Devakinandan (author of Chandrakanta)
Devakinandan (author of Chandrakanta)

Epics for children | The first modern Hindi novel

With mazes, battles, magic and beautifully written diverse characters, all trying to outwit each other, the book is a real page-turner.

The book that is widely considered to be the first popular novel in modern everyday Hindi, is Chandrakanta by Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri, published in 1888. It is an epic fantasy that has a beautiful princess who gets into trouble, a brave prince who rescues her, enemy kings who create obstacles at every step, and aiyaars who are masters of deception and disguise. With mazes, battles, magic and beautifully written diverse characters, all trying to outwit each other, the book is a real page-turner.

Devaki Nandan had worked for some time as a forest contractor for the Raja of Benares. His job involved roaming in forests, and staying at old monuments and ruins. When he lost his job, he used his experiences to write the books. He also borrowed liberally from the Persian-Arabic story-telling tradition of dastan; in the process Indianising and naturalising it. For example, the way he uses tilism—a magical maze, which has got traps at every step and can only be solved by the most skilful. His mazes are mechanical contraptions, not magical ones. Similarly, the ability of the aiyaars to change form at will has been attributed to disguise and make-up.

Devaki Nandan did not write the book all at once. He wrote it in a serial form, one chapter—called a bayaan—at a time. Most reading and writing at the time was being done in Urdu, Sanskritised Hindi, or English. Every day Hindi that the common people spoke was not considered suitable for literature. Devakinandan was adamant that he would write only in modern Hindi. Due to this insistence, his books never got a high enough place in Hindi literature, but in terms of popularity, they surpassed almost every other book. Chandrakanta became so popular that people would eagerly wait for the next bayaan. In village squares, people would crowd around a literate person to hear it being read. Many non-Hindi speakers learnt Hindi to read it. The success of Chandrakanta prompted Devaki Nandan to write its sequel ‘Chandrakanta Santati’ in six volumes. Four TV serials have been made on the books and one movie starring legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan was almost made.

The book does have its problems. Despite deriving inspiration from Arabic-Persian storytelling and liberally borrowing Urdu words, the books have an anti-Islamic tilt and Muslim characters are always cast in negative roles and dealt with harshly. The characters are also shown to hold casteist beliefs. It is possible to be aware of these issues and enjoy the book despite them because it is a rollicking tale. The book is now in the public domain, so it should not be too difficult to catch hold of a copy. Grab one today and enter the magical world of Chandrakanta.

The New Indian Express