The sway of her Pen

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART: Susmita Bagchi. Photo: G. Moorthy

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART: Susmita Bagchi. Photo: G. Moorthy

Two things cannot be ignored about Oriya author Susmita Bagchi. She writes the way she speaks – that is, always straight from the heart. That is why perhaps she never misses the mark with her readers and has been connecting with them since 1982 when she wrote her first ever short story for Sucharita, an Odia magazine.

Thirty three years later with eight novels, seven collections of short stories and a travelogue to her credit, she keeps herself firmly ensconced in the hearts of her readers.

And that leads to the second point, how strongly she feels about her mother tongue. Even though she did not spend many years in Odisha, she kept in touch with the places, people and literature of her home state and powerfully engaged her readers with her writings.

“It is very important to sustain regional languages. People should not lose touch with their mother tongue,” she asserts.

With her books getting translated into Hindi, English, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam, Susmita feels much of the language and the writer’s perspective is lost many times in translation. Girish Karnad is one person, she says, who always told her to translate her own books. So Susmita decided to write her first English novel instead. Titled “Beneath a Rougher Sea”, it is with the publisher now and slated for release by the year end.

Susmita confesses she writes for herself. Whether readers will accept or reject her never bothered her because she only believes in writing with energy and emotions. Yet her debut novel in English is one she would want more people to read because “it is a novel about mental health”. Her Odia novel “Deba Shishu” about children living with cerebral palsy was published in 2006 and it received an overwhelming response. Four years later it was translated into English and published by Penguin as “Children of a Better God” to great critical acclaim.

“The protagonist in my debut English novel is a psychiatrist and any person or family grappling with the issue of mental health will find and feel the familiarity, she says.

Susmita is the daughter of one of the women pioneers in Odia literature, Sakuntala Panda who started the popular literary magazine Sucharita in 1975 and remained its editor for 28 years. It was when she started helping her mother with selection and translation of stories for publication that Susmita realised she could also write – and perhaps better. “There always used to be a gathering of writers in our house and when they appreciated some of my unpublished works without knowing who had written it, I realised I had it in me,” she says.

She began weaving stories around unusual themes – like the neighbour boy who reluctantly left for boarding school or the stray dog that walked into the hotel room when she was on honeymoon. Her simple style made her popular as a short story writer and her first anthology of short stories earned her the State Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993.

Susmita met Subroto Bagchi (the co-founder and Chairman of Mindtree) when she was 15 and he was 18. Four years later they were in Delhi as husband and wife. While Subroto joined DCM, she completed her post-graduation in political science and followed it up with a teaching job at Delhi University.

When the couple shifted to Bangalore in the late eighties, Susmita learnt to use the computer. “A student was developing Odia language software and I used it to my biggest advantage,” she smiles.

Though her short stories in Sucharita gained her followers, Susmita feels she started getting noticed with her novels, particularly “Shrotoporna” which was based on her mother-in-law’s journey from Pabna (Bangladesh) to India as a young girl in the 1940s. But “Deba Shishu” transformed her as a writer.

“I started writing more about issues like health, poverty and illiteracy.”

A voracious reader who loves reading translated works of regional writers like K. Shivaram Karanth, Kuvempu, T. Shivshankar Pillai, Susmita learnt to read Bengali to be able to read the original works of Sarat Chandra Chatterji.

Though she finds it tough to cite any favourite book or novel that she has read, one writer who has influenced her deeply is Odia Jnanpith award winner Gopinath Mohanty.

“It is his easy and unpretentious writing that attracts me and may be shows up somewhere in my writings too,” says Sushmita who has also won the Utkal Samman, the Prajatantra Award, Gangadhar Rath Foundation Award among many others.

Her travel getaways with her husband, a positive spirit and the love for words lend her the experience, ideas and the drive to write. “If there is a real human element in your work,” she says, “chances are it will click.”

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2022 4:47:54 pm |