A Classic Tale Of Power Play

First, the good news. The famous Odia novel ‘Nija Nija Panipatha’ by the late Jagadish Mohanty is now available in English as ‘Battles of Our Own’. Translated by the eminent writer-translator duo, Himansu S Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre, and published by Penguin Random House, India under the genre of Modern Classics, this book will introduce the English-speaking readers to a gem of modern Odia literature. 

The English translation ‘Battles of Our Own’ does full justice to the fast-paced storyline of ‘Nija Nija Panipatha’ and is unputdownable. 

Written in the late 1980s when India had not yet broken out of the Nehruvian mould of state capitalism and was yet to embrace the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) model, the novel is  a gripping story of industrial relations in a state-run colliery in western Odisha. The colliery in the novel is not an imaginary backdrop though. Tarbahar Colliery is the name given to the Himgiri Rampur Colliery, which actually existed as one of the oldest coal mines in India, situated in the remote interiors of Sambalpur (now Jharsuguda) district. Thus the setting of the novel is real.  It was here that the novelist spent all his working years (1973-2013) as a pharmacist. As would behoove a good writer, he had observed the ecosystem intimately enough to be able to flesh out the characters and deftly craft a storyline which brought out the struggle, the sufferings, aspirations, foils and foibles of the people inhabiting the mines.

The novel has its Dickensian moments albeit in a genteel way in the character of an upper caste unemployed youth, Pradyumna, impersonating as a tribal, his loss of identity in an industrialised setting where he must ally with mafia-sponsored middlemen to negotiate his livelihood. His existential angst and pathos are evocatively captured, while he becomes a pawn in the hands of union leaders on the fringe. Mohanty’s portrayal of the rivalry between trade unions is as up close and realistic as it can be. The leaders are shown to be the ally of the self-serving managerial class while paying lip service to the workers.  It is the black gold that must be harvested at any cost by the workers and the booty shared by the ruling class and the union leaders who are remotely controlled by the powers that be. A perfect setting of capitalism that Marx talked about albeit in a neo-capitalist milieu with trade unionism thrown in for good measure. 

All through the saga of struggle for power run the theme of alienation and the issue of conscience, as it must, when the old order is being challenged by the new nexus of power and pelf. In this complex power play, management plays off one trade union leader against the other. The more powerful and unscrupulous one flexes its muscle for personal greed while the self sacrificing Gandhian leader, Harishankar, is sidelined. He is rendered obsolete in the new dispensation.  The battle lines are drawn. But not all is lost. Harishankar is the ousted trade union leader who has never amassed wealth at the cost of the workers. He attempts to rally the workers under his banner and seeks to revive his hold. As a true Gandhian he chooses the path of non violence and Satyagraha. In the end, in redeeming himself, he raises the bar of truth, honesty and morality. 

This in fact is the strength of the novel. In one masterstroke Mohanty crafts the tragic ending which raises hope in a wasteland of exploitation and corruption. 

The introduction to the novel by the translator, Himansu Mohapatra, is brilliant as he positions the novel as a path breaking one in Odia literature. The novel was written during a time when Odia literature was ensconced in the comfort zone of conformism and sentimentalism. The brutal realism of the novel in an industrial setting makes it a truly industrial novel. 

Ironically, Himgiri Rampur Colliery, which served as the theatre of the novel, was closed down in 2014, shortly after the untimely tragic death of the novelist Mohanty in 2013. The English translation and publication of this novel by Penguin posthumously fulfils his dream of reaching out to a pan India readership. 

(The reviewer is a retired general manager of Reserve Bank of India. She translates from Odia to English. Her published English translations include Chilika: A Love Story, A Station Named  Liligumma and Other Rail stories, both authored by  Krupasagar Sahoo, and Pitru Prasang, authored by Bhagaban Meher)

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