Book Review: One Step Towards the Sun

Note: This review was first published in The Asia Writes Project.

In recent publishing history, the universe of Indian Writing in English (IWE) has been continually expanding, with a deluge of new titles spilling off the market shelves. While that is sweet news for the authors of these books, their counterparts writing in India’s various regional languages often don’t receive similar attention. The obvious reason for this is that regional languages have limited readerships, mostly restricted to readers from the respective regions. One way to get around this is to make these writings available in English. According to Valerie Henitiuk, “…The past couple of decades have seen a rapid rise in the distinct phenomenon of Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET).” One Step Towards the Sun is an important new addition to this phenomenon.

Edited by Henitiuk along with Supriya Kar, both of them academicians in the field of literary translation, the book is a collection of twenty-five short stories written by women from the eastern Indian state of Orissa. The very fact that women writers from this state could make their voices heard only as recently as the 1970s makes this anthology critically significant. What makes it interesting and a great read is the amazing diversity on offer–in terms of the periods of writing covered, themes, and writing styles.

Traversing through the milieus these stories present, one discovers that the women writing these stories are every bit as sensitive to issues concerning their own gender as they are about the wider humanity. As is to be expected, women’s issues form the core of many of the stories–exposing the many levels of exploitation the woman is subjected to–sexual, domestic, social, and psychological. In Basanta Kumari Pattnaik’s “In Bondage”, the nameless protagonist is brought to a big city by her brother and sister-in-law so they can use her as an unpaid maidservant. In “The Worn-Out Bird”, Aratibala Prusty narrates the tragedy of a mother who is imprisoned for killing her daughter’s rapist. However, her act of revenge goes in vain, as upon her release she learns of her daughter’s suicide, after suffering even more sexual violence.

The reader need not lose all hope though. For sharing the pages with such grim tales are characters that refuse to bow down to social prejudices, despite undergoing extreme torment. One such woman is Pata Dei, the protagonist bearing the story title by Binapani Mohanty. As she returns to her father’s village home with a child, slanderous accusations are hurled her way and the villagers question who the child’s father is. Defiant and fearless, Pata Dei narrates to the villagers the trauma of the night when a group of her own village men had raped her. Turning to her infant son, she says, “Why should you cry, dear? Don’t be afraid of these people. None of them is man enough to stand up and admit to being your father. But your mother is always there for you…”

Besides highlighting different kinds of trials faced by women, the anthology presents a gamut of themes, from Partition riots, old age, poverty, marital issues, to the impact of natural calamity on humans. Deprivation and hunger present themselves as stark contrasts to the riches of Orissa–splendid art and architecture. In Gayatri Basu Mallik’s “Ruins”, the narrator, while on a trip to Konark, the sun temple that is Orissa’s architectural pride, is bemused to experience “the ruins of real flesh and blood” as he encounters an old woman whose entire life had been a series of misfortunes. Banaja Devi echoes a similar idea in her story, “A Classic”. Here, the narrator comes across what appears to be a sculpture in a railway station, but, on closer inspection is revealed to be a beggar family–emaciated and driven to the edge by hunger.

One story that deftly tackles two themes–hunger and marital infidelity is “A Mother From Kalahandi” by Gayatri Sharaf. A seemingly blissful marriage starts falling apart for the heroine, Amrita, as she accidentally discovers her husband Swapnesh’s secrets. On probing, Amrita learns that Swapnesh has bought a young girl from the famine-struck district of Kalahandi for a paltry amount, only to bring her to the city for his sexual gratification. A social worker herself, Amrita decides to become a foster mother to the child born of her husband’s extra-marital relationship. At the same time, she convinces the biological mother to return to her village and liberate herself from the clutches of Swapnesh’s exploitation.

One Step Towards the Sun also impresses because of its stylistic variety. From elements of fantasy to disjointed soliloquy, plot twists and lyricism, the stories arrest the reader as much with the unfolding story as with the words that unveil it.

It is to Henitiuk and Kar’s credit that they have produced a book of writing translated from a regional Indian language without tedious footnotes or a painstaking glossary. The translations have standardized almost all of the original text, including some of the very localized expressions. Although the end result makes for easy readability, it can be a bit of a disappointment for someone seeking to derive a taste of local flavours offered by phrases and idioms unique to the region. One wonders if certain regional expressions couldn’t have been incorporated into the translated narratives without hindering the readability. However, this is a small omission in an otherwise excellently produced anthology. Even as IWE basks in the warm light of international awards, this book has taken but a solid step towards the sun as far as furthering ILET is concerned.

ONE STEP TOWARDS THE SUN:
Short Stories by Women from Orissa
Edited by Valerie Henitiuk and Supriya Kar
Publisher: Rupantar
Price: Rs. 295.00
ISBN 978-81-906729-1-7

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