Shades of life

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Paramita Satpathy.

Paramita Satpathy’s stories present the life of the 21st century woman in the Odisha village, countryside and city effectively and imaginatively.

PARAMITA SATPATHY is an Odia writer of fiction and poetry who began to flourish in the after-modern phase. She states at the beginning of the Author’s Note of her present collection of short stories: “I live two lives, one visible to others and the other only for me. I collect ingredients from the life that is for others and offer those to the life that is mine. I often endure the pangs and ecstasies of duality.” She goes on to say why she became a short story writer: “Since time immemorial, I have been enchanted with short stories. They pose irresistible pouches of mystery before me—dark, deep, intense, crisp and succulent.”

Daughter of the celebrated Odia poet Pratibha Satpathy, Paramita Satpathy grew up charmed by the written word and aware of the magic it could weave. She has published seven short-story collections, a collection of novellas, three novels and a collection of poems. She won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2016. The stories in the collection under review have been selected by the translator from her short-story collections. Through her stories, Paramita Satpathy attempts to give voice to the anxieties, mainly of women protagonists—daughters of a society that has been slowly embracing modernism and advancing into the 21st century, coexisting with deeply entrenched traditional mores. Her voice as a feminine writer (she vehemently opposes any attempts to brand her as “feminist”) is unique in a literary culture with towering women literary personalities like her own mother, the Jnanpith awardee Pratibha Ray and a host of others.

In fact, Odia society seems to have acknowledged women’s power in literature from early on. As Bikram Das mentions in his introduction to the collection: “…women have not always appeared to the Odia imagination as helpless and subservient creatures. In every Odia home is preserved the myth of the Lakshmi Purana, which tells the story of how Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, crushes the male ego of her lord and master Jagannath and his brother Balram….”

Strength of women

Several of Paramita Satpathy’s stories are a tribute to the inherent resilience and strength of women.

Bikram Das quotes her as saying: “I write about things that I have felt intensely about and attempt to express that part of women’s lives which is often buried and endured in silence. It doesn’t matter to me whether a clear message, political, social or moral, comes out of it or not.” Most of her stories are based on the quotidian reality that she finds in society, but her imagination uses it to propel her on the wings of creativity. She goes on to describe the process of her creation thus: “Creativity is often a struggle against social realism.” It would seem like the flight of a bird, beating its wings in the medium of air (that stands for realism) in the atmosphere.

There are 14 stories on varying themes in this collection. The first one, “Wild Jasmine”, is the story of Rina, a naively innocent tribal girl who lives in a kind of “state of nature”, whom Ratan Singh, a road construction contractor from the city, lures into romance with an ulterior motive. Their first meeting was when Ratan Singh and his friend Pradip, riding a motorbike, come to her house aksing for some water to quench their thirst at the height of the scorching summer heat. From then on, he spreads his net for her deftly, and she almost falls into it upon promise of marriage. In the meanwhile, Pradip is killed by someone.

Rina’s younger brother, Tuku, and his friends, who are vehemently opposing the advent of a mining company in the locality, preparatory to which a road is being built, are suspects in Ratan Singh’s mind and also in the eyes of the police. Tuku and his gang are planning to go into hiding.

Unaware of what is in Ratan Singh’s mind, Rina goes to meet him at his house. As she approaches the house, what she overhears from the inside devastates her. Ratan Singh and his other friends are talking about how they suspect Tuku is involved in the murder of Pradip. Ratan Singh boasts to his friends that he has already trapped Rina, and they could rape her at any moment. Her romantic dreams crash to the ground, and she slips away from the house unnoticed. She wreaks vengeance on Ratan Singh and his friends seizing on a wild chance. The “wild jasmine” preserves her pristine nature, aided by chance.

Sketching the typical male

“Jungle Lore” is another story that displays the keenness the writer employs in sketching the character of a typical “male” of our times. Prachi is a soft-natured research assistant in a multinational steel factory establishment, on whom Sambit, her immediate boss, an engineer, imposes a marriage proposal out of the blue with the hidden purpose of making her a submissive wife. Their parents approve of the marriage, and it is fixed for a date six months later. Sambit decides for Prachi that she will resign from her job, saying that he will provide for both of them, to which both the families agree.

The couple goes on a jungle safari along with several other office colleagues, during which Sambit reveals more of his domineering character. They come upon a flock of peacocks, peahens and their chicks. The peacocks are strutting about with their plumes open—a luminously beautiful sight by which Prachi is enthralled. Suddenly, Sambit grabs a gun, holds Prachi’s mouth shut with the palm of his left hand, while he raises the gun with his right hand. He tells Prachi that he had made a bet with his friends that he would kill at least three of the birds in one shot and pulls the trigger. Three of the peahens writhe on the ground in their death throes. There is blood everywhere.

The party progresses a little further and settles down to eat a picnic lunch. One of the girls blurts out to Prachi during their tete-a-tete that she had expected Sambit to propose to Apurba, with whom he was thick friends. After lunch, Sambit takes Prachi aside near a beautiful brook for a private talk. She is silent, but he tells her that he likes her soft nature and wants her to be like his mother—a meek and amenable homemaker. Prachi asks him about Apurba. He dismisses the notion of marrying that girl because she is independent and is good “only for friendship”. Then he kisses Prachi abruptly. His beer breath assaults her nostrils; then he embraces her and kisses her again to her utter dismay.

Finally, as they are about to return, he feels expansive and offers to give her anything that she asks for. One of the other girls prompts Prachi to demand an expensive diamond ring. But what she actually asks for brings a neat finale to the whole affair.

Colours of loneliness

The titular story, “Colours of Loneliness”, is the longest—41 pages. It charts the lives of two women who were bosom friends from their schooldays. Maya and Veena are introduced to the reader as they finish their school final exams—Maya is good at mathematics and science and aspires to study medicine, but Veena is not so good in studies. As they pass the village temple of Tareswara, they decide to offer prayers to the god to enable them to pass their exams with high marks. Maya pulls Veena behind the temple, away from everyone’s gaze, and then unfastens two hooks of her sari blouse and shows Veena a white spot on her abdomen, the beginning of leucoderma. Her mother, when she finds out, worries more about Maya’s younger sister’s future—whether she can be married off—rather than about Maya. Her father is complacent. Subsequently, when Maya joins college, she is ostracised by her hostel mates. Veena quits studying and gets married because she thinks it is not necessary to work when her husband is earning good money.

The lives of the two friends go in divergent ways, only to meet again and again. Maya has had romantic experiences, strange bonds and fulfilling friendships with men, having given up hopes of marriage early in her life owing to the white blotches on her body. She feels the pangs of loneliness when these relationships come to an end, yet she learns to lead an independent life, owing to her financial independence. She has grown to somewhat love her loneliness. In the final stages, Veena comes out with her story of loneliness—how she had been forsaking her own likes for her husband and son (who is now in Canada working in the IT industry) and finds herself passed up by her husband for a younger woman. She rues not taking up employment when she could have and for having lost the chance to be financially independent.

Maya, who has by now learned to live with her loneliness, and Veena, who stares perplexedly at her own, team up once again as they did during their schooldays. The story has been told deftly and even delineates the slight traces of competition and rivalry and mutual suspicions that characterise friendships.

Recurrent theme

In “A Fable for the Times”, Princess Sujasha and a filly, Sarita, are born on the same day. The court astrologer predicts that the princess may turn into an ascetic later in life. The princess and Sarita become inseparable friends. As happens in fables, the princess and the mare talk to each other. Sujasha is compassionate and seems also to be a clairvoyant. She marries Prince Sujay eventually and bears two children. Growing weary of her materialistic, domestic life in the palace, where she cannot enjoy even the simplest things in nature, the princess ultimately disappears into the forest with her mare to spend the rest of their lives peacefully. Women weary of worldliness and materialism and longing for oneness with nature has been a recurrent theme in many of Paramita Satpathy’s stories.

“Children’s Day” is a haunting tale of Babula, a destitute boy who is taken advantage of by Bata Sahu, a sweetmeat shop owner who employs him in the shop by day and sodomises him at night. Bahula tried to escape once, but was caught, thrashed and brought back by Sahu and his henchman Jagabandhu. Bata Sahu’s three children come from his village to the shop to entreat their father to go with them to their ailing mother. Jagabandhu tells Babula conspiratorially that Sahu has six children in all, and he makes a child every year. Mohan, the son of the district collector, who comes to the shop regularly fascinated by the taste of the samosas they sell, befriends Babula and invites him over to play with him in his house. Overhearing the invitation, Jagabandhu tells Mohan’s driver, Satyabhai, aloud that Babula is “Bata Sahu’s whore”. Mortified by the insult in front of Mohan, Babula escapes eventually, travelling ticketless on a train, getting off at an unknown station and into an unclear fate when the ticket examiner threatens him. The fates of children in different strata of society are delineated very skilfully in this story, employing irony and contrast.

The other stories are “The Unborn Daughter’s Birthday”, which describes a woman’s resistance to patriarchy; “The Elixir of Love” is in the form of a dream in which metaphysical questions are raised in a phantasmagorical setting and a world full of apathy is portrayed; “The Girl from a Foreign Land” is the tale of how a faithful husband strays into a casual relationship with a German girl whom his senior had billeted in his house against his wish in the absence of his wife, who had gone to their family home to give birth to their second child, and finds himself censured by his suspicious wife over the telephone; “The Nowhere Nest” narrates the predicament of Sushree, who feels that her aged mother, living alone after her father’s death and in a lost state, does not care enough for her, how Sushree’s husband, Ajay, has been doing things one-sidedly with no place for her in his plans, and how she escapes into a dreamscape where she experiences serenity; “Her Best Friend Jaya” is about the naive Itishree, whom her best friend Jaya hoodwinks into seducing her husband, Bikash, who is all too willing; “A Real Diamond!” narrates a woman’s underlying aspirations to experience the ecstasy of love. The remaining stories, “The Ultimate Pay-off”, “A Shadow in the Mirror” and “The N-Club”, are each around a different theme and invariably reveal a facet of women’s personalities. Paramita Satpathy’s stories present the life of the 21st century woman in the Odisha village, countryside and city effectively and imaginatively.

The last in OUP’s translation series

It is reliably learned that the book under review is to be the last one in the illustrious series of translations from Indian languages that Oxford University Press (OUP) had pioneered, beginning three decades ago, led by the unflaggingly energetic and visionary editor Mini Krishnan. She has the credit of being a “one-woman army”—as I have mentioned in one of my editorials in Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal Indian Literature—who has stressed the importance of publishing English translations, of mainly fiction, from the rich repositories of our national languages. This publication programme was beginning to gain worldwide attention in publishing circles, gaining reviews and reprints notably in the United States, when it was abruptly called off by OUP.

One can only hope that OUP reverses its decision and continues the noble mission it had undertaken at a crucial time in the development of Indian fiction in English translation, and when more and more multinational publishing houses are taking it up. At least to maintain a healthy competition in the scene, OUP must consider resuming the programme since it has definitely been a goal-setter in this area of Indian publication in English.