Great books are often profound responses to their times. “Profound” is the operative word here. So let us neither dismiss nor over-estimate responses of myriad kinds, ranging from the flippant to the quasi-serious. From the state of Gujarat in the nineteenth century, one such profound response was made by Govardhanram Tripathi (1855-1907). He spent fifteen years writing all the four volumes of Saraswatichandra, named after its chief protagonist. Readers of Gujarati literature consider this novel to be the most mature culmination of literary and cultural history of its time.

In the course of working on and translating KM Munshi’s fiction, I realised how monumental this influence was for Gujarat’s literati; and how a young and flamboyant Munshi rebelled against this influence. It’s a different matter that today, fewer, if any, readers have the patience to read all the four volumes. It is also a different matter that eventually Munshi surpassed Tripathi’s popularity, setting Gujarat off in a different direction.

Of originals and versions

Tripathi was animated by an inquiry into a “nation,” and the fitness of intellectuals to weather the storms of civilisation. The chief protagonist Saraswatichandra’s love for Kumud runs as neither subservient to nor dominating his commitment to do the right thing for his society. However, the pulls came not only from different directions, but also represented different definitions of the society he lived in.

We know that the nineteenth century is arguably one of the most fecund periods for studying Indian modernity. Saraswatichandra the person is a distinctive, elite, upper-caste product of this period – well-versed in languages and books, and also torn between familial tensions and romantic love. The suspicions that new forms of couplehood evoke in the nineteenth century have their resonances even today. For Saraswatichandra, they are unbearable, and he prefers to leave Kumud rather than brave the assaults on his integrity. His picaresque journey from that point on constitutes the bulk of the novel, juxtaposed with administrative life in the two native states of Suvarnapur and Ratnagiri.

A new version of the novel Saraswatichandra retold by Sameer Acharya has just appeared. Acharya is based in Los Angeles and has a degree in political science and public policy. It is clear that this novel has been an important part of stories he heard and that, through intergenerational connections, Tripathi has remained alive in him.

The need to share this classic in an accessible language is therefore understandable. His effort to re-tell the story with fewer digressions, and to make it simple and sweet is evident in the length of the novel, that has gone from 2000 pages to 284 pages. As a result, it is shorn of metaphors, ruminations, detailing of a joint family, or struggles of native states to remain ethical in nineteenth century Gujarat. Fair enough. There’s only so much an abridged version can do. And this one is both abridged and retold.

In the former you cannot add instances, though in the latter you could, especially in traditions of storytelling. Additionally, it is meant for a modern readership, which seems to need the meanings of “Namaste” and “Bhabhi”. So we are not talking here of the modern/contemporary Indian readers whom you and I represent.

Putting in, taking out

What does this project have to say to the previous avatars of Saraswatichandra? Over the years, the novel has seen several adaptations, from film, through a TV serial, to this particular retelling. In the interm, Tridip Suhrud has translated, to much acclaim, all the volumes into English. I am providing below fragments from Acharya’s and Suhrud’s versions to suggest an inquiry into what the limits and measures of retelling can be, and also ask what kind of readerships are implied in these projects.

The opening chapter of Saraswatichandra (Part I), “Survarnapur No Atithi”, employs a fantastic device of introducing the character, one among many, brought alive visually from a hazy appearance to a gradual distinctness. It begins with a verse in Gujarati from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller – a cue to Saraswati’s own predicament as a traveller, not to mention the literary influences that establish his own and Tripathi’s colonial modernity. We go on to see what knowing English and being spiritual, or social, meant for a certain generation.

Acharya did not feel the need for this verse. Perhaps it would have seemed archaic to his modern readers. Moving on, Acharya inserts a line that does not exist in Tripathi’s Gujarati or Suhrud’s English text. It’s intriguing, and I am unable to find an explanation, for surely this has nothing to do with being a modern reader?

From Tridip Suhrud’s translation

Suvarnapur is situated where the river Bhadra meets the Arabian Sea. It is spread out on the slope of a hill cradles by the sea with riverine hands like a child held at the waist. In the month of Magha, a vessel laid anchor in the harbor of this town. Small and large boats went up to the vessel to unload its cargo and passengers. Some merchants climbed onto one such boat. A young man got off with them and sat on the side of the boat, as if concealing himself.”

From Sameer Acharya’s “retold” version

“The city of Suvarnapur was located on the western side of the modern-day Indian state of Gujarat, where the Bhadra river meets the ocean. The port, which looked like a child cradled in the arms of the sea, welcomed a large number of ships every days to its shores. Some of the larger ships transported hundreds of Muslims to and from Mecca during the annual pilgrimage.” (Emphasis added.)

As we continue within the same chapter, an interesting exchange takes place between the priest and Saraswatichandra. Caste is embedded in this exchange, with the priest asking several questions, including “Tame keni paase thee aavya?” (Which family do you hail from?). Saraswatichandra makes up a name and mentions that he is a Brahmin. He adds later that he wouldn’t mind were the priest to count him in while cooking for himself. The Gujarati words: “Mare rasoi tamara bhega kari naaksho to mane baadh nathi.” The priest hears the words “baadh nathi” or “I have no objection” and caste matters are settled. Acharya has chosen not to include this dimension. Keeping it lean and mean may have its virtues, but why insert something and remove something, why play with the context?

Which one should we read?

What might be the difference between retelling, translating, and adapting? Is it even possible to segregate these acts and name them in mutually exclusive ways? My memory of Saraswatichandra was first formed by the Hindi film adaptation in 1968, which in turn was made from a Gujarati film. The title song introduces the story to the spectator as one that took place a hundred years ago, when a “tyaagmurti baalak” (a child who was like a paragon of sacrifice) was incarnated. He was deprived of his mother, and tortured by his stepmother, and yet he was drawn to the poor and the downtrodden.

The socialist imagery of the film, such as Saraswatichandra helping an old woman, or putting a shawl around an old man, formed a seamless continuity with Tripathi’s higher idealism. Although the film did not claim to “based” on, but, rather, “inspired” by the novel, it moved closer to the spirit of the character who stood at the cusp of tradition and modernity. The television series made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali was tacky and shallow, and got neither the philosophy nor the costumes right.

However, if you have always known of this novel, and meant to read one of “these” days (which gets pushed towards infinite time), Acharya does a remarkable job of abridging it, of familiarising you with it. It is a better introduction than Sanjay Leela Bansali’s television rendering, but devoid of the lyricism of the film, or of the meticulous effort of the English translation by Suhrud. That’s the one you should read if you are a nineteenth century scholar of India, or are in pursuit of classics as produced and received in their own times and on their own terms.

Saraswatichandra, by Govardhanram Tripathi, retold by Sameer Acharya, HarperCollins India.