What we think of Indian literature
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One Thousand Days In A Refrigerator, a collection of short stories by Manoj Kumar Panda, translated from the original Odia by Snehaprava Das, exposed to me my inadequacy as a reader. The hospital cot on the book’s cover led me to form an opinion about the nature of the stories even before I had read them—sad and introspective, which they were of course. In retrospect, I realized that this was mainly due to a preconception in my mind about fiction written in Indian regional languages in contrast to those written in English. Most translated fiction I had read before were centred around serious themes; thus, imagine my surprise at the quirkiness of Panda’s stories.
In the title story, for instance, if a man talking to his comatose wife in a cold, refrigerated room is disturbing enough, what was even more so was the man’s memory of their courtship, when he had flung his pet snake at her belly! Quite obviously, the woman fainted. Yet, she goes ahead and marries the near-psycho, a man who had this thought about his wife once when she cooked chicken for him: “That evening you made chicken for dinner—delicious! A strange thought crossed my mind as I ate. Suppose you had been butchered and diced and served in place of the chicken, would you taste as good?” So shocking, it is superb!
In A Letter From Mesopotamia, a Brahmin widow in British-era Odisha names her children after the places where her husband was posted as a soldier of the British army during World War II—Gallipoli Panda, Basra Panda and Amra Panda were names she picked from her husband’s letters. I would have expected something like this in a story written originally in English.
In A Picture Of Agony, a young girl hates the sun because her grandmother and parents had died of sunstroke on a day the temperature was 45 degrees Celsius; so, on days the temperature reached that mark, the girl and her grandfather distribute chilled fruit salad to passers-by. In The Testimony Of God, God himself comes to a court of law to testify on behalf of a woman accused of killing her child. In Pronunciation Therapy, a doctor is so obsessed with correct pronunciations and spellings of English words that he marries a woman only because “(he) was highly impressed by the perfectly accented pronunciation of (that) girl participating in a debate competition.”
In The Hunt, a type of story that I have, in my ignorance, come to associate with regional language writings translated into English, the fear of a Brahmin’s curse turns an entire community of lower caste people against a family. In When The Gods Left, a Brahmin family reveres their pet cow because all the gods are supposed to dwell in the body of a cow. But when the same cow dies, they do not even want to go anywhere near the carcass. A poor, lower caste carrion-picker is called to haul the dead animal away.
I realize I had been foolish to believe that regional language literature in India includes only works centred on caste and exploitation and poverty. And I realize I hardly pick up a translated work on an impulse; I find them only from their reviews. For instance, I read Fever, the English translation by Arunava Sinha of Samaresh Basu’s Bengali novel Mahakaler Rather Ghoda, and could feel the protagonist, Ruhiton Kurmi, losing his digits to leprosy. I read One Part Woman, Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation of Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel Madhorubagan, and felt the desperation of a childless couple. The only translated books I remember picking up without reading a review are Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Dahan, translated from the Bengali by Rani Ray (which further prompted me to read another fine novel by Bhattacharya translated by Ray, Falling Apart: Bhangan Kaal), and Balika Badhu: A Representative Anthology Of Bengali Short Stories, translated and edited by Monish Ranjan Chatterjee. And I picked them up only because of the films made on them: Dahan, directed by Rituparno Ghosh, and Balika Badhu, featuring that lovely song Bade Achche Lagte Hain.
Perhaps there are more quirky stories in Indian languages like the ones in One Thousand Days In A Refrigerator. It is just that I don’t know about them. Perhaps they haven’t been translated into English yet.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a doctor and Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winning novelist.