Astride the Wheel is an accomplished translation of Yantrarudha, a 1967 Oriya novel by Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer, Chandra Sekhar Rath. Its appearance is yet another example of the ongoing attempt on the part of publishers and translators alike to rescue Indian bhasa literatures from the ghettos of provinciality to which they had hitherto been consigned. Insofar as Oriya is concerned, the attempt has met with only limited success; for the output has been scanty, the quality of translation uneven, and the choice of texts not always happy. While Fakir Mohan Senapati, Gopinath Mohanty, and Prativa Ray are justifiably the translators’ favourite authors, the novels of Kanhu Charan Mohanty, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Surendra Mohanty, Santanu Acharya, J.P. Das, Bibhuti Patnaik, and Govind Das have been languishing. In this context, one would have thought the choice of Rath’s novel somewhat questionable, but for the fact that there is much in it that is representative of Orissa’s ambiguous response to modernity and modernism around the 1960s.The ‘colonial transactions’, brilliantly exposited by Harish Trivedi, continued unabated even after decolonization, when European modernist literary culture, interacting with diverse traditions in multi-lingual India produced interesting results.
In Orissa, where modernism made a relatively late entry, roughly mediated by metropolitan Bengali culture, the poets were more amenable to modernist experiment than the novelists. The latter either made tentative experiments with ‘modern’ themes and techniques, or, persisted with traditional narrative modes, in neither case quite abandoning the lyric strain. Some novelists fictionalized mythical characters like Jagannath, Sakuntala, Nachiketa, Draupadi, or Kaikei, often ‘reinventing’ them. A few even experimented with imaginative history (re)writing. Around this time too, European existentialist philosophy proved to be quite popular with Oriya intellectuals. However, among all modernist novels, which belatedly caught their imagination, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) stands out. It may well have inspired the novel under review, which share many of the structural and thematic aspects of Hesse’s novel.
Cast n the form of a linear, quasi-bildungsroman, the protagonist Sanatan Dases self-realization follows the customary trajectory of an inner journey from worldliness to other worldliness. His spiritual development takes place under the mentorship of one Professor Satpaty. The novelist carefully plots this development, taking Dase through well-define stages. In fact, Rath’s conscious artistry is perceptible everywhere—he charts Dase’s progress through the trope of the train journey, and in the way he signposts the development, his self censure in the foreword to his 1967 Oriya original that his novel lacked order notwithstanding.
In fact, the titular chapter in the original Oriya novel, Yantrarudha carries a crucial passage and, with its clever repetition later, provides the key to the novel.
The midnight passenger train rattled past the village cremation ground. It was doomed to run along iron rails; it could never deviate from its track. All day and all night it ran breathlessly.
There were windows on its body and other openings. People and their luggage slipped in through these and spilled out. Somewhere inside it, someone controlled everything; it was his hand which turned a handle that made the wheels roll, the lights come on and go out. The poor train had a terrible life (p. 5).
The extended metaphor here bears out the Oriya Bhagabat dictum: ‘Doer and dispenser am I/There is no other course than Mine’. The train journey connects the real and the spiritual life of the protagonist. In the first chapter itself, the novelist introduces the Hindu notion of Maya, through the learned Nilakantha, who, the narrator tells us, had been a scholar at Kashi. Dase had heard from him that ‘only par things mattered in life: food, sleep, fear and sex…once entrapped by these, man can never free himself.’ The first chapter in which this observation occurs carries an episode dealing with Dase’s fear, the fear of Baghua, the dog. He admits to being afraid of everything. Fear for the animal gives way to amusement, when Baghua stops shadowing him after being distracted by a stray bitch. Tropes of various kinds of eating and food dominate the second and the fourth chapters: from addiction to pan to the craving for traditional sweetmeats, mangoes and coconut. Even Bhima is alluded to as a legendary eater, using Sarala Das’s Mahabharat.
Raths mouthpieces in the novel equate women with human sexuality, which hinders his spiritual quest and therefore must be shunned. This is in line with the doctrine of the maya as propounded by some Hindu philosophers like Bhratrihari. Rath often invokes the stereo type of the temptress, using the traditional view of the Hindu Oriyas. In Nayak’s translation:
Women are enchantresses, after all, for they have mastered the four arts of seduction. But why say that they have mastered the arts? Nature endows them with these skills when they take birth. When men set eyes on them, they come under such a spell that nothing in the world matters any mote.
In his translation, Nayak does not specify the four-fold art. In Rath’s original, they are: sthambhana (stupefaction), mohana (bewitchment), bashya (submission), and uchchtana (perturbation). The explicit mention of the four-fold maya is also suggestive of the way out of the maya trap through the avoidance/ shunning of women.
The images of food, sex, fear, and attachment are finely balanced by the images of death: the buffalo (Yama) and the snake, both traditional symbols of death. Such images as the train passing by the cremation ground, the stray dog, Baghua, which frightens him, the wailing of dogs, are all highly suggestive and sometimes evocative. Right from the first chapter onward, the discourses invoke the matter-spirit binary. In the fifth chapter, the narrator shows Dase as someone who is ‘fed up’ of ‘life’. He denies his wife’s wish to embark on a pilgrimage to Puri, because he considers it a luxury, given his penury, but craves for his own escape from sansaric maya. His dream of Jagannath Darshan is presented in the form of a revelation. The fear of death stalks him until it becomes a reality when he loses his wife and son. The tragedy is a turning point in his life, and leads him to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and death. Buddha-like, he experiences all that is the source of attachment and duhkha; and is shown the ‘right path’ by the spiritual guru, Satpathy. He soon gets an opportunity to fulfill his dream, when Satpathy invites him to accompany him on a journey. It turns out to be a journey of self-discovery, partly through his own understanding, facilitated by epiphanic moments, and partly assisted by Satpathy. Thus moving away from life, he is well on his way to renunciation, his quest reaching its climactic fruition in the sanctum of Lord Jagannath in Puri.
With such a predictable plot, which now appears quite dated, what redeems Rath’s novel is the poignancy with which it portrays Dase’s world, and subsequent spiritual quest within the ambit of Orissa’s rural culture. Indeed the novelistic world is unmistakably Oriya, complete with its belief system, the frank and casual conversation, the openness of village life, familial and kinship relationships. It portrays the life of a large majority of Oriyas: rural, god-fearing, simple-minded people, following age-old traditions of belief, prayers; and steeped in the cult of Jagannath, they eke out a bare subsistence. If the protagonist appears to be somewhat casteist, even communal and sexist in his ideological orientation, that indeed is the case with most brahmins in rural Orissa. Late 19th c. casteism and brahminism are the target of Fakir Mohan’s satire in his masterpiece Chha Mana Atha Guntha. In the Orissa villages of 1960s, the advent of modernity had not changed the caste structure radically since Fakir Mohan. Either, when confronted by forces of modernity, they are ill equipped to adapt to socio-economic changes, as happens to Pradhan; or they try to escape from those forces. The ideal they must pursue, of course the path of renunciation, as Dase’s life exemplifies. This makes Rath’s realistic discourse somewhat monologic.
Given the fact that the original text is replete with culture specific descriptions, Oriya sayings, and scriptural quotations, colloquisms etc. it poses a daunting task indeed for any translator. But Nayak does a professional job rendering them into highly readable English. As a simple test, I asked my Oriya-illiterate son read a few pages of the translation. Though I did not ask him to specifically comment on the translation, his immediate reaction was about the smoothness of the translation. Readability apart, Nayak’s translation is commendable for its ability to bring out the nuances of the cultural ethos through the avoidance of English and American cliches and colloquisms, preferring literal translations to nearest English equivalents. The only exception seems to be the slang ‘ihapo’, which can be literally translated as ‘son of a fuck’ or its nearest English equivalent, ‘son of a bitch’. Nayak translates it to ‘bastard’. Maybe, he could have retained the original, and glossed it, especially because of the frequency of Rath’s use of it as a swearword in Puri. In his otherwise clever translation, Nayak inexplicably tries to silence the communal overtones by refusing to translate the Oriya word pathana (invariably used pejoratively) to ‘muslim’, and opting tor the less flagrant pathan.
Having said that, I do not think we Indian translators have found a way out of the question of what words to translate, and what to leave untouched; what untranslated words are in need of translation, and what are not. The problem can perhaps be traced back to our general confusion over what readership we target. Either we aim at a pan-Indian Sansktit/ Hindi knowing audience or an English audience comprising Indians and non-Indians, who know little Hindi and less Sanskrit. The lack of clarity on these issues creates such problems as one encounters in the glossary, where some well-known Sansrkrit/Indian words as paan, Jantrarudha, and some others like saree, are not glossed. Some words like pathan or jantrarudha are translated, and some others are retained in the original and are or are not glossed. Among those neither glossed nor translated is sarapuli.
Why does Rath not use any glossary for the other Indian languages his characters speak in the novel: Hindi, Bengali, and Sanskrit? Simply because Oriya readers generally do not have problems understanding these. Why cannot the English translator feel equally confident about some words and phrases like paan? (Hadn’t E.M. Forster published an essay, entitled ‘Pan’ on the Indian masticating habit in the 1920s in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion?).
However, returning to the book under review, one must point out that the only major oddity in the publication is the ‘Introduction’. It is odd, not only because it is not by the translator himself but by Prafulla Mohanty, but also because it aims to present a comprehensive history of Oriya literature up to 1967 alongside a critical appraisal of the novel. The publisher, rather than the translator owes the reader an explanation for this proprietorial infringement.
*The period of modernism in Oriya can be roughly located in the years between 1947 and 1975 (the year of the Emergency).
Sumanyu Satpathy is a Professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi.