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‘Basanti’: A classic but experimental Odia novel from the 1920s is reinvented in English translation

  • Published at 02:41 pm June 25th, 2019
Basanti
Basanti: Writing the New Woman, nine authors, translated by Himansu S Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre, Oxford University Press.

The original is a collaborative effort by nine writers, a model of intellectual cooperation 

Indian literatures in English have significantly opened up English studies and contributed to the corpus of world literature for over a century now. Odia literature in English translation has played its part in this project of expansion. Three Odia novels come to mind here. They are Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha (1902), translated as Six Acres and a Third (2005), and Gopinath Mohanti’s two novels, Paraja (1945), translated as Paraja (1987), and Amrutara Santana (1949), rendered into English as The Dynasty of the Immortals (2016).

These novels have helped in reading the world through an Odishan lens. While Senapati has emerged as a radical realist, the epic saga of tribal life in the two novels in question has made us see Mohanty a precursor of the great Chinua Achebe. A fourth Odia novel is now poised to enter the world literature pantheon with the name tag of Odia literature thanks to its English translation. This novel is Basanti. The birth of this classic is a fascinating story in itself and needs to be briefly outlined here.

A new age of Odia literature

Between the periods Senapati and Mohanty wrote their masterpieces, Odia literature underwent a short phase of experiments, in narrative pattern as well as theme, and a collaborative novel under the name of Basanti was serialized in Utkala Sahitya from May 1924 to November 1926. It was the work of nine young writers, six men and three women. Perhaps since it was such an unusual experiment, it never quite took off, although it continued to be a constant reference point in discussion of literary activism and experimentation in Odia literature.

The novel was published as a book in 1931 and a revised version was published in 1968. Basanti was a product of the “Sabuja Age”, which gave Odia literature a new lease of life and creativity. Sabuja, which in Odia means green, stood for the expression of youthful vigor and zest; however, it also had the connotation of the breakdown of old forms and ideas under the impact of a new social and literary vision.

Though a short-lived period, the “Sabuja Age” redefined the tenor and style of Odia literature. It drifted away from the nationalistic fervor of writers like Gopabandhu Das and Godabarisha Mishra of the “Satyabadi Age”, but retained the social concerns that the predecessors had raised. Inequalities born of caste, class and gender remained prominent features of “Sabuja Sahitya”, but the nationalist agenda took a cosmopolitan turn.

Thanks to the efforts of two translators, this Odia fiction classic has now been pulled out of obscurity. The English translation under review here helps us understand the new turn taken by Odia literature.

A little old, a little new

Basanti is a beautiful, intelligent and educated young woman who lives in Cuttack. She has been brought up by her parents to be independent, with a strong desire to do something for the cause of women. The death of her parents throws her into an uncertain future. Debabrata, a young man studying in Ravenshaw college and a friend of the family, steps in to help her. Debabrata is the son of a wealthy landlord, but he is progressive in his views about women and the suppressed castes.

Basanti and Debabrata fall in love and Debabrata marries Basanti against the wishes of his mother. Basanti moves into a restricted domestic space after her marriage with Debabrata. She tries to adapt herself to the new environment despite her mother-in-law’s hostility, believing that her husband will continue to support her. But not only does Debabrata not support her; he reacts vehemently when Basanti publishes her views on gender equality in an Odia magazine. In fact, he behaves like a possessive and jealous husband whose male ego is bruised as much by his wife’s penmanship as by her assertion of autonomy.

The novel takes a somewhat Hardyesque turn when Debabrata suspects Basanti of an illicit relationship and drives her out of his house. A pregnant Basanti finds shelter at her cousin’s house in Burdwan in her time of crisis. However, the novel returns to the conventional happy ending mode with Debabrata and Basanti’s reconciliation and reunion.

A cry for women’s independence

The English translation of Basanti gives an opportunity to read the novel from the vantage point of the twenty first century. To start with, it takes the reader back to an important phase in Odia literary history, marked by a spirited experimentation. Interestingly, the translation reproduces this spirit of collaboration. It also brings an Odia classic into the corpus of world literature. There are three aspects of this novel in its translated avatar which are worth highlighting.

The first one is that which is indicated by the subtitle, “writing the new woman”. It is true that Basanti marks a sharp break with the tradition of novel writing in Odia literature by interrogating gender roles and by arguing for a space for the autonomy of women. Basanti’s decision to open a school for girls does not subvert conservative Odia thought, but it gently opens the minds of the village elders by sending a clear message that education can alone bring a change in their lives. Basanti’s constant efforts to this end keeps the issue of women’s independence through education in the forefront.

The narrative engagement with the questions of independence and interdependence of men and women is far more important than the conventional happy ending that the novel settles for. Basanti addresses this question of independence for women in the following words.

“Writers or poets who have written about women, whether out of pity, love or hate, have considered women only as the daughters, sisters or wives of men. Why is the idea that women are subordinate so lasting and all pervasive? Why has no one imagined a distinct and independent identity for women, separate from men? There are often portrayals of men in splendid isolation from women. Are women born to be the slaves and servants of men? Don’t they have any existence other than as the property of men? Have they been born to be the shadows of men, the daughters, sisters and wives of men? The independent existence of women is...”

A rare model

The second aspect of the novel is clear from the caption on the front cover as well as on the spine of the book: “nine authors, one novel”. This draws attention to an important shift in the narrative practices hitherto prevalent in Odia literature. Basanti offers a rare model of cooperative intellectualism in which nine different writers experimented with the collective composition of a novel that was published serially in the leading Odia periodical, Utkala Sahitya. Although similar models are also seen in writings from Bengal around the same time – Baroyari (twelve authors), Bhagher Puja (sixteen authors) and Chatuskona (four authors) – to name a few, Basanti for the first time tied the new method to an agenda for social reform, thus breaking the ingrained assumption that literary production is essentially individualistic.

In their call for the new novel in Utkal Sahitya, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi and Annada Shankar Ray appealed to the writers to “act as priests in this yagna” of writing Basanti. While apprehending that people might laugh off this collaborative writing as a mishmash, they averred that “created with the proper ingredients mixed in the right proportions khichdi is superior to rice.” However, despite this successful collaborative project, as Himansu Mohapatra in his introduction to this novel says, Odia literature is yet to see the “second coming” of this model of authorship. Basanti thus revives, through its translation, the possibilities of such models of authorship in contemporary literature.

Artist's impression of the Jagannath Temple, Odisha | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Bringing a cultural experience into English

The third aspect of Basanti is the conscious application of a well thought out strategy of translating. It is a relief to read a translated text that is not burdened by footnotes, endnotes, glossary and other such extra-textual apparatus that make reading a drag. The translators have instead rendered the culture-specific words in a way that encourages the reader to connect with the Odia experience and culture underneath them.

The translation of Basanti negotiates the source and the target languages and cultures in such a way as to inflect the English writing with the cultural nuances of the Odia original. Examples of such narrative negotiations are aplenty in the novel. Mention may be made of the subtlety with which the three months in the Odia calendar are presented. Expressions like “It was a night in the rainy month of Asadha”, “An afternoon in the month of Aswin, autumnal and indolent” and “The soft and mellow Phalguna sun was waning” create an interface between the Odia word and the feel of the seasons in English.

This novel way of conveying the Odia cultural details gives a native flavor to the translation. It is comparable to the way Chinua Achebe recreates the African experience in his English-language novels by writing “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings”.

Basanti in its translated form is a tribute to the nine ‘Sabuja Age’ authors who composed it, namely, Annada Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee, and Suprava Devi. In addition, it paves the way for a reappraisal of an Odia classic by making it available for a wider readership.

Tyagraj Thakur is an assistant professor of English at Silicon Institute of Technology, Sambalpur.

This article was first published in Scroll.in.