Mangal Taram

A Slice of an 'other' India

Someswar Bhowmik

A Day in the Life of Mangal Taram: Select Stories* of Anita Agnihotri is a collection of 14 of her Bengali short stories in English translation done by Rani Ray. Although Anita's literary oeuvre spans a wide range of creative genres—such as poetry, novel, children's piece and reportage on or critique of 'economic development'—short story is the form that stimulates her creative vein the most. Even while she was serving in the Indian Administrative Services for over three decades, she kept herself busy in her literary pursuit and produced around 30 volumes. Now retired, she has taken it upon herself to explore even more vigorously the vast and complex Indian social reality, different facets of human relationship and the unheard voices of the underprivileged, through both fiction and non-fiction.

The stories in this collection have been carefully selected from out of over 200 short stories that she has written. About her stories she had this to say when a collection of 50 of her stories came out in 2019: "My stories have intricately woven in them the nuances of human delight and despair, the imprints of rivers mountains and forestlands, as also the vignettes of the lives of men and women of an India to which I have been witnessed. The string of letters adorning these stories is awash with drops of blood oozing out of my heart's wounds as also with tears of joy that have blessed my living".

Most of the stories translated for this collection are recent products, except the one titled "Sunder Patua", which explores how the forces of unregulated market forces unleashed after the economic liberalisation in 1991 destabi-lises and qualitatively changes the life of a rural artist engaged in folk art. But all the stories in this collection portray characters who are generally labeled as 'marginal', 'unfortunate', 'failed' or 'invisible'—like a Gond tribal boy working as a beat forest officer in the dense forest' with his mind trapped in fear and anxiety that appears 'inexplicable' but is an inevitable part of his existence, the non-descript son of a failed writer, the forgotten daughter of a renowned litterateur, a disjointed man obsessed with memories of his first wife after she committed suicide, a melancholic writer past her prime, once renowned but now forgotten, a grieving labourer devastated after losing his young wife and baby in the super-cyclone that razed Odisha a few decades back, an orphan girl whose artistic sensibilities are trampled by poverty, a common man who reminisces about his abandoned homeland across the border on his wedding anniversary or tribulations of silently suffering mother no more in sync with her children. Despite Anita's focus on common and marginal people, her craft bears the hallmark of a masterful storyteller. One is struck by the visual quality of her narratives—which almost lends these the power of docu-fiction, her deft portrayal of intimate feelings and the raw and honest emotional contents of her narratives. Read together they bring out a slice of an 'other' India.

The underlying themes of the stories selected for this slim volume are lack, loss and absence—loss and absence of near and dear ones, loss of faculty, loss of fame, lack of emotional support, loss of an unseen distant land etched as home on the psyche. The majority of these stories reproduce emotion of people coping with, or worse, weighed down by such lack, loss and absence. They are also heavy with the sight and sound, and sometimes even the smell of death. These take the readers through the injured psyche of the characters without appearing as morbid or asking for sympathy. These simply implore the readers to take notice and introspect. There lies the strength of Anita's craft, which the translator has adequately brought out.

*A Day In The Life Of Mangal Taram: Select Stories
by Anita Agnihotri
Niyogi Book, New Delhi, 2020, pp.203

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Vol. 52, No. 40, April 5 - 11, 2020