Book Review: ‘The Chariot of Wisdom’ by Subramania Bharati

A superb translation of a classic!


Book Title: The Chariot of Wisdom
Author: Subramania Bharati
Translator: Gregory James
Publisher: Hachette India
Number of Pages: 280
ISBN: 978-9393701848
Date Published: May 25, 2023
Price: INR 388

The Chariot of Wisdom by Subramania Bharati Book Cover

Book Review

Subramania Bharati, a prominent cultural figure of modern Tamil Nadu in the late 19th and early 20th century, is best known for his poetry. Regrettably, this focus on his poetic works has overshadowed his prose writings, significantly contributing to Tamil political vocabulary. As a working journalist, Bharati used prose to communicate, and his writings in Swadesamitran and India played a crucial role in Tamil politics. He ventured into column writing, wrote stories, and maintained active involvement in the nationalist movement while keeping a vision for a complimentary India’s future.

In his only novella, “The Chariot of Wisdom (Gnanaratham)”, Bharati breaks away from the constraints of classical Tamil literature, making the language more straightforward and more accessible to a broader audience. His literary achievements were remarkable as he wrote during a tumultuous period in the nation’s freedom struggle while in exile. Translated with profound intellectual acumen by Gregory James, this contemporary masterpiece remains as relevant today as it was a century ago. Cleverly disguised, it serves as an earnest appeal to the people of a distracted nation, urging them to unite and strive for a more equitable society.

The novella follows the journey of a troubled journalist in British-occupied India. Seeking solace from his daily worries and struggles, he embarks on a daydream, riding an imaginary chariot through mystical realms. The chariot takes him through the World of Tranquillity, the World of Pleasure, the World of Truth, and the World of Dharma. Along the way, he grapples with his values and ideals, which often compete and contradict one another, leading to self-doubt. The story explores the notion that peace and happiness may come at a price.

The Chariot of Wisdom (Gnanaratham)” was serialized in Bharati’s political weekly, India, in 1908. Still, it was halted when the author had to go into exile in French-ruled Pondicherry to evade the British police. It was later resumed, but unfortunately, the novella remained unfinished.

The novella’s narrator, undoubtedly Bharati himself, is a journalist burdened with everyday material worries, adding a touch of humor and contemporary relevance to the apparent fantasy. His journey begins in Chennai’s Triplicane, where he yearns for a chariot ride to the Adyar River but settles for the chariot of knowledge instead. The narrative takes the reader on a tour of various worlds, each representing different aspects of human existence.

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In The World of Pleasure, the narrator embraces hedonism, challenging puritanical morals and advocating for the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. However, the allure of fun eventually fades, and he moves on to the World of Truth, a demanding and challenging realm. The narrator then explores the World of Dharma, where he encounters Dharmaraja, reflecting ideals of Varnashrama Dharma with a focus on qualities and abilities rather than birth, although it still privileges certain classes.

The Chariot of Wisdom (Gnanaratham)” offers a multi-layered reading experience. Rooted in early nationalism, it critiques India’s colonized state and brutal state repression during the peak of the Swadeshi movement. Despite its nationalistic elements, Bharati transcends narrow nationalism, appreciating Western achievements and self-critically evaluating his culture and people. The novella exudes hope for a politically free nation and advocates standing shoulder to shoulder with other nations and peoples in the pursuit of rejuvenation.

Finally, “The Chariot of Wisdom (Gnanaratham)” is a rich text with humor and depth, reflecting Bharati’s ideological convictions, infirmities, and self-doubts while calling for the collective progress of nations and humanity.