In Anita Agnihotri’s ‘Mahanadi’, fiction is interrupted by facts to create a braided narrative

I can’t always define what stories are. As a teaching assistant for a creative writing class, I should have some semblance of definition, but I don’t think there is. And that’s what I told a student who asked for one.

But that prompted another question: “Do you think I should write critically?” I thought she was referring to stories that present themselves as bait for analysis (like almost every story written these days, fictional or otherwise), but no. She wondered if she could answer a prompt requiring a fictional piece through an essay. In other words: “Can I challenge your expectations?” “

that of Anita Agnihotri Mahanadi: a novel on a river – translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen – arouses what I expect from the novel as a form of literature. Agnihotri anthropomorphizes the Mahanadi into a river that spies on the lives through which it flows. But the indiscreet ear tells like a storyteller unable to say what will grab the reader through 488 pages of prose.

Like a river in which the water of several streams flows, the novel enters and leaves the lives of the inhabitants of the villages, towns and cities affected by the Mahanadi, through, among other things, a forced separation of friends, l abandonment of a son, or a man who desires the wife of his deceased friend.

Too much information

But Agnihotri’s interweaving of these stories is unraveling because each narrative combs through the characters like a detective refusing to miss a clue. She doesn’t assume her reader is perceptive. Instead, she analyzes her writing for her reader, and reaffirms the impression they get from sentences that already tell you everything you need to know. While it may be heartwarming to recognize that you are reading the story the way the writer intended, spoon-feeding regularly is frustrating.

“Among the Shitulias, you could count a handful who had obtained lease documents for their land. Which meant that after that, they could legally build houses on private land. No one would say they were intruders anymore. They were waiting for the time when they could build their homes as part of the government plan. But how would they do it? Who would have their names voted in the village assemblies? After that, these names should be approved by the panchayat committees. Every year, thousands of people who had no patron in politics are left behind like this. “

Sen’s translation helps identify a pattern in Agnihotri’s fiction: an over-explanation that turns the novel’s form into something else, like churning cream until it turns into butter. . But perhaps this excess of illustration speaks of the nature of the river as a narrator. It introduces the customs as a travel guide trying to charm the tourist with the manners of communities unrecognized in the mainstream media. Like a foreigner enchanted by the communities, the river is disconnected from the realities of the populations it touches.

“In this locality, there was the custom to wear a ring and an amulet made up of the column or the cast iron screw attached to the boat. The middle class households came and had these things made by the boatmen. These rings have ostensibly helped you overcome difficult and impossible situations like old age or the inability to marry a girl.

What is the story?

Fortunately, Agnihotri is home to a large number of other characters from the novel. As each left a fleeting taste of helplessness in my mouth, the story of Himirani and Malati got me thinking. The mahul flowers of their village swore their friendship. But the construction of the Hirakud dam and the protests that followed tore them apart.

Kuber’s mother Himirani understands this “tale of people’s grief” through a story of birds whose trees have drowned in water. His control over this “hard truth” of history and his resistance to passing the experience on to his child illustrate the trauma of memory. When Kuber grew up, Himirani asked him to “bring Mahul Sakhi once so she could see him”.

Agnihotri uses this bow to unravel the events that followed the development of the dam. But as you read it, you can’t identify the main character. Their stories blend into each other and the writer claims that the story does not belong to one person.

The novel also questions the idea of ​​history. He asks: “Was practicing historical awareness only the business of the upper classes and the highly educated?” “. In the district of Boudh, the villagers do not care that this is the center of the practice of the Buddhist religion.

This example reflects a narrator close enough to recognize the villagers’ interactions with the story, whether it be theirs or not, but distant enough to recognize their ignorance. It is an educated person who asks this question. For the villagers, Buddha becomes a god, the Budharaja. They are building their own history. Agnihotri’s prose, however, approaches this story as an essay, not as a fiction.

“The bust statue of Buddha was the deity of their village. On the day of Nabanna or Nuakhai, the day of the new harvest, the paddy is offered to the temple, home of the gods. Today was such a Jhantanua or the new harvest for Shiv. The rural arhar dal, known as kandul, also celebrated a new harvest. The same was true for the newly harvested moong. Even in the 10th century, did the worshipers or sculptors of the Buddha image know how much the meaning of god would change in the hands of human beings? “

While one form can slip into the other, writing in Mahanadi is not so much to tell a story as to inform the reader of possible stories. Agnihotri invites customs, traditions and communities into the novel, but not as a storytelling tool, crumbling the fiction. I have never read the stories about the communities of Mahanadi. But if it was fiction, the exposure would freeze with the character experiences, and I could have gotten this novel in a thinner avatar.

Mahanadi: The story of a river, Anita Agnihotri, translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen, Niyogi Books.

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