Although Odia literature often occupies a peripheral position in mainstream Indian literary discourse – both in the original and in English translation – it has a rich history dating back to the Bauddha Gan O Doha, a collection of mystical poems composed by the Buddhist Siddhas between the 8th and 12th centuries. In 2014, the Odia language – spoken by over 40 million people – was granted classical language status by the government of India in recognition of its long literary heritage.
But the journey to classical status has not been smooth. In his autobiography, Story of My Life, Odia writer Fakir Mohan Senapati writes about how Odia was marginalised in favour of Bengali in the southern Midnapore school system in the second half of the 19th century. Bengali became the medium of instruction while Odia continued to be used in the private sphere. For Senapati — a pioneer of the novel, short story, and autobiography genres in modern Odia literature — language was tied to identity and culture; his writings reflect the colloquialisms of his region. He was closely associated with the Odia language movement which began as a cultural movement against the imposition of languages such as English, Bengali, and even Persian – which was the court language before English — on the Odia population. This later became a political movement that resulted in the creation of a separate Odisha state in 1936.
While Odia literature has mostly remained inaccessible to the non-Odia speaker, the recent focus on Indian writing has led to an increase in the availability of English translations, including those from Odia. I’ve put together a list of novels and short story collections that reflect the best of modern Odia literature in translation.
1. The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told, translated by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre, and K. K. Mohapatra
A decent anthology should provide a sweeping overview of literary output arranged around a theme or — as in this case — a language and serve as a starting point for further exploration. The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told does exactly that. In the introduction to this recently published collection, translator K.K Mohapatra notes that Senapati’s Rebati (1898) marked the introduction of the short story genre in modern Odia literature. In Rebati — included in this anthology — a young girl’s desire to get an education exposes the conflict between tradition and modernity in rural society; in Reba Ray’s The Sanyasi, the first Odia short story written by a woman, Shiva Prasad escapes his domineering mother to become a sanyasi or a mendicant after his wife dies; in Pratibha Ray’s Salvation, Shoshi and Nuri Das may have lived together for 40 years but they do not see or speak to each other.
2. Bheda by Akhila Naik, translated by Raj Kumar
Set mainly in Kalahandi, a district in western Odisha, this polyphonic novel — regarded as the first novel written by a Dalit in Odia — deals with issues of caste-based inequality and violence in contemporary society. Educated members of the local Dalit community, the Dom people, have decided to protest against their dominant-caste oppressors but their efforts are stymied by mobs who destroy their house and shops. Through his novel, Akhila Naik challenges the hegemony of the dominant castes and questions the failure of the nation-state to protect vulnerable members of its society, themes that relate directly to the multiple meanings of the title of the novel: the word ‘bheda’ refers variously to ‘a sense of difference’ and ‘the target’.
3. Basanti: Writing the New Woman, translated by Himansu S. Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre
Where you’d expect to see an author’s name on the cover, you instead find this: “Nine authors, one novel”. This experimental novel was written between 1924 and 1926 by six men and three women — Annada Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, and Suprava Devi — and serialised in the Utkala Sahitya, a monthly literary journal. The authors belonged to the ‘Sabuja’ group – a short-lived period of Odia literature characterised by the fusing together of social realism with cosmopolitanism — and were concerned with the issue of women’s rights. Basanti tells the story of a young woman who defies societal norms to marry outside her caste, stand up to her conservative mother-in-law, and create an independent existence for herself.
4. Paraja by Gopinath Mohanty, translated by Bikram K. Das
As an administrator with the then-Orissa Administrative Service, Gopinath Mohanty lived across different regions of the state, including tribal areas. His novel Paraja tells the story of the Paraja tribal people through Sukurjani’s family: their relationship to the land, the gradual loss of their land to the state, and the conflict between tribal and non-tribal cultures and values. Mohanty’s narrative can be read as a searing attack on the state’s exploitation of protected people and their land.
5. One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator by Manoj Kumar Panda, translated by Snehaprava Das
Manoj Kumar Panda’s writing style may be uniquely experimental – the translator Snehaprava Das writes about the author’s post-modernist approach in her note – but his themes are universal: loss, alienation, and belonging. In The Aesthetics of a Supercyclone, Ruben is transformed into an “exceptional human being” after he survives a cyclone that devastates his village and kills his family (“He could drink seawater and breathe stench”). In Pronunciation Therapy, Dr Haraprasad is obsessed with pronouncing words perfectly: he refuses to treat patients who mispronounce his name or their symptoms.
6. Six Acres and a Third by Fakir Mohan Senapati, translated by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P. Mohanty, Jatindra K. Nayak, and Paul St-Pierre
The central theme in this novel rooted in social reality is that of ownership at different levels. At one level, this is a novel about a piece of land in a village and the different ways in which it is sold and resold because of ever-changing legal arrangements that reflect the shift in power. On another level, it is about ownership on a larger, more insidious scale: British colonialism in India. For Senapati, language was also inextricably linked to power. In the novel, the official language in the region shifts from Sanskrit to Persian and later, under the British, to English. As a champion of the Odia language, Senapati was critical of the elevation of certain languages at the expense of local languages. Read this for a sharp takedown of power structures and an insight into colonial Odisha in the early 1800s.
7. Colours of Loneliness and Other Stories by Paramita Satpathy, translated by Snehaprava Das
Whether they deal with the issue of child sexual abuse (Children’s Day), the crushing force of patriarchy (The Unborn Daughter’s Story), or the death of a sibling (A Shadow in the Mirror), Paramita’s Satpathy’s short stories are suffused with a sense of loneliness and loss. Another overarching theme – and a primary concern for Satpathy – is the exploration of the female psyche in varied social settings: the title story, Colours of Loneliness, tells the story of two childhood friends whose lives follow very different trajectories but each is left wondering if the other is happier while in Wild Jasmine a young tribal woman’s life changes irrevocably after a chance meeting with a contractor in charge of a project to modernise her village.
8. Spark of Light: Short Stories by Women Writers of Odisha, edited by Valerie Henitiuk and Supriya Kar
This anthology brings together 26 Odia women writers who write mainly – but not exclusively – on issues related to gender and patriarchy. With their wide selection of authors – from Basanta Kumari Patnaik to Binapani Mohanty to Sushila Devi – the editors succeed in bridging the gap between Odia writers and the English-speaking audience, both in India and elsewhere. In Patnaik’s In Bondage, an unmarried woman is forced to acknowledge that her lack of education and a husband render her subhuman in the eyes of local villagers. While Mohanty’s Pata Dei tackles the hypocrisy that surrounds sexual assault in society, Devi departs from the usual themes and looks at religious intolerance in the wake of the Partition of India.