From Madhushala to Kashi Ka Assi – 8 Gems of Hindi Literature You Must Read

“Writers in Hindi and books in the Hindi language fail to elicit the same enthusiasm and praise from readers, as do their English counterparts.  If you have been planning to explore beautiful narratives of Hindi literature, these famous literary pieces could be a good starting point. These stories and poems will leave you spellbound by their riveting storyline, memorable characters, and their intricate craft.”

Were you to ask a child of twelve or ten, which his favourite book is, the odds are high that it will be a book like Harry Potter, or ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, rather than a book in his native mother tongue. The situation of Hindi literature is no less different. Though, the variant of Hindi spoken today in North India has a rich history of over a thousand years, why is it that it’s literary masterpieces hardly elicit the same effusive praise that its English counterparts do? Except for a few books/writers in Hindi, they have not become household names like their English counterparts.

Who is to be blamed though? In a world increasingly smitten by English, reading in Hindi and other regional languages is considered uncool. Those of you who went to English medium schools or like me read extensively in English to better English language skills, came out feeling comfortable reading in English alone and could never become bilingual readers. In English medium schools, Hindi is treated as a subject, not as a language that needs to be honed. And because we are more comfortable reading in English we don’t take the effort to consciously try reading good texts available in Hindi. I have seen people reading even the most popular Hindi books in translated in  English.

It is, however, high time you add a few gems of Hindi literature to your mandatory reading list. I have curated a list of plays, novels, and poems, dealing with myriad themes that are perfect to start your journey exploring the world of Hindi literature.

1.  Gaura by Mahadevi Verma

‘Gaura’ is the first story I tried to read in my life. At 5, I couldn’t comprehend it. All I could understand is that a cow dies in the end. It was years later when I read it that I understood the layers of greed and violence that lend the story its poignant irony.

2. Kashi Ka Assi by Kashi Nath Singh

Published in 2008, the novel ‘Kashi Ka Assi’, has also been adapted as a Hindi movie called  ‘Mohalla Assi’. Written from an insider’s perspective, it chronicles the colourful life on the ghats of Banaras. It features real conversations and real people as characters.  The story goes through the watershed moments in the history of India – the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which led to the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and the implementation of the Mandal Commission. Don’t worry! the novel is not a grim depiction of these events. Rather these events form the background, while life on Assi continues in its humorous vein, as the fabric of the city gradually alters slowly but surely. ‘Kashi ka Assi’ is also an account of how Banaras was shaped with the advent of the city as an international tourist destination. You certainly can’t miss this one!

3. Sikka Badal Gaya by Krishna Sobti

’Sikka Badal Gaya’ a short story set in a village during partition is a masterpiece of language, narrative technique and the art of dealing with loss and nostalgia. Without ever resorting to melodrama, the story grips at your heart with its melancholy, and draws tears even from the most hardened readers. If you Google it right now, you will be done reading it before you finish your cup of coffee!

4. Vimal-series by Surender Mohan Pathak

Warning! You might strain your fingers scrolling through his endless body of work listed on his Wikipedia page. With more than 315 novels and joke books to his credit, Surender Mohan Pathak is undoubtedly the most prolific Hindi writers of our times.

The slang ‘company’ now frequently used for the Mumbai underworld gangs was first coined by Pathak. Such is the impact and popularity of his series in the Hindi heartlands that many culprits involved in criminal cases have confessed to getting the ideas of robbery from his novels. Wonder whether Pathak takes it as a compliment or an impediment!

5. Andha Yug by Dharamveer Bharti

If Andha Yug (The Age of Blindness) is running near you make sure you catch a performance. If not, then read it.  Andha Yug by Dharamveer Bharti is a poetic play that focuses on the last day of the war of Mahabharata. Ebrahim Alkazi, M.K. Raina, Ratan Thiyam, Arvind Gaur – all giants of Hindi theatre have directed the play.

6. Todti Pathhar by  Surya Kant Tripathi ‘Nirala’

‘Nirala’, literally unique, has a body of work as his name portends. Many of us remember Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’ in our English books. Nirala’s poem ‘Todti Patthar’ (Breaking Stones) betters it in its sympathetic depiction of a woman manual labourer and is actually suited more for an Indian readership.

7. Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachchan

Even if you are a new entrant to the world of Hindi literature, ‘Madhushala’ by Harivansh Rai Bachchan would still ring a bell in your head.

The book, composed in quatrains or rubai each one ending in the word madhushala, explains the complexity of life using four words: Mandira – wine, saaki – server, pyaala cup or glass and of course madhushala –  pub or bar. If literary Hindi makes it difficult for you to enjoy it, here is an option. Plug your earphones and listen to a soulful rendition of the poem by his son Amitabh Bachchan on YouTube.

8. ’Jhansi ki Rani’ by Subadhra Kumari Chauhan

One of the most recited and sung poems of Hindi literature, ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ is an emotionally charged poem describing the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai, and her participation in the 1857 revolution.