A significant work that explores and exposes the soul of Odisha.
Regional language literature continues to throw up priceless nuggets every once in a while for the benefit of the English-reading public. All thanks to a new breed of inspired translators. The One-Eyed Chick and Other Stories by Basant Kumar Satpathy offers a layered and socially significant collection of stories by the late Odia author.
The first story establishes the stamp of a master. There is a playful arbitrariness in the prose and an irreverent tendency to jump subjects in a manner that the reader may initially need to tune in to. But unpredictability and subtle irony colour Satpathy’s writing. Complementing his style are other factors like a strong connection with nature and animals and a deep empathy with tribals, impoverished rustics and other marginalised sections. Thus, in the title story, the one-eyed chick makes a tragic exit and a revengeful youngster and a pair of nesting kites take centrestage positions, leading to an unexpected outcome.
Stories like ‘The Rickshaw-fare’, ‘A Log of Wood’, ‘The White Lotus’ and ‘Tea’ highlight the inherent integrity of the Adivasi. ‘Rice’ is a particularly poignant story about crippling poverty and the struggle against starvation. The tragedy of mindlessly drawing political borders could not have been portrayed more bitingly; borders that could go on to be the crucial divide between plenty and stark poverty. The carving of Odisha (then called Orissa) as a separate state and the far-flung consequences of this move is at the heart of many a story as are untouchability and caste injustices in rural society.
The stories are not without an occasional dash of humour as is evident in ‘When Their Eyes Met’ with its confused characters playing romantic musical chairs. Quite a few stories have an unexpected twist towards the end. But it is his concern for the bigger and more serious issues that touch the reader.
The voices narrating the stories change from those of the privileged classes to the marginalised ones with effortless ease and exhibit the author’s shrewd knowledge of the way people hailing from different social strata think and behave. Thus we are privy to the innermost thoughts of a flower-seller, a woodcutter, a starving mother, a tea seller, a dog lover as well as those of a rich babu and a veteran journalist on a mega ego trip. Satire is at its sharpest in the story ‘The Lit Fest’ where an aging poet struggles to recapture his youth to fall in sync with a younger lot of poets. There are clearly autobiographical shades to certain characters (‘The Birthday’) and Satpathy is not above taking a dig at thinly veiled contemporaries.
With this collection of short stories, Satpathy’s reputation as an author with a social and political conscience is established. Interestingly, all observations are made, comments passed and scenarios created in a wryly obtuse manner that makes the stories hugely readable and entertaining while simultaneously provoking analysis and debate among readers. Could the short story genre ever be in greater form? The team of translators needs to be lauded for its efforts, never over-emphasising a point or leaching the prose of its colloquial charm. However, a little more alertness in the editing department would have enhanced the text.
The One-Eyed Chick and Other Stories; Basanta Kumar Satpathy, Worldview Publications, Price not stated.