One of the largest rivers of India, Mahanadi originates from the foothills of the Sihaoa mountain of Chhattisgarh and flows for a thousand kilometres through Chhattisgarh and Odisha, finally immersing in the Bay of Bengal at Jagatsinghpur. But its journey never ends, as it flows daily from the plateau to the forest to the ravine 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 mixes with the cries of the endangered people on the banks when the river overflows.
In Anita Agnihotri’s Mahanadi, translated into English by Nivedita Sen, the tale of the river is entwined with the people through vignettes of their dynamic lives that are infused with myths, legends and archaeological anecdotes.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
The rich and complex chronicle of the Mahanadi charts physical and territorial geographies while elaborating local histories of the Chola rulers, the Som dynasty and feudal fiefdoms, pertaining to specific districts in Odisha, within their contextual co-ordinates. In the process, it unfolds parallel and overlapping sagas about common people in interaction with rajas, politicians, entrepreneurs and crusaders. History, mythology and folklore are intermingled in the minds of people living at the fringes of so-called modern and civilized India, as when the renowned poet Vidyapati is inextricably merged within Ashu’s mythological narrations. History is interwoven with the evolution of local culture in a way that does not solicit translatory interpolation. The sense of belonging to a homegrown culture is perceptible, for instance, in the account of the forced eviction of the people of Kutherpali due to the building of the Hirakud dam. I have tried to recreate the sense of nostalgia and loss in the self-sufficient community of people whose domestic felicity signified by their tulsi manchas, chandi mandaps and alpanas is snatched from them when they are relocated to an alien and barren soil. Heterogeneous ethnic features of congregations formed by caste, occupation and location, elucidated in Bangla, demands a phraseology in the target language that resonates with the original. Their discrete diurnal rhythms, seasonal calendars and regimens of farming are determined by solar movements, while the lunar cycle governs their festivals, feasts and fasts. From the Maghi Purnima festival at the Rajivlochan temple, the Jhantanua at Paragalpur and the Balijatra in Cuttack, to the more ubiquitous and ceremonious Rathjatra, Makar Sankranti, Charak Mela and Vishwakarma Puja, I sensitized myself to and accentuated without mediating the carnivalesque colours and flavours of these rustic jubilations that are embedded within the faith of the people. A widespread festival is that of the syncretic god Budharaja, a Buddha surrogate who is worshipped alike across religions and communities. Mahanadi penetrates the seamless interface of Adivasi traditions, tantric practices, Buddhist rituals and Hindu superstitions. Translation has required attention not only to culture-specific lores uncovered in community festivals but also to personalized details like Harmu Jaani’s unquestioned faith in his legacy of oral fables, the emaciated Shambhu Mahakud’s fantasy of acting as the corpulent king Kansa in the Dhanujatra, Sanatan Pradhan’s pride in his narrative prowess during the performance of Danda, Indranath’s wistful invocation of his long-lost beloved to initiate his onward voyage during Balijatra, and the author’s reinvention of Asavari as the legendary tigress-goddess Bauri Thakurani, known for zealously guarding her young. All of these concurrently ‘remain like water colour paintings on the back cover of the story of Mahanadi’s journey.’
Like Baidyanath, there were many villages of the weaving community nearby, like Kendupali, Beheramal, Nimna, Tarabha. There were many old co-operative societies. Most of them had been ailing, panting under the moral degeneration in the price of threads and labour. A few had got saved by the power of a reputed weaver or a good secretary. These co-operative societies kept a written record of the names of hundreds of weavers. Then they showed a fraudulent account of production against their names to be eligible for government subsidies. This tradition was as old as the country’s independence. The stocks of the societies were shown as the cloth bought from the market at wholesale prices. The societies actually could not get jobs for even ten per cent of the weavers. Everyone had to mortgage their labour with the ‘master’ for survival. The secretary, president, some influential members and the departmental officers and workers of the societies remained inextricably intertwined with the accounts of the production, the subsidies and its work from nine to six. The authority of the textile inspectors in these regions was even greater than that of police inspectors because they verified the accounts of the co-operative societies. Squaring the accounts of the stocks and signing there, they prepared the accounts of the subsidies and sent it to the state level. And above all, if some money came into the account of the societies, that money could not be spent except with their permission. At every step, the dishonest societies and the dishonest workers colluded in fudging the accounts and helped each other mutually in the business of enhancing their incomes that evaded the purview of law.
In the last three decades, the weavers had realized some home truths. They had understood that they were not artisans but mere labourers. They had also realized that if they depended on the societies, they would not get employment for more than seven days a month and it would inevitably entail dying of starvation. The group of ‘masters’ had broken away from the divided state of the societies. The word ‘master weaver’ no longer meant skilled weavers. The ‘masters’ were the owners of the labourers, who rented places next to their homes or elsewhere in big factories and got the labourers to work for them in order to make huge profits. The weavers no longer bothered about the caste or clan of their owners. They were themselves the shareholders of the co-operative societies on pen and paper. But so what? The ordinary weaver would never be able to reap the benefit of the money shrewdly siphoned off by the government. Only those who invested some money to avail the benefit of such misappropriation of funds would get it.
It is not as if the masters make these labourers work only in their own factories. Even sitting at home, the lone weaver can work according to his order. These arrangements are convenient for the wives and daughters at home who cannot easily leave their household and children behind to go to work far away. The master’s men come and leave some colours and yarns and money as loan. After the cloth is woven, they collect it from their doors and pay them their wages. Because they come to their homes, they give quite a few rupees less per cloth. But it saves the weavers the time and money they would spend to go and sit in the local market. Like the ‘masters’, even big businessmen provide loans. They, too, deliver coloured threads at their homes, and take away the cloth in exchange of the wages they pay. It is the same system – the wages are less. The weaver has a roof over his head, and under him is a pit inside which he must keep his feet, and the loom and his own body – the weaver has nothing except these. Wearing out his body, his life gets snuffed out before his time. Working in a dark room at a stretch in the daytime, and in the low-voltage light of the evening, the weaver’s eyesight gets weakened before time. He gets himself a pair of spectacles, but those do not get changed for years. His youthful back gets hunched, and the flesh on his stomach hardens through its friction with the frame of the loom. During the monsoon season, the damp of the rains make his feet ache in their pit, and he cannot stop the work even if he has fever or falls ill.