Marred by poor editing

THIS is a notable collection of Oriya short stories written and remembered in the last one hundred years. The volume, the handiwork of three of the leading translators of Orissa — Leelawati Mohapatra, K.K. Mohapatra, and a Canadian Professor, Paul St-Pierre — seeks to convey the richness and complexity of the Oriya short story tradition.

While the representative character of this anthology is open to question, the English renderings seem to be satisfactory on the whole, although, arguably, a number of the translations could have shown a greater sensitivity to narrative history and cultural context. Leelawati and K.K. Mohapatra's (both from the Indian Revenue Service) earlier works in this genre have been recognised as pioneering. Equally commendable has been the contribution of Paul St-Pierre, a Professor of Translation at the University of Montreal. One is therefore surprised that in their brief and somewhat inadequate introduction, the editors/translators declare: "anthologies are always open to challenges and charges of partisanship." "Choices", they argue, "do not simply involve exclusion and bias — they can and should be read positively and on their own merits."

It is, however, hard to see how one could read the stories "on their own merits" independent of considerations like the meaning of a given literary tradition, the notions of the "mainstream" and the "marginal", the need for voices other than the dominant male, upper caste/middle class and the varied ideological underpinnings of the original texts. In recent years, much theoretical attention has been devoted to a number of these issues in the field of anthology making, literary canon formation and translation studies. One is therefore surprised that there is hardly any treatment of some of these important factors in the book.

Even so, the stories in the collection come through as an interesting read. They follow a chronological sequence and are categorised into pathfinder, frontiersmen, consolidators and among the inheritors; categories that are unfortunately not supported by any editorial explanation or rationale.

In the early Master Fakir Mohan Senapati's "Patent Medicine", we see a superb use of the comic mode. Similarly, "Ananta the Widow's Brat" combines at once humour and empathy in depicting the story of the wayward son of the widow Singhani. Likewise, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi's tale "The P.S." shows the strange working of the human fate. A Postscript added to a letter as an after thought by a professional scribe at the insistence of an anxious mother causes an unforeseen tragedy in the life of the expatriate Sindhu who becomes a victim of the pre partition communal riots in Calcutta. Such irony is seen in other stories too. In the humorist Fathurananda's "The Snake-God", we see an exposure of irrationality and blind superstition that masquerade as religious belief.Several stories are built around powerful metaphors. In Kishori Charan Das' "Night Dogs", the howling canines become an effective objective correlative to the raging political conflict and threatened violence involving the "Congsals", the Naxals and the police. Similarly, "The Stench" by Chaudhury (name is misspelt in the book) Hemakanta Mishra builds up an atmosphere of darkness and menace in a third class railway carriage that comes to halt in the middle of nowhere. The crisis creates a strange love-hate bonding among fellow travellers.

Likewise, Manoj Das' celebrated "Goodbye Darling Ghost" offers a mature and a delightfully comical handling of the theme of the supernatural seen from an adolescent and adult perspective. The treatment of the ghost in a charmingly rural context laden with legend, myth, folklore and beliefs makes the appearance of the ghost an endearing affair.

A number of tales show an admirable use of literary experimentations. "Listening to Bhikari Bal One Night" by Nrushingha Tripathy deftly employs the classic technique of a story within a story. The interwoven tale of a Rai Das, the cobbler, who produces a golden bangle out of the "wooden bowl of Ganges water" provides a perspective as a counter point to the central narrative vision.

In Akshaya Mohanty's "The Stammerer" we find a hilarious incident of a stammerer creating embarrassment for himself before his female superior thanks to his speech defect, just as J.P. Das' "The Interlude" presents the search and dilemma of Ranjana for her professional and sexual identity within and outside India.

And finally, Pradipta Mishra's "God is Blind" is a poignant story of a beggar couple Chakara, the blind, and her companion "the lame woman"; here too, blindness becomes a metaphor for the human predicament.

The translations in the volume have a flow and crispness in idiom and style. There is an attempt at a balance between readability and fidelity to the Oriya original. However, in a desire for a sleek pan Indian English, at many places, a number of anglicised expressions characteristic of an alien sensibility inevitably creep in and cause an anomaly in understanding. Several expressions, like "bloody bastards"(p.90), "bloody snake" (p.90), "buggers"(p.91), "went out for a pee" (p.21), "fuck off brothers!"(p.27), "gone off his rockers" (p.91), "goddamn dogs"(p.121), "prayer bash"(p.236), seem totally incongruous to the original settings of the stories. These are British and North American expressions/swear words which do not fit at all into the indigenous context and expressions. Here as well as elsewhere, a better in-house editing could have certainly improved matters.

There are more serious editorial issues that call for attention, aside from the way the Oriya names are misspelt. "Sachdananada Raut Ray" is written as "Rout Roy". "Nilamani Sahoo" is misspelt as "Nilamoni" (all Bengali variants!). There is practically no indication in the "authors' notes" and "introduction" about the narrative achievements of the authors selected, their literary style as well as experiments undertaken. Similarly, there is no rationale offered about the choice of the writers, the relationship they have with each other and the way they constitute a cohesive tradition of their own.

Similarly, the translators choose to be silent about their role, their location, the background they come from and their complex negotiation with the text selected. How, for instance, would a Canadian academic-translator like Paul St-Pierre, distanced in terms of geography, culture and language, a sympathetic outsider, respond in terms of a translated text? How would translators like K.K. and Leelawati Mohapatra negotiate with a "foreign" collaborator? The book is invariably silent! Clearly, these questions are important and, indeed, play a central role in the context of postcolonial translation. One is surprised that such questions are not articulated and debated in the volume.

In sum, Ants, Ghosts and Whispering Trees brings together an interesting collection of short stories from Orissa. They read well and manage to convey aspects of Orissa's history and culture. However, they are totally blind to gender (there is not even a single story by a woman writer; there are plenty of established and award winning ones in Orissa such as Binapani Mohanty, Pratibha Ray and Sarojini Sahoo to mention a few; Paul St-Pierre along with Ganeshwar Mishra has himself edited Oriya Women's Writing, Bhubaneswar: Sateertha Publication, 1997).

The translated stories are also blind to Dalit and tribal experience. Orissa is not just a "coastal State" as the back page blurb of the book proclaims. It has many tribal districts in the hinterland such as Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Phulbani, Koraput and Kalahandi. There is, alas, very little account of the experience of these regions in the present collection.

On the whole, however, the anthology of Oriya short stories is a welcome addition to this important genre. We need more such volumes; certainly better prepared, researched and edited ones that reflect the complexity and richness of Orissa's literary traditions.

Ants, Ghosts and Whispering Trees: An Anthology of Oriya Short Stories, edited and translated by Paul St-Pierre, Leelawati Mohapatra and KK Mohapatra, HarperCollins India, 2003, p.304, Rs. 295.

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