The laconic, understated style of the book is prefigured in the titles of the stories: not only the title story, but ten of the eleven pieces that make up the volume have cryptic titles like ‘Responsibility’ ‘Eyes’ The Image’, ‘The Balance’ and so on. These minimalist titles prepare the reader for a simple realist narration, and indeed most of the stories do begin with clinical and detached descriptions, verging on reportage. But at some point, imperceptibly, the mood changes and we find ourselves in an uncharted territory, where shadows of unresolved mysteries darken the surface of quotidian life. Since it is not possible to discuss all the stories. I will take two examples to illustrate this enigmatic subtext that adds a haunting dimension to the seemingly mundane accounts of ordinary lives. In ‘The Cast’ a writer is startled to find that the stories he has written from his imagination have a strange way of coming true and threatening him with consequences.
It starts when he is summoned for a routine inquiry in a police station about an abduction case which has an uncanny similarity with an incident in one of his books. For some time he tries to convince the police that it was a coincidence. But slowly the borderline between fact and fiction begins to dissolve and after a while the writer stops being surprised at meeting people in real life who began as figments of his imagination. At the end of the story, when he is arrested by the police for being a collaborator in the abduction case, he knows who he is going to meet in jail—the warden Gunanidhi and his sidekick Bhikari, characters he had endowed with special talents for torturing prisoners. As he approaches the lock-up he sees behind the bars a crowd of familiar faces—people he had created over the years, all waiting for him for the final reckoning.
‘The Progenitor’ is about an Oriya novelist who has suddenly been approached by a TV producer from Mumbai wanting to make a Hindi serial based on his award winning novel Uttarayan. The writer is taken aback; initially he is uneasy, not only at the huge amount of money being offered, but also at the idea that the novel would have to be diluted in order to make up fifty-two episodes. But slowly his resistance gets eroded and one by one the author comes to accept all the changes suggested by the producer, altering the title first from ‘Uttarayan’ to ‘Dakshinayan’ and then simply to ‘Ayan’ to make it crisp and catchy and changing the name of the protagonist, because ‘Rajanikant’ will remind the viewers of a Tamil film star . An opinion poll decided ‘Mayank’ was the most acceptable name for the hero. When the author mildly objected because it was an unfamiliar name in Orissa, the producer informed him that the story was no longer going to be located in Orissa: ‘We are going to make the hero universal, he may belong to any part of India’. The original novel ended with the independence of India, but when the pilot episodes were approved and the serial got an extension upto 100 instalments, the producer decided to rework the whole novel to bring it up to the present day. In the new version the non-violent hero was recreated as a militant and a girl friend was introduced. As the writer gradually sinks into a state of apathy, becoming a passive witness to the mutilation of his work, rebellion comes from an unexpected corner. The script-writer, a dishevelled bohemian from the film-world of Mumbai, appropriately called Udbhranta, who was initially party to the rewriting, suddenly becomes a passionate protector of the original novel. When he cannot incite the author to save his creation, in a drunken state Udbhranta decides to burn the computer in whose hard disc all the hundred episodes of the bastardized text are saved. The story ends when he goes looking for petrol in the middle of the night.
Starting with familiar situations the stories slowly veer towards the strange and the unfamiliar. In some five stories the central characters happen to be writers, and a long story—‘Eye’—is told by a man researching on the pata paintings of Puri, a subject on which J.P. Das himself has published research monographs. Evidently the starting impulse of these stories comes from events that could easily have happened to him or to people around him. ‘Eye’ builds up an atmosphere of spine-chilling terror without anything unusual actually happening. After repeated deferrals of the climax, it ends inconclusively with hints at an uncanny link between the yellow mask of Subhadra and a Japanese woman who disappeared after taking some crucial photographs. Even her address that she had written down, vanished from the researcher’s note book. The story continues to haunt the reader even after it is over, perhaps because the puzzle is never sorted out.
J.P. Das, a versatile writer in Oriya, began as a poet but it would be difficult today to slot him in any single genre. His well-researched novel Desh Kaal Patra (1992), written against the background of nineteenth century Orissa is a major work, weaving history and fiction together in creative synthesis. I read this novel in Bangla and his play Sundardas about a Christian missionary (1994) in Hindi translation, and in neither case did I feel I was reading a ‘translated’ text. His book of poems Ahnik, (awarded the Sahitya Akademi award which for some reason J.P. Das did not accept) also made a strong impact on me when I read it in Bangla and I did not feel the need for making any allowance for the supposedly inevitable ‘loss in translation’. But while reading the present collection of stories in English, I was all the time aware of the mediation of the translator. It is not that Ashok Mohanty has done an inadequate job; as far as I can tell the flat no-resonance prose is an attempt to approximate the understated quality of the original, but the bare boned style which might have appeared striking in Oriya seems merely pedestrian in English, at least in the opening pages of each story, until the spell of the narrative turns the reader’s attention away from language. Once in a while the translator slips into an inappropriate register (‘she did not spend a dime extra’ or ‘learn to be a townie’, ‘the village folk kept nagging him as to when . . .’) but these jarring moments are few.
However, the story that creates genuine problems for the translator is the last one ‘The Long Life of Poetry’ in which a poet’s relationship with language is a central concern. How does one transfer from one language to another, words and phrases that reverberate in the mind of the poet to trigger off fresh lines? A line that might have been magical in Oriya can sound trivial in English. Also, the short story is replete with literary references (poems by Sachi Rautray and Jibanananda Das are evoked) and echoes from Rabindranath and Sunil Gangopadhyay are deliberately woven into the prose to kindle certain memoies. There is no way this can work in the English version. The potential reader of the translated story will not recognize the lines and their context. I mention these details not to criticize the translator, who has done his best, but to point to the limits of translation.
But there is no way one can overlook avoidable errors for which the responsibility lies not with the translator but the publisher. The confusion between ‘quite’ and ‘quiet’ happens so routinely in the text (p. 6, p. 78, p. 96 and more) that one wonders if Sahitya Akademi has now dispensed with proof-reading altogether. There are other howlers like ‘who way leads a ward . . . life’ p. 187 (presumably for ‘who leads a wayward . . . life’). An institution that should be setting standards of excellence disappoints by its casual disregard for details.
Meenakshi Mukherjee lives in Hyderabad. Her most recent book Elusive Terrain: Culture and Literary Memory was published by OUP in 2008.