The Indian Roots

Diamond in my Palm – slated for release in November.

No doubt, the novel as a modern literary form was effectively established globally during the 17th and 18th centuries with Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1605), Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719) and Fielding (Tom Jones, 1749) among others. Then came the 19th century with Jane Austen, the Bronté sisters and of course Charles Dickens, who firmly established the prose novel as we know it today.

Even though the word “novel” came into use only in the 18th century (from the Italian word “novella”) there are older examples in Europe and in Asia. In fact, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, an early 11th-century Japanese text, has sometimes been described as the world’s first novel, followed by the classic Chinese novels (Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin) written during the 14th century Ming dynasty.

India too has an early example, Kādambari – a romantic novel written in Sanskrit. It was originally composed by Bāṇabhaṭṭa in the first half of the 7th century CE, but was completed after his death by Bhushanabhatta, his son. In fact, Kādambari today is a generic term for a novel in a number of Indian languages like Marathi and Kannada.

The tradition of having a hierarchy of narrators (telling tales in frames) found in the ancient Indian epic of Mahābhārata (9th century BCE) was sustained by Bāṇabhaṭṭa and thus his novel begins:

One day, a Chandala (a low caste of forest-dwellers) maiden comes to his court and makes a present of a parrot (named Vaishampayana) to the king. After having eaten some tasty morsels and rested in the royal chambers, the parrot begins to narrate his tale with the preamble, “Your Majesty, this is a very long story; but if you are curious, it will be told.”

It is no coincidence that the master narrator of the Mahābhārata too has the name, Vaishampayana, but who was Rishi Ved Vyas, the epic’s master composer’s principle disciple. The epic was first narrated on the occasion of the Sarpa-Satra (the great snake sacrifice) conducted during the reign of King Janamejaya.

In recent years, Indians have written novels in English (Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, for example) that have appealed globally. However, the coming to age of the Indian novel coincided with India’s freedom movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when both Ravindra Nath Tagore (1861 – 1941) and Munshi Premchand (1880 – 1936) significantly influenced the writing tradition in separate ways, across the major Indian languages (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil etc.) as well.

However, there were others too and my own favourite is Devaki Nandan Khatri (1861 – 1913) often recognized as the father of the popular Indian novel in Hindi. He introduced romance, fantasy, mystery, adventure and excitement and Chandrakanta (1888) is probably the best remembered example. He even had special shadowy characters (called Aiyyars) that deployed clever disguise, exceptional skill and special knowledge to overcome their enemies. Their powers were almost magical.

“Diamond in my Palm” has both, a bit of Khatri, as well as Vaishampayana, and thus carries the unique flavor of an Indian tale told the Indian way, but with a universal appeal. Hope you enjoy it.

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  1. Beautifully told Dharu! If your above history of where the novel came from is any guide, I am sure Diamond in my Palm will be fascinating reading! Looking forward to it!

    Liked by 1 person

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