E[x]ploring Odia Literature Through 'Punyatoya'

Odia is my mother tongue but I had never really focussed on Odia novels, given that I love reading. Of late I realised that I should explore the culture and language of my native land, and see for myself whether it suits my reading sensibilities. I read “Jagyaseni” by Pratibha Ray a few years back, over a span of several months. It is a retelling of Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective, which brings about her inner turmoils, confusions, decisions, desires and dreams, really well. It was the first Odia novel I ever read. Three days back, I completed reading my second novel in Odia, coincidentally it is by the same author. “Punyatoya” - literally it means the river, or ‘as pure as the river’. It is also the name of a revered river in Indian mythology.

The book has been translated into Hindi with the same title, with the tagline “the story of a village girl Meghi”. Other translated versions are in Marathi and Malayalam.

The story follows a young girl named Barsha, dearly called Meghi at her village, who suffers terrible fate at society’s behest due to a sudden turn of events. We see the pure innocence of teenage years spent away from the modern world of towns, the flush of first love, and the happy first few years of married life. In an ill fated evening, when she is in a happy dilemma how to announce her pregnancy to her husband Kallola, who is a bit reluctant to have a baby so soon,  Barsha is separated from him and is raped. It takes her a month to recover from the injuries and return to her husband, but he is just shocked to see her back. The crime is unreported fearing the public shame it would bring, Barsha’s belongings are thrown out and away from his house, and he is hesitant to accept her as his wife now. And my blood boils at this.

Barsha tries to stay with him as a house maid at least, but she isn’t allowed to enter the kitchen by her mother-in-law. This affects her mind and health a lot. She leaves to stay a few days with her elder sister, knowing well that she can’t really return to her husband again. On receiving a similar treatment even from her own sister, she is heartbroken. When she decides to try knocking her husband’s door once more, she finds they have left the place, there is another family staying there on rent. Facing shaming from women as well, she is distraught and finally accepts her fate and seeks a place in an organization which caters to women like her. But again she is disappointed, as she discovers after a few months that the famed organization caters to sexual needs of rich and powerful men, under the guise of social service. Amidst all the tragedy, her daughter Bani is born, who is given away to the missionary’s orphanage till Barsa proves herself as an able earning mother.

A glimmer of hope comes in the form of Nishith, who works towards changing the face of the society, removing prejudices and prevalent unjust moral shaming, uplifting women fallen due to no fault of theirs, and facilitating their inclusion through a job. His entry in Barsha’s life gives a new direction to the story. He saves her from untoward situations and becomes her support system, though she doesn’t need any. The little one, Bani, plays a device to bring them closer and consider each other for life. But some ghosts from the past are still lurking in the periphery to cause havoc yet again.

I loved the narrative. The one reason I would continue to read Pratibha Ray’s works, an essential part of Odia Literature, is the rich narrative she offers that is very much grounded in reality and issues affecting our society.

When I began reading the novel, I wasn’t aware of the era it was set it. Halfway through the story, when it was mentioned that the affordable price of a daily use saree for a middle class family was around forty rupees, I realised the backdrop was early 1980’s. And then, the views & thoughts of the characters and the society in general, made sense. Else, I was throughout in a mental state of rebellion at every individual’s opinion, reasoning for a decision and line of argument. Even the plot raised several questions of credibility in my mind. Why does she have to shy away from the society? Why is she being treated as an outcast? Why can’t she survived well as a single mother? How sad! I was enraged. It made no sense. Thank god it was 1980’s. The world has changed a lot in these years. Now, hasn’t it. Or does this piece of work still holds true? I refuse to believe so. With women empowerment being the sole motto around the country and the world, society has indeed changed for the better.

One noticeable thing in this book is the discussion around mental health. I was surprised that even in those days, it could be talked of freely, devoid of stigma. Several detailed mentions of mental turmoils of the characters and their prolonged treatments find place in the book. Child psychiatrist and counselling too has an important role. Pratibha Ray has indeed incorporated all discussion worthy facets of the society then in her piece of work. The complicated plot, the intricate premise and the nuanced characters hold a mirror to the society, reflecting all it’s biases, bigotry, hypocrisy and unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, caste and class.

I am participating in the #AToZChallenge with #BlogchatterA2Z and I am sharing posts themed around Art for this entire month of April. Share and connect with me on social media.
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Queeristan by Parmesh Sahani

  Queeristan (Amazon Link) Thanks to Audible Free Trial I listened to this amazing non-fiction on LGBTQ inclusion in Indian workplaces. Author Parmesh Sahani identifies as gay Indian, working closely with Godrej higher management and employees for years to create an inclusive workplace, both legally and in spirit. This book is a result of those years of experience, research, collaboration with individuals from difference spectrum of the society and organizations who has successfully transitioned into a queer friendly one.   Indian history is inclusive. From the Khajuraho temple architectures, to Konark to the Rig Veda, there is existing proofs even 2000 years ago of Indian inclusiveness of queer. It’s the draconian British law that criminalised it, which was scraped in 2009, came into effect once again following a sad judgement in 2013 and eventually was scraped off for good in 2018. I am in awe of the lawyers who fought this legal battle- colleagues and partners – Arundhati Katju

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