in both reforming and rehabilitating all constituent units of the joint family, without breaking the ‘jointness’ of the joint family.
The narrative thus far is a blend of actual and ideal aspects of life. From the third part on, the ideal acquires a distinctive predominance over the actual—a contrast which is immediately recognisable with the first part. Part III, Ratnanagari’s Statecraft (1898), deals with the attempts of an enlightened ruler, along with his feudal chiefs and advisors, to create a responsible polity in times of general decay. Ratnanagari had survived the onslaught of British expansion because of the strength and vision of its rulers. It was governed by the concern for the welfare of all sections of society.
From state and society, Govardhanram moves on to dharma. The fourth part,The Dream-Land of Sarasvatichandra and the Culmination (1901), presents the ideal community of Sundargiri. This community of ascetics leads their life in perfect harmony with nature and her Creator, in accordance with the principles of dharma, under the benevolent gaze of Vishnudas. Their strivings are those of souls wishing to achieve complete non-duality with the Creator.
The love story—the story of Kumud, Sarasvatichandra and Kusum—links Govardhanram’s reflections on state, society and dharma. Kumud, the naturally virtuous daughter of Gunasundari and Vidya Chatura, was engaged at an early age to Sarasvatichandra. Born into great wealth, Sarasvatichandra, as his name suggests, was a scholar and a luminary amongst the intellectuals of Bombay. Ascetic by nature and given to deep reflection on the state of his country, he was greatly enamoured by the natural charm and virtues of Kumud, and they fall in love with each other before marriage. But his insecure, jealous stepmother engineers a misunderstanding between the devoted son and the loving but short-sighted father, which results in Sarasvatichandra leaving home, renouncing not only his family and wealth but also Kumud. Kumud is disconsolate. He decides to live a life of an ‘intellectual vagabond’, travelling to remote parts of the country to experience the living reality of his countrymen.
As an unknown, rootless traveller with an assumed identity, in desperate search for purpose and peace, Sarasvatichandra reaches Suvarnapur. There he is invited to be the guest of Buddhidhan. Kumud’s parents have by then married their uncomplaining daughter to Pramaddhan, the unworthy and debauch son of Buddhidhan. Sarasvatichandra, carrying the burden of his guilt, once again leaves Kumud to her fate, but not before Pramaddhan suspects the tenderness of their relationship. Before he can cause greater misery to Kumud, Sarasvatichandra disappears, and is given up as dead. Through a series of accidents he reaches Sundargiri, where he is celebrated as the heir to Sadhu Vishnudas. Kumud, believed to be drowned in a river, also reaches Sundargiri and lives in the care of sadhvis as an ascetic. Widowed Kumud—though she remains unaware of Pramaddhan’s death for a long time—and Sarasvatichandra suffer greatly because of their mutual love.Vishnudas asks them to spend five nights together in a cave to contemplate their fate. Under divine intervention, they travel to the ‘Land of the Enlightened’ in their dreams where they experience a union of souls and emerge from the cave enlightened and pure. The novel ends with the inauguration of Sarasvatichandra’s project for the regeneration of the country, and a new phase in the lives of Kumud, Kusum and Sarasvatichandra.
The treaty was signed.According to its terms the native states and the Company pledged support to each other in times of aggression. The native states accepted that in event of disputes, either among themselves or with the Company, they would accept the Company’s arbitration and the chief arbitrator would be English. The treaty seemed innocuous. The rulers reasoned that they were not required to share any revenue with the Company, their territories were protected and their autonomy was guaranteed. But young Mallaraj remained unconvinced. He was unable to articulate his reservations and was hesitant to speak his mind before his father. At the conclusion of the treaty everyone rejoiced. But Mallaraj remained depressed. From today our state is under shackles, he lamented. Our kshatriyas have been widowed. Like women we, too, have worn bangles. We cannot wage a war. Just as we protect our women, now the English will protect us. We will have our land and our peace, but we shall be effeminate. Kshatriyahood has died. With such gloomy thoughts Mallaraj ascended the throne. Over time, he saw all the major native states drown in the flood that was the British. He remained neutral during the initial period of Nanasaheb’s rebellion. The entire country was passing though a great churning similar to the mythical churning of the sea. He sought to learn from it. He realised that strength alone could not protect the country; statecraft was equally essential. Statecraft required the cultivation of compassion and forgiveness. He found his countrymen sorely lacking in these qualities, while the Englishmen had them. Mallaraj was disappointed and saddened. Vidya Chatura’s maternal uncle Jarashankar had recently become his advisor. Jarashankar counselled him on the path of prosperity and happiness. He said,‘Maharaj, it is good to be on the side of the powerful and the virtuous. We should win their trust and we should also trust them. Every warrior is fond of his sword, but it cannot for that reason be put into one’s stomach. It is wrong and foolish to support the natives if all they have to offer is the destruction of the country. Even righteous action is contextual. From what you have told me, I feel that the good of all the native states, and not just our state, lies in supporting these wise foreigners. They are compassionate and just. Ultimately, they will triumph. If the Muslims and the Marathas manage to defeat the English, they will turn against each other as soon as the common enemy is removed.Whoever triumphs in that conflict will tyrannise the native states. They are like wolves and jackals.’
Mallaraj looked at him sharply.‘There is little doubt in what you say, Jarashankar. But a brahmin like you will always search for peace, while a kshatriya like me will look for battle. If the English triumph, kshatriya valour will vanish forever. Does that concern you at all?’
‘Then, what? That would be an auspicious day. The people and the native rulers will both be at peace. I have faith in the English sense of justice.’
‘Be careful! The English, too, are human. They, too, have their self-interest. They are like the banias. They will become the undisputed rulers of the country one day. No one can be as bad as an unchecked bania!’
‘Maharaj, that may be so. But what option do we have? If the kshatriyas could unite, why would those seeking to drive out the British be called rebels? If we do not suffer from an incurable disease, the God of Death will not come knocking on our door.’
‘Do you really think that we kshatriyas have become utterly useless?’ asked Mallaraj with his hand on Jarashankar’s shoulder, his eyes burning red with anger.
The brahmin laughed. ‘Maharaj, if all kshatriyas were like you, they would not be considered useless. Among the Kauravas, there was Bhishma. But who remembers him today? There will be few like you. No matter whether the English win or lose, we shall see what the future has in store for us.’
‘What will happen?’
‘Maharaj, do you not see that many queens have taken up with banias and brahmins? Do you know how many queens have adopted the son of a cobbler or a miller as their prince? One of these robbers will become an emperor. He will either be a Muslim or a Marathi brahmin who are not faithful even to their masters.A time will come when persons of mixed and impure blood will ascend the thrones and pure, blue-blooded kshatriyas will be shamed into hiding.’
‘What will happen if the English win?’
‘It is better to have a wise enemy rather than a foolish friend. Maharaj, Ravana told the demon Marich that he should assume the form of a golden deer and be killed by Ram, failing which Ravana himself would kill him. Marich thought that if death were certain, it was better to die at the hands of Ram.’
Mallaraj took his sword and left the room. But he returned promptly, and this time his face betrayed a new resolve. He said, ‘Jarashankar, write a letter to Brave Sahib and inform him that Mallaraj and his army are ready to defend the Company.’
Jarashankar cautioned, ‘Maharaj, I think like a brahmin. You have decided to act upon my advice. But you should also consider it independently. Do not blame me later on.’
Mallaraj smiled and replied,‘Those who are in my employment should be ready to hear an assessment of both their qualities and shortcomings.’
‘I do not deny that, Maharaj. But it is my duty to caution you as the implications of my advice will be felt by you and the entire state.’
‘That is correct. The decision I have taken is not without attendant dangers. The English are like the banias. They will want to convert the Rajputs and make them into banias. The Rajputs will not be able to conduct themselves like banias and they will ultimately lose the game. But if our people emerge victorious, it would amount to placing an infant in the care of monkeys—the English will ill-treat all those who are weak.’
‘Maharaj, my understanding is somewhat simplistic. The English are like rats. They will bite and soothe and thus corrode us, while our natives will pounce on us like a pack of wolves and decimate us.’
‘In that case, we are not mistaken, Jarashankar. The English appear to be the lesser of the two evils.We should deal with them.We should remember, however, that the English are not sugary sweet but hot and pungent as pepper.’
Jarashankar got up to write the letter. He said to himself, Oh, how times have changed! The English will rule over the land of Rajputs! But my advice was appropriate. I acted according to the principles of statecraft. For,
What can a spirited man, though strong, do if without a helper (allies)? Fire, kindled in a place where there is no wind, is extinguished of itself.1
Likewise, the good king Mallaraj is helpless. If these robbers were to take control of the state, how long would they remain friends of anyone?
The comfort of clouds, the friendship of the vile, cooked food, women, youth and riches are capable of being enjoyed for a short period. Those who can distinguish between what is permanent and what is short-lived [are] hence able to take proper view of things.2
And what if they were to become the rulers, what would Ratnanagari be reduced to?