Basanti is an Odia novel written decades ago. It is also a fascinating exercise in literary experimentation. Well ahead of its times. The following extract is from the introduction written by translator Himansu S. Mohapatra and is reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press India
Imagine the inner world of an Odia novel, published in 1931 and set in the conservative Odia society of that time. The eponymous heroine seems to be a misfi t in this society thanks to her unconventional choices. She is friend to a Christian woman. She reads, writes, plays music, sews, and dispenses homeopathic medicine. It also happens that she marries for love. After marriage she comes to her husband’s village in Balasore to take up her new role as the daughter-in-law of a zamindar household, managed by her widowed mother-in-law. A life of petty domesticity and social conformity stretches out before her now. She does not, however, give up on her attempts at replenishing her mental and intellectual wardrobe. To that end she leafs through the pages of a Bengali monthly, writes articles for an Odia literary periodical (Nababani), and reads Tagore’s novel Gora multiple times, not to mention her locking horns with her husband and his male friends over the issue of emancipation of women. She even runs a school for the little girls in the village.
This aspiration on the part of a young woman for a higher mental plane does not evoke any response from the family. On the contrary, it invites opposition from her mother-in-law and even her husband. The element of surprise is not due to the fact that the novel depicts the agony and the sense of suffocation of a woman seeking emancipation from her narrow domestic confi nes. Surprise is in the fact that the novel does for the fi rst time posit activism for women in Odia literature, breaking with the earlier tradition of portraying a woman as a glamorous, adorable object. Yes, in Odia fictional literature Basanti is the fi rst ever woman character to have boldly staked a claim to emancipation of women, presented the means of that emancipation and mapped the pathway to it. The blazing presence of Nababani, Gora, Romain Rolland, and W.B. Yeats in the discourse of the novel is an eloquent testimony to that. Odia prose fiction, admittedly not of long ancestry in the 1920s and 30s, had not imagined such an intellectually vibrant inner world and that too as part of a character’s repertoire until the appearance of the novel Basanti.
Basanti is a landmark attempt at writing a new kind of novel in Odisha in the early decades of the twentieth century. Like all new literary offerings of the time in Odisha, it was published in the journal Utkala Sahitya in instalments starting from issue no. 2 of volume 28 for May 1924 to issue no. 8 of volume 30 for November 1926. The work of nine authors, six men and three women, Basanti is a fine gift to Odia fiction from the ‘Sabuja Age’ in literature. This literature was given to exploring new horizons —the Odia word ‘sabuja’, like the word basanti ‘green’ in English, is a symbol of youth, novelty, freshness, and so on—during its all too brief life span of 10 to 15 years. The novel was definitely a new undertaking. The newness existed at least at three levels. First, it was a product of a well-thoughtout plan for collaborative writing. Second, it was a novel with a focus on women. Last, but not least, it was a novel of ideas. The three levels were, of course, closely intertwined. When a group of writers come together for the express purpose of engaging in an act of writing, one can be sure that a new creative impulse, at once social and literary, is in the air. Was the late 1920s in Odisha, which saw the emergence of Basanti, such a time? Did it witness a new creative impulse?
In the 1920s English education and a wider world mediated by English books had begun to seep into the consciousness of the educated Odias, transforming it from within. The books they read and the ideas they conceived found their way into their Odia writing for which the journals and magazines of the time acted as both receptacles and triggers. Utkala Dipika, founded in 1866 by Gouri Shankar Ray, provided an outlet for their restless journalistic minds eager to explore their environs and shine the light into the areas of darkness. From 1897 onwards it was Utkala Sahitya, a monthly literary journal published under the editorship of the erudite and cultured Biswanath Kar, which set out to create a national literature for Odisha. It may be no exaggeration to say that the Renaissance of Odia letters was scripted in its pages. It was here that Chha Mana Atha Guntha by Senapati was serialized from 1897 to 1899 before being published in book form in 1902. It was here that the serialization of Basanti began in May 1924 and ended in November 1926 before being issued as a book in 1931 by a literary organization named Sabuja Sahitya Samiti formed by the ‘Sabuja’ group of writers. A revised and expanded edition of the novel, used as the source text for this English translation, was published in 1968 by the New Students’ Store, Cuttack.
The passage from a single author to multiple authors was a significant aspect of Basanti. The novel saw the convergence of two new forces. One was a new writing strategy which the initiators of the novel referred to as a ‘collective composition method’. The other was the collective imagining of the new woman. This concerted effort at writing a novel was of course an extension of the other concerted efforts that were being seen in the social and political spheres in Odisha. While Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation with the colonial government had galvanized hearts and minds of every Indian, in Odisha it was the regional issue of the reunifi cation of a dismembered Odisha which struck a chord among Odia intellectuals and writers. The important thing was that the Odia nationalism of the 1920s, having co-existed with an internationalist and cosmopolitan outlook, was not insular. The Odia mind was like a sponge, which absorbed new ideas and new trends such as the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, the mysticism of Swedenborg, the modernism of the Yeats–Eliot–Pound–Joyce generation as well as socialist ideas that reached the Odishan shores both directly through people like Frieda Hauswirth Das and via Bengali literature. As one prominent member of the ‘Sabuja’ group of Odia writers put it in a journal article, published in 1933, their effort was to create a new and fresh—and hence green—literature which, in tune with the international trends, would ‘celebrate the romance of a new reality by extending the frontiers of the everyday reality and reaching down to the unconscious’ (Baikuntha Nath Patnaik, Juga-Bina, 1933, p. 67).
It is worth pointing out here that the collaborative writing of the kind seen in Basanti was first to appear in Bengali literature in the Indian context. In fact in the ‘appeal’ published in volume 28 of Sahitya, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi called for a replication of this Bengali experiment with the ‘collective worship of the word’, evinced in the case of Baroyari (written by twelve authors), Bhager Puja (the work of sixteen authors), and Chatuskona (the work of four authors) in Odia literature. The Bengali experiment was obviously not the first. The Spectator, an influential periodical paper in eighteenth-century England, was the creation of many hands. Sir Roger De Coverley, its central character, though first imagined by Richard Steele, is taken over fondly by Joseph Addison, much in the same way in which the contours of the new woman in the titular Basanti are drawn fi rst by the male authors and then taken over and extended by the female authors.
Basanti: Writing the New Woman ( Nine Authors, One Novel)
Ananda Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee, and Suprava Devi.
Translated from Odia by Himansu S. Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019. Pb. Pp. 246 Rs 550
8 March 2019