When one stepped out of the Fort of Bombay, well-worn footpaths led to the Washerman’s Tank or Dhobi Talao located at the verge of the Esplanade, an open ground created by forcefully relocating entire neighbourhoods to get a clear line of fire. Created in 1770s, a “Native Town” located “without the Fort” came into being.

Leading into the heart of the Native Town from Dhobi Talao, the Kalbadevi Road snaked its way due north through Wadi country – passing by Bhang Wadi, Gai Wadi, Vithal Wadi and many others – before it veered east and petered out at a junction where three densely populated Bombay neighbourhoods melded into each other: Pydhonie with its prominent Jain derasars, Mandvi with its mohallas and masjids, and Bhuleshwar, famous for its numerous Hindu temples. From this junction, a narrow lane named Kika Street wended its way across Bhuleshwar to the Cowasjee Patell Tank.

The city has been renewed numerous times in the last century and a half, but much has survived in this erstwhile suburb of Bombay. Now located in the heart of the inner city, many of the temples and mosques in and around Bhuleshwar still retain their original garb. The tanks have long been filled up but their names are current. A mix of small industry, markets, and residences, Kika Street continues to buzz with economic activity as it did 170 years ago.

Kika Street today | Image credit: Ganesh Raghuveer

A Bombay boy

It was on Kika Street in Bhuleshwar that Narayan Hemchandra was born on 10 June 1854. Narayan was an original Bombay boy, a rarity in the 1850s when the city’s population consisted mainly of migrants. His father, Hemchandra, trained in practical engineering and mechanics, had prospered from the many opportunities then available in Bombay for those with technical skills.

By the mid-1850s, Hemchandra had his own workshop and could aspire to belong to the upper echelons of Bombay society. Narayan had a comfortable childhood but when both his father and grandfather died within a month of each other in 1866, life turned topsy-turvy.

He became an orphan when his mother died two years later. Though he lived with an extended family of uncles and aunts, Narayan Hemchandra was on his own from the age of fourteen.

Narayan was admitted to the best schools in the neighbourhood, including the Framjee Nusserwanjee Patell Anglo-Vernacular School at Khetwadi, but he was never one for traditional schooling. He preferred to play truant and loiter in the streets of Bombay, observing tradesmen at work: the casting of brass vessels, the hammering of copper utensils, goldsmiths drawing gold filaments, or a cobbler working with leather.

Convinced that he had inherited engineering genes from his father, he tried his hand at a variety of jobs – lathe operator at the Great Indian Peninsular Railway workshop at Byculla, fitter at the Gun Carriage Factory, watch-repairer at a friend’s shop – but never lasted more than a few months.

At about this time, Narayan had begun to read books other than his schoolbooks. As he recalls in 1900, Narayan fortuitously came upon a treasure trove of books just then:

“My maternal uncle who worked as an English Clerk in the office of Dhanjibhai Framji was presented a set of nearly 200 Gujarati books by his employer. When I saw them neatly stacked in a cupboard, I borrowed them one at a time from my cousin brother. Though they had all been written by Parsis, the books contained information on subjects which have still not been tackled by current writers who claim to write in pure Gujarati. I first read Dosabhai Framji Karaka’s Travels to Great Britain [1861] and all the volumes of Vidya Sagur, a Gujarati magazine conducted by Nowrozjee Furdoonjee [1840–46], and then all the issues of Juggut Premi [1851-54] edited by Sorabjee Shapurjee Bengalee. These magazines tackled topics which have still not been considered by our journals and the immense knowledge that I acquired by reading them cannot be described.”

The innumerable meetings in the city also attracted the inquisitive Narayan. On Sundays he would be at the Satyashodak Sabha organised by students in Pydhonie, while on Wednesdays he would be at the Framjee Cawasjee Institute in Dhobi Talao, where professors would deliver public lectures under the auspices of the Gujarati Dnyanaprasarak Sabha. He could also be seen at the Khoja Meeting Hall at Mandvi or at the Buddhiwardhak Sabha in Bhuleshwar.

The overarching theme of these lectures was dnyan or knowledge, which was in short supply in local languages. However, it was his attendance at the meetings of the Prarthana Samaj in Girgaum which gave Narayan’s life an unexpected direction.

The Prarthana Samaj had been founded in 1867 to reform and reinvigorate the Hindu religion. It did not approve of idol worship and promoted the concept of one god. Narayan’s youth and enthusiasm caught the eye of many of the leading members of the Samaj.

This also brought him into close contact with several of the leading social reformers of India who visited Bombay, including Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) who founded the Arya Samaj, and Nabin Chunder Roy (1837-1890) who established the Brahmo Samaj in Lahore. Both of them aspired to become his mentors. After a stint as an employee of the Arya Samaj, he became a constant companion of Roy’s while participating in the activities of the Brahmo Samaj.

Of no fixed address

At the age of twenty, Narayan Hemchandra left Bombay in October 1874 in the company of Nabin Chunder Roy. For the next fifteen years, he was constantly on the move, never staying at any place for more than a few months at a time. He stayed in Lahore where he helped Roy in the activities of the Brahmo Samaj, occasionally acting as a preacher.

During his time in Lahore, Narayan was able to learn Bengali and Hindi/Urdu. He travelled all across North and Central India and was in Delhi in 1877 when the Delhi Durbar was held to mark the accession of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India. While on his way to Sri Lanka, which he never reached, he observed the proceedings of the third Indian National Congress at Madras.

He also assisted in the setting up of Brahmagaon, an ideal spiritual village near Ratlam in Central India. A lover of nature, Narayan was particularly captivated by the beauty of the Himalayas. He once attempted to reach China by crossing Tibet on foot, but was hauled into prison by the authorities in Simla for not having the requisite passport.

When he briefly returned to Bombay in 1881 after an absence of seven years, he could barely recognise the city. The Esplanade had almost vanished; a series of monumental buildings – the High Court, the University Library and Convocation Hall, and the Secretariat – had been erected on it. Large textile mills had sprung up in areas where there had been fields.

Desolate neighbourhoods had been populated and were bustling with activity. Horse-drawn trams plied on the main thoroughfares and upwards of fifty local train services ran every day between the city and its new suburbs: Bandra and Kurla. Through the 1880s, Narayan would visit Bombay for a few months every year to meet his publishers and printers.

A book factory commences operations

The Prarthana Samaj proved to be the launching pad for Narayan Hemchandra’s literary career. From 1873 onwards, he began to contribute articles on religious subjects – “translated and from my own imagination” – to the Gujarati mouthpiece of the Samaj, Subodh Patrika. His snippets describing the various trades of Bombay were published in the Gujarati magazine Noor-e-Ilm.

Narayan’s first attempt at producing a book was a translation of a work on the tenets of the Brahmo Samaj. Originally written in Bengali, it had been translated into Marathi, from which Narayan translated it into Gujarati. Narayan circulated the manuscript among a few people who helped him revise and correct it, a practice which he generally followed.

This book, Saddharma Sutra, was published in 1877 and inaugurated a literary career which he could not have visualised at that time. His early work included a series of books on all the major religions of the world.

After learning Bengali, which he believed had a wealth of literature not available in other Indian languages, he embarked on a grand translation project which continued till the end of his life. Most of his translations were adaptations and abridgments. If anything he read caught his fancy, Narayan would cut it out from the newspaper or magazine.

He maintained bundles of clippings on numerous subjects and use them when he wrote. He never shied away from incorporating the writings of other people in his books if he felt it would improve the usefulness of his work.

By the mid-1880s, Narayan Hemchandra had become a well-known name in Gujarati literature. He had been writing for nearly a decade in all the leading Gujarati magazines as well as for many newspapers. In 1885, Saurashtra Durpun, one of the leading magazines of Gujarat, published a feature titled “Shri Narayan Hemchandra: Who is this famous Mahatma?”

Many of the other Gujarati magazines also carried similar articles, which pleased Narayan not a little. By 1889, he had published fifty-three books, at a steady pace of five per year. Observing the speed at which he was publishing books, the Gujarati poet Narsinhrao Bholanath, who was a close friend, commented that Narayan Hemchandra was the personification of a “book factory”.

For a long time, Narayan had nursed a desire to travel to Europe. The Exposition Universelle or World’s Fair to be held in Paris in 1889 seemed particularly inviting. The trip would provide him with fresh material for his writings. With great difficulty, he managed to cobble together the finances needed to go to Europe and booked a passage to Genoa as a deck traveller in a steamship of the Italian shipping line Rubatino.

A meeting of mahatmas

Soon after Narayan Hemchandra reached London in 1889, he was introduced to a fellow Gujarati, a twenty-year-old student of law named Mohandas Gandhi. It was a meeting of unequals; while Narayan was already a celebrity in the Gujarati world, Gandhi was just beginning to find himself.

Incorrigibly shy and tongue-tied, Gandhi soon came under Narayan’s spell – he was supremely confident and never short of words. Narayan was fifteen years older than the callow Gandhi, old enough to be a father figure. They met practically every day and often had their vegetarian meals together.

After his return to India in 1891, Gandhi began to write a handbook titled Guide to London. In this unpublished book, later included in first volume of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi holds up Narayan Hemchandra as a paragon of frugality.

“Sadhu Narayan Hemchandra has been living on one pound a week. He has a room for 6 [shillings] a week. He spends 3 or 4 [dimes] for washing and 7 [shillings] for food per week. He works very hard. He says in his letter that he knows now German, English and French. In one pound per week he manages to buy his clothes and books of which I brought to India a boxful. He must have bought quite as many, if not more, by this time.”

Gandhi had left for South Africa by the time Narayan returned to India. Whether their paths crossed again is not known, but Narayan evidently left a lasting impression on Gandhi. Nearly four decades after they first met, Gandhi, now well on his way to being regarded a mahatma, devoted an entire chapter to Narayan Hemchandra in his Gujarati autobiography, Satyana prayogo athva atmakatha (The Story of My Experiments with Truth).

“Just about this time Narayan Hemchandra came to England. I had heard of him as a writer. We met at the house of Miss Manning of the National Indian Association….He did not know English. His dress was queer – a clumsy pair of trousers, a wrinkled, dirty, brown coat after the Parsi fashion, no necktie or collar, and a tasseled woolen cap. He grew a long beard. He was lightly built and short of stature. His round face was scarred with small-pox, and had a nose which was neither pointed nor blunt. With his hand he was constantly turning over his beard. Such a queer-looking and queerly dressed person was bound to be singled out in fashionable society…Narayan Hemchandra’s simplicity was all his own, and his frankness was on a par with it. Of pride he had not the slightest trace, excepting, of course, a rather undue regard for his own capacity as a writer.”

Narayan spent most of his time in libraries reading and taking notes in Gujarati. Basing himself in London, he visited France, Germany and the United States of America. He also tried to learn enough French and German to be able to translate from these languages. He returned to Bombay in 1894 after nearly five years abroad, bringing with him boxes full of books and manuscripts.

The book factory reopens

Narayan Hemchandra did not waste any time in getting back to publishing books after he returned to Bombay. The Gujarati translations of Shakuntala and Vikramorvashi appeared in 1893, while books on love and philosophy appeared in 1894. By 1895, he seems to have compiled much of the material he had been working on in London and published a mind-boggling thirty books in the course of the year.

This was followed by a dozen more in 1896. The range of subjects was wide: biographies of Theodore Parker and Samuel Johnson, a series of “How to” books, translations of Bengali novels, history, religion and philosophy, self-help and inspirational books, and even a critical comparison of Kalidas and Shakespeare.

Narayan Hemchandra returned to London in 1897-98 but not much is known about this trip. In 1902, he was back in London and this time his existence did not go unnoticed. Quoting The Daily Mail, the literary journal The Academy and Literature (August 1902) noted that:

“[T]here has recently been at work in the British Museum Reading Room ‘a slight, elderly Hindu’ named Narayan Hemchandra…More than two hundred and fifty books have been issued to this most industrious gentleman, consisting of translations, novels and dramas. He is now attacking what appears the stupendous task of preparing an India Cyclopaedia. Among the English authors translated by Narayan Hemchandra appear the names of John Stuart Mill, Dr Johnson, and Herbert Spencer, and he has written biographies of Massini, Father Damien, Sister Dora, Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale.”

Narayan did not stay long in London on this trip, and seems to have been back in Bombay by 1903.

I me myself

The most important literary output from Narayan Hemchandra’s book factory was, without doubt, his autobiography titled Hun Pote (I Me Myself) which was published in 1900. The poet Narmadashankar Lalshankar had printed four hundred copies of his autobiography Mari Hakikat (The Truth About Me) in 1866, but seems to have suppressed the edition soon after it was published.

Narayan’s was thus the first ever autobiography to be published in the Gujarati language for general circulation during the lifetime of the author. It provides a comprehensive account of his life until the eve of his departure for London in 1889. In a part travelogue and part memoir, Narayan sketches a gripping account of his childhood and youth in a city which was growing at a frenetic pace in those decades.

Title page of 'Hun Pote', 1900 | Image courtesy: Rajesh Doshi

From 1874, he was constantly on the move and the latter half of the autobiography inevitably reads like a travel logbook. He also provides a blow-by-blow account of his literary evolution and how he trained himself to be a “book factory”.

However, instead of being recognised for the literary landmark that it was, the autobiography received a deflated response from the Gujarati intelligentsia who were riled by its contents. Not one to mince words, Narayan had freely aired his opinions on his friends and acquaintances, most of whom were major literary figures in Gujarat. Many of them were alive when the book appeared and took great offence at the impropriety of Narayan’s plain speaking.

For instance, Mansukhram Suryaram Tripathi (1840-1907), the unordained high priest of the Gujarati literary world whom Narayan knew intimately, is presented for what he was: a behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer who excelled in wheedling honours and favours out of the British colonial government for the ruling princes of Gujarat.

Hun Pote is sub-titled “poorvardh” or the first half. Evidently, Narayan had already made plans to write another volume of autobiography. However the plague, had other plans for his book factory.

Third time unlucky

Orphaned at an early age, the only immediate family that Narayan, a confirmed bachelor, had was his younger brother Vithal. Trained as an engineer, Vithal had been a man of independent means but prolonged illness left him bedridden by 1903.

After his return from London, Narayan took it upon himself to minister to his needs and decided to stay in Bombay for an extended period. They stayed in Madhavbaug, a few hundred metres from Kika Street where Narayan had been born.

The plague, which had first appeared in Bombay in 1896, continued to attack the city in waves every year. After a brief lull at the turn of the century, the epidemic returned with renewed vigour in western India. Of those who contracted the disease, only one person in five could expect to survive. In 1902, over 200,000 people had died in the Bombay Presidency, the number increasing to 300,000 in 1903. Though a vaccine against the disease had been formulated in 1897, no attempt was made by the Bombay Government to achieve anything approaching universal coverage.

Seven years after the epidemic began raging, the only advice Dr F M Gibson, Superintendent of the Government Plague Research Laboratory could offer put the onus on the Indian population:

“Open-air life, sufficient outdoor exercise, proper nourishment, rest and sleep and the avoidance of excess in work, thoughts and pleasure are the only lines on which immunity from disease is to be acquired. The best disinfectants – germ killers – in the world are light, air, and healthy blood-cells and with ordinary cleanliness no other need be used.”

After two very calamitous years, it was hoped that the disease would ebb in 1904, but that was not the case in the city of Bombay. It was an equally harsh year when the plague cropped up at the locality where Narayan and his brother were staying. Rats were dropping dead in the neighbourhood and Narayan was asked to immediately evacuate the house.

However, perhaps out of a deep sense of fraternal piety, Narayan would not abandon either the house or his brother Vithal. The upshot was that he eventually contracted the plague and had to be admitted to the Plague Hospital. Special arrangements were made for his treatment by his rich friends such as Damodardas Sukhadwala.

Narayan had survived two major illnesses which were generally fatal in the nineteenth century. As a child, he had been severely afflicted by smallpox. He managed to pull through, but the disease left permanent scars on his face and deformed his tongue, resulting in a minor speech debility.

In 1885, he had been diagnosed with tetanus, a disease little understood in those days with almost no chance of recovery. He was given up for dead, but survived after palliative treatment for four months. His miraculous recovery formed the basis of a case-study published in the medical journal Lancet.

However, he was not third time lucky. A few days after he was admitted to hospital, Narayan Hemchandra died of the bubonic plague on 28 March, 1904 in the fiftieth year of his life. He was one of 43,000 people who succumbed to the dreaded disease that week in India.

Many of the leading Gujarati newspapers and literary magazines published obituaries on Narayan Hemchandra’s death. The Buddhiprakash (May 1904) noted:

“It is with extreme regret that we announce the death of Rajmanya Rajshri Narayan Hemchandra, famous Gujarati writer, fervent devotee of Gujarat literature, and votary of Goddess Saraswati. Hardly anyone reading Gujarati would be unfamiliar with the name of Narayan Hemchandra. His writings and numberless books, big and small, have made his name universally famous, and as long as they survive, they will perpetuate his memory.”

But this was not to be. In the next two decades, stray articles written by his acquaintances which focused on his unique personality and eccentric character appeared in Gujarati journals. Gandhi was perhaps the last person to write about him when instalments of his Gujarati autobiography were serialised in the journal Navjivan between 1925 and 1929.

Before he died, Narayan was at work on a series of 108 books under the auspices of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. Thirty odd books had been published under the “Bhavsinhji Vividha Dnyanawardhak Granthmala” series, and perhaps Narayan had been working on many more when he suddenly died.

No effort seems to have been made to preserve his papers, diaries, and manuscripts. Perhaps they were destroyed during the cleaning and burning operations routinely conducted by the Bombay municipality at the residences of plague victims.

Narayan Hemchandra could not be easily pigeonholed into any literary category. Estimated at about 200 books besides innumerable articles in many Gujarati periodicals, Narayan’s works spanned numerous genres and subjects. Goverdhunram, a contemporary novelist now elevated to the Gujarati pantheon, rather condescendingly observed that Narayan “speaks like an idiot, writes likes an angel.”

His literary merit, contested when he was alive, was not deemed worthy of posthumous evaluation. Writing at a time when Gujarati prose had not been formalised or standardised, Narayan had developed a distinctive style of his own by incorporating words from languages like Bengali and Sanskrit.

As the Buddhiprakash commented in 1904, “Though a few people were critical of his diction and style, it must be noted that when there was almost nothing by way of Gujarati prose, it was his writings which served the purpose and we have to be very grateful to him.” Relegated to the footnotes of Gujarati literary history, it is perhaps time to freshly evaluate the contributions made by Narayan Hemchandra to Gujarati literature and society.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.