Short Stories Books

Review | Voices from the top: ‘The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told’

Are these really the greatest Odia stories ever told?

This is an edited volume of the translation of 24 Odia short stories written over the last 121 years by 23 authors; the only writer who has two stories here is Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918). It seems reasonably certain that all 23 authors belong to the three castes at the top of the Odia caste hierarchy — Brahmin, Karana (a scribal jati corresponding to the kayasths of North India) and Khandayat (a landowning warrior caste). But the translators and the editors cannot be faulted for this: this is a problem that plagues Odia literature per se. The Odia literary field has been dominated by privileged castes (especially men) for the longest time and literary modernism arguably only helped consolidate this stranglehold.

While the margin does not speak in this volume, many stories like ‘Savara’ by Chaudhury Hemakanta Misra, ‘The Tale of the Snake Charmer’ by Chandrasekhar Rath, and ‘Ghania celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi’ by Surendra Mohanty place the lives of Dalits and other downtrodden people at the centre of the narrative. At the same time time, a story like ‘A River called Democracy’ by Akhil Mohan Pattnaik portrays the Dalit protagonist in a casteist, unsympathetic and politically naive manner. If the aim of the volume were not to focus on works of celebrated writers of short fiction but to bring in the really ‘great’ short stories, then those by marginalised writers like Bijay Prasad Mohapatra, Basant Satpathy and Phaturananda would have merited inclusion.

If one leaves aside political and thematic concerns, stories like ‘News of the Day’ by Kanheilal Das draw readers with their innovative storytelling.

Despite reservations, this volume is a valuable addition to the growing corpus of Indian fiction available in English translation. Some, like ‘Mother India’ and ‘The Tale of the Snake Charmer’ invert many stereotypes and promise to become classics. Taken together, these stories also help us draw the contours of the vernacular Odia social universe. The translation is smooth, and makes for a book that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

The writer is an author and researcher based in Bhubaneswar.

The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told; Selected and translated by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre & K.K. Mohapatra, Aleph Book Company, ₹699

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 12:59:31 AM |

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