The great nineteenth century Gujarati classic, Goverdhanram Tripathi's four-volume Saraswatichandra, is known outside Gujarat more through the well-known 1968 feature film starring Nutan, and the TV serial. Its first volume is now available in English for the first time, translated by the prominent Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud; the three other volumes will be published over the next year-and-a-half.

The 1,700-page novel is known more for its love story between the protagonist Saraswatichandra and Kumud, which fails to materialise, culminating in his marriage to her younger sister Kusum after his marriage with the widowed Kumud became impossible. But as Suhrud says in the introduction to the first volume, “The readings which privileged one story – the story of Kumud, Saraswatichandra and Kusum – as the principal theme and consider all other themes as unnecessary diversions do not allow the appreciation of the complete text.”

Writing over a 14-year period starting 1885, says Suhrud, “Govardhanram captures the predicament of his society – both the advocates of change and those who wish to give 'eternal rigidity to the present'.” Set against the backdrop of the “expanding influence of the British in the affairs of the native states”, it depicts a polity based on personal interests, plagued by the widespread erosion of morals and values, the state of the Hindu joint family, and the dilemma posed by widow remarriage. Excepts from an interview with Suhrud on the translation.

What made you translate this novel?
I translated it because for 128 years we in Gujarat had not done so. It is the most important literary work in the Gujarati language and if the best is not shared with the world, it suggests a deficiency. I agree with Manubhai Pancholi "Darshak" that "in the great celebration that is India, Gujarat has two gifts to offer: Mahatma Gandhi, and the jewel among books Sarasvatichandra. Also, I have been writing about Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi (GMT) since 1994, and I felt that I had acquired the ability to attempt a translation.

What exactly inspired you? Was it a desire to show the real Gujarat, about which little is known outside the state except that it is home to an enterprising community?
No inspiration of that kind. I enjoyed the challenges that a novel of this size and complexity poses for a translator. It is among the longest novels of modern India. As you know I am generally unemployed (and increasingly unemployable), and time was not a factor for me, it has never been. I was quite willing to spend 8-9 years working on the project (alongside other projects – I published five other books in this period) before it was ready for publication. And having worked on a non-fiction book – Narayan Desai's My Life is My Message, in four parts and running to over 2,000 pages – I wished to attempt translating a large work of fiction.

How would you rate Govardhanram Tripathi? Was he a pioneering novelist?
GMT was a pioneering novelist not only in Gujarati but also of India. He ranks among the most accomplished literary figures of all times in modern India, and I would place him alongside Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Not many recognise this as, in the absence of a translation (not even in Hindi) of the novel, such judgements become difficult. Kavi Nanhalal wrote that GMT's novel could be compared with the works of Goethe and Victor Hugo.

What are the differences between today’s Gujarati and the Gujarati of that period?
The Gujarati language used by GMT is very different from the language of today. It is highly Sanskrit-based.

Did you face problems in translating because of this?
The challenges were because of my own limitations. The novel has large chunks of Sanskrit quotations, and equally large sections of English Romantic Poetry. I had to educate myself in these while attempting the translation. If anything, I will be a more literate person when I emerge from this process in the next year or so.

Did Gandhiji say anything about the novel?
Gandhi did read the novel carefully and wrote: "To the first part he gave all his art. The novel is imbued with aesthetic delight; the characterisation is matchless. The second part depicts Hindu society, his art went deeper in the third part, and he gave all that he wished to give to the world in the fourth part."

How have the world and India viewed Saraswatichandra till now? Has it been merely as a Nutan film and a recent soap opera?
We do not know what the world thought as there was no translation. The film treats the novel as a love story and not as a complex narrative. The recent TV serial is an adaptation, and makes an attempt to create something contemporary.

What does this novel seek to convey?
The novel is significant as a historic document, but also as a purveyor of role models we created and continue to create. A hero who is willing to sacrifice all to serve the country. Sounds familiar? A hero who is idealistic and yet practical, a very Gujarati ideal. A belief that organised religion is necessarily beneficial for society.

What is its contemporary relevance, apart from its historical value of a society that existed in the second half of the nineteenth century?
We have changed in the last century but some of our cultural assumptions may not have changed as much as we think they have. Sarasvatichandra gives us ways in which to think about our society because we need to think about the nature of power, changing family structures and the role of religion and about love.