Thriving on the Margins of History: Engaging with the Past in the Vernacular

A diversity of discursive formations in the vernacular flourish on the margins of history, and even outside it. To better understand these formations, particularly in postcolonial societies such as India, I argue that it is important to eschew the sole use of the lens of veracity. I explore alternative lenses through which to more fruitfully examine historical narratives in the vernacular: the contrast between the “historical past” and the “practical past,” the complexities involved in cultural translation, and the lyrical and fictionalized nature of prior accounts of the past. I employ these alternative lenses to make sense of Gujarati author Nandśaṅkar Tuḷjāśaṅkar Mehtā's use of the historical novel form in his pioneering historical work, Karaṇ Ghelo, Gujarātno chello Rajpūt rājā: ek vārtā (Karaṇ the Crazy, Gujarat's Last Rajput King: A Story), the first novel written in Gujarati. Writing at a time when the demand for histories and history textbooks was burgeoning, Mehtā made the curious choice to write a vārtā, or “story”—a choice that becomes more comprehensible when seen from the alternative perspectives I propose.