INTERVIEW BY OWSHNIK GHOSH
Pratibha Ray is one of the stalwarts of modern Odia Literature. She was born in the year 1944. She was a Professor at Ravenshaw College , Cuttack and was also a member of the Public Service Commission Odisha . She has received the Akademi award for her short story collection Ullanghan and has also received the Moortidevi Award , Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith Award .
Owshnik Ghosh– You were born in a village and then you came to the city. How did your village life influence your writings?
I was in a village (Alabol) for my first 16 years. My schooling was there. It was a minor school. My father was a science graduate at that time from Patna University . He believed that people should be educated to understand what independence is. The people of the village didn’t know what independence was or who was ruling them. There was too much landlord oppression. My father was a progressive man. He left his job and came back to the village and changed that primary school to a high school. He was the first headmaster of the school (Balikuda). My best times were my school life with my parents. I started writing in class five or six. My first poem came out in a reputed journal- Children Corner when I was in class seven. I started writing poems. I think most writers do that (laugh). After that publication, I was so inspired that I felt I was a poet. So I continuously wrote and published. Then I came to Cuttack to Ravenshaw College. My father’s dream was to see me as a physician. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to become a writer. Anyhow I got admission to the Science stream and got qualified for medical college. Then without my father’s knowledge, I changed my subject and got into Botany Honours at that college. So, coming back to your question, the influences of my village life are still present today. And I’m very happy that I was born and brought up in a village. It is inside me till today. In many of my stories and novels, you can find that I wrote about the oppressions of the Zamindars, many of them are based on true cases of my village life. The story Ulanghan was based on a true story of my village area, I couldn’t understand that at my tender age but after many years I understood that and wrote the story. And I will also say that my language is much richer because of my village life. You have to mix with people and heartily listen to them. Otherwise, you can’t develop your language so much. So, I’m down to earth and I feel close to the oppressed class. I’ve seen them closely in my life in the village. It had a great impact on my writing.
Owshnik Ghosh– How was the literary environment of Odia literature when you started writing?
When I started writing I didn’t know there was any term called Odia Literature. I felt some inspiration to express myself. Not that I saw somebody was writing so I wrote, I wanted to say something, so I wrote. But our house was a centre of culture. My father was writing poetry at that time, which I came to know later. At that time, people were not like that- I will write and publish and get publicity etc. Every evening there used to be a cultural meeting at our house. People used to come and discuss Ramayana and Vedas. I used to listen to them. So, my inner world was developed along with these Puranas and fairy tales. That is the foundation of my writing.
Owshnik Ghosh– Your writings focus on the darker sides of our community, for instance, inequality, discrimination and so on. Do you consciously bring them forth?
It comes to me. If any writer consciously brings something to his/her writings, it will not be so lively. I’ve seen all this discrimination based on caste, poverty and so on. Especially caste discrimination! I understand human beings as human beings. And I’ve already said that I’m drawn towards the oppressed people. Suppose in a mirror if the back side is not opaque you can’t see your face. Literature is like that. The back side should be there. You’ve to reveal, have to explore. I think every writer, whatever they see, will have impressions of it on themselves.
Owshnik Ghosh– Will you call yourself a feminist writer?
When I write about poverty, equality, right to education, caste system and so on, some people brand me as a communist. When I write about women- their lives, sufferings and so on, people call me a feminist. But I call myself a humanist. Writers are always drawn to the problems. So can anyone disagree that the problems of women are not more than men today? Every day what is happening to them? Can a girl walk alone safely at night in the streets? Even in the daytime? Gandhi Ji told the day when a young girl will walk alone safely on the streets at midnight, that day you will understand that freedom has come. So if we consider Gandhi Ji’s statement, then we are not free today as well. So many of my stories are about women’s problems. Now reading them… I’m sorry to say, critiques don’t read any text properly. So without reading all my works, they say that I’m a feminist. Even if I’m a feminist still I remain a humanist. Are women not human? So I’m writing about human beings.
Owshnik Ghosh– Can you share the experience of writing your legendary novel Yajnaseni?
All my novels are children to me. Whenever I write any novel I observe the characters, theme and place. But I think I was more observant in this novel because I have known her since my childhood. I have images of Yajnaseni . I’ve said that I used to listen to the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata since my childhood. There was a village opera. My father was very fond of seeing operas. So I was watching an opera competition in which my father was a judge. Draupadi’s bastra haran was being enacted. It was very odd to me. So I went and told my father, you protest against any discrimination, please go and stop them. He said that this is a drama and I argued that this type of drama should not be played. I was a very questioning person. My father told me that it was an epic and made me understand that the cause of the battle in Mahabharata was this incident. He also told me that it should be changed from our society but can’t be changed from the epic. I think that was the seed of the novel which got rooted in my mind that day. Immediately one can’t write. It takes time. Any theme has its intimation period. I’ve written this after my marriage. So almost twenty to twenty-five years after that incident. I was teaching in college, bringing up my children, and doing my PhD. I was too busy but even then I couldn’t stop writing. Whenever I got time I wrote- even while cooking. I was so absorbed that I even saw Krishna in front of me. So it was like a trance.
In any novel, I face this situation. I wrote a novel about the super cyclone which came to Odisha. I went to that area on the fifth day and I saw the devastation. I was in the public service commission of Odisha at that time. I went there to distribute relief. For the next four years, I went there, staying and counselling them. Not only they lost their bread and butter but also their livelihood, and relations- there were joint families in the villages within fifteen or sixteen people only one person was alive, and this was the situation. So how will they live? So I was counselling them and I wrote a novel.
Owshnik Ghosh– Do you think it is much more difficult for a woman in our social structure to pursue a writing career than a man?
It is very difficult in our social system. It is not difficult for the reason of talent. I could write only when I finished all the household work. Besides that, I was teaching, bringing up my children. I used to sit for writing at night after having all my work done. Because I was not ill and very energetic, I could write. Otherwise, it was not possible. Travelling is also very important for writers. One should see the world and meet people. So that is an obstruction. Nobody shares the household work with them. If you are a writer and getting awards it is good. But first you have to do your ‘duty’- as a mother, as a housewife and as a working person. But nowadays I see that girls are writing and husbands are supporting them. My time was different. But one thing I will say- It is better to be a woman and a writer. In the case of male writers- you can go to the drawing room of a person. But as a woman, you can enter one’s kitchen, bedroom and so on. It is easy for a woman to understand one’s sufferings.
Owshnik Ghosh– You have worked for the tribal communities of Odisha. What made you choose this particular field? And what was your experience working with them?
I am always drawn to the misunderstood people of our community. I wrote about Draupadi because I still think she is a misunderstood character. I have got a novel named Mahamoha on Ahalya, another misunderstood character of the epic. Once I went to Koraput for a literary seminar organised by Sahitya Akademi. There, an educated tribal boy challenged me- you’re writing on everybody and all problems but not on any tribal problem. Are the tribes, not Odia people? So why can’t they be included in Odia literature? I told them, yes, they are right. But I’ll not be sitting in the city and writing about them. Because I’m not the type of writer who sits in the city, reads an article and writes about tribal people. I need to have experience, know them, and live with them and then only I can write. At that time there were a lot of discussions about the Bonda tribes . People used to talk about all kinds of ills about them like they are not proper human beings, they live like animals, they kill people and so on. I was surprised to hear all these. So I did post-doctoral research on them. To study the Bonda people I took two years of study leave. Everyone warned me that they would kill me and so on. But I insisted on going. When I went there, I was drawn deeply to them. They are wonderful people and they accepted me readily because I’m a woman. They worship women as mother. Young Bonda boys marry older girls and these girls bring up their husbands. So, as I was a woman, they accepted me and still remember me. I wrote a big novel on them; it is translated into English as The primal land .
Owshnik Ghosh– Do you think literature can be a tool for bringing any social changes?
Literature can bring social change if that kind of literature is written and also read by a large number of readers. The readers should accept the work. If the readers don’t read and the books remain stuffed in the library, how can it bring any social change? But yes, literature is an instrument to bring social change. In History, we can see certain books like Gorki’s Mother and The Capital brought political change.
Owshnik Ghosh– At a point of time, you spoke against the discrimination done by different religious institutions towards the oppressed people. You must have faced adverse situations after that.
Most people don’t dare to do that. But I don’t care. I dared to protest against the discrimination done by the authorities of the Puri temple. They threatened me. But there was no phatoa for me. I think the majority of Hindus are not that aggressive or fanatic by nature. But for many years I didn’t go to Puri for that. And not only in that temple, wherever I saw discrimination, I protested.
Owshnik Ghosh– And what about the current socio-religious and political situations in our country?
Yes, I do write about them.
Owshnik Ghosh– What are your views on the social responsibilities of a writer?
Writers are social reformers. But they are not social workers. Not necessarily they will go to the fields and give slogans etc. Mahashweta Devi was doing a lot of things for tribal people. She was doing fieldwork and was also writing simultaneously. But I think writers should write, so that they toss the hat, and bring the change. Going to the field and giving slogans can cost the writer’s art of excellence.
Owshnik Ghosh– According to you what makes a literary piece Indian Literature?
Good question! I think we were Indians when we were not independent. Being Indian, we fought for independence. But after independence, we are now Odias, Bengalis, Marathis and so on. I’ve some novels where the characters are just not Indians but they are universal. They belong to any place in the world. We can say that languages are regional, but when languages are transformed into literature, it is universal. For example, Tolstoy or Shakespeare , with their works we can relate so much that we think they are happening to us. So that is the universalness a writer can create. Literature belongs to all. Though I’m writing in Odia, it belongs to any reader reading in any part of the world. But the element of universality must be there.
Owshnik Ghosh– Concerning your answer I would like to ask, what is the response of your readers outside the country?
Unless a text gets translated there can’t be any response. I have only five or six books translated into English. There is no proper publicity. So those who have read those books gave positive responses. But the extent is not like Mahashweta Devi. Because she is very widely translated and widely read. In Odia, there are no translators like Gayatri Spivak . So we are not that lucky (laugh)! It is not very easy for Indian writers to get translated and get publicity worldwide.
Owshnik Ghosh– What is your view on present Odia Literature?
Time changes, society changes and with that literature too. Literature changes society and society changes the literature. It is vice-versa. Society changing the literature is very easy and obvious. But changing society with literature is not easy. It is a very slow phenomenon. There are good writers writing poetry and short stories. But very few are coming up with good novels. I think that is for the lack of time.
Owshnik Ghosh– Last question. What does the word literature signify to you?
In Odia I can say- Sahitya hauchi jibanara gabhira anubhutira rasa snigdha sakaratmaka abhibyekti. That means Literature is the lively and positive expression of life’s deepest feelings.