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Ajay Sarvaiya

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Gujarati Literature: Ajay Sarvaiya

Painting at Museum of Folk Heritage, Rajkot. Courtesy-

Bartleby's Company Expanded

1. Trees for forest

I find it very difficult to talk about the forest, so I will talk about trees, a few prototypical exemplars from some species of trees.

In his novel 'Bartleby & Co.' Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas notes that Juan Rulfo stopped writing because he felt "Now even smokers of pot publish books. There've been a lot of very strange book recently, don't you think? I have preferred to keep silent." Rimbaud did not write anything during the last twenty years of his life, he "fell into a literary silence that would last until the end of his days." Robert Walser spent the last twenty-eight years of his life in mental hospitals. He wanted to be "a walking nobody and he wished to be forgotten." Valéry Larbaud spent the last twenty years of his life in a wheelchair. Clément Cadou wanted to become a writer, but he could never write. He thought of himself as a piece of furniture. Vila-Matas calls all these artists "writers of No", members of the company of Bartleby. This novel is composed of eighty-six footnotes. I have added a few more below.

2. From the species of poets

For some strange reasons Dileep Jhaveri did not write for fifteen years. He fell into the literary silence after the publication of his first poetry collection. Nobody knows what he did in those years. He was probably learning the art of weighing words. He comes from the other side of this century. He talks about Valmiki, Vyasa, Kalidasa as well as Rilke, Paz, Tagore as his contemporaries. I sometimes feel that he is a mythical character or a mere archetype. He probably exists in our dreams or in our slips of tongue or in our nostalgia. He exists on this planet by some accident or coincidence. Recently he has produced a poetry collection in English, which has been translated into Irish. Such a queer thing does not come about in Gujarati. That is one of the reasons I sometimes feel he belongs to multiple times and places. His concerns range from language and culture to ecology and self.

Vila-Matas notes a curious incidence. Jaime Gil de Biedma confesses: Why did I ever write? I thought I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I wanted to be a poem. I have my doubts whether Kamal Vora ever wanted to be a poet. He is so soft spoken and self effacing that sometimes I feel he may not even acknowledge in public that he is a poet. He may not even want to be a poem. He probably wants to be a turn of a phrase or an archaic word or just a coma, or the blank space between two words. He is a rare poet dealing with the theme of disappearance of self. In a career spanning more than four decades he has published two poetry collections; the second one, just last year. If Calvino has taken away weight from fiction and provided lightness to it, Kamal Vora has provided lightness to poetry.

In a career spanning fifty years, Bharat Naik has published two poetry collections. Rajesh Pandya has published a single collection of poetry in thirty years. Both these poets have made a significant move from abstract to concrete themes and complex to simple forms. Bharat Naik's poetry is turning metaphysical, but not in the medieval sense. His is poetry of gaze. Rajesh Pandya's poetry is turning melancholic as our times are turning grim.

All these poets have contributed to, what I would like to conceptualise as, 'poetics of dialogue' as against 'poetics of confrontation'. The poetics of confrontation deals with themes like self and other, individual and state, truth and falsehood, discriminations of gender, caste, class, etc. The poetics of dialogue, on the other hand, provides an alternative of co-existence which opens up new spaces and possibilities.

[I would like to mention some poets who do not belong to Bartleby's company, but whose work have been equally important in construing Gujarati literary scene: Labhshankar Thakar puts self against self, Sitanshu Yashashchandra invents new metaphors to articulate rapidly changing reality, and Nirav Patel explores Dalit sensibility. From the younger generation, Manisha Joshi has brought fresh and distinctive feminine perspective, and Piyush Thakkar interrogates dark corners of culture and psyche.]

3. Fiction

In 1988, Bharat Naik started a journal called 'Gadyaparva' which changed the course of writing and reading fiction in Gujarati. It created a rupture from the modernist poetics and gave voice to subalterns, a set of new talents and a new poetics (city-centric settings to village-city overlap, themes of alienation to politics of interaction, use of standard dialect to use of different dialects, etc.). Bharat Naik took deep interest in editing stories, he made practically all writers rewrite their stories, made them aware about language use, so that stories could achieve certain aesthetic standards. All these efforts, because he did not want to write, or he was suffering from the Bartleby's syndrome.

Kirit Dudhat emerged as a major short-story writer from 'Gadyaparva' movement or 'Gadyaparva' school. During thirty years of his writing career he has produced two very slim volumes of short-story collections. In an interview, he stated: "Writing is boring, I rather prefer reading." Kirit Dudhat's narrator, mostly a city dweller, goes to a village, so the drama takes place in the village. In one of his recent brilliant short stories, he has examined causes of violence, within a village community, and opened up a perspective on thinking about violence. Bipin Patel, equally a strong presence, has emerged from the same school. He, too, has published two slim volumes of short-story collections over thirty years. He once told me that he did not enjoy writing as much as he enjoyed reading. Bipin Patel's characters from village move to a city, so the setting is the city. In one of his stories, a piece of genius and my favourite, he brings together pre-modern or authority of myth, modern or authority of science and post-modern or authority of entertainment. He deftly captures the Indian reality where these three categories co-exist and overlap. He is writing, at present, his memoire of working in Sachivalaya. Ajit Thakor, also from the same school, has published one slim collection of stories during thirty years of his writing career. He once told me that the art demanded sacrifices. He has examined the current conditions of Rajput society. These three 'writers of No' have investigated the role of 'social' and 'political' in the construction of human reality.

However, the dominant model of writing and reading fiction in Gujarati is Chekhovian, which is so strong that Borgesian model is scorned and ridiculed. Most readers and critics lack tolerance for experimental fiction.

[In addition to the three names above Mohan Parmar, Kandarp Desai, Anil Vyas, Nazir Mansuri, Pravinsinh Chavda have made notable contributions. From the younger generation Navneet Jani, Jignesh Brahmbhatt and Piyush Shah are making a mark with their original works. Himanshi Shelat, Bindu Bhatt and Mona Patrawala are the three generation of very bright short-story writers; the latter two have produced fine novels also. Dhruv Bhatt started his career late but has produced quite a few novels which are a bit romantic, have ecological concerns and are popular in structure. Manoj Shah, Naushil Mehta, Uttam Gada and Saumya Joshi have contributed to alternative theatre in Mumbai and Ahmedabad.]

4. Creative prose/essay

Gulam Mohammad Sheikh has some alchemical quality about his prose. He has been writing memoires and creative prose over last five decades, and a collection of the same is in press. His prose is supple, lucid, inspiring, mesmerising and intimidating. It makes lot of writing worthless and obsolete.

Dileep Jhaveri has come up with a very unique book of travelogue just a few months back. On the surface of it, the book presents his visits to South Asian countries as a poet, but it is also an account or a critique of the state of Gujarati poetry. His sentence construction is like a gourmet dish.

Geeta Naik, who edited 'Gadyaparva' for ten years, has published (after her retirement) a distinctive collection of essays on her experiences of travelling in the Mumbai's local train. It provides a rare glimpse into the world of the ladies compartment of the electric train.

[Labhashankar Thakar, Bharat Naik and Ashvin Mehta have over the years diligently practiced the almost dying art of essay writing. Atul Dodiya also sometimes chips in his bit. I wish this form gets some more takers in future. What we lack is the contemplative or reflective essays. Gujarat revels in fluffy and unreflective essays and comic essays published in newspapers; they have become genre on their own.]

5. Criticism

Suresh Joshi tried to shape the writing and reading culture during the last century. He started and closed one little magazine after another, wrote essays and delivered talks on world literature, translated best of the world literature and inspired youngsters to read world literature in English. He produced some original criticism. But there after Gujarati has not been able to develop original models. However, Chandrakant Topivala and Shirish Panchal have made some notable contributions. At present, the situation is very depressing; there is lot of intolerance towards experimentation, ignorance about the world literary scene, aversion toward reading literature in English and a lack of good translations (with the exception of another Bartleby Karamshi Pir). I hope for better days.

6. Conclusion: Kanji Patel

He doesn't look like someone from this planet. He is a bit odd; he doesn't speak much and laughs a lot. If you try to converse with him, he might stop in the middle. He fumbles in the ways of the world. Even Proust didn't know how to open a window. You might feel that he is listening to you, but he might be on some other plane. He is a poet, a short-story writer, a novelist, a genius. He is writing for over four decades, and he is the only one to write about denotified tribes. If you collect all his books together, there may not be more than five hundred pages, like Felisberto Hernandez whose life's work was about seven hundred pages. Kanji Patel has given voice to people or tribes that never had any voice. His short-stories are anthropological documents of different tribes of Gujarat. His writing is what Gujarati literature never was. He was and is alone, like all other Bartlebies.

[I would like to thank Dileep Jhaveri, Bipin Patel and Rajesh Pandya for their valuable inputs.]


A Note from Dileep Jhaveri, Muse India’s Contributing Editor for Gujarati:


The perceptive and original note by Ajay Sarvaiya needs some amplification, particularly regarding poetic scene in Gujarati.


Harish Minashru is an important name because of his constant preoccupation in exploring several possibilities of language by way of musicality, associations and multiple combinations of words or their fragments uniting into surprisingly new words. This creates new challenges for the meanings and poetic intentions. His basic support is minute observations of objects and phenomena along with mastery over Sanskrit, medieval and modern verse forms. He does not hesitate to take risk of anarchy while ascertaining individuality. This is the fundamental function of poetry.


While Kamal Vora started with reflections on objects and developed silent voice he employed that voice in defining human condition and relationships in his new poems. Similarly poets like Ramanik Someshwar turned towards understanding everyday objects with the skill they had acquired during their observations of tragic and charming extremes of life and intimate dialogues with the self. The scrutiny of the dimensions of objects and words in Kamal’s poetry becomes discoveries of the relationship of life with objects and words in Ramanik’s poetry.


The recent poems of Ajay himself invent hitherto ignored areas of life like his sequence on Library. Life and history stored on paper in ink and words reflect and erase reality that is present, inherited or imagined.


While it is easy to go around in circles of popular lyrical and Gazal poetry or free verse that makes it easy to say whatever a poet desires as Lord or Messiah poets like Udayan Thakker shed their previously successful image and walk the perilous road to indefinite forms of known and unfamiliar history in narratives in search of transformation.


These and other poets are our hope today. But what is lacking is an encounter with the immediate present filled with technological advances and anarchy that they assist. We are at a critical stage of virtual bliss and instant annihilation because of total disregard for values by technology. With frontiers and boundaries between the nations disappearing cultural identities also are vanishing. In contemporary Marathi poetry we have poets like Sanjiv Khndekar, Manya Joshi, Sachin Ketkar or Mangesh Kale and others who are aware of it and are hazarding to speak out while jeopardising poetry with its known definitions.


Criticism is at its weakest today in Gujarati. Largely practiced by the academicians for reviews of books of their fraternity or recapitulating the past some have been busy studying cavernous volumes of philosophers with literary ambitions from West and comparing with the classical oriental heritage. The joy of art is missed in these assessments because a poem is not written to be studied. A poem is search or attainment of bliss, an occasion of celebration even of tragic since sadness also is a part of human existence. Art is inclusive and that is why it expands human consciousness and that must inspire critics instead of scholarly exhibition within closed academic community.


Focus – Indian Literature Today

  GSP Rao: Editorial Impressions

Lead Essay
  K Satchidanandan: Changing Landscape of Indian Literature

  Assamese Literature: Bibhash Choudhury
  Bengali Literature: Subodh Sarkar
  Gujarati Literature: Ajay Sarvaiya
  Hindi Literature: Sukrita Paul Kumar
  Indian English Writing: GJV Prasad
  Indian English Writing: Harish Trivedi
  Kannada Literature: Mamta Sagar
  Kashmiri Literature: Mohammad Zahid
  Maithili Literature: Vidyanand Jha
  Malayalam Literature: T P Rajeevan
  Marathi Literature: Sachin Ketkar
  Odia Literature: Lipipuspa Nayak
  Punjabi Literature: Tejwant Singh Gill
  Tamil Literature: Rajaram Brammarajan
  Telugu Literature in Andhra: U Atreya Sarma & K Ravindra Trivikram
  Telugu Literature in Telangana: Itha Chandraiah & U Atreya Sarma
  Urdu Literature: Sukrita Paul Kumar

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