Hindi literature is rich, varied and has an indescribable charm of its own, derived in part from the beautiful and expressive language that Hindi is. An English education, with all consideration for its merits, often tends to introduce us only cursorily to the gems that Hindi has to offer, and most of us leave it behind with school. But it is never too late to start, and what better to begin with than the classics!
Here are just a few of the highly acclaimed novels in Hindi from the past century, in no particular order:
1. Rashmirathi (Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’)
This epic draws from the story of Karna, Kunti’s first-born son in the Mahabharata. It portrays Karna, “a man blessed by the Gods but rejected by Destiny”, the circumstances of his birth and his upbringing in a lowly family, and how his righteousness, sense of duty and legendary generosity prevails against all adversity. Dinkar’s finesse in expressing the Veer Rasa shows through his forceful and rhythmic lyrics, in a work that is now a classic in modern Hindi literature. Rashmirathi was translated in English by Mauritian activist Leela Gujadhar Sarup.
2. Godaan (Munshi Premchand)
Premchand, the storyteller of the masses, achieved sublimity with this novel, which revolves around the poor peasant Hori and his desire to own a cow. Godaan translates to “The Gift of a Cow”, and describes the struggles of the poor in rural India, where caste tensions, economic deprivation and oppression of the landless by the elites still runs rife. Premchand’s trademark pathos in his description of the upright but helpless Hori, his feisty wife Dhaniya and other memorable characters, induces a discomfort that few authors can achieve. Its English translation by Gordon C. Roadarmel is said to be a classic in itself.
3. Gunahon Ka Devta (Dharamvir Bharati)
Literally meaning “The Deity of Sins”, this classic gained a cult following, especially among contemporary youth, for its accurate description of the complications surrounding love and the repercussions when it remains unrequited. It deals with questions of honour, morality and ideals, and the romance between protagonists Sudha and Chander in the background is far from the rosy picture generally associated with the “love story” genre. Gunahon Ka Devta is sordid, hard-hitting, but honest and profound.
4. Raag Darbari (Shrilal Shukla)
This socio-political satire fetched its author the Sahitya Akademi award. It humorously presents the dissonance faced by Ranganath, fresh out of university, on witnessing the nexus between politicians, businessmen and criminals, which clashes with his own lofty notions regarding the ideal society and its functioning. Narrated as a series of anecdotes, this caustic take on the disintegrating values of post-Independence India is a funny yet thought-provoking read. A translation by Gillian Wright is also available.
5. Maila Anchal (Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’)
Considered second only to Premchand’s Godaan, Maila Anchal highlights the bleak realities of a village in the Mithila region of Bihar. The plight of this village during the pre-Independence era is described in intricate detail, along with the story of a young doctor who helps the villagers in time of crisis. Of special note is the use of typical Maithili words and expressions which lend the novel a distinctly local flavour.
6. Kitne Pakistan (Kamleshwar)
Kamleshwar worked on this ambitious project for an entire decade, and the result was an awe-inspiring attempt at rationalising the Partition which created independent India and Pakistan. Various historical as well as mythological characters, Alexander, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein to name a few, convene in a fictional court and narrate history from their perspective. Their arbiter is a litterateur, who represents humanity. He listens to the arguments and contemplates over the genocides throughout history- Kurukshetra, Hiroshima, the Holocaust and of course, the bloodshed following the creation of Pakistan. A compelling dialogue, indeed!
7. Volga Se Ganga (Rahul Sankrityayan)
One of the pioneering travel writers of modern times, Rahul Sankrityayan traces the growth of the Aryan civilisation from the banks of the Volga to their eventual settlement in the valley of the Ganges. It begins in 6000 BC, with Aryans living in a matriarchal society in the Eurasian steppes, and culminates in Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement of 1942, in the Indian subcontinent. In a mere twenty short stories, Sankrityayan beautifully shows the evolution of our ancestors along with their material, spiritual and intellectual development. This book has been translated in a number of major languages.
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Title image: ernet