I grew up with books. My mother had an extensive library of Oriya books and my father’s collection of English Classics was enviable. As I submerged myself in this enchanting world, I started dreaming of a future where there would be a room stacked to the ceiling with books with a comfortable sofa-cum-bed in the centre. I would devour the books while digging into tubs of yummy ice cream.
The fascination for ice cream dwindled somewhat as I stepped out of my teenage years, but the love for books remained. However, I had no desire to be a writer then. How I delved into that world is a completely different story, but the fact remained that in my early twenties I started writing short stories in Oriya and tasted success instantly. However, there was not much commitment and with limited time in hand, things would probably have continued that way if I hadn’t had a short conversation with Gopinath Mohanty one day.
Gopinath Mohanty was a dedicated, disciplined and prolific Oriya writer – one of the best that the state ever produced. He believed in actually getting into the depth of a subject before attempting to write. And he chose subjects where not much written records existed, or not much research work was done: he had to experience it first-hand before actually putting pen to paper. Thus came the books on the tribal people of Orissa, the untouchables and on issues like illiteracy, superstition and the debilitating caste system. What was really endearing was that most of these were written as fictions and were gripping, as Gopinath Mohanty was a master storyteller.
I remember that day, when there was a literary get-together somewhere and I had accompanied my writer/editor mother. Gopinath Mohanty patted my head and said, ‘I like your style of writing, but you must put in more effort and write novels. Novels make regional literature sustainable and all writers have a responsibility towards that.’
That was the day it dawned on me that writing comes with responsibility and you just cannot be casual about it. A true writer must have the dedication and be accountable.
My world changed.
A few years later, I wrote my first novel, but my biggest regret was that Gopinath Mohanty was no longer there to read it. However, his books were, still are, my source of inspiration. Even now, when I am sometimes faced with the terrifying prospect of a possible writer’s block, I go back to his books and am instantaneously uplifted and reassured.
I love almost all the books written by Gopinath Mohanty, whether it was ‘Harijan’ – a novel about the travails, aspirations and despairs of the so-called untouchables, or ‘Amrutara Santana’, or ‘Maati Matala’ for which he received both the Central Sahitya Akademi award and the Jnanpith – India’s highest literary award, but it is his ‘Paraja’ – a story of the simple and trusting tribal people who were taken advantage of by unscrupulous moneylenders and their hand-in-glove partners, the petty government people– that I go back to over and over again.
Oxford University Press had brought out the English translation of ‘Paraja’ – the translation being done by Dr. Bikram Das, who, in 2010, translated my book ‘Deba Shishu’ into English as ‘Children of a Better God’.