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The maiden novels of Indian languages

Like cricket, the novel was borrowed from the West, but it is today completely desi in every sense of the term

The Marathi and Kannada word for novel is “kadambari". It’s an interesting choice of word and, presumably, the word probably gained currency only in the 19th century. Prior to that, it is unlikely that a word for “novel" existed in many Indian languages since the novel itself made its appearance in India only in the 19th century.

Some experts are of the opinion that Banabhatta’s Sanskrit work Kadambari, penned in the seventh century, was probably the first novel written in an Indian language. Others put Kadambari in an oxymoronic category that is much-contested: the prose poem.

World literature experts have put it out that the world’s first novel is an 11th century Japanese work, The Tale of Genji. The Marathi and Kannada words are perhaps a little gesture of defiance that sought long before our current times to claim that Indians were the first at something. In this case, it’s the novel!

Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that the novel is a quintessentially modern form of literature, as opposed to drama and verse, which are far more ancient.

The reason why a novel is modern has to do with the way it is expected to be read. The novel calls for silent reading. The reader has to engage with the text on her own terms in a little private mental universe.

To write a novel is therefore to call for the reader to engage in a one-on-one relationship with the book. This was a relative impossibility before the printing press was invented, since books were hard to produce and even harder to come by.

The invention of the press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 eventually led to the mass production of books, thereby permitting readers to engage with their own personal copy. In time, the novel as we know it today was born.

The claimants for the western world’s first novel are many. Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes, Oroonoko (1688) by Aphra Behn and Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, to name just a few. The contested definition of what exactly constitutes a “novel" is perhaps the reason for so many contesting claims.

By the time the British became well-established in India in the 19th century, the novel as a form of literature in the West had settled down. The arrival of the British led to a few Indians obtaining western-style education and this enabled them to dip into the corpus of western literature, including the form that was the most popular at that point—the novel. An Indian novel was in the making soon enough.

Given that Banabhatta’s Kadambari was perhaps the earliest novel written and the Marathi word for novel is kadambari, appropriately, Yamuna Paryatan (1857) written in Marathi by Baba Padamji was among the earliest novels written in the country. It addressed an issue that was soon to gain nationwide attention: the plight of widows.

In 1864, appeared another novel, written by an Indian... in English! Rajmohan’s Wife was written by none other than Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. This book was serialized in a magazine, and like Yamuna Paryatan, had a female-centric theme.

Chatterjee soon wrote the first Bengali novel, Durgeshnandini in 1865. It was a love triangle and its main characters were Jagat Singh, a Mughal general; Tilottama, the daughter of a Bengali feudal lord; and Ayesha, the daughter of a rebel Pathan leader against whom Singh was fighting.

Chatterjee soon embarked on a brilliant literary career and cemented his position among the literary giants of the country. Kapalkundala and Anandmath are two other well-known novels of his.

Among the Dravidian languages, Tamil’s first novel was Prathapa Mudaliar Charitram by Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai. Written in 1857, it was published only in 1879 and was a smashing success. This novel was followed by Kamalambal Charitram by B.R. Rajam Iyer in 1893 and Padmavathi Charitram by A. Madhaviah in 1898.

Sri Rangaraju Charitra, written by civil servant Narahari Gopalakrishnama Setty and written in 1867, was the first Telugu novel. Rajasekhara Charitramu written by Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu was published in 1878. Modelled after Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, the novel received both critical and popular acclaim.

Similarly, the second novel written in Malayalam, Indulekha (1889) by O. Chandu Menon, was modelled after Henrietta Temple by Benjamin Disraeli.

Menon was in the process of translating Henrietta Temple into Malayalam when it occurred to him that the novel’s characters, locales and culture were way too alien for the book to appeal to Malayalam readers.

He soon went on to write Indulekha, which was an appeal to contemporarize the marriage practices of the Nair community. Critically acclaimed though this was, this novel was Malayalam’s second, the first being Kundalatha (1887) by Appu Nedungadi.

The first novel in Kannada, Indira Bai by Gulvadi Venkata Rao, was published in 1899. Dealing with the education of widows, it was critical of social practices. The word “kadambari" used for the novel in Kannada was first used by Lakshmana Bhima Gadagkar to describe his Suryakantha (1892). He apparently borrowed the word from Marathi.

The earliest Hindi novel was Pariksha Guru by Srinivas Das, published in 1882. He was part of the renowned writer Bharatendu Harishchandra’s circle. An enthusiastic promoter of the novel, Harishchandra ardently desired that a novel be written in Hindi and Das fulfilled his wish.

The first popular novel in Hindi was Chandrakantha by Devaki Nandan Khatri, published in 1888. A fantasy, it caught the imagination of readers like no other and as a TV series telecast a few years ago proved, continues to remain popular.

Odia’s first novel was Saudamani, written by Ramashankar Ray in 1878. But Chaa Mana Atha Gunta written by Fakir Mohan Senapati and published in 1897 was the first novel to become popular. Addressing the issue of the landless (the title means Six Acres and a Third), it espoused Marxist ideas long before they had gained any currency in India.

Sundari (1898) by Bhai Vir Singh has the distinction of being Punjabi’s first novel. Padmanath Gohain Baruah’s Bhanumoti, published in 1890, is the first Assamese novel. Nandshankar Mehta’s Karan Ghelo (1866) was the first original novel of Gujarati literature. Lamabam Kamal Singh’s Madhavi (1930) is recognized as the first modern Manipuri novel. The first novel in Kashmiri, Dod Dag (Sickness and Pain) written by Akhtar Mohi-ud-din, was published in 1957.

Urdu literature had an existing tradition of prose akin to the novel called dastaans. But Mirat-al-Urus (The Bride’s Mirror, 1868-69) by Deputy Nazeer Ahmed is regarded as the first novel in Urdu. It was translated into several other Indian languages and has never been out of print since. In 1903, an English translation was published in London by G.E. Ward.

Given that it appears most first novels were written by men, the first Indian woman to write a novel in English was Krupabai Sattianadhan, whose Saguna was published in 1895, a year after her untimely death.

Another interesting early novel by a woman, again written in English, is Sultana’s Dream, published in 1905 and written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain. It depicts a feminist utopia (called Ladyland) in which women run everything and men are secluded.

The novel today is a flourishing literary form in India. Like cricket, it was borrowed from the West, but is today completely desi in every sense of the term. Indeed, the novel has come a long way.

Banabhatta would have been proud!

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer.

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