I grew up in a home where Saraswatichandra was considered “our” book, part of our heritage, because its author, Govardhanram Tripathi, was my grandfather’s uncle.
His portrait hung in my parents’ room. Mentored by his uncle Manahsukhram Tripathi (my great-great-grandfather and himself a scholar and writer), Govardhanram was a skilled lawyer who represented Gujarat’s princely states and helped set up the law publisher, NM Tripathi Pvt. Ltd, in Kalbadevi in Bombay (now Mumbai), which his brother Narbheram managed, and where several of my uncles were to work over the years. But writing was his true calling; he wrote Saraswatichandra between 1887 and 1902. He died in 1907, at 52.
When Govind Saraiya made the eponymous film in 1968, he invited the Tripathi clan to see the film on its opening night, and dozens of us dutifully made our way to the Opera House theatre. It was a difficult film to make—Saraswatichandra is really about a man’s quest to understand his place in society, about challenging orthodox mores, where ideas matter and the plot is secondary—and it isn’t surprising that people know the film more for Kalyanji-Anandji’s music than its story.
I remember my mother humming the songs, Chandan sa badan and Chhod de saari duniya kisi ke liye, for years. She wanted the novel translated, so that more people beyond Gujarat would take joy from what she considered to be one of the finest works about 19th century India. When others would point out Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya’s worthy Bengali novels, Devdas, Biraj Bou and Parineeta, as examples of modernity in Indian fiction, she would quietly point out that the last volume of Saraswatichandra was published a dozen years before Parineeta (1914).
Saraswatichandra became a burden for some of us. Taken together, the four volumes take up over 2,000 pages, and as my grandfather used to joke, the breadth of its fourth volume was the same as its height. But it was a metaphorical burden too, for when my essays at our Gujarati-medium school weren’t up to the mark, one of my teachers scolded me: “You are Govardhanram’s descendant—how can your writing be so shabby?”
Intimidating size and teachers apart, once I made an effort, I found a complex narrative that was less about what happens to whom and when—and more about the characters’ thoughts. The Gujarati writer Prabodh Parikh reminds me that Tripathi was a writer first, novelist later. He had deliberately chosen the medium of novel because of its popularity to express his ideas of a Plato-like Republic, where the privileged have obligations. “His concern was to write about the plight of the country, its inequality, while exploring one’s soul,” Parikh says.
At heart, the novel is about how an aristocrat senses the injustice around him and feels he must do something about it, even while suppressing personal desires. Tradition and society impose burden and expectations; the individual realizes the limits of individual freedom in a circumscribed universe. The novel was about the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be; where the universe is imperfect, not a fairy tale; where loose ends don’t get tied, and you can’t return to the forks left behind and attempt to walk the road not taken this time. It was about an India struggling to cope with modernity, with enlightened values seeping into the psyche, questioning foundational beliefs without uprooting the architecture. Saraiya’s 2-hour film was an attempt to squeeze the universe into a ball.
If the novel has over 2,000 pages, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has promised 2,000 episodes in his serial Saraswatichandra, now enjoying high ratings on Star Plus. But don’t expect him to tackle the novel’s profound philosophical questions. He has to keep the new generation engrossed. The characters have names from the novel and that’s it. The millions who will see this act of cultural vandalism will confuse this bowdlerized version with the real thing. Academic Tridip Suhrud, who has written an intellectual biography of Govardhanram and who is translating Saraswatichandra into English, told me: “The present makers of Saraswatichandra interpret it primarily as a love story, thereby reducing its grandeur and civilizational sweep. If it were only a love story, it could not have shaped the moral universe of the newly emerging middle class over a century ago.”
Bhansali has added sub-plots, twists and turns, stripping nuances off each character, turning multidimensional individuals into smartly-attired cardboard cutouts. The plot shifts between that ultimate artificial city—Dubai—and a village that doesn’t exist even in Gujarat Tourism ads. Columnist Urvish Kothari wrote in Gujarat Samachar: “Isn’t it criminal for a director, who worships only excess, to destroy the essence of the original and reduce it to a run-of-the-mill love story?”
If Govardhanram’s Saraswatichandra was a brooding man who had written books, Bhansali’s hero is a Marlboro man busy showing off his taut muscles and throbbing veins. A body-building, sky-diving hunk, this Saraswatichandra mistakes arrogance for confidence. The quiet dignity of Kumudsundari makes way for demure blushes and shy glances; here she looks like a Gurjari model, displaying see-through saris and lavish cholis.
To be sure, you can reinterpret classics. Just think of Shakespeare—and what Akira Kurosawa, Kenneth Branagh, and closer home, Vishal Bhardwaj, have done to the Bard. Or think of Shyam Benegal retelling the Mahabharat as Kalyug. But Bhansali’s interest is not to reinterpret it, but to monetize it. He isn’t interested in the idea, but the image; not the mind, but the body.
I have no idea what Bhansali will make of Saraswatichandra’s ultimate dream—Kalyan Gram, a model village where the aristocracy served the downtrodden—but I dare not predict. Maybe by then, Bhansali’s Gujarat will be so vibrant there will not be any poverty to eradicate, and Kalyan Gram will be a gym.