Prarambh is a successful blend of history and fiction: a hi-story of the beginnings of Mumbai. The environment of the early 1800s is authentically depicted, the characters that are both real and fictional match quite well, and the story runs both as fact and fiction blended. The National Book Trust of India must be thanked and congratulated for bringing it out in English for the benefit of not only the non-Marathi Indian readers but also the international readers who will be able to get important insights into and information about the social-cultural-business renaissance that gave its initial shape to the internationally significant city, Mumbai.
Prarambh, The Beginning, is quite an authentic translation. While going through the English translation of the novel, one does not get a feel of reading a translation. It reads like it is naturally written in English. There are minor inconsistencies: at one place what is given as a Marathi term ‘drishta’ (p. 22), has been later described as “a ritual to ward off the evil eye”(p. 64), or sati (p.123) and wife immolation (p. 124). On the one hand, it is not possible to find a parallel for everything in the target language as the two languages are culturally poles apart, and on the other hand, arbitrary translation spoils the cultural charm. Arvind Dixit has been successful in keeping the balance between the two languages, by and large.
It is a novel of the Raj period from an Indian-Marathi point of view. E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling and Paul Scott wrote novels from the British point of view. The Bengali- English novel like Gora (by Rabindranath Tagore) was more of a social-political novel like the ones written by other Indian authors. But most of the Indian novels written on the themes from the Raj period (for example, the novels of Mulk Raj Anand, Sane Guruji and others), are stereotypes describing the tyranny of the British rulers and the political resistance and freedom struggle of the Indians. Though this novel is historical, it is more of a narration of the process of social-cultural, political and economic (business) change bringing about enlightenment. It presents details of how all the institutions of rule like administration, education, justice, trade and economic equality between the rulers and the ruled, equal rights of people of different religions and castes had to be sorted out by putting heads together. Hindus had problems of going against their religion right from learning a foreign language, to the printing ink of the books to equal opportunity to education for all castes. The British dignitaries and officers with the local, progressive elite had to overcome the very strong resistance of the people in initiating those institutions of enlightenment. Nana Shankarshet was a pillar of support to all the progressive dynamics of the changing social-religious thinking. He acted as a mediator between the gora sahibs and the natives in every respect bringing about a convergence among clashing beliefs. Such multiple dimensions are rarely known to Indian fiction on themes from the Raj, and it is the first of its kind which portrays a city and its men—both as prominent characters. It shows the British dignitaries and officers (Governor Elphinstone, Captain Jarvis, Mr. Murphy, Dr. MacLean) and the local Indian leaders (Jagannath Shankarshet, Framjee Cawasjee, Jamshetji Jeejibhai and others) working hand in hand for the overall development of Mumbai. It depicts very positively, the British initiatives in the areas of better infrastructural developments like roads and bridges, education for the native Indians in their mother tongues like Marathi, Gujrati, Kannada etc. It takes a very positive, objective and fair view of benevolent Britishers such as Governor Elphinstone or Captain Jarvis. It does not portray the British or the Company government as always positive. But with regard to Mumbai and its administrators, it takes a realistic view and gives them their due.
All through the novel, the process of the development of Mumbai is described in detail and the events take place in the life of the city rather than in the lives of human characters. Events in the lives of human characters appear incidentally, only of secondary importance to events in the life of the city. The protagonist of the novel is Mumbai (Aroon Tikekar in his ‘Foreword’ to the novel) and the work is more of a biography of the city of Mumbai though the architects of the city are in action all the time.
The novel portrays the social leadership with progressive thinking among the religious, business elites of that period and presents how a resourceful local leadership can take the society forward in all walks of life. The leaders of the then Mumbai were genuinely interested in the welfare of the society, constructively engaged in putting their own resources into its development. Today’s Mumbai is the outcome of the change in the values and beliefs of the leaders.
The novel details the beginnings of the British educational system. The account of starting a school in Mumbai which would also be acceptable to the local people presents interesting details of the social-religious thinking of those times and how the pioneers had to face problems in making education available to Indians whether it was general or medical education. Consideration of the multifarious problems that would arise, the complexities of that social-political order, the solutions sought, the vision and foresight of Governor Elphinstone, the active interest of the local Parsee and Hindu leaders are all dealt with in realistic detail. Gangadhar Gadgil’s perception of and insight into the thinking of the people of the early 1800s and his realistic imagination of how people like Elphinstone, Warden, Captain Jarvis, Jagannath Shankarshet and others would have discussed those issues makes the then Mumbai come alive to readers of the 21st century.
Pune-Mumbai as cities of distinct character keep reoccurring in their social-attitudinal and political comparisons and contrasts in different contexts, as part of either the dialogue or the narrative. The Peshwa-British ruling style comparisons make apparent the distinctions between regional and cosmopolitan life styles reflected in the styles of their rule. Basically, they reflect the distinction between the liberal western philosophy of democratic as well as scientific orientation and the religion-dominated ethnocentric thinking of the Indians. The downfall of the Peshwa and Maratha rule have been presented from a completely different angle. One has read history or fiction only with a sympathetic attitude to the defeated local rulers. This novel presents a more realistic view of the fall of these dynasties. It overcomes narrow ethnocentric or parochial or even nationalistic ways of looking at history.
Women of the times (p. 32) had a role only during the celebrations and festivities and Gadgil depicts how they loved and looked forward to such occasions to have their say in the decisions of the family. Yamunabai, the widowed sister-in-law of Abashastri had the final word in many family decisions as the eldest of the family. On the other hand, one reads the account of the sati of Jag Mohan Roy which made Raja Ram Mohan Roy take a definite stand against the custom of sati. Against this backdrop, Abashastri, wondering what was wrong in this custom, is a little surprised that while his own widowed sister-in-law seems to influence the family decisions and does not commit sati after her husband’s death, he has not given any thought to the problems of widows.
As I read Prarambh, I was considering how I had to make a list of Indian and foreign friends to whom I could gift this novel as they would love to go through it and would definitely appreciate the gift.
Madhavi Apte is Director, Institute of Indian and Foreign Languages, Aurangabad.