Reading a book of translation in English from the Odia original, what strikes one right at the beginning is the process of translation. The stories in this collection are set in the Orissa of the 1960s and 70s, and quite naturally are laced with its local cultural flavour in an ecosystem uniquely its own.

The idioms and patois used in daily conversations, the shibboleths of the time, the memes embedded in the stories carry the redolence of those days. The stories and narrations evoke a world different from even the present-day Odisha.

This volume contains eight short stories by Gopinath Mohanty, doyen of modern Odia novelists and recipient of Sahitya Academy and Jnanpith awards. Reputed and popular as a novelist, he penned short stories with equal felicity, though the expansive beauty of his expressions seems a touch bonsaied in this literary form. It’s true, but not quite!

The title story Hidden Ganga is a haunting story of marital discord, with the familiar theme of a deviant husband refusing to provide maintenance money for his wife and two children. It bristles with richness of expression in the master storyteller’s multiple crafts. It pits men’s versus women’s epigenetics in subtle light, the warped versus head and heart. Read the ennobling words the woman of “wilted charm… a huge 8-anna dot on her forehead” speaks upon her husband’s doing time in prison:

“Don’t send him to jail! Don’t send him to jail! I don’t need any wealth! I will forgo my due. I would rather die of starvation, but I can’t bear this sorrow! I say I have received my due. Wretch that I am, what have I done! I have sent my own husband to jail! Could I ever do anything worse than this!”

The gravitas in her words rafts the curlicue in the story to a stupefying denouement. Not to miss the magistrate’s inner thoughts while hearing the matter, as his mind volleys back and forth in personalised flanking moves:

He examined these thoughts that rose in his mind before the ordinary Sec 488 case. What he has not been able to do, this young man has done. He did not care for respectability. He has changed his path when his taste changed. He has rejected the old and welcomed the new. What the judge had dismissed as distorted and anti-social impulses originating in the dark recesses of his mind, this young man has adopted as his course of action. Birds and beasts did just this. The young man’s biggest offence, what the judge himself could have done, but did not do. His actions gave rise to a certain amount of jealousy. A slow, simmering rage.

Or the ‘poetry’ in recreating the battling young couple, deftly rendered in English:

On the wedding altar. Both with mukutas on their heads and feet decorated with lac-dye. So many curious eyes on them. A shy, demure bride. So much affection then, so many desires, so many dreams. Just eight years ago. He might have sprayed jasmine scented attar on her. So many times, they would have gazed together at the full moon from the window of their dark house. He would have stolen a glance at his wife, and like all men said to himself, “My wife is so beautiful!” He would have thought so many times that her body was a poem, an inspiration. Would have thought that she was a fragrant garland of flowers or a tasty morsel of food!

I chafe at the lowly small-town syndrome of malicious mischief in the story The Destructive Fog. One can even find it surreal. Not because it is indescribably cringeworthy, not because of the lifelong suffering borne by either couple, but because it may seem outrageously disproportionate to present-day readers. The sanctity of marriage today has so dramatically metamorphosed, even in hidebound Odisha, in the interleaving pages of 50-60 years past, that such ‘suspected’ peccadilloes would seem outsized. Even to this reviewer who grew up in 1960s-1970s Odisha, the story seems a tad far fetched.

But I hasten to add that sufferings, self-flagellations, even masochistic melancholia, weren’t exactly an uncommon narrative. Marital integrity and satitva – creatures of traditional ethos – were sacred and entirely non-negotiable for women. Not so for the men, though, sadly!

And the Tide Turned could be seen in disparate ways: a looming personal catastrophe felt and dispelled can change human characters hitherto blasé about happenings around them. At a sociological level, it pits the subaltern against the well-offs, the possible tragedy catalysing the conversion to ginger admission of unstated guilt. So sensitively has the storyline strung a clasp that the outcome looks hung in parchment!

A Beautiful Woman is replete with highs and lows – the feisty woman Patauni versus her two-timing husband. It alternates between opposite characters and happenstances, laying bare the enmeshing duality of human existence – the woman innocent, the husband timeserving; the preternaturally unalloyed wife, the bounder hubby. Amid the flush of importunate events, the sting in the tail is sans drama – the words are more suggestive than any tight-stitched portrayal!

The door opened at four in the afternoon. Her husband entered and closed the door behind him. He turned around and faced her. Dishevelled hair. A pale face. A black eye. A swollen, bleeding bump on the left side of the forehead. A cut across the cheek. He lisped. “Let’s go!” An irritated and tired voice. Patauni looked at him with trepidation. She couldn’t say anything. She quietly followed.

Of the other four stories, Illusion is evocative of son Narendra’s yearning for his father’s image he last saw as a boy. This memory is heirloom for the soul – a remarkable resurrection, to wrest back fond images from the debris of time. The portrayal of Narendra’s confusion is vintage Gopinath Mohanty:

Leaning the cycle against the wall, he stood still and thought, “Was Bhai right? That wasn’t Bapa in the photograph.”
“Why are you standing outside?” his wife called out.
“Wait, I’m waiting for the sweat to dry.”
“In the sun?”
Narendra felt then – the sun on his face. Not the morning sun, or the midday sun—the afternoon sun.
Sighing deeply, he went into the house.

A word about the translator’s challenges. I can dial back to visualise how besetting it can get to render Mohanty’s vigorous, rich colloquialisms into crisp, cadenced English prose.

Translation from any Indian language into English, with culture-specific constraints, is a trial of the translator’s skill and sensitivity. When Mohanty crafts and mixes words to create, and reflexively varies tenses to sync with the torrent of his words to string together sentences – even weaving patterns in real time – trouble for the translator is only exacerbated.

Luckily, the magic of the Odia original isn’t lost in translation here. The text is fluent, the prose limpid. That Sudeshna is Gopinath Mohanty’s daughter-in-law has helped – in bringing alive the translation, reliving the thrust and tenors of the storyteller, and situating them in real life. In a translator’s note she writes:

“I picked up Illusion, as I thought that the story, to a certain extent evokes images of the author’s own childhood” or that “Lord Gopala Beckons [was] particularly appealing to me as the narrators… bear a striking resemblance to the author and their speech sometimes echoes the words that the author would use in his everyday conversation”.

The book, though, could have done with some editing, also in avoiding a few typos.

Hidden Ganga and Other Stories by Gopinath Mohanty, translated from the Odia by Sudeshna Mohanty, is published by Dhauli Books, 2019.