Romantic fantasy
Shalini Rawat

by Devkinandan Khatri.
Translated by Deepa Aggarwal.
Puffin Classics.
Pages 252. Rs 199.

IT was while looking after his ancestral estate in Gaya that Devakinandan Khatri found employment as a timber contractor with the raja of Varanasi. His excursions into the dense jungles with their mysterious ruins of forts and palaces paved the way for the first mystery novel in Hindi, Chandrakanta.

The success of the novel took the author by surprise. It is said that the book, published serially in short chapters between 1888 and1891, sold like hot cakes. People learned Hindi and the Devnagri script to read it. Critics disapproved of its lack of ‘literary qualities’, but the writer of this 19th-century ‘Harry Potter’ said he wrote it for entertainment only. The comparison to the Potter success, however, gives only a measure of its popularity. The immense effect it had on the spread of the Hindi language is probably unparalleled.

The story is a romantic fantasy about two lovers who belong to rival kingdoms: the princess Chandrakanta of Vijaygarh and the prince Virendra Singh of Naugarh. The king of Vijaygarh holds Naugarh responsible for the death of his only brother, who was actually assassinated by the evil Krur Singh, a member of the king’s court who dreams of marrying Chandrakanta and taking over the throne. When Krur Singh fails in the endeavour, he flees the kingdom and befriends Shivdutt, the powerful neighboring king of Chunargarh (a re-naming of "Chunar-fort", referring to the fort in Chunar that inspired Khatri to write the novel).

Krur Singh coaxes Shivdutt to ensnare Chandrakanta at any cost. Shivdutt captures Chandrakanta and while running away from Shivdutt, Chandrakanta finds herself a prisoner in a ‘tilism’. Later, Kunvar Virendra Singh breaks the tilism and fights with Shivdutt with the help of aiyyars. Chandrakanta, the novel, has many sequels, prominent being a seven-book series Chandrakanta Santati dealing with the adventures of Chandrakanta and Virendra Singh’s children in another major tilism.

Many of the concepts and devices used in the novel are said to be inspired by the Persian Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, where an aiyyar (male) or aiyyara (female) is a spy in the service of a king, who specialises in disguises. The aiyyar can use make-up to resemble any person or an animal. He generally captures a target and imprisons him, then impersonates the prisoner while furthering his or the king’s own cause. Similarly, ‘tilism’ is a kind of maze containing many secret passages and prisons. It is intended to be "broken" or deciphered by a person; once broken, all its doors open and its prisoners released. The person who successfully breaks the tilism also gains the immense treasures hidden within it.

The fact that Chandrakanta was made into a television serial and a film in our day is proof enough of its popularity. The English retelling, however, fails to capture the essence of the mysterious spirit of the original version, probably because it has been condensed a bit too much and the story sounds ‘dry’. Nevertheless, it is a great attempt at whetting the appetite of the reader and bringing the tale to light.