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Barahmasa in London

Harish Trivedi

By Francesca Orsini
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2009, pp. 310, Rs. 695.00


Following the publication of her ambitious doctoral book The Hindi Public Sphere in 2002, Francesca Orsini was promptly acknowledged as one of the more knowledgeable and capable Hindi scholars teaching in the West and writing in English. (A fair proportion of them happen to be, like Orsini, women born and brought up in nonAnglophone European countriesbut let that significant circumstance remain for the moment a red herring.) In her second book now, Orsini offers archival retrieval and detailed discussion of several genres and aspects of popular literature published in Hindi or Urdu in the last three or four decades of the nineteenth century. The book is divided into seven substantial chapters. After an extensive Introduction replete with facts and figures and references to relevant scholarship in both English and Hindi, Orsini takes up in her next three chapters oral forms which were in this period being turned into print for the first time: barahmasas, songbooks, and tales of conventional gender debates such as Kissa Tota Maina or Kissa Aurat Mard. Her fifth chapter is devoted to a sprawling and episodic Urdu novel, FasanaeAzad by Pandit Ratan Nath Dar Sarshar, which Premchand read and reread with great relish as a boy and which at the height of his fame he found the time to abridge into Hindi under the title Azad Katha (1925), which runs close to a thousand pages. In her next chapter, Orsini turns to Chandrakanta by Devki Nandan Khatri, which is correspondingly described as The Longest Hindi Novel of the Nineteenth Century. This came as a bit of a surprise to mefor my somewhat tattered paperback copy of the novel, bought probably in the 1970s for the rubberstamped revised price of Rs 3.50 (as against the printed price of Rs 1.50) runs to a mere 301 pages, paginated nonserially in four different sequences for each of the four parts of the narrative which, as one could guess and Orsini confirms, is just how the novel was first published in 1891. Orsini could be right about the comparative length of the novel, it appeared, only if one takes into account all the 24 sequels to Chandrakanta, only too aptly called Chandrakanta Santati (Chandrakantas Children). But she tells us that Chandrakanta is even at 300 pages and by itself the longest Hindi novel of the nineteenth century, which may remind us that the search for the first Hindi novel routinely begins with Rani Ketki ki Kahani (1800) which in ...

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