This is a slightly ambitious project. I am attempting to translate Devki Nandan Khatri’s saga – Chandrakanta. Published in 1888, Chandrakanta is considered to be the first prose work of modern Hindi literature. It was also one of the most popular texts of its time.
Though it seems dated today, Chandrakanta provides a glimpse of the fantastic tradition of Hindi literature. Any search on the net reveals the basic plot – it is a love story of Prince Virendra Singh and Chandrakanta, princess of the neighbouring kingdom. (Please don’t draw from your memories of the television serial). Several questions and issues of the time infiltrate the plot. The central characters are the aiyaars (once again I have not been able to find an English equivalent and therefore have retained the original term). Wikipedia describes aiyaar as a spy. Though an aiyaar does the work of a spy, they are more of trickster figures valued for their cunning, for their skills at fooling others. They can change appearance (not magically), negotiate on King’s behalf, do things that armies cannot. There is a strict code of conduct governing aiyaars and their treatment – for instance, they can be captured but not killed. Only punishment for them is imprisonment. In Chandrakanta, they are the most important characters driving the plot, at times even overshadowing the main characters.
It is evening. There is a part of the setting sun still visible. In a barren field, under a hillock, two men – Virendra Singh and Tej Singh- are sitting on a rock and talking.
Virendra Singh must be about twenty one or twenty two. He is the only son of Raja Surendra Singh, the ruler of Naugarh. Tej Singh is the beloved son of Surendra Singh’s minister Jeet Singh and Virendra Singh’s great friend. Cunning and quick, with only a knife fastened to his belt, a small pouch hanging from his side, and a lasso in his hand, his eyes dart around as he talks to Virendra Singh.
‘Tej Singh, what a mess love is that it has brought us to this,’ said Virender Singh. ‘How many times have you brought the letters of Chandrakanta, the princess of Vijaygarh for me and taken my letters to her. It shows that she loves me as much as I love her. The distance between our kingdoms is only ten miles. In this letter also she has asked me to meet her as soon as I can.’
‘I can take you there some way or the other,’ Tej Singh replied. ‘But these days Chandrakanta’s father, Raja Jai Singh has set guards around the palace. And then, his minister’s son Krur Singh has fallen in love with her and he has instructed his aiyaars – Nazeem Ali and Ahmed Khan – to be on a constant alert. Krur Singh and his aiyaars know about your love. Chandrakanta might hate Krur Singh and the King might never want his daughter to marry a minister’s son, but he still has high hopes. He doesn’t like your attachment to Chandrakanta. His father told the King about your attachment to Chandrakanta and the King reinforced the security around the palace. I would not like to take you there till I arrest the troublemakers.’
‘I will immediately go to Vijaygarh and meet Chandrakanta and Chapla. Chapla is Chandrakanta’s friend and also an aiyaara. She loves Chandrakanta more than her life. I will go and test the cunning and the preparations of our enemies and then suggest if you can come. Haste and carelessness, we might get us arrested.’
Virendra Singh ‘Do what you think it is right. I can depend on my strength but you can depend on your strength as well as aiyaari’.
‘I have also come to know that two aiyaars of Krur Singh, Nazeem and Ahmed came here and met the King. I don’t know what tricks they used. Regrettably, I wasn’t here at the time.’
‘The problem is that you want to catch Krur Singh’s two aiyaars and they are planning to arrest you,’ Virender Singh sighed. ‘God bless us all. Anyway, you can go. Find some way so that I can meet Chandrakanta. ‘
In Vijaygarh, Krur Singh is talking to his two aiyaars, Nazeem and Ahmed.
‘The King thinks that he cannot accept a minister’s son as his son-in-law and Chandrakanta loves Virendra Singh. Tell me what can I do. If I think of kidnapping Chandrakanta, then where will I go and where will I live? And how will the King treat my father after I am gone. The best is that first we should arrest Virendra Singh and his aiyaar Tej Singh and put them in some place where no one will find them for the next thousand years. And then there should be a plan to kill the King. Then I will take the throne and spend rest of my life in luxury with Chandrakanta. But how will I become the King once the present King is dead? Will the people accept me?’
‘There are more Muslims in our Kingdom,’ Nazeem pointed out. ‘I can persuade them to help you. They will vow to accept you as their King once the present King is dead. The condition is that once it is done, you must become a Muslim.’
Krur Singh, ‘If this is the case, then I accept your conditions wholeheartedly.’
‘Then everything is fine,’ Ahmed added. ‘You must give this in writing. I will show it to all my Muslim brothers and they will be on our side.’
Krur Singh writes down the acceptance letter that he will become a Muslim once his the task is accomplished and gives the letter to Nazeem and Ahmed. Then Ahmed says ‘ There should be another letter promising that once you are the King, we will be the treasurers.’
Krur Singh quickly wrote another letter promising that as well which made them very glad. ‘Now we should go to get some news about Chandrakanta,’ Nazeem said and the two aiyaars took their leave.
It is evening. Chandrakanta, Chapla and Champa are roaming in the garden. On the one side of the garden are the high walls of the palace and on the other, are rows of plants, blooming in spring. Chapla, Chandrakanta’s dearest friend, is trying to entertain her by presenting her flowers. But Chandrakanta, who is longing for Virendra Singh, does not like anything. Chandrakanta and Chapla reach the fountain and start looking at the ripples of water.
‘Where has Champa gone?’ Chapla asked.
‘Must be somewhere here.’ Chandrakanta shrugged
‘She hasn’t been with us for some time now.’
‘Look, there she comes,’ Chandrakanta gestured to the approaching figure
Champa comes with a small sprig of flowers, gives it to Chandrakanta, saying, ‘Look how beautifully I have arranged the flowers. Virendra Singh would have appreciated.’
On hearing Virendra Singh’s name, Chandrakanta once again lost her mind. She remembered it all again, her face fell. She started lamenting, ‘I don’t know what the Gods have planned for me. What sins have I committed that I have to suffer so. What is my father thinking? He says he will not let me marry. Virendra’s father tried to persuade him, plead with him but he is completely under the influence of Krur Singh and his father Kupath Singh.’
Suddenly Chapla tugged hard at Chandrakanta’s hand. Chandrakanta became silent. Once again she started roaming in the garden with Chapla. She dropped her handkerchief there deliberately. After walking for some time, she exclaimed, ‘Please my friend, will you go to see if I have left my handkerchief near the fountain.’
Champa immediately went. Chandrakanta asked Chapla ‘ Why did you stop me suddenly?’
Chapla said, ‘My dear friend, I am suspicious of Champa. Her words and her gestures show that she is not our Champa.’ In the mean time Champa brought the handkerchief and handed it to Chapla. Chapla asked Champa ‘Did you do what I asked you to do yesterday, in the night?’
‘Oh! I forgot!’ Champa shook her head.
‘You remember the thing I told you or have you forgotton that too?’ Chapla probed.
‘I remember that.’ Champa said.
‘Then tell me again so that I know that you remember everything correctly,’ Chapla asked.
Champa evaded the answer and started talking about other things which confirmed Chapla’s suspicions. Finally Chapla drew her aside and said ‘I want to tell you something’ and drew her aside. After a while she said ‘Champa just take a look at my ear. It is hurting since yesterday. Can you smell something?’ Imposter Champa fell for the trick. Very cleverly Chapla put something near her ear, inhaling which Champa fell to the ground, unconscious.
Chapla called Chandrakanta ‘Come and take a look at your dear Champa.’ Chandrakanta came and saw that Champa was lying on the ground. Seeing this, she got worried ‘What if we are wrong and have to apologize to her later?’
‘That will not happen,’ said Chapla. She carried Champa to the fountain and said “You pour some water with your hands and I will wash her face.’
Chandrakanta did so and Chapla washed the face vigorously. Within a few moments, the face turned out to be Nazeem’s. As soon as she saw this, Chandrakanta flew in rage, ‘What audacity!’
‘Just see what I do.’ Saying this Chapla carried Nazeem to the corner of the garden where there was a small dungeon. She threw unconscious Nazeem in the dungeon and drew a small candle from her pouch. She tied his hands and feet and brought something near his nose. Inhaling it, Najeem sneezed once and woke up to find himself bound and helpless. Chapla brought a whip.
‘Forgive me! It was a big mistake. I will never do it again. I will never do any such thing ever again! ‘ Nazeem started crying. But Chapla was not ready to listen. ‘You just wait. I haven’t even begun! Why did you come here? Did you not like us enjoying ourselves? Or did you want to join us? Did you not know that Chapla will be there? You bastard, on whose behest have you come? I am going to teach you a lesson!’ Chapla whipped him again and asked ‘Tell me the truth, how did you come here. Where is Champa?’
Scared of Chapla, Nazeem started telling everything, ‘I left Champa unconscious. I kept a sprig of flowers in her way. It was sprayed with chemicals which render people unconscious. She fainted and I hid her in dense foliage, changed my face, wore her clothes and came to you.’
When Chapla went looking for Champa near the foliage, she saw her lying unconscious, disheveled. Chapla awakened her, ‘Are you okay? You were tricked.’
Champa said ‘How could I know someone would trick me here? I saw a sprig of flowers. As soon as I inhaled the fragrance I fell down. I don’t know what happened after that.’ She put on Nazeem’s clothes. Chapla said ‘Come with me. I will show the person you left you in this state.’ She brought Champa to where Chandrakanta was guarding Nazeem. ‘He is the one who treated you so well.’ As soon as she saw Nazeem, Champa flew into a fit of rage. ‘O give me the whip and let me relieve my anger.’
Chapla said, ‘O yes! The fool should be punished.’ That was all that Champa needed. She also started beating Nazeem. Nazeem cursed in his heart ‘May God punish Krur Singh. It is because of him that I am in this state!’
Finally, the three girls left for the palace, leaving Nazeem in the dungeon. This small garden had been made for Chandrakanta only.
¶After bidding farewell to Virendra Singh, Tej Singh reached Vijaygarh and started to think of ways to meet Chandrakanta. With alert guards posted around the palace, none of his plans seemed to work.
Finally, TejSingh found a lonely spot where he changed his appearance. In the disguise of the gatekeeper he reached the palace for the guard duty. He saw several gatekeepers and guards and said to one ‘I am the servant of the King. I had been guarding his quarters for the last four months. Now I am on a leave. I was walking around enjoying the full moon night when I saw you here smoking tobacco. I also had the urge to take two puffs.’
‘Of course, come and sit with us,’ saying this gatekeeper and the guards placed the hookah in front of TejSingh. Tej Singh said, ‘Since I am a Hindu I won’t smoke a hookah. Give me the chillum in hand.’ And he started smoking.
As soon he took a puff, he started coughing badly and said, ‘What bitter tobacco you use! I always use the tobacco the King smokes. The servant who prepares the King’s hookah is a friend, and he always gives me some tobacco that the King smokes. Now I am used to. Don’t like any other tobacco!’
Saying this, he drew out a tobacco filled chillum from his pocket, ‘Try this tobacco.’
The gatekeepers had never smoked the tobacco prepared for the King. Forget smoking, they had not even dreamt of it. Quickly they took the chillum. ‘Thanks to you that we are enjoying the tobacco meant for the King. You were lucky to have been working in the King’s quarters. You must enjoy it a lot!’ Saying this they took the tobacco. ‘You start,’ Tej Singh said. ‘Then I will take it.’
They started puffing the hookah and gossiping.
Gradually, the gatekeeper and the guards grew drowsy. Within a few moments, they fell forward and fainted.