Crows and Other Stories
Translated by Leelawati Mohapatra & Paul St-Pierre
Rupa l Rs 295 l pp 242
A beginning that trails a ‘previous’ end; an end that can make for another beginning; a story within a story within a story within a... — that’s the illusion that this collection of seven stories by Oriya writer KK Mohapatra creates in the reader’s mind.
Like RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days, Mohapatra’s stories represent life as it is, with deceit, gluttony and lust as its integral parts.
One important departure from Narayan’s creation, though, is Mohapatra’s character of Sasank, a naughty kid who doesn’t leave any opportunity to make mischief. Instead of Narayan’s Swami, Sasank hasn’t been given ‘the command’ of any story. Instead, it’s the situations and the events that snatch the spotlight from Sasank. In fact, what forms the crux of each narrative is how each character responds to these situations.
Perhaps that is the reason why the child-thief of the first story finds himself caught up in a fight between his mother and wife in the title story that appears later, only to return with a question on whether he is still an infant a few pages ahead in the story, The Baby Show.
In this running commentary of seemingly inconsequential events from various lives, it’s nature which takes up the status of a protagonist. The occurrence of natural phenomena takes the story forward and acts like a background symphony that echoes the characters’ moods and emotions. “She moved her leg away when he tried to touch… the lonely crow cawed again, this time a long drawn-out cawing, sounding like a nutcracker at work.” Human action and the sounds of cawing merge in some alchemic way.
Buried deep into each story is an exploration of the various relationships that exist in a society. The opening story, The Thief, explores the filial bond in the front-drop of a 10-year-old’s stealing habit. A Funeral Feast highlights the gluttony and pride of Brahmins and their outlook towards other castes. The Whore: A Love Story investigates lust and the crossing of forbidden lines.
The task of a translator becomes even more difficult when the themes of the stories are ‘simple’. But reading Crows and Other Stories, one senses a lucidity from the translations by Leelawati Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre, and — as a non-Oriya reader — wonders whether the original text was as lucid too.
The only drawback comes when one encounters Oriya swear words and abuses that clearly lose their charm in translation.
After all, “May sores sprout on the accuser’s tongue” sounds like a textual curse rather than carrying the force that, one guesses, it should have.