Stories rooted in reality but elevated to art with the use of imagination
RAJULA DIP spends his life disposing of dead bodies, carrying away carcasses of dogs, cats, pigs, cows, bulls and also unclaimed corpses. As the doors are opened on an ordinary Dip’s extraordinary job, we want to know more—what does he do when he is not carrying off dead bodies, how much does he earn, what does he eat, who does he live with, where does he live? There are no easy answers, of course, and Odiya writer Manoj Kumar Panda doesn’t offer any. He just takes us along, as he looks inside the life of a marginalised, dispossessed untouchable. In the past few days, we have been reading a lot about the Rajula Dips of the world and their terribly unfair world, as cow bhakts roam the country, attacking people who dispose of dead bodies of animals. Dip’s story is aptly titled When the Gods Left, the first story in this varied collection translated by Snehaprava Das.
Panda may root his stories in Odisha, but his themes are universal—existentialism, alienation of the marginalised, plight of the poor, tyranny of the haves and so forth. And though some of the intricate
nuances of language may have been lost in translation—Das admits “a sizeable slice” may have been scraped off—the themes are powerful and familiar, and can be conveyed in any language.
What’s not to understand about Dip’s existence in a hostile world? And yet, Panda’s touch is evident in the characterisation. Dip, writes Panda, has two passions: sleeping and dreaming. In his dreams, he would pick up the remains of dead animals and would see many customers lining up for them. “He sleeps and he dreams. He dreams that he is sleeping, and in that sleep he dreams again… Like Chinese boxes—a small box; within it, a smaller one; a
still smaller one inside the smaller box and yet another inside it.” If Panda quotes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous words—“literature is nothing but carpentry… With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood”—it’s perhaps because his stories are all rooted in reality elevated to art with the use of imagination.
So bit by bit, we are encouraged to enter the tranquil world of baby Kanishka, who couldn’t hear and had no sense of touch—“he was just a mass of flesh, as unresponsive and unfeeling as a lump of clay”. He lived in his own world till a babysitter, a girl of age 12, arrived to interpret his “ahs” and “ehs”, and we watch as they grapple against destiny.
The eponymous One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator has a man talking to his wife in a coma, who is in the ICU, about life and what it means to him and everyone around him. When it’s all over, he says, “It took nearly five minutes for her ashes to cool down. Afterwards, someone held out a handful. ‘Here she is, your Lara. Take her.’ The agony stuck within me like an iceberg for one thousand days, shattered without warning and drowned me in a flood of tears.”
In A Picture of Agony, a little girl confronts the death of her loved ones to heatstroke. “Let it be mentioned that 45 degrees C was the cause of their death,” the child suggests what should be written on the tombstone. As a photographer captures her look of sheer agony for posterity, the child is defiant to change the odds against her.
Even as the resilience of man and the courage to stand up to what life throws at him shines through the despair in most of the stories, so does the need to have a good sense of humour to get through it all. In A Letter from Mesopotamia, a family struggles to come to terms with a straying father and yet, after his death, pays tribute to his memory by wanting to rename the three children after “the three strange places” he visited: Gallipoli, Basra and Amra.
As they laugh and joke about it, one suggests that the mother could change her name to Mesopotamia Panda from Shakuntala.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer