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Rita Nath Keshari 

Rita Nath Keshari : ‘Golden Island’

Book Review

Dr Lipipuspa Nayak (Translator)
Dr Hrusikesh Panda (Original writer) 
The Golden Island (Oriya: Suborno Dweepo)
Pakshighar Prakashanee, Bhubaneswar, 2011
Pages 184 Price Rs200
ISBN 9788192084176

The Fading Glitter of a Satellite Existence

Considering the large output of literary texts trying to assess the impact of the globalization policies adopted by the Indian government in 1991, we feel that those published in the early phase of this economic revival deserve special attention – first as forerunners and then as imaginative constructs.

A quick glance at the events that led to the formation of the new industrial policy (NIP) of July 1991 by the Narasimha Rao government will make us realise that India’s creditworthiness had plummeted to a new low. 

“With U.S.-based credit-rating agencies declaring India unsafe for foreign investment India found it extremely difficult to procure funds in the international market and woo NRI deposits back. The NIP of July 1991 and the revised industrial policy statement of October 28, 1991liberalised the foreign direct investment (FDI) policy significantly, especially in high priority areas. It is clear that a liberal FDI policy was adopted to save the balance of payments situation at home and to escape the imminent external debt trap”.1

The thought of FDI providing a healthy competitive indigenous market was only a secondary consideration. The protectionist regime was to be slowly dismantled despite the fear of the vote bank being heavily dented – so critical was India’s foreign debt liabilities. 

Dr Hrusikesh Panda’s Odia novel, Suborno Dweepo, published in 1994, was prompt enough to address the issues and concerns related to liberalization policies while attempting to balance the demands of art and creative imagination. Dr Lipipuspa Nayak’s

excellent English translation of this novel bearing the title The Golden Island got published by Pakshighar Prakashanee, Bhubaneswar in 2011. Dr Nayak’s English translation has a lucid and painstakingly written introduction that confirms the original writer’s exposé of neocolonialism. Though Hrusikesh chooses a country other than India to highlight the implications of rampant foreign direct investment, it is clear that the same pattern of the sad outcome of liberalization is replicated in the imaginary country called The Golden Island. This country becomes a paradigm of the Asian and African countries which adopted globalization as a panacea for all their economic deprivations.

By allowing fiction to blend with fact a political novel opens up a vista – carefully charted with imagination – on the rigidly chronicled events. The novelist is at liberty to people his fictional world with characters who will offer multi-dimensional interpretations about historically authenticated events. In other words, the writer juggles with the academically orthodox concepts of truth to create the ‘feel’ of a historical period or political upheaval rather than subjugate his artistic interpretation to a minutely documented report.

One of the aims of this novel under consideration is to embody in an individual destiny, like Abhisek the protagonist’s, the peculiar pressures and problems of an epoch. The mapping out of the individual destiny can be done only in defiance against the hegemonic rule and bears close resemblance to the popular political movement of this particular epoch. This is so because the novelist seems to have a special responsibility of focusing on the ordinary people caught unwittingly in the turbulence created by the nexus of bureaucrats and politicians.

Instead of setting his novel in India, Hrusikesh steps away from it and from the vantage point of the Golden Island sees his country mired in corruption and chicanery. The masses crawl with flickers of hope towards the milestones of bitter disillusionment. Even in the early nineties, when the champagne and caviar parties celebrating the new economy in India’s metros were still being hosted, the author foresees that the benefits of an open economy will not percolate down to the masses. The author’s prediction about the rampant myopic globalization of underdeveloped countries is proving to be uncomfortably close to the fading glitter of promises made by politicians and international funding agencies. There is loud propaganda about the high growth rate in India but statistics hide the reality of a nation reeling beneath debts and renewing application for fresh debts to service the old ones.

Blasting the carefully constructed myth of developing countries progressing under the aegis of a benign postcolonial world order, Hrusikesh crafts his multi-layered novel with the consciousness of an individual caught in the stranglehold of a neocolonial society. Himself a distinguished senior bureaucrat who does not calculate the price of opposing the diktat of political figures around him, Hrusikesh transmits onto his characters the readiness to question and scrutinize the dubious implementation of seemingly innocuous policies.

In the novel the civil servant protagonist Abhisek is deputed to Subarnapur, the capital of Golden Island as Advisor to the rural development department of the Golden Island government. Obviously his superiors think it superfluous to consult him as it is presumed that civil servants would be thrilled about ‘foreign posting’ and the perks accompanying it.

Shocked by the political and economic fragmentation of Golden Island, Abhisek gradually realises about his truncated powers and surveys the festering corruption around him. The author cautions us right from the beginning that the protagonist’s choice and experiences are not ends in themselves and ought to mirror a larger historical process. To achieve this purpose, the protagonist looks beyond the shoulders of the rulers of Golden Island and focuses on ordinary characters completely ignorant about the manner in which vested interests are plundering their homeland. Resisting the kind of elitist political documentation of socio-economic progress in vogue that deletes the underclass from their records, the novelist traces grassroots politics while delving into the problems of workers and peasants.

The example of daffodil cultivation over hectares of prime agricultural land at the behest of the World Bank in the novel illustrates the lackadaisical attitudes of the local public servants who are in charge of such projects.

Manitree, the Director of the Daffodil Department of the Government of Golden Island, inwardly cowers before Abhisek because his questions expose her ignorance and also her refusal to learn about her subject better. Mr Cox, ‘a massively built Caucasian man’ and the official representative of the World Bank, ‘just wanted to ensure if the import of equipments for the project, supposed to be made on various grounds, had been done or not, and at what stage the procurement stood’ (p.91).

This quotation from the English translation of the novel succinctly sums up the role that the World Bank (indirect and ambiguous nomenclature about the international funding agency has not been adopted to play safe), according to the author, in trying to deplete the scarce economic resources of the borrowing country. To prove the veracity of his indictment of this mercenary money-lending group preening itself as an altruistic organization, Abhisek urges Manitree, the Director of the Daffodils Department, to trudge up the hill to the actual site of the flower plantation. He discovers the surreptitious and illicit cultivation of poppies. Manitree, aware of the drug barons sponsoring poppy cultivation, exhorts Abhisek to hold his tongue for her sake and for the sake of the farmers teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Abhisek makes us pause and think about the relative order of crimes: the growing of poppy plants or the bartering away of one’s sovereignty for the sake of clandestine financial deals.

Not that he can always be at the forefront of an attack against underhand deals and other malpractices. Quite often he is at the receiving end. There are the episodes about inflation flaring up overnight and preventing the common man from buying things for daily use or even bus tickets. When Abhisek finds his salary inadequate for purchasing such items he wonders about the plight of the ordinary Subarnapurians of Golden Island. The reader begins to realise how galloping inflation can propel even an honest man to discard his virtue and succumb to the indirect pressure to join a gang of the unscrupulous and corrupt.

And this pressure is nothing new to Abhisek for back home in India he was always up in arms against malfeasance. Here again, he mentions Odisha as his home state and the various departments against which he waged regular warfare. Juxtaposing the neocolonial situation of Golden Island against India, applauded all over as an emerging superpower, the author seems to ask why we refuse to recognize India as a country still wriggling in the throes of neocolonialism. He painstakingly draws parallels between the style of governance, the superficial models of development and the religious intolerance permeating most public activities both in India and in Golden Island.

Tragedy is never far from him or rather his sensitivity does not allow him to overlook the sad absurdity of the fate most people suffer. We see the differing, sometimes complementary views of the author and of Abhisek the political Advisor. Thus the text becomes self-reflexive like two mirrors facing each other. This reciprocity succeeds in capturing images and doubling them so as to add depth to the perspective presented in the fictional process. What distinguishes this mise en abyme (in-depth setting) technique is that it sets free a character in the novel/text to take up the actual task of the narrator in charge of narration.

And it is not easy to perceive the different strands of narration held taut by the protagonist and by the author. The other characters, overbearing and desirous of overpowering him try to hijack the narrative of his life. His wife Himani finally gives up on him because she does not see the powers of redemption in him. Herself a successful bureaucrat, she has very little patience for what she terms as his fanatical non-conformism. 

Manitree professes to love him but Abhisek detects in her the same attempt, exactly like Himani’s, to overpower him. He realises that she fails to understand the fine line dividing individuality and egocentrism. Ironically, both these women are his professional subordinates but manage to sneak into his private domain as wife and as lover to register their claim over him. He struggles to hold onto his space both in his life and in the narrative. He regards Manitree’s husband as an individual whose grip over life is weakening but Manitree has no concern for such debilitating influences.

It is probably this callousness of Manitree’s that helps her to ride over the political crisis generated by the sudden death of Chandravadan, the Prime Minister of Golden Island. Dr Bad, who surfaces at this juncture, decides to misappropriate public funds while masquerading as a benevolent and progressive guardian of the State. The Chief of the Police of Golden Island, who is hands in gloves with the interim caretaker government, unleashes a reign of terror in the peace-loving island so that the plunder can smoothly go on and undetected. They even decide to bring back Romualdez, Chandravadan’s widow, who had been deported from Golden Island on charges of betting and tax evasion. 

In this pervading chaos, Abhisek learns about his transfer but the order of the new posting does not arrive nor is there any explanation for this delay. This seems to become emblematic of his existence in a limbo – wanted neither in Golden Island nor in India. 

The irony is further deepened when he cannot reach his rendezvous with Manitree in the Circuit House where he is wanted and awaited. Trapped in the violent outburst of communal riots among the followers of the Beard and the Rod sects, Abhisek tries to reach the Circuit House. 

Although Manitree stands on the dimly-lit verandah wondering about his delay, she fails to see him who is inching towards her. Knowing that she cannot see him because he is in the dark, he nevertheless tries to reach out to her. She goes inside perturbed and restless. This failure to meet despite their proximity is again symbolic of the human inability to bridge psychological distance. Were they not aware of their growing incapacity to relate to each other when this secret meeting was fixed? Even if they had met could they have really understood each other?

Even as he drops to the ground he tells himself that he will return to his village, to his roots, to regain his identity there. We see that in his moment of physical agony and spiritual anguish Manitree is far from his mind. The city or the urban landscape, a paradigm of soulless material development, had rejected him or so he thinks as his thoughts finally cease to flow.

The ambiguity about Abhisek’s fate at the end of the novel is deliberately woven into the rich texture of the narrative. It was probably necessary for the author to create this vacuum because the reader stirs out of his complacency. He takes cognizance of the fact that the point of sanity and sardonic humour in a world of chaos can very easily disappear. The reader may feel like returning to the beginning of the narrative to assure himself about Abhisek’s presence.

1Keshari, Nath Rita. Article: ‘What Did Liberalisation Bring?’ Maharashtra Herald, Pune, Tuesday, December 31, 1991.




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Book Reviews
Nuggehalli Pankaja : ‘Perfectly Untraditional’
Pramod K Das & Narayan Jena : ‘The Poetics of History'
Rita Nath Keshari : ‘Golden Island’
Sneha Subramanian Kanta : ‘The Second Choice’

Ambika Ananth – Editorial Comment
Krishna Chakravarthy
Zinia Mitra
Jairaj Padmanabhan
Sandip Sahoo
Sasnarine Persaud
Shobhana Kumar

Gautam Maitra : ‘Varsha’s Encounter ...’
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Shaily Sahay : ‘Roodrabhisheka’
Tulsi Charan Bisht : ‘Twilight’
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