Social Injustice and Suffering
Subhendu Mund
BHAGABATI CHARAN GALPAMALA (BHAGABATI CHARAN'S SHORT STORIES) by Bijay Kumar Satapathy Odia literature and culture studies, 2011, 76 pp., 55.00
April 2011, volume 35, No 4

Bhagabati Charan Galpamala (Bhagabati Charans Short Stories) is not the first anthology of the short stories of Bhagabati Charan Panigrahi (190843), the founder of Nabajuga Sahitya Samsad (Literary Society of the New Era), the Odia version of the Progressive Writers Movement which had its first convention at Cuttack between 29 November and 6 December 1935.

It would be appropriate to situate Bhagabati in the history of Odia literature in general and Odia Pragatibadi tradition in particular. Besides being the founder of Nabajuga Sahitya Samsad and Communism in Odisha, he was also the founding editor and publisher of the Adhunika, a literary magazine founded in May 1936 which aimed at popularizing the Progressive Writers Movement. It was shortlived like its founder Bhagabatiit did not even complete one year, but its impact on Odia literature has been immense.

The NBT publication of Bhagabati Charan Galpamala is significant in the sense that it has come out at a time when the historiography of the Progressive Movement is being reconstructed and paradoxically, Bhagabati and the efforts of his colleagues is gradually being erased from the history of Odia literature. I must note here that some of the anthologies of socalled representative Odia short stories do not include any of Bhagabatis stories, not even Shikar (The Hunt, Adhunika, Vol I, 1936), supposed to be his most powerful creation which has attained the status of a classic. Long ago, this story was made into a film by Mrinal Sen as Mrigaya (1976) which bagged many National Awards. This project made Bhagabati somewhat conspicuous as a fiction writer of substance, but after that he has been relegated to oblivion. The historiographers of Odia literature do not seem to acknowledge Bhagabatis influential contribution to literature. Even Dr Bijay Kumar Satapathy, a wellknown scholar in the area of Pragatibadi trend in Odia literature does not make any attempt in his Introduction to Bhagabati Charan Galpamala to reestablish the role of Bhagabati in bringing about a sea change in the realms of Odia literature and intellectual life through his writings, Nabajuga Sahitya Samsad and his periodical the Adhunika. In short, the position of Bhagabati and the Progressive Writers Movement in Odia literature is gradually being eroded from the collective memory because of hegemonic politics of historiography. 

Continue reading this review

The present anthology is significant also because it includes all the thirteen stories written by Bhagabati. True, he wrote only thirteen stories, and all of them cannot be called Progressive in essence. Presumably, the stories were written at different times of his rather short life. He had written a story in English, called Confession, which was retrieved as a manuscript by the enthusiastic members of an organization from Bhagabatis daughter Susama Panigrahi, and then it was translated into Odia by Man Mohan Mishra, one of the worthy followers of Bhagabati and a wellknown progressive poet in his own right. For the first time, this story, titled as Sweekarokti has been included in the anthology under review.

Bhagabati had started writing very early but whatever he wrote after 1934 was different from his earlier writing. However, it is important to note that nearly all his stories are concerned with the suffering of human kind and in most cases the suffering is caused by social injustice or the unfeeling practices of a decadent social system. There is yet another significant aspect in his stories: an awareness of class hierarchy. While stories like Shikar and Hatudi O Daa (The Hammer and the Sickle, Adhunika, Vol VI, 1936) are narrations of social injustice, there are of course exceptions like Jhada (The Storm, 1934) and Banchita (The Deprived, 1932). Jangalee (Junglee, Utkal Sahitya, December 1929) is an offbeat story which tells about the relationship among three characters: a young man who is brought up in the jungle (hence Junglee), a deer much loved by Junglee and a young girl who belongs to an ethnic community. The protagonist cannot discriminate between the animal and the human and this makes the young girl jealous of the deer. The story comes to a tragic end with the intrusion of the girls father who kills Junglee. It is a moving allegory in the sense that it cleverly depicts the ageold binaries: superiorinferior, natureknowledge, and innocence-cruelty.

Similarly, in the stories Jhada and Banchita, Bhagabati strikes different notes. These stories are ostensibly romantic, but in both the stories, the protagonists are poor, marginalized people who are deprived of happiness because of things beyond their power. Jhada is the story of a young fisherman and his wife who live beside the Ganga. The man loves his beautiful wife but he has to leave her back at home everyday as he goes fishing. One full moon night he wishes to be with his loving wife but cannot do so. He has to go fishing for their survival. She suggests that she could join him in fishing. He is thrilled to have such a beautiful solution to the problem. While they are on the riverbed, there comes a storm which capsizes the boat. He asks her to hold him close while he swims his way to the bank. The brilliant turning point of the story comes here. In her desperation she clings to him in such a manner that he cannot swim any more. He blurts out, Leave me alone! You will die and also kill me!* Then the proud girl lets go of him and eventually dies. In anguish, he too tries to surrender himself to the waters but he could not. He did not know how to surrender himself (p.32). Critics read this as a love story where nature goes against them. But to my mind, it is a very complex story, where the author is trying to bring out the most basic instinct of the human kind: survival. Even love is secondary to this primal instinct.

We detect a similar tone in Banchita, his shortest story, which is about a young village girl born with misfortune written all over her life. She becomes a child widow, a beautiful one at that, but she cannot rejoice over her youth or beauty. She is seen by a young poet who had come from the noisy town to the quiet countryside to collect beauty. She attracts his attention while going to the temple in a white sari, with a basket of flowers. He writes a poem on her: Banchita but it never gets published. Strangely, this story is also dubbed romantic though in a subtle and sensitive way the writer conveys many things: child marriage, the plight of young widows, the insensitive attitude of poets and publishers to realistic representation of life, and so on.

Mishranka Kopa (Mishras Wrath, 1932) and Majlis(Carousing) are stories in the lighter vein, but here also there is evidence

of the authors iconoclastic position. Samayateeta (Timeless, 1932) and Mimansa (Inference) are stories with intellectual overtones and reflect the young writers negotiation with various theoretical and metaphysical issues. The characters are young, educated people, who are trying to understand life and its complexities.

However, the stories for which Bhagabati claims distinction especially as the harbinger of Progressivism, are Jeebanara Samadhi (The Burial of Life, 1932), Mrutyura Bibechana (Deaths Discretion, 1934), Arambha O Shesha (Beginning and End, 1934), Sweekarokti (Confession), Hatudi O Daa and Shikar. While Jeebanara Samadhi, Mrutyura Bibechana and Sweekarokti tell about the anxieties of the lower middle class people, Arambha O Shesha, Shikar and Hatudi O Daa problematize the predicament of the simple, rural characters in an exploitative world order.

The protagonist of Jeebanara Samadhi is an honest, lowpaid clerk who cannot make both ends meet. His dear wife has become weak and sickly from malnutrition and according to the doctor she suffers from hysteria: the mad woman in the attic.

At a moment when his suffering is most intense, he inadvertently utters the words: O God! The ending of the story strikes a metaphysical note albeit in a very convincing manner:

I told the God of Darkness, Have you left any courage or patience in me that I will play games with my atheism? You are my Lord, even if you are the Untruth. Which lie have you not made me worship that if I pay obeisance to you my love of truth would be harmed? O Lie! O Nothingness! If the nectar of consolation flows into my painful heart how does it matter if I lose my dignity by taking your name? (p. 27).

Similarly, in Mrutyura Bibechana, the protagonist Madhab, an educated but unemployed young man tries to commit suicide because he thinks that he cannot take care of his wife and ailing child. The story has an ironically happy ending: his friend had given him potassium bromide in place of potassium cyanide! And when he wakes up his friend informs him that he has got the job of a teacher in a high school. In Sweekarokti, the protagonist Rasa is an anarchist who surrenders to the law as an act of penance. He is contrasted with his brother Bana who has been studious and disciplined, whereas Rasa prefers to grow freely. As a result, Bana becomes a successful man and Rasa lives a rudderless life. What is important in the story is the depiction of the chasm which the social status of the two brothers creates.

Arambha O Shesha is the story of two young personsMani and Dharamawho grow together to become lovers. The hardworking Dharamas success as a farmer becomes his nemesis. The zamindar forces him to leave home and go to Cuttack to take care of his garden. Dharama is doubly oppressed because Sidhia, the close aide of the zamindar, and Chanda, the sensuous servantmaid take advantage of his simplicity and gullibility. At the end of the day, Dharama is neither here nor there. On his return to his devastated homestead he finds that he has lost everything he had: his love, his grandmother, his lovely garden.

Hatudi O Daa stands out as a statement on social injustice as the story unravels the picture of rural poverty, exploitation of the zamindars and moneylenders, industrial migration and the evils of urbanization. Sudam Jena, like many other village youth lives an abominable life in the city only to discover one night during his visit to a brothel that his sweetheart has turned into a sex worker.

Shikar, the most successful of Bhagabatis stories, narrates the experience of Ghinua, a young villager, who is a renowned hunter. He was once rewarded for killing a maneater, and now he expects another prize from the government because he has killed a more dangerous maneater: Gobind Sardar. Sardar is a Shylock, who not only sucks the blood of the poor, he also does not leave the women alone. One day he tries to ravish Ghinuas wife. In righteous indignation, he kills Sardar and goes to the residence of the Deputy Commissioner carrying Sardars severed head wrapped in a towel. He is overpowered with much difficulty, and put under trial for murder. All the while the simple young man keeps thinking that he is being felicitated for his great work. He assumes that the trials, his stay in the jail, even the preparations of his hanging are all parts of a mysterious ritual before he is finally awarded. This kind of narrative strategy adds to the poignancy of the story.

As I have suggested earlier, all the stories of Bhagabati may not be strictly Progressive, but in one way or the other, they narrate the realities in a feudalist, colonial and orthodox social structure. His works should be translated and widely circulated in order that his value as a writer and trendsetter is rightly assessed.

Subhendu Mund, an Odia poet, writer, critic and translator is Visiting Professor, IIT Bhubaneswar. He is the Chief Editor of the Indian Journal of World Literature and Culture. His areas of research interest are Indian English Literature, Odia literature and culture studies. He can be reached at

Continue reading this review