Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi (1887–1971) coined the term “asmita” for Gujarat – a concept much known, circulated and hotly debated in certain circles today. Asmita translates as “glory” or “pride” – meaning much more and, on some days, much less, when reduced to an exclusivist, upper-class, upper-caste, Gujarati-Hindu identity. Munshi lives on through the expansions and limits of this term. However, he also lives on through his highly successful fiction that continues to run into reprints.

In his time too, his novels were bestsellers, firing the imagination of the public as it waited hungrily for the next instalment, wanting to be part of this never-ending feat of storytelling. Munshi was an unusual combination – he wrote racy page-turners along with highly serious pieces on history, culture and politics. He also held important public positions. Readers of his time took both the man and his writings seriously. The historical backdrop of his bestselling romances made its way through the fast-moving plots into the readers’ minds as the real and original picture of Gujarat.

Characters from Munshi’s novels, particularly the Patan trilogy – comprising Patanni Prabhuta (The Glory of Patan), 1916; Gujarat no Nath (The Lord and Master of Gujarat), 1917; and Rajadhiraj (The King of Kings), 1922 – have a metaphoric and allusive charge to them, used by the literati and politicians to extol or diminish individuals. Except for those under the age of twenty, few can miss the allusions even today.

To refer to Munshi’s famous protagonist Munjal Mehta’s style of administration among Gujarat’s politicians is a synoptic reference to a person who is astute, hawklike and willing to deploy all that is necessary in order to govern. The ideological commitments of such a person justify the means used to achieve the end. All this operates at an associational level, and the script is clear to someone attuned to the language of tacit references.

Generally speaking, Munshi’s penchant for history writing was, in some sense, an outcome of the intellectual life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in India.

In Gujarat in particular, Riho Isaka’s scholarship draws attention to the intertwining of regional history and identity by the intellectuals of the time. She alerts us to the fact that these were attempts by some sections of the population in Gujarat and the larger Bombay region to present alternative notions of history and identity, which differed from the dominant colonial discourse; although these alternative discourses were not fully independent of the dominant discourse. As such, Munshi’s interest in history dates back to his days in college – as evidenced in his article “Gujarat: The Grave of Vanished Empires” for his college magazine, followed by another publication (which would be significant in more ways than one in later years), “The Conquest of Somnath”.

The impetus to undertake the onerous task of re-establishing the dying glory of Gujarat came to Munshi through his acquaintance with the writer Ranjitram. Munshi was his cultural heir and, by committing himself to reawaken the pride of Gujarat, he turned to the pre-Muslim rule of the Chalukyas in Gujarat. At one level, this resulted in his historical romances, of which the Patan trilogy is his crowning glory. At another level, it also led to an articulation of the imagination of a single united and greater Gurjaradesha. This was first expressed in his essay “Gujarat ni Asmita” in 1922. This notion permeated Munshi’s fictional works as well as his subsequent writings.

Although Munshi’s interest in history dated back to his college days, his more serious engagement with the subject began with the research that he did for writing the Patan trilogy, and it continued for the rest of his life. He finally published the book The Imperial Gurjaras in 1944 (more than twenty years after the Patan trilogy), which was subsequently published in Gujarati as Chakravarti Gurjaro in 1966. As Munshi states in the introduction of the book, the origins of the work lay in his writing of the history of the Chalukyas. When he wrote the trilogy, he firmly believed that the Chalukyas represented the zenith of the civilisation of “Gujarat”. He submits that he has had to revise this opinion as a result of subsequent research; that in reality, the Chalukya reign was “but the last act in the glorious play of Gurjaradesha”.

According to Munshi, the early history of Gujarat was written by Alexander Forbes, who relied on Jain writings as well as stories of bards collected by Dalpatram. These were largely centred on the Chavdas and Chalukyas. The Chalukya kings were the only rulers who gave Shwetambar Jain monks an important place in their kingdom, and therefore, for these monks, the Chalukyas could do no wrong. For the history of Gujarat after 1200 CE, historians have relied on poets and historians of the Muslim court in Delhi and some Muslim travellers. These histories, according to Munshi, were often tainted by the need to glorify the ruler or present him as a “protector of Islam”, attributing religious motives to what was probably a military or political act. For Munshi, it was crucial that historians refer to Hindu sources and local sources to get a proper understanding of history.

As a result of his historical research, Munshi came to the conclusion that Gurjaradesha was a region that dates back to the very ancient times.

It could be said to have come into its own around 550 CE; its fall began from the conquest of Qutub-ud-din Aibak, and Alauddin Khilji’s raid in the fourteenth century spelt its end. Gurjaradesha was a rather large portion of northern India, having as its centre the region around modern-day Mount Abu and Bhinmal. The boundaries of this region varied during different times in history.

The kings of Gurjaradesha belonged to different dynasties and ruled from different capital cities. The commonality was the fact that they belonged to the Kshatriya group that had its origins in the area around Mount Abu. According to Munshi, this group of Kshatriyas had a shared set of traditions or practices – political, social and cultural. These people described by Huan Tsang in 541 CE were “one in terms of culture”. Their language was Gaurjari Apabhramsa. Their descendants are to be seen today in Rajputana, Gujarat and Malwa.

This “common set of traditions and practices”, as well as a “sense of continuity” – which, to Munshi, seems almost self- evident – do not seem to be so clear at all if one examines the historical citations in the book. Perhaps this is where Munshi lets his subjectivity creep in, since, in his disclaimer at the very beginning of the introduction, he states that he is not a trained historian.

Munshi’s references to Gurjaradesha, Aryavarta and Bharatvarsh, as well as the ambiguity of the word “desh”, make it unclear as to what his notions of kingdom, state and nation are. It is difficult to say with confidence whether or not there was a nation-building agenda (in the modern sense) behind the trilogy. There is undoubtedly a strong notion of building and sustaining a powerful kingdom, and the philosophy of statecraft to achieve this is clearly outlined and remains consistent.

The aforementioned consistency notwithstanding, we believe that Munshi eludes an easy summarisation on other occasions. For instance, despite conceding to the shifting and changing cultural and territorial boundaries at one point, Munshi could talk of the stability of the Gujarati language without taking other instabilities into account. He mentions:

“Like other units of India distinguished by the dominance of a single individual, Gujarat had an independent social and cultural entity from the earliest times. Each of such provinces possesses a common stock of traditions and values and social outlook which was set working by the early Aryans in India and which developed during the course of history peculiar to itself. All of them have employed and do employ now the structure, wealth and tradition of Sanskrit for their fuller literary expression. They all throb with common ideals and cherish a common will.”

Were such cleavages intentional or merely the result of slips of ideological motivation that obfuscated the writer’s own claims made elsewhere?

Be that as it may, in this introduction we can only provide some examples that give nuance to Munshi and suggest that the person behind the trilogy was not unidimensional. In doing so, we neither deny his ideological positions nor do we overstate them as the only truth about him. For instance, on 26 May 1941, Munshi, in a state of anguish, wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi. Apologising for his use of English, he provided the context of two decisions announced by Gandhi the previous day. The first referred to “Those [Congressmen] who favour non-violent resistance [by way of self-defence] must set out of the Congress and shape their conduct just as they think fit and guide others accordingly.” Second, “A Congressman may not directly or indirectly associate himself with gymnasiums where training in violent resistance is given.”

As someone associated with gymnasiums or akharas for over a decade, and also one to see the imminent possibility of war and the dangers it posed to India’s frontiers, Munshi was clearly a Congressman who did not fully subscribe to Gandhi’s unequivocal definition of non-violence. Admitting his difference from Gandhi, Munshi sought direction in words that were humble, self-reflective and firm. The correspondence that followed between Munshi and Gandhi eventually led to Munshi’s resignation from the Congress, but the parting of ways ended on a dignified note.

The political scientist Manu Bhagavan dubs Munshi as a Hindu nationalist ideologue who preferred to work strategically from within the Congress, but also maintained active and continuous links with Hindu nationalist groups. The double-sidedness or bricolage (a label depending upon how we choose to see this) may be open to interpretation. It is for us to see how it is manifest even in the nature of his oeuvre, so that the year I Follow the Mahatma (1940) appeared was also the year Jay Somnath was published.

Similar ambivalence can be seen in another, equally fundamental, tenet of Munshi’s ideological world to which the historian Ajay Skaria draws attention. Skaria notes how, despite a lifelong emphasis on asmita, Munshi remained distant from Gujarat’s campaign for a linguistic state, known as the Mahagujarat movement.

The Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud rightly notes that Gujarat’s cultural self-image has been formed by Munshi, and that it has abdicated both Gandhi and Govardhanram Tripathi in the process. Elsewhere, he attributes the absence of Tripathi’s English translation of Saraswatichandra to this fact. In his words:

“The advent of Gandhi in the political culture of Gujarat was accompanied by the emergence of KM Munshi, whose cultural vision was quite contrary to both Gandhi and Govardhanram Tripathi. This cultural vision which Gujarat made its own is fantastic. It is based in an imaginary past and seeks to create a cultural identity based on the imaginary notions of past glory, signified by the word ‘Asmita’, a word that captured the political imagination of Gujarat in the late 1980s. Munshi’s world is feudal, non-democratic. Since it is based neither in the present nor in the past it makes no demands on ordinary persons. It has no agency for the everyday person, modern or otherwise. Gujarat’s cultural sense is formed neither by Govardhanram nor by Gandhi but by KM Munshi. Not to translate Saraswatichandra was a cultural choice that Gujarati literary culture made as it had come to be shaped in a fundamental way by a different consciousness.”

Interestingly, though, Munshi also remains largely untranslated into English, his popularity and reputation notwithstanding. The explanation may lie in reasons beyond the scope of this introduction. However, we hope that this trilogy in English is as good a start as any.

Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction” by Rita Kothari and Abhijit Kothari to The Lord and Master of Gujarat, KM Munshi, translated from the Gujarati by Rita Kothari and Abhijit Kothari, Penguin India.