Hindi Belt Authors

Devaki Nandan Khatri: The man who blazed a new trail for Hindi novel-writing

It’s a comment on our times that while people still remember the hugely popular television serial Chandrakanta, not many of its devoted viewers would be familiar with the name and contribution of Devaki Nandan Khatri, the man who created the character of Chandrakanta and blazed a new trail in the field of novel writing in Hindi, that too at a time when Hindi novel was in its infancy. Today it will baffle many people if they are told that in the last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, a sizeable number of South Indians learnt Hindi because they wanted to read Devaki Nandan Khatri’s wonderful tilismi novels. Tilism is a magical world full of optical illusion, a kind of phantasmagoria, where unbelievable things keep happening and deception plays a pivotal role. However, it was a unique feature of Khatri’s novels that the seemingly magical happenings were largely a result of the application of scientific knowledge and workings of mechanical contraptions.

Historical lineage

Devaki Nandan Khatri was born on June 18, 1861 in Pusa in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar. His father Lala Ishwar Das was a wealthy businessman whose Punjabi ancestors held important positions in the Mughal administration and, in the wake of the anarchy caused by the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had settled in Kashi (Banaras). Lala Ishwar Das was married to the daughter of Jeeevan Lal Mehta, a wealthy resident of Pusa, and Devaki Nandan’s happy childhood was mostly spent in his maternal grandfather’s home. His initial education was in Urdu and Persian and he later learnt Hindi, Sanskrit and English in Banaras. Because of his family background, he had many friends among rulers of princely states, besides a large number of other friends among whom were quite a few faqirs, auliyas and tantriks too.

Because of his high-level contacts, he was able to procure lucrative contracts for the forests in Chakia and Naugarh. This opened new vistas of experience to him as he traversed these dense and difficult forests and hills and visited many old historical buildings and forts. However, on account of the killing of a lion, he fell from grace of the local ruler and lost all his contracts. Feeling dejected, he embarked upon a literary project to fill the void in his life and began to write a novel titled Chandrakanta. Published in four parts, its first part came out in 1888 and created a sensation because it introduced the reader to a whole new world of royal love affairs, intrigues, miracles, magic and incredibly bold feats of the swashbuckling spies (aiyars) of rival rulers. The main characters of this novel was Raja Virendra Singh and Rani Chandrakanta.

Devaki Nandan Khatri: The man who blazed a new trail for Hindi novel-writing

Buoyed by success

The phenomenal success of the novel prompted Devaki Nandan Khatri to write a 24-part sequel titled Chandrakanta Santati (Chandrakanta’s Progeny). This was followed by Bhootnath, a novel that detailed the exploits of an aiyar of the same name who had figured prominently in his earlier novels. He had modelled it on Chandrakanta Santati but could finish only six parts before his untimely death on August 1, 1913. His son Durga Prasad Khatri, who himself earned fame as a writer on account of his novels Raktamandir and Mrityukiran, finished the novel and wrote the next fifteen parts.

Devaki Nandan Khatri wrote these novels at a time when, perhaps under the Victorian prudish values, North Indian middle class looked at novels with suspicion and kept them away from homes so that young boys and girls would not read them and get corrupted. His contemporaries wrote novels that were full of dry, moralistic prescriptions and used a Sanskrit-laden Khariboli Hindi. Khatri avoided both these traits and his novels offered pure entertainment in easy to understand Hindi that had place for all the Urdu or Persian words that common people freely used in their daily interactions. He had to face severe criticism from various quarters. Among his critics was Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, the formidable editor of journal Saraswati, published many articles that vehemently attacked Khatri’s novels for “leading the youth astray” and “committing the sin of murdering Hindi – a sin that is much more serious than murdering a human being”. However, Khatri had the courage to offer a critique of even Bharatendu Harishchandra’s Hindi and opined that had he and his associated written a simpler Hindi, they would have served the cause of the language much better.

When Khatri made these critical comments in the eighth chapter of Chandrakanta Santati, Nawab Rai “Banarasi”, who later emerged as the one and only Premchand, was writing his novels in Urdu. It is a well known fact that expansion of readership has played a crucial role in the emergence of novel as a literary form. Perhaps, it was the noticeable growth in the number of Hindi readers that helped Premchand make up his mind to make a transition from Urdu to Hindi. Devaki Nandan Khatri’s extraordinary popularity too must have played a role in this. Premchand switched to Hindi in 1915, two years after the death of Khatri.

Had Hindi writers paid heed to the advice of Khatri and the example set by Premchand and written in a simpler, easy-to-understand language, the linguistic politics of the 20th century could have been quite different.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 7:54:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/devaki-nandan-khatri-the-man-who-blazed-a-new-trail-for-hindi-novel-writing/article26941457.ece

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