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Thursday, May 26, 2022

How Dhumketu transformed Gujarati literature with his short stories

Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, translated by Jenny Bhatt, is a long-overdue introduction of the pioneering Gujarati writer to the English-reading public

Written by Ashish Mehta |
Updated: February 14, 2021 9:43:56 am

The names of many once-popular characters in modern Gujarati literature are now lost. Who would recognise Chunilal Madia’s Abhu Makarani today? He gave up his life to protect the honour of a woman working in a tobacco factory (which Ketan Mehta converted into a chilli-processing house, to a great effect, in his 1987 film Mirch Masala). Then there is Ali Doso, a frail man who slowly walks across the town on an early winter morning for his ritual visit to the post office to ask about any word from his married daughter. He had more universal appeal, so his image continues to linger in the minds of many readers of a certain age. Ali features in Dhumektu’s short story, The Post Office (written in the 1920s), arguably the most anthologised short fiction in Gujarati.

Dhumketu, meaning “comet”, was the pen name of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892-1965). The advent of the short-story form in Gujarati is traced back to the turn of the century, but the form flourished after Dhumketu started publishing in the 1920s. He was soon joined by Ramnarayan Vishwanath Pathak (“Dwiref”) in enriching this literary form. In their choice of material, approach to storytelling and rapport with readers, they were what Premchand was to Hindi readers at that time. They prepared the ground for KM Munshi, Tribhuvandas Luhar “Sundaram”, Jhaverchand Meghani and others.

That was the time of the freedom movement. The presence of MK Gandhi, who was then based in Ahmedabad, was bound to be felt in literature. Indeed, the historians of Gujarati literature call this period “Gandhi yug”. It was marked by a social reawakening and the promise of navajivan (“new life”), the title of one of the journals Gandhi edited. Dhumketu’s genius lay in his awareness of the new possibilities as well as that which was being pushed aside or lost forever. If it was the best of times and the worst of times, Dhumketu’s pen captured it all. He could do this by focussing on the depiction of a world of finer emotions and sensibilities. Though his fiction reflected social realities of caste and class barriers, he was more interested in crafting the form and telling stories that touched the heart. For example, Ratno Dholi has a village drummer living within stark caste realities, but it is a universal tale of love — for one’s craft and one’s spouse. Committed to literature as a way of life, Dhumketu was inspired by European and Russian masters of the form, especially Guy de Maupassant Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov.

Many consider his work — close to 500 short stories apart from numerous novels — among the best of Indian literature. Yet, nearly all of his work is unavailable to non-Gujarati readers. Bhaiya Dada had appeared in Sarla Jagmohan’s translation, published in Selected Short Stories from Gujarat, way back in 1961, but after that little progress was made. In the last decade or so, however, a new generation of translators has been making more Gujarati masterpieces available in English.

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Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, translated by Jenny Bhatt, offers a rich part of Gujarat’s literary heritage to a wider readership. The mellifluous translation is as close as one can get to Dhumketu’s original, as Bhatt’s topmost concern here is to do justice to the author. That she herself is an accomplished short-story writer must have helped. Her well-informed choices for pivotal words open new possibilities of re-readings for a Gujarati reader. Rendering terms and expressions, idioms and traditions of a bygone world into an alien language is a delicate job: it requires patient and skillful negotiation across two periods, two cultures and two languages. Bhatt has accomplished the task sensitively.

Selecting the “best” from the output of such a towering and productive figure is bound to be a challenge. Bhatt has made a selection that showcases the evolution of the author through “chronological progress”, unfortunately leaving out gems like Vinipat with its stunningly prescient and oft-quoted closing line foretelling a cultural doom which, when translated, goes: “When the decline begins, everything goes into decline!” But any selection from Dhumketu is bound to leave the reader asking for more.

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