Trials and tribulations

The Collector’s Daughter
By S. K. Das.
Pages 290. Rs 295. 

Reviewed by Amarinder Sandhu

THE book is set in Orissa where the imperial British are all powerful. William Stewart, the Collector of Puri, forces himself on Meni, the teenage daughter of his chaprassi. Later, the girl is sent to her native village where she bears a daughter. The illegitimate child is named Sujata. As Sujata grows, her firang origins and her illegitimacy become the bane of her life and she is ridiculed by her playmates. She finds solace in looking after her pet pig. With the passage of time, circumstances lead to the ostracism of Meni and her daughter from the village community.

Meanwhile, the rains play truant and the state godowns soon become empty. There is no stock of rice and before the people know, a terrible drought has struck. The eccentric Commissioner is busy organising an agricultural fair while the district continues to reel under severe drought. The book provides a good insight into the red-tapism of bureaucracy and the blame game in the hierarchy. A very vivid account of the famine has been given by S. K. Das as he describes ghost villages abandoned by people who have moved towards towns looking for morsels. Jackals enter the villages and feed on the dead, as death has become a way of life. Even for these scavengers, it is not much of a feast as there is very little flesh on the bodies. The stench of putrefying bodies fills the air as flies swarm over decomposed bodies.

Meanwhile, Sujata loses her mother on the journey to Puri. Now begins Sujata’s fight for survival. Fortune smiles on the protagonist as she is adopted by a Bengali gentleman returning from a pilgrimage. Renamed Devi, Sujata miraculously cures his headaches and he treats her as some kind of oracle. Readers may be familiar with road thugs; this book introduces us to river thugs who operate on the Ganga River. Good days do not last for long and Sujata is forced to undertake a journey to Puri. Rebuffing the advances of a lecherous Brahmin, she takes to beggary with a pig by her side. Her devotion to the pig attracts the attention of the king of Orissa who has a fetish for these animals.

The Collector’s Daughter offers a glimpse into certain unknown facts of the history of Orissa. It gives a fair view into the intricate tapestry of the royal palace. Though the book has characters like the ruling king who is an embodiment of Lord Jagannatha, an adopted prince with love for bhaang and opium, a conniving queen mother, still it fails to impress. The plot is weak and midway the story begins to drag. The Commissioner being struck by his conscience when he learns that he has fathered a daughter and his search for her is highly overdramatic. Though it may be historically true, blue blood and swine do not gel, while too much stress on pigs gets to the reader. The writer has made an excellent attempt in portraying the drought conditions and the life of the river thugs. The irony is apt when the Collector sentences his own daughter to life imprisonment at Port Blair. The book has a good beginning but becomes monotonous as one proceeds. Overall, this is an average read.