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Unravelling complexities

Drawing upon unconventional sources and extensive fieldwork, Biswamoy Pati's book tries to unravel the complexities and diversities that constitute and influence the history of Orissa, says MALIKA BASU.

INTERPRETATION/S of social history are mostly marked with incongruities. Every society is a conglomerated representation of situations, stereotypes and forced proscriptions, or even effects or after-effects of events. Biswamoy Pati in his book, Situating Social History: Orissa (1800-1997), tries to unravel and intermix several complexities and diversities that together constituted and still influence the history of the region. It is also an account of the shaping of a popular culture over the last 200 years, giving the region its identity.

The variance in social history makes it difficult to present it in a single continuum and therefore Pati had to make his selective choices. It goes to his credit though that he chooses areas commonly overlooked as impacting upon social history, the presentation of which involves creative involvement, interactions and interpretations. The seven chapters in the book delineate aspects of health and medicine, ecology, caste, literary constructions, "popular memory", over the 1800-1997 period. Pati's academic endeavour is writ large through his bibliographical list - a variety of sources ranging from conventional archival material, rare printed tracts to oral evidence and folktales. The extensive bibliography however, has been compressed in a not-so-impressive manner as the historical text of over 200 years, presented in 161 pages. Pati's attempt has been to project a holistic picture, through numerous indices, based on the interplay between the omnipresent structures of domination, power and control vis--vis the common man/peasant, that is relevant for writing any social history.

The book begins by denoting the various dimensions associated with health and medicine in colonial Orissa, which ranged from complex responses to diseases to subversive cults and witchcraft to pre-industrial alternatives like inoculation. By focusing on the indigenous tribal communities as well as the non-tribals and the "urban" population, Pati tries to locate certain commonalities that emerged during different intervening periods or were responses by different communities. His contention is that despite the specificities in interventions and responses, health and medicine had remarkable continuities in post-colonial Orissa.

Pati, to an extent, is right in pointing out that a social history or its trajectory is not a linear diagnosis. Various sources descend to influence societal thoughts and behaviour. But to debase past completely is not justified. For, it does, in many ways, affect the present. Much of the disharmony between the past and the present is testified by Pati himself through his fieldwork reports from Koraput and his specific interest in Kalahandi, both of which still remain distressed and underdeveloped despite post-independence development. Kalahandi is marked out as a region that has emerged as a metaphor for famine. This chapter emphasises the intricate relationship between people and ecology through the crisis in Kalahandi, which is also facilitated since the 1970s through landlessness, migrations, enhanced borrowings, robberies and rising alcoholism.

The chapters on Kalahandi and Koraput are an indication that nothing much has changed in the lives of the people of this region, even when there are changes in the outside world with which they interact. The chapters explore this in relation to the lives of the common people - tribals and peasants. And by examining the situation as it exists today, the chapters raise questions about the process of post-colonial underdevelopment and the utter irrelevance of various plans and programmes supposed to uplift the tribals, besides bringing to the fore some of their basic problems.

People and their perceptions influence society and its history; and Pati has devoted a chapter on "popular memory", which is shaped by various interactions and shifts taking place in society. The association of popular memory with the day-to-day lives of people and the sheer diversities of popular memory make it relevant for any social historian. Popular memory does not relate to the past in any predictable manner; it is not autonomous, there are complexities through which it is invented and reinvented.

Pati's is a valiant attempt to cover more than two centuries of history in a comprehensive manner and at places the anecdotal presentation to vivify the understanding of the region ought to be appreciated. The elaborate presentation of the murder of Banamali, an oppressive tyrant, is a telling tale of the hierarchical divisions that influence any society and may even stir revolts.

Through an examination of the murder of Banamali, Pati has explored issues of caste, class and gender exploitation and religious identities. Banamali's murder in Balanga, Puri district, shook the foundations of an anachronistic system, transgressing the dominant codes of peasant society, making it vulnerable to the various processes that altered its face.

Through Fakirmohana's Chamana Athaguntha, Pati delves into the relationship between literary constructions and society. He examines how literary productions in the 19th Century were conditioned and shaped by various intricate features and interactions. He emphasises the role of language and culture of the common people in shaping the literary projects like Chamana Athaguntha. The literary realism in Orissa moved ahead of society in that social reality could not keep pace with what writers envisioned. Social changes came at a much lesser rate than the ideals, values and visions propagated or envisaged through these writings.

Pati's efforts in writing the social history of Orissa can not be devalued. It has the potential to research further on an underplayed topic in many respects that is "social history". To some extent the efforts have borne fruit but readers with historical interest possibly would like to look into this book for ideas on research methodology to present a thematic paper. The thematic exploration in the book is good but at the same time it does fail to create a holistic picture. The author's personal interpretation and rigid justification at many places leaves very little scope for a panoramic view on the social history of Orissa. The writing is dull and history fails to evoke the adventure and excitement of going through it.

Situating Social History: Orissa, (1800-1997), Biswamoy Pati, 2001, Orient Longman, p. 182.

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