CHENNAI: From mythology to women’s education as a driver of social change, to an array of belief systems and existential themes, everything speaks through memorable part-real, part-fictional characters in this rich collection of 24 stories by some of the finest short story writers in Odia over the last 100 years and slightly more.
Selected and translated into English by Leelawati Mohapatra, a novelist who has extensively translated from Odia into English, Paul St-Pierre, a former Professor of Translation studies at Montreal University, and K K (Kamalakanta) Mohapatra, who has to his credit a rich collection of varied writings himself and who has collaborated with the former two authors in many works of translation, this amazing non-didactic collection barring the occasional value judgments we all make in moments of crisis and distress, reads like a translucent gem, splattering the many-sidedness of human existence.
In the Indian philosophical tradition, Orissa, now Odisha, is known more for having produced some of the finest, sharpest and greatest ‘Navya Nyaya’ logicians, while the picture postcards confine to remnants of Kalinga dynasty, Odissi dance form, Puri Jagannath temple, Konark Sun temple, the Chilika lake and a few other places. On the down side, we hear the endemic hunger in Koraput region, besides the tribals’ struggle against mining lords. But what these translations open the non-Odia readers to is an amazing world of narratives from this part of Eastern India that reflect change from tradition to modernity.
More than form and substance, the words and turn of phrases in this collection of stories tell us how people are sandwiched between a past whose history is not entirely known and a future whose dangers and uncertainty are yet to be tamed.
K K Mohapatra (KKM for short) in his introduction to the text - interestingly all the three authors who have collaborated in this immensely readable translation project have set out their own individual impressions in the introduction-, points out that like “in other Indian languages, the modern period of Odia literature was a product of the colonial encounter.”
The short story as a genre in Odia, he says “germinated” in 1898 with the publication of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s ‘Rebati’- “a haunting portrayal of a young girl’s burning desire for education which was almost like aspiring for the moon those days”- and is still “enjoys the honour and distinction of being the first modern Odia story”. ‘Rebati’ is included in this volume in the appendix, precisely for the exalted status it continues to enjoy in that literary tradition.
The story is a very moving portrayal of how “providence works in mysterious ways” and brings out how the protagonist girl Rebati’s resolute ways to literacy and the world of knowledge is seen as a curse until the very end of Shyambandhu Mohanty’s family. Also included in the appendix is another famous story ‘The Sanyasi’ by Reba Ray, which is said to be the first modern Odia short story by a woman writer in 1899.
‘The Sanyasi’, revolves around one Nityananda Patnaik, who retired from the Treasury office in Cuttack, his ambitious and foul-mouthed wife, Ushabati, their only child Siva Prasad, “born after prayers to Lord Siva” and Parasamani, a destitute woman who is given shelter by Nityananda and who later becomes the daughter-in-law of the household as affection grew between Parasamani and Siva Prasad. But with Parasamani’s death following her illness after a stillborn child, the family’s grief only seemed to be in passing. Ushabati has other plans to marry off her son to another rich girl, which the idealist in Siva Prasad firmly rejects.
Distressed and tormented by the family developments, Siva Prasad finally finds peace in “donning the robes of a mendicant”, in renunciation and in complete refuge in God. Reba Ray so gently brings out the pathos of a promising son in the family taking to ‘Vanaprastha’ by an act of ‘vanishing’, even before his father could contemplate any such move, as nature’s order of precedence would usually demand. The story is still a ringing metaphor in many middle-class homes.
The range of Odia authors in this volume and the depth of the human emotions they portray in diverse life situations, speak of a different order of intellectual discourse in the self-reflection of man, in emphasizing continuity with nature and yet aspiring for modifications in the realm of culture as modern sensibility would demand.
Apart from Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918), the short story writers featured in this volume include Akhil Mohan Patnaik (1927-82), Bamacharan Mitra (1915-70), Binapabi Mohanty (1936-), Chandrasekhar Rath (1929-2018) who was also a painter and sculptor, Chaudhury Hemakanta Misra (1935-2005), K K (Kamalakanta) Mohapatra (1951-) Gopinath Mohanty (1914-91), who was winner of the inaugural Sahitya Akademi award in 1955, J. P. Das (1936-), Kanheilal
Das (1947-750, Kishori Charan Das (1924-2004), a Sahitya Akademi award winner who published 16 collections of short stories, Manoj Das (1934-), a bilingual novelist and a left-wing student leader in his college days, Mohapatra Nilamoni Sahoo (1926-2016), Nrusingha Tripathy (1945-), Pratibha Ray (1944-) who has won several literary awards including the Sahitya Akademi in the year 2000 and Jnanapith Award in 2011, Reba Ray (1875-1957) who founded ‘Asha’, the first woman’s journal in Odia, Surendra Mohanty (1920-90) a writer and journalist elected twice to the Lok Sabha, Satchidananda Rautray (1916-2004) who won both the Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith Awards, Santanu Kumar Acharya (1933-) and Ramachandra Behera (1945-), among others.
If Manoj Das’s ‘Mrs Crocodile’ brings out an astonishing encounter a western anthropologist has with a woman who resurfaces in her village ten years after she was dragged down to the depths of the river by a crocodile, the ‘Mantra’ by Jagannath Prasad (J.P.) Das is a stinging yet sardonic take on the power of a ‘Swamiji (Godman)’; he is highly erudite, mesmerizing women devotees with his deep captivating looks and his flair for resource mobilization from his devotees on the promise of offering them a unique ‘Mantra’. It is a story so reminiscent of our times. Sexual undercurrents in body language and the thirst for the spiritual, esoteric seem to go together until his women devotees see through his game! Another short story ‘A River Called Democracy’ by Akhil Mohan Pattnaik is a hilarious satire on how our political system works, while ‘News of the Day’ by Kanheilal Das and ‘The Whore: A Love Story’ by Kamalakanta Mohapatra, are simultaneously self-critical mediations on man’s preoccupations with sexuality and women. Yet, they do not take you into a Freudian world of guilt and repression with an undercurrent of ‘Shringara Rasa’ seeing emotions differently.
As Mohapatra himself puts it succinctly in his introduction, “modern Odia short stories are not so much preoccupied with articulating nostalgia for a lost order as with giving voice to defining the anxiety of coping with a rapidly changing world.” The stories in this anthology, though not exhaustive, reflect that spirit all through....