About the Author
Gunvantrai Acharya (1900-65), one of the masters of Gujarati literature, was fascinated by the maritime past of the Gujaratis, who had been exploring the seas for centuries. In his novels and stories, he evokes the seas and mariners, traders and pirates, and the strange lands and peoples they encountered on their adventures and voyages. In his Dariyalal (1938), a classic of Gujarati children's literature, set in a Gujarati settlement in Zanzibar in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a ruthless Indian slave driver has a change of heart and exercises his valour, power and determination to compel a whole community to give up trading in slaves in eastern Africa.
Ms Kamal Sanyal has translated stories and plays from both Gujarati and Marathi, winning the prestigious Katha Award.
Gunvantrai Acharya (1900-65), one of the masters of Gujarati literature, had a rich store of oral history to fall back on, when he came to write his novels and plays. Travelling as a child with his father, who was a superintendent in the police force, he spent long hours in the evenings in the small towns and villages, listening to the policemen on sentry duty recounting their encounters with the Vaghers, Mers, Barots, the brave outlaws carrying on relentless battle against the rich and the mighty, all over Kathiawad (Saurashtra) and Kutchh. The little boy came to share the admiration the policemen felt for their enemies, the outlaws, who came from the same class as they. A little older, Gunvantrai came to live in the port town of Mandvi (Kutchh), which was then a prosperous centre of trade and commerce. Ships loaded with cargo still sailed from the port to all parts of the globe. Gunvantrai picked up from the sailors tales about their voyages and the adventures of their ancestors.
Gunvantrai had to give up studies when he was in his second year at college, and had to struggle with poverty for a large part of his life, working as a mill hand, a clerk in a ginning press, a teacher, a proofreader, a scriptwriter for films.
Though history and the sea held a lifelong fascination for Gunvantrai, and in his stories he came back to these themes again and again, he had neither the time nor the facilities to go in for elaborate research. As a writer straining for a living, he was under constant pressure. He had to write through the night, often sitting on the floor, using his knees for a desk!
He had a profound distrust for all official histories which he considered distortions, and tried to write a history of Gujarat from the point of view of the people involved. Carried away by the spirit of the people that he brought to vigorous life in his novels, he would only too often step beyond recorded history, and let his imagination take over.
His Danjalal (1938), one of the classics of Gujarati literature, translated in a slightly abridged version into English for the first time, should not be read as authentic history. The one-horned rhino, for example, who gives the novel its direction, is not a natural denizen of the region where it is supposed to appear. There is no god either called Mumbo Jumbo in Africa! One can list several such discrepancies. But these become immaterial beside Gunvantrai's passionate indictment of slavery and the involvement of Indian traders and slave drivers in the murky trade, and his valorization of his hero's one-man battle for the abolition of slavery.
Dariyalal is set in and around the island of Zanzibar (originally Jangbar, according to Gunvantrai) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Zanzibar, and its small companion island of Pemba, lie on the Indian Ocean, off the eastern coast of Africa. In 1964 they united with mainland Tanganyika to create the present state of Tanzania. Gunvantrai makes references to several historical figures and happenings. Hence it may be worthwhile to offer a short historical account of the period in which his characters live and act.
In 1840 Sayyid Said, Sultan of Oman, transferred his capital from Muscat in Oman to the island of Zanzibar, turning it into a major economic base. In Zanzibar, he. developed a lucrative clove plantation economy, importing black labour from the East African mainland. Indian moneylenders, settled in Zanzibar, and a merchant marine, were his main support. The Sultan. accrued large gains from customs and excise duties collected mainly at Zanzibar and from taxes on the sale of human beings as slaves in Zanzibar's notorious slave market. The large Indian settlement in Zanzibar lived off money lending and trading in slaves. They had started settling in these regions from the late eighteenth century, and by the middle of the nineteenth they were in a formidable position, providing the Arabs of the region with credit to exploit the East African interior commercially.
W E Burghardt Du Bois, a great Black American thinker, gives an account of the East African trade of the period: 'Ivory from about 1840 became increasingly valuable. Its gathering called for fire-arms and transport. Europe and America furnished the arms in vast quantity. Negro porters bore the white gold over distances on their heads, and the traders doubled their profit by selling those Negroes into slavery in the Middle East and America ...
'About the middle third of the nineteenth century.. . the demand for ivory increased. In America, ivory working was an early industry, especially in New England on the banks of the Connecticut, where ivory has been cut since 1820. It was processed for carving, for cutlery, billiard balls and manufactures, and for piano keys. At Deep River and Ivory ton and Buffalo the keyboards for all the pianos in America, Canada, and 'Australia were made. Because of increased demand, European and American traders set up establishments for buying ivory in Zanzibar; in the thirties and forties prices increased. Arabs began to ask for arms in order to shoot elephants and coerce the natives. Increased exports of ivory to Europe and America and of slaves to Arabia and the Persian Gulf, called for increased imports of weapons and ammunition. The Germans sent thirteen thousand muskets in one year. The British and Portuguese sent thousands of the old Sepoy guns from India. The French supplied a single-barrel light weapon. American blasting powder came in ten and twenty-five pound kegs. German cavalry sabres came and cases of percussion caps. Arabs borrowed from Indian usurers at 60 to 80 per cent, and set out for the haunts of elephants.' [W E B Du Bois, The World and Africa, New York: International Publishers, new enlarged edition, 1965]
Sultan Sayyid Said's predecessors had brought Portuguese control over the East African coastal city-states to an end. But the British government of the Bombay Presidency had immediately started eyeing the territory greedily. When Said moved to Zanzibar in 1840, the first British consulate on the East African coast was established at his court. With Said's successors failing to exercise the shrewd political manoeuvring that was his forte, the British could increase their hold on Zanzibar slowly but steadily till in 1890 they would bring it under formal British protection.
The Dariyalal story can be timed with the second African journey of the famous explorer, H M Stanley, who had been sent on his first journey into Africa to find the legendary Livingstone, and his greeting 'Dr Livingstone, I presume,' is part of history. Stanley makes a significant appearance in Dariyala! in Zanzibar, then under the rule of Said's son, Said Bin Suleiman-a - six-foot tall white man whose complexion was almost brown because of the sun. He looked powerful.'
Ramjibhai and his great battle to emancipate the slaves and give them a life of their own may be a beautiful figment of Gunvantrai's rich and colourful imagination, but it falls into a historical pattern, for history records the banning of slavery in Zanzibar in 1897. The charm of Gunvantrai's work lies in his interweaving of history and fiction, in which history is re-created in the way the people would have liked it to happen!
Dictum and Thema owe a special debt of gratitude to Varsha Adalja, daughter of Gunvantrai Acharya, who gave us permission to publish this book, and to Ms Kamal Sanyal, who drew our attention to this book and translated it with loving care.
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