India has a great history of storytelling. Back home we have probably read some of Salman Rushdie , winner of the Booker of Bookers, and remember the brouhaha over The Satanic Verses. Then there is Aravind Adiga with his Man Booker prize winning White Tiger , Vikas Swarup ( from the film Slum Dog Millionaire - but if you haven't read the book , I highly recommend it. Q&A is so much better than the movie), mother and daughter writers Anita and Kiran Desai (another Man Booker winner for The Inheritance of Loss), and India's 4th Man Booker winner for her novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, and maybe we've even heard of or read some of Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry. These are only some of the current batch of contemporary Indian writers who write in English, there are many more.
In addition, each of the states of India has its own language with its own oral and written tradition. For example, Bengal is famous for its Nobel Prize winning author, Rabindranath Tagore who also wrote India's National anthem. India also has a classic tradition of novels, plays, poetry from the likes of Kālidāsa a poet and playwright, often called the Indian Shakespeare, and the great Sanskrit epics of the Mahabarata , which the BBC did a dramatization of some years back, and the Rāmāyaṇa.
Orissa, the state where I am living, also has its great literature wallas. But I will admit to not having heard of any of them prior to coming here. Another VSO Volunteer alerted me to the website of Grassroots Books which claims to be the worlds largest website of Oriyan literature in translation - a claim I think may be hard to dispute. So I am intending to read some of these works over the next few months and report to you on them. But where to start? So for no other reason than that I was plagues by the insects of the tile earlier this month here is the first one. Please be aware that these reviews will contain spoilers.
Ants by Gopinath Mohanty
Government man Ramesh, his side kick Binu and their Kondh tribe porters scurry like a line of ants up the Orissian hillside in an attempt to track and to catch rice smugglers. The pecking order of Ramesh (who at the start of the story sees himself as being successful, the only person from his village to have finished his education) down to Binu and down to the porters is established early in the story. They each give orders on down the line. Passing orders from one to the other just like ants pass on messages to their fellow ants. But the ants exchange messages in both directions. The Kondh people sing about their unfair treatment and the unjust ways of Ramesh, but he doesn't understand their language and Binu intentionally mistranslates their song as a love song. So unlike the line of ants messages are not understood between both parties.
During the course of the story, they come to a village market. As the market day ends , he sits and watches the crowd disperse , as an endless line of people, who like the ants he'd seen early scurrying away with biscuit crumbs , these people stop and talk with each other before continuing on their way. As he increasingly sees the real nature of these people's lives by witnessing a funeral march following a death from malaria, by seeing a family forced by hunger to walk 60 mils from home for food, Ramesh begins to recognise similarities between them and the folk from his own village. When the smugglers are caught and brought before him, he has changed his tune. he no longer sees smugglers who must be hunted down like wild game, but as frail men and women trying desperately to survive and keep the inevitability of death at bay for another day .
When I was reading this story,it reminded me in parts of Hemingway, especially in the parts where the tracking of the smugglers is described as if were a hunt for big game. This overtone serves to depersonalize the smugglers in Ramesh and Binu's minds, as he strives to continue to uphold the law and hand out justice ignoring emotional pleas for leniency, such as from the young wife of a man driven by hunger to steal, whose pleas for mercy for her husband on the grounds that without a breadwinner she and their child would starve went unheard by Ramesh. Again there is the contrast of the Ramesh at the start of the story who sees the potential of increased job status and recognition coming from a successful hunt and the Ramesh at the end of the story
The other contrast is between the present day Orissa and the Orissa of the past. The family have walked from Simhachalam Binu tells him. As Ramesh ponders this we understand that this place had at one time been part of Orissa. presumably now it is not. It hints at a great Orissa, now reduced to a starving, malarial ridded state in which its citizens have to smuggle rice to survive. The penultimate paragraph of the story brings these strand all together in a summation of Orissian history and in a moment of epiphany for Ramesh - "Ramesh stood staring ahead. The history of Orissa had evaporated. There was no past — no Kapilendradev, no Purushottamadev, no Konark, no land, no country, no language, nothing. Only ants. Ants, ants and more ants. Ants everywhere. Hungry ants, hurrying, scurrying, carting away tiny morsels of food. An endless line of ants, crawling away, coming together, dispersing, gathering again, in an unceasing expedition — all they wanted was to survive." The moment of Ramesh's empathy with the people is submerged beneath the realization of their plight, of the plight of all of Orissa, its people's fall from prosperity and grandeur to the "writhing grey mass of men and women, a luscious cheek lost to yaws, smiles, the flapping of wrinkled skin, feverish eyes burrowing into their sockets, funeral lamentations, cries of hunger and poverty, the fire and the fury raging in the recesses of sunken souls" that Ramesh sees before him.
Very sad . Mohanty lived between 1914 and 1991, and I am not sure exactly when this story was written, or even set, but major famines have been prevalent in Orissa on many occasions - with the great famine of 1866, and coincidently 100 years later in 1996 with the failure of the monsoon - even today in 2010 in Orissa there are deaths from starvation, and malaria, both fueled by poverty in what is one of the poorest states in India. Which makes the secure livelihoods work of NGOs like mine all the more important.
(Kapilendradev = first Orissan king from mid 15th century. Purushottamadev = his youngest son. Konark = the great sun temple built in the 13th century, one of the architectural wonders of the Indian subcontinent)