Oblivion And Other Stories, an anthology of Odia short stories translated into English, is an exciting project. The collection attempts to introduce non-Odia speakers to the works of the late Gopinath Mohanty, one of the most respected Indian writers of the 20th century, while also offering a vivid glimpse of the social fabric in pre-liberalisation Odisha.
Reviewing a collection like this is to tread not merely through the book’s content but to simultaneously rescue oneself from the suffused shadow of the exceptional author and recipient of multiple national honours and awards.
Mohanty’s work weaves together the human condition and the non-human world delightfully, lending a pastoralism to the tales and reminding the reader of the loss of this quality in contemporary writing. This becomes especially relevant in a time when literature is also trying to grapple with climate change.
Oblivion, the titular tale, follows a tribal man travelling through the Eastern Ghats in a lorry; his innocuous wish darkly comes true. In Dã, an elderly concubine remembers her youth, her affair with the zamindar’s son, and the precarious position she occupies in the household. Endless is the bittersweet tale of a boy waiting for his father to return with a promised gift, and how its absence hits his “honour” amongst friends.
The stories form a microcosm of a society torn between a feudal past and the modern present. There is a grandmother fervently praying for India’s win in a cricket match against England, an idealism-spewing bureaucrat who has his own secrets, an ageing hunter who cannot reconcile his present with the past, and, among others, an Indian family of Chinese descent struggling to make sense of post-1962 India.
The very act of remembering, therefore, underlies several stories, for it is in memories that the losses suffered by the characters become stark.
Two major issues, however, diminish a reader’s interest. First, the tonality, uniform across the book, makes the stories predictable. Second, the powerlessness of most characters against their circumstances, (even if this is the author’s commentary on the times) becomes an overworked trope.
If a character is ageing, as in Dã, they are ageing in the worst way, with eyes sunk “deep enough to hold fistfuls of rice in their creases”; if someone is starving, they remain hungry. Stories like Cricket, Just Around This Bend and The Foreigner offer some complexity and respite from the despair but one is still left disappointed with the generic play social realism gets in the anthology. It is a selection issue which seems to limit the scope of Mohanty’s work.
Nevertheless, thanks to deft translation by Sudeshna Mohanty and Sudhansu Mohanty, Oblivion And Other Stories is a welcome addition to the corpus of literature from Indian languages being brought into English.
Mihir Vatsa is the author of Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration Of Chhotanagpur Plateau.