The short story genre appeared in Indian regional literature as a product of western influence that accompanied colonialism. It broke away from the traditional and narrative style, be it poetry, religious texts, myths, fables, etc. to usher in modernism that marked the Bengal Renaissance around the 19th century. Its rippling effect influenced other regional literatures as well, particularly in neighbouring Odisha and Assam, which also produced a rich litany of creative work focusing on contemporary issues.
This is evident in the anthology, The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre & K.K. Mohapatra. In the Introduction, the translators admit that it is “impossible to convey the richness and variety of century-old tradition of short-story writing within the compass of a single anthology, let alone select the greatest stories ever told.” What they have attempted is to select representative stories that give the reader “an idea of the evolution of the form in Odisha.”
To that end, the translators have included two path breaking stories in the Appendix. Rebati by Fakir Mohan Senapati was written in 1898 about a girl who wanted to get an education and was fiercely opposed by her grandmother who belonged to that era of women suppression. Senapati lighted a torch for other writers to follow. The other is The Sanyasi by Reba Roy, the first modern short story written by a woman (1899).
The 22 stories in the anthology showcase the variety of subjects, all of them perhaps are not of the same standard of craftsmanship but their hold on the Odia readership is undisputed. Many of the stories are set in the rural backdrop, its ambience and quirks well brought out. Caste, that shadows lives of many in the country even today, recurs in many stories for, ‘being of the same caste’ is an important element for establishing relationships.
Maguni’s Bullock Cart (Godavaris Mohapatra) is set in a plot one could easily relate to — of changes brought in by industrialisation and ‘modernism’ resulting in stifling off many traditions, which happened in the west too. The bullock cart of Maguni is the favourite mode of transport for the villagers, that is, till a bus arrives. He and his bullock cart are soon discarded; they die, both man and animal, in hunger and penury.
The Holy Banyan (Bamacharan Mitra) is a sardonic look at man’s greed versus the generosity of nature. The huge banyan tree welcomes people and travellers from all around with its salubrious shade but avarice of two men seeking power turn it into a political issue. Their shenanigans pitch one group against another which ultimately leads to death of the century old tree. Seems familiar in the current scenario?
Jnanpith awardee Pratibha Ray’s Salvation dwells on the unfairness of a social system which compels a man and woman to maintain a lakhsman rekha of non-communication though they live under the same roof for forty years. “Since becoming a part of her household, the very first time Nuri Das had a chance to look upon the face of his wife’s elder sister was when her body was lying in the funeral pyre, and his wastrel of a son, Satya, was about set fire to it.” Das’s wife was dead but though both showed through their little actions that they cared for each other, Nuri could never marry Soshi, though eleven years his junior, because she was the elder sister of his dead wife. Had she been the younger sister things would have been different, the social diktat said.
Manoj Das’s Mrs Crocodile is almost like a fable told in a modern time setting, while The Atheist by Kishori Charan Das is a look at human nature reflected through two contrasting figures, the devout Abhiram and non-believer , the author in first person. Whichever way, both cannot escape what fate decides for them.
Through faithful translation, the trio, who have collaborated earlier on other works, introduce readers from other parts of the country, and abroad, to a slice of Odisha’s social and cultural milieu. Even for the younger generation of Odiyas, many of whom may not read in their mother tongue, the stories could provide a window to their own rich literature. This has been the case with English translations of fiction from bhasha languages in other regions as well.
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