‘The Fanged Waters,’ A Gripping Tale Of River Baitarani’s Fury Seen From A Little Girl’s Eyes

‘The Fanged Waters’ is the English translation of an Odia novel titled ‘Badhi Panira Danta’, authored by the acclaimed poet Prasanna Kumar Mishra. The translator, Snehaprava Das, who has many notable translated titles to her credit, has approached this work as a pure labour of love. She shared with this reviewer that she had read the novel in her early youth when it was being serialised in the well-known literary periodical Asanta Kali (The Morrow) and had been left profoundly moved.

When she evolved into a translator later and matured as one, she decided to return to her early love and pay it the most handsome tribute ever by rendering it into English. The Fanged Waters thus has a special place in her corpus in that it is ‘unmotivated’, meaning, not inspired by considerations of profit or utility. It has its genesis in a desire for sheer creative pleasure, a confession she makes in her Translator’s Note.

The novel tells a painful story, however. Let us hear the translator on the novel: ‘It is a poignant and gripping tale of a family living in a low lying village adjacent to river Baitarani, a family that falls victim to the spite of a ruthless river that slithers into their village baring its poisonous fangs with a mind to kill’ (p. 8). The story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Sumi for whom the river was an object of mystery, enchantment and fantasy until she saw it in its devastating, death-dealing, million-murdering form during a season of severe flooding.

Not only the nine-year-old Sumi; for the people of the village of Siriapur, including Sumi’s father Rama Nanda and his friend Nalu Mishra, the flood was the very personification of the apocalypse. Sumi’s tragedy was compounded by the death of her father. In an unexpected and pessimistic ending, the hungry river claimed him, thus bringing to nought all his efforts to put food into the mouths of his and Nalu Mishra’s famished children and his own wife. He knew it was dangerous to dive into the flood waters of Baitarani. Faced with the hungry and marauding hordes on the bank of the river, however, he concluded on the spur of the moment that it was a risk worth taking if he would give himself a fighting chance to make the food reach the hungry mouths of Sumi and her two friends who had taken shelter on the mound.

The description of the flood can easily pass for an eyewitness account; it is so real, vivid and harrowing. The swollen Baitarani is itself a character in the novel as it rampages through Siriapur, inundating the farmlands and making homes, humans and livestock disappear.

From a source and sustainer of life, it turns into the scourge, thus proving the truth of the old adage: ‘jala bihune srusti nasa; jala gahale shrusti nasa’ (Without water the creation will end; water to an excess, and the creation will end). Not surprisingly, the adage is mentioned in the novel. The novel presents a masterful study of human behaviour in extremes. Normally, humans cherish other humans. But if food is scarce, as it happens under conditions of flood and famine, they will do anything to survive, including having to maim and kill. This underlying similarity between the effect of flood and famine explains the uncanny affinity between ‘The Fanged Waters’ and ‘Ha-Anna’, a cult novel about hunger by the eminent Odia novelist Kanhu Charan Mohanty. It is the same hunger-driven desperation and hostility, the same reduction of humans to animals that we see in both the novels despite the difference in their settings.

The author has woven a much larger story around the surface tale of flood and devastation, though. It is the story of the decline of the mighty and glorious Utkal province under the impact of successive historical invasions, both from internal invaders (Muslims and Mahrattas) and external invaders, the British. Although the narrator does not make it explicit, it is clear that the last invasion, the colonial one, has been particularly brutal in that it has not only reduced Odisha’s population to penury but also has struck at the roots of the self-esteem of the race by destroying their centuries-old tradition. There are many asides in the novel in which the past glory of Odisha is recounted if only to underline its impoverished present. The tale of flood and flooding then acquires a whole new dimension when seen from this historical perspective. In a subtle way, the novel reminds us that a natural calamity like a flood is as much nature-made as it is man-made.

It must have been a very difficult novel to translate given its pervasive watery terrain and its mediation through a little girl’s heightened perception. The translator has risen to the challenge of finding the right fit on most occasions. ‘The Fanged Waters’ is a good river novel. Pen in Books deserves credit for the nice get-up and cover as well as for the eye-friendly print.

(The Fanged Waters. Dr. Prasanna Kumar Mishra. Translated by Snehaprava Das. Bhubaneswar, Pen in Books, 2022. Pp. 160, Rs. 299.)



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