Book review: The Dynasty Of The Immortals by Gopinath Mohanty
The rhythm, spirit and politics of tribal life in the new translation of a book by Odia novelist Gopinath Mohanty
Is there another Indian novelist whose books contain, not just so many beautiful sentences, but so many different kinds of beautiful sentences, as those of Gopinath Mohanty (1914-91)? No Indian novelist is as consistently—and meaningfully—melodious as him. Most thrillingly, in Mohanty’s great novels of tribal life in Odisha, the notes he summons derive not just from his own sense of rhythm, but from his material: man as he experiences the pleasure and danger of the forest, the proximity and capriciousness of the gods, and the elemental beat and spark of the life-force itself.
Amrutara Santana, just published as The Dynasty Of The Immortals by the Sahitya Akademi in a translation by Odia scholars and professors of English literature, (the late) Bidhubhusan Das, Prabhat Nalini Das and classical dancer Oopali Operajita, is one of two great novels about Odia tribal life written by Mohanty in his youth. The other is Paraja, which appeared almost 30 years ago in an excellent translation by Bikram K. Das.
Mohanty’s engagement with the tribals of Odisha began fairly early in life. As a young bureaucrat enlisted in the Odisha Administrative Service in the years just before independence, he was sent to distant outposts in the district of Koraput, then, as now, one of India’s poorest regions. But when the young city boy with a master’s in English literature came into contact with people whom his very own civilization thought of as primitive, simple-minded hillmen, he found in them a beauty and integrity, a generosity of spirit and animistic empathy, a love of song and story that cried out to be enshrined in words.
But the tribals were also the “other” of mainstream Indian civilization, relentlessly patronized and exploited, destined to be on the wrong side of history even when India rid itself of its colonial masters (“The Kandha,” Mohanty writes presciently, “is to be found wherever the forest is. However, once the forest is opened up, the Kandha is evicted from his land”). Like his contemporary Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay in Bengal, with his forest novel Aranyak, Mohanty set out to describe both the rapture and the tragedy of this other way of life. But unlike Bandyopadhyay, he chose to do so from the point of view of the forest-dwellers themselves.
Readers of Paraja, about the tribe by that name, will immediately recognize in Dynasty the intensity and force of the limber, capacious, almost centreless point of view occupied by Mohanty’s narrator, as he roves about with a group of Kandha tribals in a group of isolated, impoverished villages in the Eastern Ghats (“Here, humankind did not get anything from nature without a struggle”).
Out here in the forest, distinctions between the human and the animal realm, the world of human artefacts and that of nature, the living and the dead, seem to be much more blurred than in modern industrial society. We sense this right from the opening chapters of Dynasty, when the man who appears to be the story’s protagonist, the elderly village headman Sarabu Saonta, dies; yet, his presence echoes across the 600 pages that follow. “Sarabu Saonta loved this earth,” we read. “He did not know how to love with discrimination.... Life was truth, beauty; let the old body be destroyed, he would be reborn in this beautiful land.”
After Sarabu dies, his son Diudu, daughter Pubuli and daughter-in-law Puyu are left to carry on all the rituals and reveries of their realm: the forbidding and enchanting forest, with its light and shade, cacophonous birds and rapacious tigers. In one scene, reminiscent of the story of the killing of the male krauncha bird and the grieving sounds of its mate that inspired Valmiki to invent the shloka meter of the Ramayan, Diudu kills a bird on a hunt and, reaching it as it lies thrashing on the ground, thinks he sees a cloud rising in the pupils of its eyes as it expires—an astonishing image. There are other thrilling hunting scenes, in which the contrasting energies of violence towards beasts and human social dynamics are mingled as expertly as Leo Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina (Mohanty was a voracious and cosmopolitan reader and even translated War And Peace into Odia).
But the forest is the realm not just of food-gathering, of the hunt, but also of love and sexual energy. It is the place—and this is where Mohanty’s almost anthropological focus on a very particular social world at a particular historical moment acquires a universal resonance—where man and woman become Man and Woman, carrying on the eternal dance of life and creation.
Repeatedly in Mohanty’s novels, we are given this sense of what one might call deep time, the sense of an archetype playing itself out repeatedly across the centuries. The young people falling in love for the first time thrill to this new emotion; the storyteller, meanwhile, thrills to the sense of the very same figures becoming indistinct, bringing the past back to life within the folds of the present. For Mohanty’s characters, the link to the past is not a matter of historical record but rather, an imaginative one rooted in a feeling for nature and the cosmos. It is in this sense that the tribals, with their short lifespans and many hardships, are nonetheless “the dynasty of the immortals”.
In 1953, a letter of complaint arrived at the office of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, sent to him by the feudal landowners and moneylenders who comprised the elite of Koraput. The letter said (I take this from an essay about Mohanty written by the critic J.M. Mohanty)—“To our great calamity and disaster Sri Gopinath Mohanty is posted here as the special assistant agent at Rayagada. He is always fond of hillmen and behaves like hillmen himself. He very little respects other classes of people before them. He behaves as if only born for Adivasis.”
Perhaps the letter had an unintended effect. When the Sahitya Akademi was founded in 1954 to award literary achievement in the 24 major languages of India, Amrutara Santana was judged the first-ever winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for Odia literature.It has taken 60 years to produce a worthy translation in English (marred, sadly, by the cliched cover art, abysmal layout and shoddy copy-editing that has unfortunately come to be the general standard for Akademi publications). The wait, though, has not been in vain. Mohanty’s ecstatic style, shot through with light and dark, sings here on every page. In time, the world will grant that this contemporary of Garcia Marquez and Vasily Grossman had a vision of life no less original and enduring than them. But for now, let at least us Indian readers ignore no more this marvellous hillman standing at our very own doorstep.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee The Dwarf and Clouds (forthcoming).