HIMANSU S. MOHAPATRA
Stories of growing up, urbane in style and retrospective in tone.
With a cover design and a title that echoes Hitchcock’s “Birds”, this book of short stories translated from Oriya looks dressed to kill. And kill it does when perused. Not kill with cruelty or kindness, mind you, but with anticipation and longing, especially of the type associated with forms of childhood and adolescent awakening.
Explorations of self and surroundings by a boy named Sasank form the core of six out of seven stories in the volume. These are many-sided and, though delivered in a wry, playful and irreverent tone, they are always engaged and have an air of authenticity.
Rite of passage
Sasank’s pre-teen and teen years are in focus in five stories, while the title story “Crows” features an adult Sasank with the inevitable adult entanglements in the form of marriage and the eternal tug of war between mother and wife, delicately symbolised by a trapped crow. One story, “The Whore: A Love Story”, is the odd one out in this Sasank series. But it is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine the lover of kink and kitsch, Ghana, as the bohemian other of a Sasank suffocating, as in the title story, in the empty rituals and rigmaroles of civilised intercourse.
This brings me back to the five “rites of passage” stories with their colourful evocations of growing up in the Oriya villages and towns, small and big, in the 1960s. The opening story “The Thief” strikes the keynote to the volume (this happens to be the title story of the volume in the Oriya original) by using the child’s view to probe into the socialisation process that unfolds in schools.
Sasank’s unusual interest in books that are not school texts, admittedly compulsive enough to make him something of a kleptomaniac in respect of story books and fountain pens, earns him the demeaning label of thief from the school headmaster. The story shows the ignorance of educators about child psychology and also explains, by implication, the propensity of such misunderstood children towards delinquency.
For the time being, of course, and, at the time and stage of life Sasank is in such delinquency is pure fun. For the real lessons of life, lessons that are social, ecological, sexual and linguistic are gained through such rough passages, through such playful pushing of boundaries.
In two fine stories, “A Funeral Feast” and “Love Letters” Mahendra, a village boy a couple of years Sasank’s senior, plays Steerforth to Sasank’s David, guiding him through these lessons, but reversing the flow from village to town, thereby handing it to the village.
A passage from the former story, listing these lessons, shows how as well as the writer’s secure grasp of the village scenario in coastal Orissa in the 1960s : “sifting mud for fish and keeping them alive in bottles; digging for earthworms and sliding them over a hook; holding one’s breath, swimming underwater and coming up for air between the legs of the bathing beauties who congregated at Mohanty Pond, wet sarees clinging to their hills and hollows; going out to the middle of the fields for a high noon crap; putting your shorts over your head and whirling like a dervish; tying up the hind legs of Padana’s nanny goat and milking it; …”.
When it comes to language, village’s supremacy over town in these stories is, of course, unquestioned, as Sasank learns to his delight and amazement: “Of the many lessons of the summer, the most interesting was the four-letter word-fest, khadamara, seizing upon any loose monosyllabic response of the opponent and delivering a resounding obscenity to rhyme with it. Sasank was already looking forward to flooring his town friends with this new weapon after the holidays”.
And, of course, it is in the densely webbed space of the village that Sasank learns about the oppressive rituals of caste and wakes up to his own ambiguous sexuality, as in “The Witch” and “Love Letters” in particular.
These stories of growing up, urbane in style and retrospective in tone, are a great read. If one will have any quarrel with these, it is on account of these being cast in the mould of a male bildungsroman which denies agency to the woman (except as a seducer, as in “The Witch”). Full marks to the translators, however, for preserving, through their collaboration, the layered nature of KK’s writing by opting for the right mix of Oriyanising and Englishing.
The writer is a Professor of English, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.