Surendra Mahanty‘s Neel Saila
a political novel not a historical novel

Radhakanta Barik

(Surendra Mahanty’s Neel Saila is written in 1966 in explaining the ideology of Hindutva but he claims it as a historical novel. We are placing this novel Neel Saila in the political and cultural context of Odisha.)

Odisha has a rich literary tradition from ancient times but somehow, we have a smaller number of novelists. It started with some great novelists such as Fakirmohan Senapati, Kalindi Panigrahi but somehow after Independence our writings have reduced in quantity and quality both.  The Ministry of Culture at central government expressed anxieties some years back.  We are taking a writer who was a powerful politician and close friend of Biju Patnaik. He is basically a post-Independence writer.  His novel ‘Neel Saila” is under our examination.   This is written in 1968 as the writer claimed that it took two years for writing this novel. By that time he was a leading writer in Odiya as a story writer. He was encouraged by the people belonging to the Hindu Mahasabha to write this novel. This novel has three parts as he as a journalist and editor of a leading newspaper could understand the dynamics of communal riots in India where Hindu- Muslim riots occur in various parts of India. Most of the riots take clues that women belonging to the majority community got offended or humiliated by the some unknown persons from the minority community.  This creates a backlash from the majority community without knowing the truth behind the attacks on the women. The second point he understands the social boundary of each community where Hindus and Muslims do not  transgress   the boundary line.  He is oblivious of the fact that both share the common space and share common culture. He suffers from cultural amnesia for which he took this project into the literary world.   But they live together sharing the common space where their intermingling is an accepted fact. For these people, this intermingling needs to be curbed. The third is bringing some god or goddess into in such a political imaginary where god needs to be protected by the kings and other royal families. These royal feudal families have created a safety network of god.  Here he conceptualizes a theocratic state where god and king merged together.  This is the format of the novel Neel Saila where Surendra Mahanty could create a novel of 514 pages which he claimed as a historical novel but these facts have no basis in the history of Odisha. This is the first attempt by a writer in writing a political novel in the lines of Hindutva as defined by Savarkar.

He has created a woman character Saradei who lost her husband and turned into widow who refused to see any male person. She belonged to Khandayat paik caste and like “a fire in homa whom no mlecha or Muslim can touch her body”. (p64) Saradei lives in a village nearer to Chilka lake where Moghul army has entered through the main entry point to Odisha. One of a soldiers has raped her. She wants to take revenge with her caste people against the Muslim rule. She argues with the other  Paiks: “Hi feminine characters why are you hiding inside the house. The Moghula have directed their fingers at the Lord Jagannatha. If Jagannath goes then what remains with Odisha.” Saradei reiterated. Saradei did not leave these Laskaras who attacked her. She fought against them and pushed them out. Whenever these laskars move in the lanes of the village she feels the pulses of these laskaras for which her body repulsed.”  (177) By seeing a Muslim her body repulses.  Saradei after her marriage sent in her husband to war against the attacks from Muslims as a duty of Khandayat community. He did not return back and but message came from him with an earring from his ears.  That brings an end to her short conjugal life.

The writer has created a narrative against the Muslim community by reiterating a story of broken temple. There is a temple nearer to Pipli nearer to Puri which gets broken by the Muslim persons which could not be broken as the stones of the temple are so strong that no Muslim can break it. They intend to build a Mosque in the place of the temple.  This has happened in the past by Kalapahad who turned into folk poem ‘That aila Kalapahad’  “There was royal power who could not defend Jagannath. People’s power was weak. To defend Jagannath against Kalapahad there was no brave soul. There was only an element of desperation in each house. That Rajukhan, a Muslim carried Jagannath in a rope made of skin which created cries in widow’s house. ”(P40) He brings a leather made of cow skin  as a symbol of hatred from the Hindu community.

As a novelist Surendra Mahanty places his imaginary world restricted to geographical space of Khurda kingdom which is touching the sea one side and another side hills and forests. The King of Khurda is the king of kings. Where is that king who could defend their prestige. “Megh barasila tapar tapar kesura Maila gaja, Kou desare rahile raja lo telangi baida baja.”(177-78)

The kingdom of Khurda is being taken as the place where the real struggle for power between the Moghul King Tarki Khan and the Khurda king. In his political project the nobility is serious to throttle the planning of attack by Tarki Khan as the nobility is worried of the attack on Lord Jagannath.  In their political project they have succeeded to over throw the Buddhist rule in the past. It will not be difficult to throw out the Moghul rule. According to their planning it will be easier to beat the Kafirs.

Tarki Khan’s nominee Aminchand shows his intolerance towards other religions specifically Hinduism and to Lord Jagannath as he wanted the pilgrims to Puri to be charged with certain cess or jijiya. He is interested to do chera panhara while the rathyatra goes on. This is not possible as only Khurda king is supposed to do this function.  In the political project there is a war between the Kings of Khurda and the Muslim rulers. This is a war no over land but over the issue of Jagannath. As there is an expected attack on Jagannath then the question arises regarding the whole Hindu community needs to rise to fight the battle. In the battle the renegade King Ramchandra has supported which Hindutva believes in that if under compulsion one leaves the religion then he or she can come back to his own. “Those who joined Islam under compulsion need to return back to Hinduism which is being branded as Hindutva.” His son turns into the King of Khurda where various social stalwarts belonging to the Khandayat Paik have joined the holy war. In the war Sardei is playing a messenger between the ousted King Ramchandra and the present king. In the war everybody is involved to save Jagannath from the attacks which reflected in Rathyatra politics where Aminchand as the king is not allowed to do so as he was a Muslim king. In the end the victory over the Muslim rulers has happened as stated by the author: “This is the wish of Lord that in many wars and defeats the Man remains undefeated because of his undefeated soul.  Over the Odiya people and nation there have been many attacks from the Moghuls. The Odiya nation has gone forward by pushing the pressures of the attacks of the Kafirs but has not broken down. It is the soul of Odiya nation which encourages Odiyas and provides strength in fighting these inauspicious devil power. This has happened to Odiya nation in the past and happening today but it has survived. This is because of the Lord Jagannath or badathakur’s glance and blessings are with an undefeated nation.” P 462 He has brought a nation whose centrality is Lord Jagannath not the king. This creates an image of a theocratic state where a King is a nominee of the God.

Surendra Mahanty constructs a political project in writing the novel “Neel Saila” or Blue hills as Lord Jagannath lives next to the Bay of Bengal where bluish water prevails. This makes the Lord Jagannath as the Neel Saila told by a Muslim saint poet Salbegha. Unknowingly he takes the name from the Muslim saint poet. In his political project the Odiyas are the Hindus where one half of population are Dalits and tribals. Moreover the Lord Jagannath is a deity of tribals who is being accepted as a Hindu god in their political project of Hindutva. Odisha has a history of Buddhism till 8th century and today social life of Odisha revolves around the Buddhist customs and traditions which are a living tradition. Moreover many think that Lord Jagannath as a Buddhist deity.  This can be explained by the example that Sankaracharya of Puri is not being accepted as a nominee of the Hindu religion in the power structure of the Jagannath temple management yet.  He has given importance to caste base of Odiya nationalism which is dubious in itself. Moreover in Odiya culture no importance is given to caste identity of any caste till today. This brings out a truth of social formation in Odisha where caste discrimination between Caste Hindus and Dalits is a lower scale. Here the author bringing caste question specifically dominant caste into its political project which creates problems for Odiya nationalism today.

The trajectory of political history explains us a paradox that elite of Odisha has a tenuous relationship with the Hindutva.  Although most of them indirectly have a close relationship with the Hindutva project but they never openly speak out. Starting from Gopabandhu Das who was the founder of the Congress Party but joined the Hindu Mahasabha. H K Mahtab in his autobiography tells us clearly that he has a close association with the RSS. Many intellectuals either teaching in Universities or working as journalists have a closeness with the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha. But masses do not accept the political project of the Hindutva because of cultural pluralism and social pluralism prevails in Odisha. Odisha has a strong Buddhist tradition and liberal social values because of Chaitany Deva and contributions of the Panchasakha. The medieval spiritual texts such as Bhagvat is embedded in cultural matrix of Odisha. Religious paganism including worshipping million gods and goddesses here create a subtle opposition to Hinduism of Ram and Hanuman which are not being worshipped at mass level. In such a society and cultural world, Surendra Mahanty’s Neelsaila can be placed as he dared to write a political novel in explaining the nuances of Hindutva defined by Savarkar in 1966. He claimed it as a historical novel but his work has ignored the history of Odisha and culture of Odisha. it is written in a clumsy language with an absence of humour which is a part of Odiya writing from Fakirmohan to Kalindi Panigrahi. In their prose style they use a colloquial style with ridden with humour and laughter carrying myths and legends from popular culture. Here it is written in Sanskritic Odiya which has created a dry style without humour.  This writing style does not satisfy the aesthetic sense of people for which it is less read by readers.

Prof Radhakanta Barik, Retiredd as ICSSR senior fellow

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Jun 26, 2020

Prof. Radhakanta Barik

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