One who has a roof over his head enjoys the rain romantically but one who soaks in the rain for want of a roof does not see any romance in it. Gayatri Saraf, a noted short story writer in Odia, a Central Sahitya Academy award winner, belongs to western Odisha. She has seen the poverty of people there from a close quarter. She has not only seen it, it appears that she has almost lived it in a vicarious way. One gets that feeling while going through her book “Burning Mountains”
“Burning Mountains” is a collection of ten short stories written in Odia by Ms.Saraf and translated by different translators into English. When one goes through the short stories – some of which are not very short though – one finds two dominant themes running almost alternatively. One- the poverty stricken people driven by helplessness to work as migrant labour in brick kilns or elsewhere, their trials and tribulation, their fight for survival and , at times , their surrender. Secondly, if poverty is not the theme then it is woman whose psychology she has delved deep into. Being a woman herself the depiction is almost first hand and authentic.
The opening story “Artist of the Brick Kiln” sets the tone. This apparently is the story of a poverty driven, migrant labour Kartik who leaves his native village with his wife and son to work in a brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh. But the protagonist of the story is Babu, his teen aged son who is both an artist and a lover at heart. Babu’s initial innocence and wonder at the brick kiln give way to the stark cruel reality obtained over there. A sculptor by talent and a lover at heart he cares not for the diabolical discipline of the kiln and attempts to sculpt a clay image of Manorama, his child girlfriend. In the process he gets brutally hit by the cruel master, which eventually costs him his hand. The family makes an adventurous escape from the kiln. Back home, with one hand working, he attempts to sculpt the image of Manorama, the village head’s girl and faces opposition from the village head too. The daring Manorama rescues him from the police complaint and finally Babu could make the image of her. Apart from the realistic depiction of the crude working condition at the brick kiln the story touches the reader’s heart by the powerful characterization of the protagonist who, with his innocent courage, is both a hero and an artist.
Another powerful story in the collection is “An unredeemed Chapter”. While on one hand it focuses on a now growing social ill – sexual abuse of girls inside the four walls of the house, on the other hand it depicts the indomitable assertiveness of the woman who goes the whole hog against her own husband’s unpardonable sin. Taking advantage of the insanity of the mother the father abuses the daughter. The fervent appeal of the girl before the apparently not- listening mother to come out of the insanity and stand beside her is truly moving. A woman’s psyche is aptly described in the girl’s appeal when she says, “Youth is just not a phase of enchantment in a girl’s life. It has its moment of embarrassment too. A young girl needs a mother to share those moments of embarrassment”. Perhaps a woman writer only can think like this. The punch in the story is that the defilement of a daughter could cause so much agony that it pierced into a mother’s dark land of insanity and stir her back to normalcy. The powerful theme and the flow apart what also appeals to the reader is the author’s ability to bring the nature alive as if it also is a character in the story. One feels touched when protagonist Aradhya resorts to clouds and mountains as a company to share her stories of owe.
A very short story “Springs of Innocence” adds variety to the theme of the collection. It speaks of determination of a little girl to respect the rules when everyone else is out to short-circuit it. What is striking in the character is that she likens the respect for rules to her self-respect. An innovative thought indeed.
A plateau often sets in the relationship in a married life. To take it as a loss of love and looking for quick green pastures elsewhere may sound adventurous but it has its own share of attendant risk. In the story “Colours of a Butterfly” Soma falls for James bypassing her settled but an apparently sparkless married life. Cut off from the former and cheated by the new friend she finds herself caught in a quagmire which, in the words of Matthew Arnold is like ‘Wandering between two worlds one dead and the other powerless to be born’. The story sends a subtle message that marital relationship is not based on an ongoing spark on a daily basis. A deep bonding is called for to overcome the momentary loss of excitement and sustain the relationship – perhaps a pointer to the established family values of our society.
“And Life Goes On” is the story of three rag pickers. One gets awestruck at the vivid description of their activities, their life and their style.It appears so close to the ground. A rag picker’s romance in the words of the author –“She has a vision of a kite in everything around her”. At such places the poet in the author takes the charge of her expression. The story also sends a strong message that the true love is not bogged down to the body; it actually transcends the body indeed.
The title story “Burning Mountain” is placed at the end of the collection. It does have the same theme- migrant labour off to work in a brick kiln. If the first story sets the tone for the book the last one gives a rounding up to it, of course, with a more tragic consequence than the former. Courage and adventure is often glorified but the ground reality may sometimes be totally different. When the stomach cries with no end to the plight in sight the initial courage may give way to an abject surrender before the fate. The hunger stricken mother is driven helplessly to an act which no mother in sanity would ever dare to do. The stark reality in the parched place in western Odisha is described so vividly that one cannot help being torn within while reading it.
The author, all in all, is an adept story teller who hooks you to the plot so seamlessly that you cannot leave the story midway. The narratives are captivating to sustain the reader’s interest throughout. It is because of this that even when sometimes the theme is repetitive the experience is not one of boring.
Then, the author’s eye for details is worth mentioning. The rag pickers’ activities in “And Life goes on”, the working condition in the brick kiln in more than one story bear testimony to this. The author obviously must be a keen observer of such details.
Another noteworthy feature in the stories is the description of nature. In stories like “Unredeemed Chapter”, “Chai’s Akasia tree” nature almost comes alive and is found conversing with the characters. At such instances the experience becomes more poetic than prosaic.
The get up of the book in paperback makes it very handy. The cover image in shades of blue and crimson syncs well with the title of the book. The paper and the print quality make the reading a strain free experience. The collection is edited by Ms. Supriya Kar, a known name in the field of translation. The editorial efficiency lends finesse to the work.
As it is a translated work it runs the risk of not being fully faithful to the original. And, of course, with multiple translators the quality of translation may also not be same for all stories. Despite such risks the book with both its content and the form has come out so beautifully that one feels like finishing it at one sitting.
And there is Gayatri Saraf everywhere throughout the book.
Ramesh Chandra Khadanga
Ramesh Chandra Khadanga , a post graduate in English literature started his career as a lecturer in English.Later, he moved to State Bank of India wherefrom he retired as an Assistant General Manager. His poems in Odia and English have been published in various journals in Odisha and outside Odisha. Besides writing poems Shri Khadanga is now engaged in translation of literary works from Odia to English and vice versa, literary criticism and book review. Here I present a review made by him of the book ‘Burning Mountains’, a collection of short stories written by the eminent writer Ms Gayatri Saraf and translated into English by various translators