Gopinath Mohanty is a
leading novelist of post-Independence India. He wrote his classic Paraja in
1945. It’s a novel of mythic simplicity whose central character Sukru Jani
belongs to the Tribe called Paraja. The novel was translated by Prof. B K Das
and published by Oxford University Press. Later, it was also published in
England by Faber and Faber.
The Paraja, who lives in the densely wooded hills and valleys of the Eastern Ghats, knows suffering and deprivation. He knows exploitation is as old as the rugged and silent hills around his village. He has felt it in his bones. He has reason to be both pessimistic and angry. And yet he has never given up hope, for while life lasts, happiness can still be found all around, in flowers, in green leaves, in the cascading hill streams, in the mist-shrouded hills looking like coloured palanquins.
It is this tragic grandeur of the life of the Parajas which the novel celebrates. The theme as it slowly unravels perhaps both extols and denies this grandeur. Paraja is, at one level, a social novel, a novel which on an epic scale portrays both the decay and destruction of the family of a trial patriarch and that of a whole way of life which is vanishing slowly as modernisation spreads into the hills.
The pessimism of novel is of a cosmic nature. The slow decay of the patriarch’s happy family—Sukru Jani, his two sons Mandia and Tikra and the two daughters, Jili and Bili—from a contented subsistent farmer to serfdom or goti is poignantly described. Step by inevitable step, the ultimate tragedy takes over. Dreams are shattered. The visit of the Forest Guard to the village, his evil eyes on the Patriarch’s daughters start the chain. He is fined for cutting down forest trees; he has to borrow from the Sahukar, the rapacious moneylender, to pay it off, he and his younger son become goti to the Sahukar to redeem the never-ending small debt. The snare closes in with vicious tenacity, certainty and convoluted logic, difficult for the simple Paraja to comprehend.
Their valuable land is mortgaged and is never returned even when debts have been repaid many times over; they go to the court of law with tragic consequences as they do not know the mechanics of its working. At this level one is reminded of Kafka and his Trial. They lose the case. The Patriarch’s elder daughter suffers an emotional vacuum leading to a slow process of moral degradation.
Her dreams for Bagla die away; her father and brothers live elsewhere as gotis; poverty and hunger stare in the face and the weakness of the flesh slowly takes over as they go to work on a road project. Eventually she becomes a mistress of the same Sahukar, who has cheated, exploited and tortured her father and brothers. Finally, losing out everywhere,
Sukru Jani and his sons make a last-ditch bid in seeking the Sahukar’s mercy for the return of their ancestral land. And when that is met with mere derision and abuse, the axe falls and the Sahukar lies dead.
Paraja is a story of exploitation but that is only the least important aspect of the novel. It wouldn’t be the classic of Indian fiction that it is, if it was only a tale of exploitation and retribution, or the ethnography-based life-style of a tribal family. What makes the novel an epic of unforgettable magnitude is the way it builds the story into its tragic finale.
So it is land, the ancestral land sanctified for generations’ attachment to it. “He (Sukru Jani) lay huddled on the earth with the chill November wind blowing around him and heard his land positively calling to him. There were such memories in that land. He must get it back” (page-355 of the novel in English translation published OUP).
Paraja is, thus, the tale of the primordial attachment to land, the sacred soil of ancestors and the possibility of happiness. Life is meant to be lived in joy. And there is life that does not make any great demands on the world except that it be left alone to quietly live out its days. And yet this is not permitted by a cruel social order and an even more cruel destiny. Mohanty lifts the social to the level of the metaphysical.
The exploitation of man by man becomes a cosmic tragedy of blighted happiness, shattered dreams. And how many dreams are shattered in this novel. No one, except perhaps the predatory moneylender, gets what he or she dreamt of. And even he, have his dreams come true? No, for he really cannot enjoy his wealth nor the love of the Patriarch’s daughter. Creeping age has already taken its toll and the Parajas, in a mad outburst of anger, do the rest in ending his unfulfilled life.
Mandia’s dream-girl Kajodi marries another, a free young man, and deserts him, now only a goti. Jili loses Bagla. Sukru’s dream of a happy family is shattered. In the novel no one wins. Every one is finally defeated.
As the author says “a single puff of wind can destroy what has taken a field-mouse a lifetime to amass”. And it happens to Sukru, to many of us. And yet must we give up? No, is the positive response of the novel, for life goes on.
And as life goes on there is so much to enjoy, to toil and to celebrate. The seasons come and go, the festivals come and go and life and death pursue each other like light and darkness.
Here is a sample of the novelist’s description of the seasons. “Spring came to another village too, the village of Sukru Jani and Mandia. It dyed the leaves scarlet and tickled the flowers into laughter. The girls wore mango blossoms in their dark hair, and white, wild niali flowers; honey-bees, drawn by the fragrance, lost their way and hummed round their ears. The hills grew festive once more, their splendour undiminished”.
Paraja is a profoundly disturbing novel. A novel where an individual tragedy becomes a telling symbol for man’s unrelenting heroic but futile battle against a hostile universe. It is indeed a classic of modern Indian fiction.
Robert Nye writing in the Guardian had this to say about Paraja: “Gopinath Mohanty belongs to a generation of Indian writers to whom social commitment is second nature, but what we have here is a work of universal application—a story of materialistic civilisation seeking to encroach upon and engulf an ancient way of life. Described as an odyssey, Paraja might thus sound pretentious. It is not. There is a vision at work here which dismays and rings true.”