‘From every hill the red tracks came down and converged at the Sahukar’s house like the threads in a spider’s web, and along these tracks came many a tribesman from the remotest hills. Some brought their wives’ ornaments to the Sahukar, wrapped in bits of rag. Others brought the produce from their fields. Others again had nothing to pledge but their own bodies. And the sahukar’s house swallowed everything up, and nothing that entered ever came out again; and the house grew and bulged.’
A classic of modern Indian fiction, Paraja is an epic tale of a tribal patriarch and his family in the mountainous jungles of Orissa. Written in 1945 and translated here for the first time, the slow decline in the fortune of this family is both poignantly individualized as well as symbolic of the erosion of a whole way of life within peasant communities.
Gopinath Mohanty (1914-91), a renowned writer, had authored more than twenty novels and several short stories in Oriya. An acclaimed translator of books into Oriya, he won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1955, the Jnanpith Award in 1974, and a Padmabhushan in 1981.
This novel takes its name from the aboriginal Paraja tribe which has its home among the rugged mountains and forests of Koraput in Orissa. The protagonist of the novel, Sukru Jani, is a patriarch of the Paraja tribe; his story is the story of the tribe in fact of all the tribes to- whom these mountains and forests once belonged. The mountains are being levelled now and the forests were cut down long ago; the tribes are disinherited. Soon, perhaps, they will be only a memory. Their tale is a sad one but possess immense charm. Gopinath Mohanty, who has spent a lifetime trying to understand these tribals of the mountains and forests, attempts to tell their story in several of his major novels. Paraja, perhaps the most poignant and lyrical of these, is a remarkable work by any standard and rank among the masterpieces of Indian writing in this century.
Gopinath Mohanty belongs to a generation of writers to whom social commitment comes naturally. Paraja, like all his other novels, is born out of passionate social awareness verging on anger. At a basic level his work has to be interpreted as an indictment of social oppression and abuse a recurring theme in Mohanty’s fiction. Here the exploited is a family of tribals; the exploiter, outwardly a non-tribal moneylender, is in reality the entire ethos of a materialistic civilization seeking to encroach upon and engulf a primordial and elemental way of life. Mohanty is not, however, fighting ideological battles in the manner of historians, economists and sociologists. The characters he creates are very real people set in a three dimensional landscape. He has known the sounds and smells of the jungle he so lovingly evokes; what is more, he has obviously suffered and exulted with Sukru Jani and his tribe, drunk rice-beer with them, sung their songs, danced at their harvest festivals and starved with them when the rains failed. The author’s intense personal involvement is unmistakable even if one were ignorant of this background of lived and shared experience, and it lends Paraja a surging power that very few Indian novels have. What is remarkable is that the novel, written in 1945, should have dated so little. Its sociological, philosophical and moral concerns remain entirely contemporary.
This is because Paraja is so much more than sociological or anthropological documentation. Sukru Jam is not merely the primitive tribesman ensnared by the predatory moneylender from the city; he is also quintessential man, waging heroic but futile war against a hostile universe, struggling ceaselessly to accept and adjust. The choice of the tribal canvas, whether by accident or design, becomes singularly appropriate to Mohanty’s theme: the primeval consciousness of his tribal protagonists reflects perfectly the situation of the archetypal human being; their stark joys and interwoven anguish embody the complexity of the human condition. As was said in the citation of the Jnanpith Award, given to the author in 1974, ‘in Mohanty’s hands, the social is lifted to the level of the metaphysical.
Paraja is, in one sense, a disturbingly pessimistic novel. Mohanty seems to know that the blissful innocence of tribal existence cannot endure: it is foredoomed. There is o mistaking the nostalgia: ‘it was thus’, he seems to be telling us, even as we watch his Paraja men and women at work or play. Thus, even as he tells us with complete approval of the wild abandon of the orgiastic harvest festival, we are warned: ‘The disapproving eyes of a modern society were a million miles away.’ We know then that the disapproving eyes are dangerously near; the end is at hand. The gradual corrosion of innocence by a creeping, crawling, lurking evil is as maddening as any modern method of torture: it not only destroys but debases and humiliates. The contrast between natural and man-made calamity is glaring. Sukru Jani’s wife, Sombari, we are told, was dragged away one day by a man-eating tiger as collected dry twigs in the forest. Sukru Jani suffers, but for him this event is comprehensible: it is a part of his life. he cannot comprehend, however, is the infinitely convoluted process by which he and his children are transformed from free men into gotis or serfs, bound to the Sahukar (moneylender) for ever. He cannot comprehend why a man should be arrested and fined for cutting down trees in the jungle. Sukru Jani and his children can only gape as the coils tighten around them, inch by painful inch. They do not even have the advantage of a complicated of systems of metaphysics which could explain or rationalize for them. Their gods and goddesses are much too be of much help. The saddest part of the story is ultimate corrosion of Jill, Sukru Jani’s elder and favourite daughter.
The pathos only serves, however, to highlight the symphony of existence. Flowers bloom only to droop; huts crumble and dreams are swept away like cobwebs, but all this does not invalidate the act of blossoming. Huts have to be built and dreams must be dreamt. Man is entitled to fight for the preservation of his right to dream. Life goes on.
The theme of human endurance in the face of tragedy must be universal, but what is uniquely Indian about Gopinath Mohanty’s rendering is a certain compassion. He is too much in love with life to be a detached observer or critic; his sympathy flows generously and impartially to everything in creation. Ultimately, there are no oppressors or oppressed in his universe. The tyrant is as much to be pitied as the victim. Pain is transmuted into a form of cosmic laughter.
No translation can hope to capture the varied riches of Gopinath Mohanty’s Oriya prose, vigorously colloquial and forthright at one moment and sublimely effervescent and lyrical at the next. Perhaps, like every translation of gnat literature, all that this English rendering can do is place before a wider audience something of the flavour of the original work.
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend