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Review

The Tale of a River

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Mahanadi — The Tale of a River

Writer: Anita Agnihotri

Translator: Nivedita Sen

Publisher: Niyogi Books

 ‘I have seen the Mahanadi in so many ways: in the early morning light, in the reclining afternoon glow, in the blaze of the midday and in the shadow of the orange tinge of the sunset. I have seen this river in the form of its narrow current in winter, amidst profuse rain, in the forested region where it originates, and in the turbulent boundlessness of the estuary. And each time the river, serene, terrifying and quiet, has filled my mind with tremendous joy and nostalgia. Many people, both at the origin and basin of this river, are known to me. Their lives, inextricably linked with the river, have made me think, and have both fascinated and enriched me. The chronicle of this river, therefore, is also an extract of my life.’

One of the largest rivers of India, the Mahanadi has flown more than a thousand kilometers through Chhattisgarh and Orissa from the foothills of the Sihawa hills in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh and has fallen into the Bay of Bengal. Leaving behind the huge diamond reservoir at Sambalpur in Orissa, the archeological background of Subarnapur and Buddhist districts, the plains of Nayagarh, Cuttack and Jagatsinghpur flow through the middle of the deep forested gorge of Satakoshia, finally crossing the border near the port of Paradip.

But its journey is endless, as it flows day-after-day from the plateau to the forest to the ravine and finally to the plains. It unites with the sea every day. At every new turn, it leaves behind scores of villages, towns and cities. The din and bustle of a mofussil town, the solitary life in a standalone village, people’s struggle for survival, the episodes of their joys and sorrows, the sighs of the displaced people of Sambalpur during the building of the Hirakud dam mingles with the cries of the endangered people on the banks when the river overflows.

In the long journey of the river, it encounters mountainous plateaus, dense forests, villages and uninhabited emptiness. There are traces of the Paleolithic era at its source. There are ancient lyrical stories around it. Farmers, weavers and artisans have come and settled on the banks of the river to draw in the water. Mahanadi is to Odisha what Huang Ho is to China.

And so, Anita Agnihotri’s novel Mahanadi –The Tale of a River (translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen) captures all these essential elements in a never written story of a stream which is a sorrow rather than a joy for crores of people in Odisha.

A civil servant, Anita Agnihotri, writes in Bengali in a wide variety of genres — poetry, novels, short stories and children’s literature. Recipient of prestigious awards like Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Award and the Bhuban Mohini Dasi Gold Medal conferred by Calcutta University, her writing explores the vast and complex Indian reality, many facets of human relations, and brings out the unheard voices of the marginalised and the underprivileged and has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages.

Translator Nivedita Sen taught English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She worked on other popular genres, apart from Indian writing in English, post-colonial fiction and translation studies. She has translated Tagore’s Ghare Baire, and stories by Syed Mustafa Siraj, Leela Majumdar and others.

In the fiction, the narrative is through stories of the people living on the banks of the Mahanadi. Characters like Tularam Dhuru, Malati Gond, Neelakantha, Bhanu Shitulia, Parvati and others might never meet each other, but the story of their lives will remain strung together by the common thread of the ever– the streaming Mahanadi. The chronicle of Mahanadi is a journey through travails and misfortunes into life’s joys and mysterious beauty. 

Writes Sen in the ‘Translator’s Note’: “A socially conscious writer with a relentlessly dissident voice, Anita Agnihotri’s writing explores struggles in the lives of marginalised communities that are oppressed by underhand politics, social privilege and economic disparity. Though she was a member of the Indian Civil Service, she has maintained an anti-establishment stance throughout her writing career spanning four decades.

“In this novel, her non-noncompliance exposes the irony of Nehru’s urging those dispossessed by the building of the Hirakud dam to accept their suffering in the larger interest of the nation. She critiques the police turned into mercenaries by the state when they passively stand by during a violent attack on a social activist because they are paid to do just that. But she also elicits commensurate outrage at two policemen having to confront and succumb to senseless Maoist violence. The novel depicts how a cotton mill falls apart due to squandering of money and corruption in higher places and also how an upcoming steel factory with international collaboration threatens the livelihood of betel-leaf farmers. Her characters with enhanced sensibilities are haunted by the blatant social and economic inequality they witness all around. Yet Tanmay’s research on the abysmal living conditions in the slum clusters of Cuttack cannot resolve their problems.”

What is of significance is that there are a lot of facts in the novel that substantiates the geography, history and economics of the river and the state it mostly passes through. She sensitively kindles – rather in great detail — the realism, the deprivation and the travails of the people living on the riverbanks. The river forms the crux of the narrative, both as the central character and the primary subject.

As a novel, Mahanadi is poignant and is a fitting tribute to the place and people. Anita Agnihotri has been a percipient writer.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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