KM Munshi’s Patanni Prabhuta came out in 1916 as the first volume of an epic trilogy based on the trials and tribulations of the Chalukya dynasty, a series that Gujaratis have grown up on and swear by. Lawyer-politician and novelist Munshi was a close associate of Gandhi and later a member of the Rajya Sabha, as well as governor of UP. He founded the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and is the originator of the phrase “Gujarati asmita”—asmita means personality/individuality in Sanskrit, but its more popular interpretation by Munshi was ‘pride’ and this has, over time, come to be interpreted by Gujaratis as an essentially exclusivist, traditionalist, upper-class/caste Hindu identity.
The current translation, The Glory of Patan by Rita and Abhijit Kothari, may be 100 years late, but its arrival couldn’t have been better-timed. It’s curious, this lack of interest in translations of the great works in Gujarati. The translation of the first part of the four-volume Saraswatichandra (by Gujarat’s literary giant Govardhanram Tripathi) came out 128 years later in 2015 and was done by eminent Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud.
The reason why the timing is crucial is because the rising wave of nationalist fervour in the country may have started off in Gujarat and the rest of the nation is expected to adopt this fervour, as well as the state’s much-publicised political and economic vibrancy during the current regime. In this backdrop, a novel that tells the story of Gujarat’s lost glory and tries to rebuild Gujarati pride on (sometimes, imagined) pre-Muslim history lends a valuable insight into the psyche of these wave-builders.
The best part of the book is the excellent scholarly analysis (in the introduction by the translators) of the gradual evolution of Munshi as a writer, as well as of his political ideology. Munshi came into his own as a historical novelist, a role where he could give full play to his passion for romance and drama, and his regional and nationalist zeal. Later, that zeal turned into worship—a “full-fledged embracing of ancient institutions”.
There really isn’t much else in The Glory of Patan. A small town in Gujarat, now famous only for its posh Patola saris, Patan was once the seat of the Chalukya dynasty, “the last act in the glorious play of Gurjaradesha” before the Mughals (Gujarat was conquered by Allauddin Khilji’s generals around 1297). The novel begins in a state of void, as a ruler lies on his deathbed, creating the perfect backdrop for intrigues, conspiracies and caste/religious battles among the various contenders for power. Patan is shown as an inspiration, the motherland to be defended and saved, and it’s that passion that ultimately leads to an end to strife and a consensus. In all this, fiction blends cleverly with fact, as some of the key characters never belonged to history.
The main peace broker and the brain behind the empire is, however, a bania—minister Munjal Mehta, a legendary character among Gujaratis. To refer to his style of administration, the translators say, among Gujarat’s politicians “is a synoptic reference to a person who is astute, hawklike and one who is willing to deploy all that is necessary in order to govern.” Despite the attempt to show a shrewd and scheming person, it’s clear that Munshi had created this character with utmost importance and kindness. Many contend that Munshi created Mehta in his own image, a Brahmin.
The translators also tell us that Munshi’s male protagonists “are strong men, almost in the Nietzschean sense” with no sympathy for weakness. Yet strangely, all the three strong male characters in the novel, except for the Jain warrior monk continually frustrated in his frantic attempts to create a Jain empire, allow their lives to be ruled by the love of their lives, often forbidden or unrealised.
And that’s the lasting impression of the novel for me: a romance set in a historical background. It’s skillfully plotted and written, and some incidents are so well-depicted that one itches to convert it into a film script. But that, sadly, is about all I can say. There is no attempt by Munshi to create an atmosphere or even a description of Patan that supports the acclaimed glory. We know that the city is in Gujarat, but it could well be anywhere else in India. Nor are there any timeless observations or eternal truths that would have raised the novel above others in its genre.
One comment for the translators: in several places, I found the translation to be too faithful to the original, awkwardly reflecting Munshi’s pedantic writing style. For instance, “a mere day had witnessed the mischief in her eyes, the spring in her step and her optimistic disposition disappear” could very well be translated as “in just one day, the mischief in her eyes etc… had vanished.” Similarly mawkish is “sometime later, when Munjal passed by, his mind was at peace.” And these sentences are not few. They just make the reader stumble in an otherwise racy novel.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer