Prarambh – The Beginning by Gangadhar Gadgil (translated by Arvind Dixit)


The National Book Trust brings out an interesting series called Aadaan- Pradaan (interchange/ give and take). As the name suggests, the objective of the series is to introduce well-known works (mainly novels or collection of short stories) of a particular region/ language to people from other regions to foster national integration. This is a valuable series especially for readers interested in regional Indian literature – albeit in its translated form.

One of the books in this series is PrarambhThe Beginning by Gangadhar Gadgil and translated by Arvind Dixit. Gangadhar Gadgil (1923-2008), an Economics professor by profession, was recognised in the literary world (for his stellar contribution to the modern Marathi short story. His prolific literary output extended to other forms such as novels and articles. Some of his notable works include Ek Mungiche Mahabharat, Durdamya (a two volume biographical novel on Bal Gangadhar Tilak) and Sahityatale Maanadanda.

(I was unable to glean any information on when Gangadhar Gadgil penned Prarambh – though this particular translation came out in 2006.)

Prarambh- The Beginning is a biographical novel, tracing the life and times of Jagannath Shankarshet, one of the architects of modern Bombay. The novel starts when Nana Shankarshet is a 15-year-old lad and follows his life, detailing his immense contribution to the city till 1869, the year of his death. In the process, Gadgil crafts an unforgettable, panoramic, vivid biography of the city, as it transformed from a set of islands into the first capital of the Bombay presidency and the buzzing, commercial capital of India.

A period of major upheaval, 1818 was the year of the third and final Anglo-Maratha war, which led to the British East India Company in control of Indian territories. The novel begins after the fall of the Peshwa. Abashastri, a fictional Brahmin priest from Pune moves to Bombay with his family after a backbreaking journey. (There were no bullock-cart paths connecting the two cities and the rocky, treacherous terrain had to be traversed by foot.) His nephew, Bapu, who had moved to this new city of Bombay some years earlier, had called him with the promise of employment at the house of a prosperous trader, Shankarshet, whose family had migrated from Konkan in the 18th century. Abashastri comes to Bombay and is soon employed as their family priest, in charge of the daily rituals and the upkeep of the Bhawani temple in the premises of their wada in Tardeo.

The author employs a deft narrative tool by having two parallel threads running through the novel. On one, there is the narration dealing with Shankarshet’s son Nana ‘s dazzling rise in his public career, and the epoch-making events taking place in Bombay and in the larger macrocosm of India and the world.

On the other hand, there is the exploration of the ramifications of these events on the common man. The author achieves this by focusing on the doubts, prejudices, fears of Abashastri as he struggles with getting Waman an education. (Should he go against the rules of his caste and religion and get him a Western education? Won’t sending Waman to an English teacher mean that he will lose touch with his own religion and convert to Christianity? What would the future of Sanskrit education be in India? Will the coming generations be rooted to their traditions and identity? Or would they discard their own culture for a foreign one? Is the Hindu/ Indian culture indeed inferior to these Britishers?) Such questions are raised and discussed vividly using fictional characters, events in their lives and through their voices.

Fact and fiction blend, creating a memorable panoramic canvas. The events that made modern Mumbai are etched in vivid detail. We get to witness the statesmanship and foresight of Governor Elphinstone and the founding of the School Society and the Native School of Bombay (first English school for Indians, now existing as the Elphinstone College). The founding of other historical institutions like the Bombay Literary Society by James Mackintosh, the first engineering college by Captain Jarvis. Jagannath Shankarshet’s alleged role in the 1857 mutiny is also covered and so is the founding of the first political association in Western India, The Bombay Association. Real characters like the pioneer Marathi journalist, Balshastri Jambekhar, Bhau Daji Lad (the Sanskrit scholar and doctor who graduated from the first batch of Grant Medical College in 1850), Jamshedji Jeejeeboy, Dadoba Pandurang, Governor Elphinstone, Sir Robert Grant make an appearance, interact and co-exist alongside Abashastri’s fictional family and other fictional characters. And in the midst of this, Nana Shankarshet’s amazing political and social career as a public leader is vividly described. His story, along with the story of Bombay forms the crux – making it a tribute from the author to both the architect of a much loved city and to the city itself. The real characters are the actors, hastening the changes in a rapid, fluctuating society; while the fictional characters are bystanders getting caught up in the whirlpool.

It is an exhilarating phase of rapid social, economic and political change. As Aroon Tikekar, the noted scholar and authority on Mumbai puts it in the foreword, it is a misconception that social Renaissance in India started and existed only in Bengal. In the West, in Bombay, a similar social renaissance took place during this period when existing social norms were questioned and revisited. The arising social tensions and the new social reform movements all find a mention.The first anti-caste movement, the establishment of the first girls’ school (to name a few social reform events) are deftly introduced in the fictional world, giving the reader a complete sense of Bombay at that time.

For lovers of history and residents of Mumbai, this would make for a compelling reading. The general reader probably may not enjoy this book. It is a heavy tome, with approximately 630 pages. One criticism against the book could be that it is boring. And that it is a history textbook more than a novel. But I think that historical narrative style is intentional – it is meant to read like part authentic history and part fiction. Personally this is what appealed to me. I like facts and dates. And when an incident or event takes place in one of the fictional characters’ lives, it is also supplemented with information as to what was happening in Bombay at that time – all the relevant facts, dates and details. For example, Dadoba Pandurang (the social reformer and educationist who worked closely with Balshastri Jambekhar) is shown to be a close friend and classmate of Waman. So we are informed that in the year 1828, the year Waman got married, so did Dadoba. And that it was in this year that Dadoba appeared for the final examination of the Marathi section.

My knowledge of Bombay is limited to reading and viewing Hindi films. But now I feel like I know ‘the city that was’ rather intimately. It is to the author’s credit (and also the translator) that 19th century Bombay comes alive right in front of the reader’s eyes. By connecting the reader to Abashastri and his family, the reader is made to witness firsthand the magnificent growth of Bombay.

The translation by Arvind Dixit seems decent enough – nothing jarring regarding the flow of the book. The vast canvas painted by the author comes out in the translation and often at times it does not feel like one is reading a translated book. I was unsure about the meaning given for some Marathi words – but since I do not know Marathi, my being sure or not does not matter.

For history buffs or people who have something to do with Bombay, this is a must read! Highly recommended.

6 thoughts on “Prarambh – The Beginning by Gangadhar Gadgil (translated by Arvind Dixit)

  1. As someone who grew up in Bombay, this book sounds completely fascinating. It would be interesting to know how 7 individual islands became the bustling centre of hope and excitement. I also enjoy history (hough not as much as you 🙂 ) so this would be an added temptation to read this book. Thanks H for reviewing this.

  2. This sounds really interesting. Not that I know Bombay too well (the longest I’ve ever spent in the city is two weeks, when I was there on a work assignment), but still… always interesting to read about a city’s past and try and trace how it impacts the city now. Coincidentally, I too read – a couple of weeks back – a book in which Elphinstone was mentioned: V Raghunathan’s Beyond the Call of Duty, about ten Englishmen whose work, beyond the call of duty, has done wonders for India. Sleeman, Prinsep, etc – and Elphinstone.

    1. Thanks, Madhu! This is a very interesting book – I do not know Bombay either – though I lived there for 1 year , when I was 3! the entire process of transformation of the set of islands to Bombay is fascinating. It has so many details, facts and characters.

      I didn’t know much about Elphinstone, other than that he was the governor of the Bombay province. This book views him in such glowing terms highlighting his wisdom, sagacity and foresight!

      When we studied history at school, we were told about these British governors etc – so one has at least heard of these names. But There are so many historical characters in this book – names I had not heard of before – one difficulty I faced was that I didn’t know whether this is a real person or a character in the story. It does acknowledge the contribution of all these people in the development of Bombay. Very enriching and satisfying.

  3. I struggled through the Marathi original, and I’m sure I didn’t really understand quite a lot of what was written. So I will look for this translated version the next time I’m in India. Thanks for the review, Harini.

    1. Wow, you read the book in Marathi!! This is a heavy book – way too many characters and facts and episodes…. I took way longer to read this book than my usual speed. But do read this translated version when you can.

      If you enjoy history, you will enjoy this.

      Thanks, Anu!

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