Basanti: The Tale Of An Empowered Odia Woman

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When Odisha is taking the lead in political empowerment of women and has elected seven from the fairer sex to the Lok Sabha, the translation of Basanti, an Odia classic dealing with social empowerment of women published about a century ago, has caught the attention of literary circles.

Basanti , which was submerged like an iceberg in the ocean of oblivion and gone out of print, has rose out of the waters through the efforts of its translators (into English language) Prof. Himanshu Mahapatra and Prof. Paul St. Pierre earlier this year.  The Odia novel (published first in 1931 with a revised edition appearing in 1968) has also drawn the attention of readers because it is written by nine authors, namely, Annada Shankar Ray, Baishnab Charan Das, Harihar Mahapatra, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Muralidhar Mahanti, Prativa Devi, Sarala Devi, Sarat Chandra Mukherjee and Suprava Devi. The novel was earlier serialized in the Utkal Sahitya in 1924, like all novels of that time.

Every age has its new women – ahead of its time and aspirations. Basanti was one. What made her different was she was not a rebel, in the conventional sense of the term. Basanti valued relationships, and went a long way in preserving them but not at the cost of her aspiration of being useful to the society. Her inclination for philanthropy was higher than her goal of safeguarding her self-esteem. That makes her unique from all the new women that we might have come across.

The many writers of the book give varied dimensions to the character of Basanti. The multi-dimensional narration lends an admirably holistic perspective to the portrayal of Debrabrata as well. The relationship of Debabrata-Basanti unfolds at many levels through the insights of multiple writers. It is amazing, at the same time disturbing to note, how their relationship changes from respect and love to indifference and doubts. Much to the dismay of readers, the all-encompassing ‘Deba bhai’ finally becomes a stranger for Basanti. A lay  reader might ponder over the reasons for their paths going
divergent. However, a critical reader will understand that the woman protagonist Basanti was much more evolved than men like Debabrata of her times. Debabrata was not a bad person, but he had normal expectations of a husband. And, sadly, Basanti was not a common woman.

When Braja asks Basanti: “All right, sister-in-law, tell me what’s your goal in life?” she replies she had no goal. To quote Basanti: “You may not believe it, but I’m telling you the truth. I haven’t yet been able to decide what my goal should be. But I do have certain beliefs about the sort of life a woman should have.” This statement of Basanti speaks oodles about the situation prevalent then. Women were not oriented to have ambition in life. It was more important to know about the ethics of life. However, Basanti had some progressive ideas about how women should behave in society and the rights they should have.

Basanti is an unprecedented portrayal of the emancipated Odia woman. She feels the need for educating young girls more than spending her time languishing and cooing in the love of Debabrata. Debabrata’s expectations from his wife were not unreal. But Basanti was not a woman who would have been satisfied by the confines of domestic
chores. It is for this reason her bond with her sister-in-law gets more pronounced than her ties with her husband.

The relationship between Basanti and her mother-in-law is conventional going by the conservative Odia society, but at some levels is unconventional as well. Among all the chides, rebukes and unmistakable sarcasm, when the mother-in-law attempts to console Basanti that marital life is full of trials and tribulations by giving her own example, the reader is able to appreciate her human vulnerability. And finally it is the resolute behaviour of Subhadra Devi that forces Debabrata to go and get Basanti home, keeping aside his male ego. That is the beauty of the book Basanti. No character is good or bad. They are just puppets trying to pull the strings that otherwise make them dance.

The relationship between the mother-in-law and her domestic help Saniama again makes it conventional. It is a fact that many Odia women consider that age-old maids more closer to them than their daughters-in-law. This is a trait that trickles into  contemporary Odia society where women are seen to confide many things with their maids – a common one being: bitching about their daughters-in-law.

The book speaks about total independence of women. It is revolutionary because it doesn’t simply question patriarchy; it rationalises the reasons of gender inequality. At the same time, the book is a blend of tradition and modernity since it doesn’t outrightly reject certain conventional roles of women like motherhood.

The translation is lucid and flows like an uninterrupted stream. The language isn’t ostentatious. Prof. Mohapatra and Prof. St.Pierre revive the Odia classic from the ravages of time and give it a powerful impetus through their impeccable translation.

 

(The writer is serving as Assistant Professor of English at Rama Devi Women’s University in Bhubaneswar).

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