Book review by Arnapurna Rath
Title: Basanti: Writing the New Woman
Authors: Annada Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee & Suprava Devi : Translated by Himansu S. Mohapatra & Paul St-Pierre
Published by: Oxford University Press, 2019
Basanti: Writing the New Woman is an intense collaborative literary project expressed in the medium of the novel. This almost century old classic has been translated to English this year. The story was originally authored by nine avant-garde members of the Sabuja group: Annada Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee, and Suprava Devi.
The word Sabuja ( green) is ‘a symbol of youth, novelty freshness and so on’. The group played a metaphorical role in presenting new voices in literature, exploring emerging viewpoints and providing innovativeness in the process of creating a work of fiction.
Basanti has been translated into English (in 2019) by two well-known scholars of literary and translation studies, Himansu S. Mohapatra, Former Professor of English at the Utkal University, India, and Paul St-Pierre, Former Professor at the Department of Linguistics and Translation, Université de Montréal, Canada. The translation carries the original ‘appeal’ made in 1924 for collaborative publication in the landmark journal, Utkala Sahitya. The novel had appeared as serials in Utkala Sahitya between 1924 and 1926. It was first published as a book in 1931.
The translation has succeeded in reinforcing the concept of the ‘new woman’ that was created in the persona of Basanti almost a century ago. Basanti tells the story of a young spirited girl from Cuttack, a bit of a rebel in the conservative social milieu of early twentieth century Odisha. She is accomplished in literature, writes essays for periodicals, reads Tagore’s novels, maintains a life-long friendship with a Christian girl, Suniti, and her mother, Kalyani, and administers homeopathy to the ailing in a remote village near the town of Balasore. Basanti loses her parents at fourteen. She survives with the support of Kalyani’s family until her marriage to Debabrata, a young progressive intellectual zamindar (landlord) studying at the Ravenshaw College of the 1920s.
Debabrata marries for idealism, an offshoot of the Indian freedom movement. He marries her inspite of firm opposition from his mother living in a village in Balasore. She disapproves Basanti’s unconventional life choices. Basanti’s ordeals after her marriage and the psycho-social turmoil of Debabrata forms the core of the novel. Her intellectual dexterity that had once attracted Debabrata to Basanti, leads to a complex turmoil of relationships, narrated against the backdrop of rural Odisha in the colonial times.
The novel is an explorer’s quest for Basanti, the protagonist, and Basanti, the experiment in vintage novel writing. A critical introduction to the novel written by one of the translators, provides an insight that locates Basanti in the temporal milieu of Odisha’s literary tradition and in colonial India, struggling for political freedom on the one hand, and socio-cultural changes on the other. Particularly, the commodification of the woman and her body as the ‘wife’ or the ‘beloved’, and as a subset of socio-cultural demands remains one of the central motifs of the book.
The book is a feat that the authors have achieved by each one contributing a set of chapters and engaging with one another to carry the plot ahead. It is a sensitive narration of the various highs and lows in the life of Basanti and Debabrata. It might have been an exacting task for the authors to maintain the rhythm of the novel but they did. The psychological depth of Annada Shankar Ray’s three chapters that delineate the mental agonies of Debabrata is very moving. Sarala Devi’s understanding of the social customs, the daughter-in-law’s place in the household and the caste nuances in the chapters contributed by her is exceptional. For those who are familiar with the landscape and ecological beauty of Odisha and the nuances of the Odia language, the novel will provide a walk through the lanes of nostalgia in dense overgrowths of flowers, riverside, and the half-lit lanterns of Odia villages.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Binodini or Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Parineeta and their fierce desire for freedom and education is echoed in Basanti too. However, Basanti is unique. Her rebellion is located in her firm desire to be accepted in the conservative social milieu of Cuttack and Balasore. She accepts marriage and yet desires to engineer changes in the conservative social order of her times that denied women their basic right to education. She works for the welfare of village girls so that they are educated and respected among their male counterparts. She is intelligent and her seeming silent acceptance of the challenges of life emerges from a vehement desire to own both the home and the world.
She gets married to Debabrata under extremely strained circumstances. The marriage leads to pain and a sense of rejection. However, she lives with her ideology and grows it by teaching young girls of the village till her ideals find acceptance by the same structures that had once rejected them. Debabrata’s own mental agony and the feeling of being torn between the wife and the mother is also depicted very well.
Basanti reflects the translators’ pursuit for lost voices almost a century later in the dimly lit pathways of the easy languor of literary traditions of the past. It must have been a difficult journey for the translators to seal the uniqueness of each authorial voices in English. Writing novels is mostly considered a solitary journey, with the characters and the author searching for one another in the backyard of plot and story or in the caprices of language. However, Basanti speaks to the readers through multiple authors and there is an interactive playfulness of mediums such as letter writing, diary entries, monologues, and dialogues.
For those who like to read a complex tapestry in the tale of human emotions or about tidal currents in the seeming paradise of domestic calm, this novel may work as a charming walk-through the garden of the past while illuminating issues of the ‘new woman’ that have spilled into the present — into our homes and into our worlds.
Arnapurna Rath teaches Literary Studies in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.
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