Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi (1855- 1907) wrote and published four parts of his novel Sarasvatichandra between 1887 and 1901. For over a century it has remained a canonical text of Gujarati literature, unmatched in popularity and influence. Govardhanram chose the novel form not for its aesthetic possibilities but because it allowed shaping the minds of his people. Govardhanram’s creative self was predicated upon his project of mediating civilizational forces to shape the future of his people. His creative impulse was tempered and guided by ‘the philosophy of consumption’. Those, according to Govardhanram, who consume themselves for the good of the society have virtue and are righteous. Consumption was dharma for him. The novel explores the ideas of family, society, state and religion through the ideals of consumption. A story of love and longing between the hero Sarasvatichandra and the heroine Kumud link these reflections.
The novel ends with the marriage of Sarasvatichandra with Kusum, younger sister of Kumud. Kumud, a widow becomes an ascetic, while Sarasvatichandra and Kusum dedicate themselves to the regene- ration of society through their project of Kalyangram (a community dedicated to the welfare of people). For over a century now the intertwined fates of Sarasvatichandra, Kumud, Kusum and Kalyangram have been the subject of speculation and debate. Attempts to write a sequel to the original were also made by lesser known writers. Govardhanram resisted attempts to draw him into the speculative debates.
In 1902 Govardhanram wrote a three act play, Kshemraj ane Sadhvi. This play was written on the request of his landlord Chottalal Mulchand who owned a theatre company in Mumbai. Govardhanram had hoped to receive some money for his efforts, at least enough for him to pay for the treatment of his ailing daughter Lilavati. The play was rejected by the theatre company. Meanwhile Lilavati died. The play was neither performed nor published. For one hundred years, till its eventual publication in 2002, the text remained unexplored.
The play is significant because it provides pointers towards understanding two questions. First, what was the fate of Sarasvatichandra, Kumud, Kusum and Kalyangram? Two, what happened to Govardhanram’s creative self after the completion of the novel and almost simultaneous death of Lilavati? The play centres around the debates of reform movement in Gujarat. ‘West’ (Vilayat) as a cultural presence and as a sign was crucial to this debate. It provided to some the possibility of reform, of progress, of cultural and religious regeneration, while to others it symbolized the breakdown of traditional normative structures. Govardhan-ram posited Kalyangram as a sign to counter the West. Kalyangram has come to symbolize for the people of Gujarat possibilities of a new vitalizing force, of reform on native lines. It is by the interplay of these two signs that Govardhanram created the play. Kshemraj, a son of a wealthy merchant of Mumbai sees the West as a liberating force. It would liberate him from his father, from a marriage with Sadhvi, it would open doors to restaurants and ballroom dancing with society women. The West enters his life as English language, as ‘English Ornamental Furniture’, as framed photographs of English ladies and as romantic love. This displaces Sadhvi, her Tulsi, and her Shrinathji.
Sarasvatichandra, Kumud, Kusum and Kalyangram enter the play as an alternative to the West as desired by Kshemraj. Kusum though married to Sarasvatichandra aspires to the life of an ascetic. Kumud, the widowed ascetic has to persuade Kusum to be a grihini. Unlike the novel Sarasvatichandra is a distant, almost shadowy figure in the play. He engages neither with the women in his life nor with his dream Kalyangram. In the play he is more of a sign than a character. He has to represent nobility, virtue and wisdom. Even as a sign he is empty, bereft of resonance. Kalyangram appears only as a notion. But it is a soulless organizational structure. Sarasvatichandra fears the world of Kshemraj with its temptations. It is a fear of corruption, of pollution. He is no longer the passionate, ‘ graduate hero’ of the novel. Neither he nor Kalyangram can there-fore contain Kshemraj and his desires. The burden falls on Kusum and it is through her tempering influence that Kshemraj is finally reformed.
As a play Kshemraj ane Sadhvi fails to move a reader. Govardhanram was aware of its limitations. In a note dated 11. 7. 1902 he wrote, “ Devoid of energy and with troubled mind I wrote this play somehow…. I had not written this play for publication, friends suggested that it is not worthy of publication, I agree with them and hence I am not publishing it.” The failure of the play is indicative of a much deeper crisis of creativity for Govardhanram. The death of his daughter Lilavati had shattered him completely. He had trained Lilavati to lead a life of virtue and consumption. Lilavati according to Govardhanram had become the perfect embodiment of the consumptive virtue. She ‘consumed’ her self through self-inflicted privations. She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-one. Govardhanram wrote in her obituary, “ I produced a thesis, you sacrificed your life to prove it right.” Govardhanram felt that it was virtue as taught by him, which had killed his daughter. He had a feeling of having sinned. To mark her memory he wrote a moving account of her life, Lilavati Jivankala. He asked himself, “My daughter Lilavati suffered because of high virtues and would have fared better if she had not got those virtues! Is it right to teach these virtues to our daughters? … Is a parent right in educating his children in this way at their cost? I fear that the question must be answered in the affirmative for people like myself; my children, like their father and mother, have been educated in the virtues irrespective of consequences.” Having affirmed it, deep doubts remained within his mind about the ‘philosophy of consumption’. It could no longer anchor him, guide him. Govardhanram till his death in 1907 could not create any literary work of lasting significance, save the biography of Lilavati.
Tridip Suhrud teaches at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Communication, Ahmedabad.