Born in Odisha, Ramachandra Behera is one among the few writers known for his literary works which depict ‘the slice of life’ in its natural form. A well-known radio dramatist of the seventies, Behera’s stories and novels take us to the of man’s struggle for survival. A teacher by profession, adored by students for his insightful lectures, 72-year-old Behera’s literary journey continues with vigour. A recipient of many awards for his literary creations, Behera is one among the rare breed of writers whose depiction of extraordinary ordinariness of human condition and situation takes a new dimension in the world of ‘survival of the fittest’. His awards include the Kendra Sahitya Akademi, the State Sahitya Akademi, Katha Samman, Sarala Samman, Utkal Sahitya Samman, Tarini Samman, Vishubha Puraskar, Bharatiya Bhasa Parishad Sadhana Samman, Natya Samman to name a few. In this interview Behera speaks to Pramod Kumar Das on his literary voyage:
Pramod Kumar Das: Sir, it is a pleasure to talk to you. Can we begin our discussion with your childhood and its impact on your writings?
Ramachandra Behera: I was born in a village in the district of Keonjhar, Odisha in 1945 where I studied in the village ME school. I vividly remember the harrowing poverty as well as the innocence of the people of my village as well as of the neighbouring villages. My family was quite well-to-do, and my parents were extremely generous by nature helping the needy as far as they could. In spite of poverty, disease and illiteracy, life in the village was extremely enjoyable. Surrounded by dense forests and cut off from the rest of the world due to lack of good roads, village life offered me the opportunity to look at everything as a piece of nature. The forest and the sky appeared to come closer when the dead body was consigned to flames; it appeared as if the forest and the sky were sympathetic when a village girl was given in marriage. The people and the surroundings which I had seen at that time are certainly a part of my creative vision. These people have appeared in my writings again and again. My first novel has the village setting as its protagonist in which I have detailed how with the passage of time there has been erosion in the innocence and moral sense of the village.
PKD: Sir, how far your stay during your MA days at Benares Hindu University has contributed to your writing? How far your doctoral study has helped your creative writing? To be precise, how has your academic pursuit contributed to your creative writing?
RCB: The BHU campus is such a wonderful place. The campus sobered my sense of restlessness and anxiety which had afflicted my inner self before coming to this great university. The campus made me contemplative and serious but as far as the doctoral degree is concerned I can say that it sharpened my critical sense and to some extent systematized as well as disciplined my creative being. While going through the critical materials relating to my dissertation, I came across very brilliant and illuminating critical essays which made me conscious of how meaning can be infused in my story. In that way my doctoral research in American fiction helped me in my creative writing.
PKD: How did your writing career begin?
RCB: I started writing when I was in the first year of Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. However, these writings were immature. I had not developed a vision of life at that time. It was only in 1971 that I wrote my first genuine story. The praise of the editor of the magazine before this story was published made me self-confident. Even today I feel that this first story (“Shesa Suryara Banhi” translated as “The Fire of the Setting Sun”) is one of my best works even today.
PKD: Sir, from where do you get the inspiration to write?
RCB: I come across characters and situations which stimulate my creative impulse. Due to my insight I recognize uniqueness in them which I can claim to be the truth about man and the world. These characters and situations I gather through reading, hearing from others and my own observations. I do not call it exactly influence but I have great admiration for Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian mythologies. My attitude towards life in the world has naturally been influenced by these and many other streams.
PKD: Sir, you have excelled in short-story writing and novel writing. Do you consider yourself more of a novelist or a short-story writer? And which is your preferred genre?
RCB: My first love is short-story, but such characters and their problems strike my mind which I feel cannot be encompassed in a matter of fifteen-sixteen pages. They require a longer narrative in order that the characters can be fully understood. Then I turn to writing novels.
PKD: Your stories, like “Gopapura” for instance, deal largely with existential complexities. Can you comment on it?
RCB: The story “Gopapura” depicts man’s sense of determination and courage to transcend obstacles. The compulsion of life necessitates man to plunge into the crisis challenging his and his family’s existence. To this extent “Gopapura” comes closer to what Hemingway has said, “Man is not born for defeat. He may be destroyed but not defeated.” But I have a number of stories in which the characters in spite of their determined struggles, fail to overcome the crisis in which they find themselves.
PKD: Have you been influenced by Hemingway’s sense of existentialism?
RCB: Believe me I am never conscious of the fact that my stories carry the stamp of this literary movement. I simply write about characters that disturb my mind. That is why I have nothing to do with anybody’s existentialistic mode of writing.
PKD: “Gopapura”, for which you won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, is an idea and a location, the mythical and the geographical: do they go together?
RCB: My friend and I were going to a village on a scooter. Since there were no bridges, we along with other people had to cross the river in a boat. I asked my friend what would happen to a man who had to urgently go to the other side at night and the boatmen were missing? The nonchalant reply of my friend was the man would die. But does a man die easily; does he surrender to death without a challenge? This idea was the beginning of “Gopapura”. The myth of Basudeva’s crossing the Yamuna in order to reach Gopapura was infused into the narrative. This myth came to my mind without my thinking about it and it gave the story added meaning as if the mythical and the contemporary worlds were connected by it.
PKD: Your novels are mostly about the struggle between man and nature. People fight against the odds of nature. There is a constant struggle for existence. Existential problem of humanity is the result of the apocalypse caused by environmental damage. Have you reflected it in your stories/novels?
RCB: The idea of existentialism is not a new one in literature. Stories and novels written about a hundred years ago too had this philosophical dimension. It is of course true that the environment and many other factors are constantly in a state of flux, ever changing. Changes are more rapid now. While adapting to such environmental changes man gets entangled in an inexorable net. So stories that reflect such problems of man are bound to be written. They bear the stamp of relevance not only for the present but for the whole of time.
PKD: There seems to be development on the one hand and there is also the struggle for survival. What is your view?
RCB: The word survival brings to my mind the Darwinian dictum of “survival of the fittest”. So, as we have said earlier, the surrounding, the necessities of life and compulsions on life , etc., along with economic and political changes confronts man every moment. Therefore, he who can adapt to such changes and challenges has a greater claim for survival. This has always been true in the history of mankind.
PKD: Sir, your novel Monika Ebe Keounthi gives a Dalit perspective. What are your other works that reflect the same perspective?
RCB: There are some novels of mine which have women as protagonists. I feel that in a critical situation a woman displays more sense of determination, patience and doggedness than man. I have a novel (Duara Tapile Bata) in which a woman has the courage to murder a criminal. In another (Nikhoj Aparadhee) a woman helped the police arrest her own son accused of committing rape. The protagonist in Monika Ebe Keounthi has a young and bright Dalit as its hero. I wanted to show how all political parties want him to come into their fold. People of other religion persuade him to convert. Everybody uses the dalit as a tool.
PKD: Sir, Odishan landscape, culture, people and social condition permeate your writing. What is your view on this?
RCB: It is absolutely correct. My creative imagination is rooted in the culture of Odisha. However, the essence of my writings is surely about the universal nature of life as a whole. I am not concerned with the now and the here. My interest is about the universal and the eternal aspects of life.
PKD: Sir, these days it seems literature is being commodified to a certain extent. What is your take on this? Have you ever tried writing popular fiction? Do you have any plans for such writing? The contemporary reading taste seems to be for popular fiction.
RCB: I have never thought of writing as a means of earning money. I am not at all concerned about whether my writings command a wide readership. I write just because my inner being experiences a vibration when I come across a unique character and situation. My focus is to write about them to the best of my ability. It does not matter whether I earn applause from those who read them. You may say that I am not a popular type of writer.
PKD: Sir, have you ever tried your hands on other genres of writing such as poetry, drama, travelogue, etc.? What are you working now? What are your new projects?
RCB: In the seventies many people knew me as a powerful radio dramatist. In fact, more than twenty such radio plays had been broadcast by AIR Cuttack. I have also written about ten stage dramas which have been staged. My plays have been performed in all major cities of the state. However, I may say that these radio and stage plays have both had their origins in my stories. At present I am busy writing a biographical novel. My youngest brother died in tragic circumstances about three years ago. His memory haunts my mind, makes me feel restless. So, I think this novel can, you may say bring a cathartic effect on me.
PKD: Your message to aspiring young writers?
RCB: I have no message. A genuine creative mind never waits for any message. It has the sacred task of transcribing what it feels can become literature. Such a creative being may need suggestions only in case his vision of life is not very mature.
PKD: Thank you Sir for your time and valuable inputs.
(Interview was taken on May 2, 2016, at the writer’s residence in Kendrapada, Odisha. I am thankful to Dr. Meenakshi Shivram for fine-tuning the draft and my thanks to Bikash Kumar Sahoo for driving me to the writer’s residence.)