On 10 October 1938, police shot dead seven members of Prajamandal who were agitating against the Raja of Dhenkanal. The corpses were brought in a procession to Cuttack and consigned to the flame. Sachi Routray, who was one of the organisers of the procession, wrote a poem about one of the martyrs – 12-year old Baji Rout. The poem was published in a literary journal soon after.
Routray kept adding to this 75 line poem which reached its final form of about a thousand lines in 1942, when it was published as a separate book. The book soon attained the status of a classic and has gone into several editions, inspiring generations of poets, who have grown up with the book and memorised its many unforgettable lines.
Thanks to the poem, Baji Rout is a well-known name today; Google has 73,700 entries in his name. There is a hostel,an industrial training centre and a degree college named after him. On Children’s Day 2019, cricketer Virendra Sehwag shared Baji Rout’s photograph calling him the youngest martyr in India’s freedom struggle.
Routray had himself done a Bangla translation of the poem and it had been published in a progressive literary journal in Kolakata. In 1942, Harindranath Chattopadhyay did an English translation, Boatman Boy, which saw two editions in print. In 1959 Modern Review brought out another edition with an introduction by Kalidas Nag.
Chattopadhyay’s translation was uneven and took many liberties with the text as may be seen from the following opening lines:
ନୁହେଁ ବନ୍ଧୁ ନୁହେଁ ଏହା ଚିତା
ଏ ଦେଶ ତିମିର ତଳେ ଏ ଅଲିଭା ମୁକତି ସଳିତା,
ନୁହେଁ ଏହା ଜଳି ଯିବା ପାଇଁ
ଏହାର ଜନମ ଏଥି ଜାଳି ପୋଡି ଦବାକୁ ଧସାଇ II
This is no funeral flame, comrade,
No funeral flame, but freedom’s leaping flame
To cleave the country’s dark
Of death and shame;
A sacrificial mystery
Of death turned life-flame beyond price.
There is a footnote to the Baji Rout story. Long after the publication of Baji Rout, Odia novelist Surendra Mohanty came out with a statement that Baji Rout had been felled by a stray bullet and the entire martyrdom story was a myth, and was the product of Routray’s imagination. Sachi Routray called Mohanty a liar. Mohanty was dead by then, but his children filed a defamation case against the octogenarian Routray. Routray died shortly thereafter.
Whether Baji Rout was shot for resisting the police or felled by a stray bullet is today irrelevant. What is real is Sachi Routray’s poem. As Tagore famously said, ସେଇ ସତ୍ୟ ଯା ରଚିବେ ତୁମି ; that alone is true which the poet writes.