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"The sky is not the limit"

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Frank and fearless: Pratibha Ray.
Frank and fearless: Pratibha Ray.

HARIHARAN BALAKRISHNAN

Oriya author Pratibha Ray is essentially a humanist, a rebel against the unreasonable.

"If you read my Oriya novels, you will find several lyrics there. In a sense, every novel of mine is poetry."

"EVEN as a child, I was quite outspoken and frank," she says. She recalls, "In our village Alabol (Cuttack district) sex workers lived in one street. It was crudely called Dari Sahi (prostitute street). I had a classmate from there. We were friends. One day, she called me home and we spent a pleasant time playing. Back home, I announced to my mother that I had been to dari sahi. For good measure, I told her, `Mother! It is so nice in my friend's house. They have a magnificent bed. Why can't we have one like that here?' "Mother didn't know what to do with me. Of course, I didn't know what the term meant at that time. But even later, I could empathise with their human predicament. After the super-cyclone of 1999, I visited the area to do my bit for the people. I went to the same street. Things had changed a lot. Not just because of the cyclone. Attitudes had changed. Cynicism had overtaken simple lives. By that time, my name was well known as a writer. People asked me if I would be contesting the next elections!"

Early writing

Meet Pratibha Ray, the only Oriya in the latest honours list (Padma Shree), Sahitya Akademi awardee, first woman to win the Jnanpith Moorti Devi Award. This frank and fearless woman writer of contemporary India is, above all, an intense human being.Pratibha wrote her first poem at age nine. Written with a quill and sent to a widely read Oriya newspaper without telling anyone, it was published. Her father's friends read it and told him. She recalls with glee when her father went to town in the village announcing, "my daughter is a poet." Father Parasuram, whose centenary was observed recently, was a Gandhian who quit a lucrative job in the TISCO when he heard that the eminent educationist Dr. P.K. Parija had told a friend, "If anyone can improve education in this area where the zamindars won't allow any progress, it is Parasuram." He went back to that remote village, became a teacher and upgraded the minor school into a High School, fighting opposition from obscurantists all the way. Pratibha once asked her father how many bamboos should be put end-to-end to reach the sky. The science graduate from Patna Univeristy tried to explain to the girl that there was nothing like `sky' and it was all mahashoonya. "From that day, I developed a scientific temperament, did not care for caste or religion. I welcome Christian and Muslim friends to my puja room. I believe in science as much as in God. But the sky is not the limit for me," smiles the multi-dimensional creator of words, wife, mother and grandmother.

Lasting influences

Pratibha Ray's lasting influence came from her father. But the initial inspiration came from the eldest brother. He was studying at the Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. When her poem was published in Prajatantra, he promised to reward her. "He did not tell me what he would give. But I was happy when he gave me my first `award', a sky-blue Champion pen. I went on to write several poems with it for a long time," she muses. While the "father of the Oriya novel" Fakirmohan Senapati is her icon, her lasting respect for the brothers Mohanty (Gopinath and Kahnucharan) is palpable when she talks about them. Yet, her oeuvre that transcends time and space, gender and class, form and thematic limitations- has the stamp of her own identity.The daughter of the headmaster herself became a teacher. Soon after marriage, when newspapers published her name as the University topper at B. Ed., she was offered a job as Headmistress from the Kapilas Kanyashram.

Experiences

Twenty-three-year-old Pratibha joined and brought up her children while heading the Kanyashram. Always opposing injustice and malpractice, she earned the respect of most people. Later, she went on to do her Masters in Education. Her doctoral thesis was on the education-deprived youth of slums and post-doctoral research on the criminal propensity of the Bonda tribes. These experiences touched her deeply and helped her "understand the complexities of the human psyche". Vignettes are sprinkled over many of her stories. While she is mostly known to the world for her novels and short stories, Pratibha Ray asserts she never drifted away from poetry. "If you read my Oriya novels, you will find several lyrics there. In a sense, every novel of mine is poetry," says the accomplished lyricist. Soon, a collection of her poems will be on the stands. Her novel Silapadma (Stone lotus) is a moving account of folklore around building of the Konark temple. In her award-winning Yagnaseni, she brings to life the character of the remarkable Indian epic heroine Draupadi.

Window to another world

Her short stories and novels about the life of the Bonda tribe in Koraput district have opened the eyes of the world to the lives and struggles of these aborigines. The Bondas are, even today, considered by many to be beneath civilisation. Pratibha opened a window to their closed culture. As a young teacher-scholar, she defied conventional wisdom and well-meaning advice from elders to travel 600 km to the interiors of that hill district and sometimes lived for two months at a stretch with these `barbarians'. Twenty novels, 22 short story collections and eight travelogues are mere statistics. Translation of her work into some Indian languages gives others in this country a whiff of her writings. Radio plays and films have brought to life some of her novels and short stories for people in Orissa who might not have read her. But more is due.Pratibha Ray is essentially a humanist, a rebel against unreason, and the unreasonable. She fought a long-drawn legal battle against the Pandas of Puri who filed a case against her article titled "God is an untouchable", a scathing criticism against the exploitation of pilgrims by these sevayats of Lord Jagannath. This article was a reaction to her harrowing experience in the temple town. Her friend's unusually fair complexion and the fact that the two were conversing in English made the Pandas raise a ruckus. Ray and her friend became targets of their ire. The incident blew up into a huge controversy when she wrote about it in the Press. People from all over wrote in response, about their own nightmares with the Pandas of Puri. The result was a defamation case against the author. After 10 long years, the case was dismissed. By the time this piece appears in print, her latest article on the recent `pollution' by an American, and the destruction of huge quantities of prasad, would have been printed in the Orissa press. If the Pandas would lodge another case, and whether times have changed for them, will be known in due time. But one thing is clear. A ray of hope for many can be a stinging Ray to some.E-mail: fabalas02@yahoo.com


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