Raj Swaroop reviews The Nail and Other Stories by Gaurahari Das and Chasing the Rainbow by Manoj Das – books that offer a glimpse of the beautiful Odisha.
A superbly written review about a collection of Manoj Das’s short stories got me started here. I have always been curious about the state, the culture and the people and what makes the state what it is today. Apart from certain cultural markers – the temples of Puri, Konark, Hirakud Dam, Chilika lake, Pattachitra and Sudarshan Pattnaik’s sand sculptures there isn’t much known outside of it. The only time news media looks at the region is when there were natural calamities. I can recall only one (non-Odia) movie shot, at least partially in the state and showing local characters. That is such a great vacuum in mindspace.
And so, when I noticed there were a couple of short story collections in our library system, I could not pass up the opportunity.
Mr Gaurahari Das (b 1960) is a Sahitya Akademi Award winner. The Nail and Other Stories is his 14th compilation published in 2017. Sixteen short stories set between 200 pages, it’s a short breezy read as far as size goes. The settings vary between urban, semi urban and rural shifting between an MNC in Bhubaneswar to Cuttack to Koraput to the villages and to the ‘adivasi’ hamlets. There are a few memorable ones like ‘Where Shall I Go’ where an elderly lady with dementia wanders into a corporation hospital, makes a bed her home and retains enough wits to stay admitted despite the hospitals best efforts to “cure” her and send her to a home. Another good one is ‘A Floating Cloud’ where an elderly widow notices an elderly gentleman in the neighbouring block. Both live with their urban office-going children and are caretakers of the home and grandkids. They strike up a sympathetic relationship, which however is tenuous depending on work and transfer of the younger folk.
The best one I liked was ‘Koraput’ where the fiancée of a district official is abducted by Naxalites for ransom. The story evolves a bit like Mani Ratnams Raavan/ Ravanan where the grey area has several layers. The young woman, at the end, is wondering about ethics and who actually is the good guy.
The vast majority of the rest of the stories don’t stand in mind and carry caricaturish protagonists. Although the author is contemporary writer most of the themes are about evil in law’s, unsympathetic husbands, unfortunate women, a land blighted by weather and superstition and stigmas. There are tales which bring out pathos, but one is rushing through them seeking the end of the plot. Whether this is due to the authors treatment of the translation, I am unable to pinpoint.
Odisha, as a state, languished at the bottom of the table in 2000. Currently, it is a respectable middle runger in GDP as well as liveability indexes partly due to the mining boom and partly due to the IT services industry which harnessed the number of good colleges there and set up their bases. But we don’t get to glimpse any of this. Nor the culture of the place except in a negative, cautionary way. So, while the author is contemporary, I felt the stories, as a whole, lacked something.
That brings me to the next part of this note, Mr Manoj Das’s Chasing the Rainbow, published in 2002. This is another very slim volume of 160 pages. There are 28 stories, all of them based on/ around incidents from the authors life between ages 4 and 14. Each one of them is a little gem. Graham Greene compares Manoj Das to RK Narayan. While there is a lot of RKN in this, especially in the village, it’s surrounds and various characters, the brevity, the mild undertone of humour, empathy and yet wholesome short stories reminded me of Anton Chekhov. Perhaps it helps that Mr Das writes both in Odia and English and these are written in his own hand.
This is not to say there is no sadness or pain. There is a double dacoity in the authors home. There are floods, disease outbreaks and scenes of devastation. WW2 is raging and the Axis is going strong. People are predicting the defeat of Britain and allies. There is the crash landing of a plane. There are man animal conflicts. Rivers change course. There is even a ghost story, but which is told in the most beautiful and touching manner about the 5 year old daughter of the assistant head master. This is barely 4 pages long but gave me goosebumps.
There is one story towards the end, where the author describes his activities on the 15 August 1947. All events, anecdotes and incidents are drawn from the authors life in his village Sankhari, District Balasore, bordering Mednipur (Midnapore) districts in Bengal. Or the time spent at his uncles home in Koraput, bordering Andhra. Between the two places we find erstwhile Rajas, tribal people and conmen. Bengal and Kolkata loom large as a cultural and aspirational presence, so much so that one young man goes to the aspirational city to work as a peon, returns to the village few months later and insists on speaking in Bangla to everyone around and calls the sea a disturbing noise. One slap by his elder brother brings back his geography and interestingly, also his mother tongue. All these stories are short, crisp, well written and importantly provided what I was seeking.
A slice of life in a certain place and time. Highly recommended.
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