Spark of Light: Short Stories of Women Writers of Odisha
Editors: Valerie Henitiuk & Supriya Kar
Athabasca University Press, Canada. 2016
Pp 240 | Canadian $ 27.95
Stories with insistent honesty rooted in Orissa
‘Spark of Light’ is an anthology of short stories by women writers from Odisha. It is a well-produced collection of twenty-seven stories, mostly translated from the original Odiya, with a mix of writers, some established and some emerging voices. With a detailed foreword by the two editors, Valerie Henitiuk and Supriya Kar –
“…these stories, written by women who are natives of Odisha, depict a world that, while continually in transformation, remains almost stubbornly familiar. Detailed in the stories are perennial themes in women’s lives—loving yet conflicted relationships; the difficulties and rewards inherent in the roles of mother, daughter, sister, and wife; the yearning for personal fulfilment and an independent life; the challenges of growing old. But we also find poverty, religious intolerance, lawlessness, instability, and injustice. The characters in these stories must find their way in a world badly disfigured by human callousness and cruelty—quiet, cold-blooded indifference, as well as the hatred and violence that rob people of their dignity. Perhaps more than anything, what distinguishes these stories is their insistent honesty, their refusal to look the other way.”
The very detailed foreword introduces each of the stories, starting from Reba Ray’s ‘Sanyasi,’ the first Odiya short story written by a woman, to appear in print way back in 1899, and also draws from and compares with other famous Odiya works and anthologies. The editors’ love for each of these stories is evident, and the careful choice of the stories gives the anthology a layered, strong voice.
The other aspect of this anthology is that the stories have been all translated by other writers, and not the original author, except in a couple of cases. Translations always raise the question, of what has been lost and what has been preserved from the original work. The translator has a huge responsibility of empathising with the author’s work and more significantly careful of not inserting their own voice in the story. Without having read the originals, of course, it does feel that the translators have been sensitive to the sentiment of the original writer. As the foreword points out, “the first significant effort to present to English readers the imaginative world of women writers from Odisha was Under a Silent Sun: Oriya Women Poets in Translation (1992), edited by Jagannath Prasad Das and Arlene Zide, which brought together more than one hundred poems by thirty-seven poets. In prose, however, the first anthology to appear was Oriya Women’s Writing: Essay, Autobiography, Fiction (1997), compiled by a group of editors: Ganeswar Mishra and Paul St. Pierre, along with Arun K Mohanty, Jatindra K Nayak, and Trilochan Misra. Since the editors wished to emphasize the formal diversity of women’s writing, this slender volume, now out of print, includes one essay, two excerpts from autobiographies and three from novels, and five short stories.” So it hasn’t been that long ago that Odiya translations have been available widely, nor is there a significant body of translated from Odiya work out there; this is why Spark of Light is such an important piece of work.
Like the contributors, I too am a woman writer, born and brought up in Odisha; but now that I live in London, I wanted to savour it with two sets of eyes, both from close and beyond. What would I see of the Odisha I know and what would I see through the eyes of my fellow writers based and living in Odisha?
My first observation was the prominent theme that tied several of the stories together; poverty, the kind of despairing poverty which makes children starve and their parents kill. In ‘Timeless Image’ (Banaja Devi) the contrast between the haves and the have-nots is seen from a close first person point of view, in ‘Sin’ (Paramita Sathpathy), the young protagonist triggers off a chain of horrifying events which he hadn’t conceived at all, and Nabin the crippled protagonist waits and waits for a wheelchair allocation with a ‘A fistful of hope’ (Golap Manjari Kar). The despair felt by these characters is complete, there is no redeeming incident which will give them any hope or pull them out of their poverty
Then vulnerability of villagers and the injustice towards women is represented through different characters by different writers, whether it is in the ‘fallen woman’ in ‘The Vigil ‘(Suprabha Kar), the tragic Pata Dei with her baby born after a gang rape in ‘Pata Dei (Binapani Mohanty) or Champa the crazed mother, grieving for her sons, in the ‘Ruins’ (Gayatri Basu Mallik). These stories paint the stark reality of rural life in a straightforward manner, no filters, no make-up. There is no glorification, no hiding behind language or forms.
The sadness in these stories is real, heartfelt and often stark.
Some of the stories explore motherhood, in its various forms; the hopeful mother in ‘The ring’ (Pratibha Ray) waiting for her son to wake from a coma, or the clingy mother, holding on to her son, in spite of knowing he is an adult ready to move on in ‘The trap’ (Yasodhara Mishra) or the diabolical cyclone in ‘Mother’ (Chirashree Indrasingh) which forces people to place their babies in jars so they can float to safety, and a woman transformed to a form of the ultimate mother to nourish.
The other theme which threads the stories is the portrayal of man, in his cheating, condescending self. In ‘Mother of Kalahandi’ (Gayatri Sharaf) a blissfully married wife comes to terms with the emptiness of knowing that the husband she has been doting on is not what he seems, or the brother who has introduced his unmarried sister as the maid in ‘Bondage’ (Basanta Kumari Patnaik).
Some stories are about a fantasy love, such as ‘Moonrise,’ then the hopelessly romantic ‘Shadows of the moon’ (Mona Lisa Jena) where a woman visits a secret lover after seventeen years, only to realise the disconnect between reality and dreams. Even the moon has shadows we know. ‘The sound of silence’ (Susmita Rath) is another story with fantasy and metaphorical imagery, which makes a young woman smell the emotions emanating from those around her.
‘Lotus man’ (Mamata Dash) is a haunting story of magic realism, where the subject of passionate love exists within the thick stems and waxy petals of the lotus flowers of a deep pond, but does he really or is this some sort of a hallucination? This story follows the life of the ‘other woman; singled and alone in her choice, evidently segregated from society.
The title ‘Misery knows no bounds’ (Sarojini Sahoo) does warn you that this will be a sad story, but it doesn’t prepare for the shock of the fate of the little girl, told so starkly and simply.
‘Four micro stories’ (Pallavi Nayak) and ‘Droplets of memories’ (Deepsha Rath) are skillfully done with flash fiction stitched in together.
All the stories are set in Odisha and her villages, with real, identifiable characters, nursing their own despair, sorrow and frustrations. The foreword rightly describes –
‘A woman who pours all the darkness within her into a coffee mug, age slipping out of a body like a tree shedding its bark, a woman’s outbursts evoking the smell of burnt chillies’ – these are but a few of the many striking images that one encounters in these short stories. Originally written in Odia, the language spoken in the eastern Indian province of Odisha, the stories span a period of more than a century—a period that witnessed the rise of the Indian independence movement, the expansion of education, and the demise of the British Raj, as well as the partition of India and Pakistan, persistent conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, and, more recently, the growth of regionalism and the impact of economic liberalization. Amidst the political and social upheavals of modernity, one constant has been an ongoing struggle to reconcile old and new, to arrive at some sort of integration, however uneasy, between customs and attitudes grounded in tradition and ideas and ways of life imported from the West.’
A special mention needs to be made about the translators, who have done their best to preserve the sense of place and uniqueness of these stories, while translating from Odiya into a language so different in cadence.
The editors, translators and writers featured in this unique anthology deserve huge applause in bringing some much needed awareness of this often overlooked state of India.