‘A Time Elsewhere’ from Penguin Books | Originally written in Odia as ‘Desa Kala Patra’ from Friends Publishers
Author Jagannath Prasad Das | Saraswati Samman, 2006 | Translated into English by Jatindra Kumar Nayak
A Time Elsewhere makes up a fantastic read on the state of affairs of a region which has mostly stayed dormant in fields where the neighbours and others have excelled to various peaks at different generations. It gives a typical window to a narrative spanning 50 years beginning from 1859. This span of history is important in many ways for Odisha, as we know today, where it gives an interesting view to its past and the formation of a society, language and identity stepping out from the shadows of neighbouring regions.
Many modern day youth and teenagers do not get much of an exposure to the historical beginnings of Odisha, largely because of unavailability of appropriate avenues and mostly because of their lack of interest. This book deals neither with ancient history nor medieval years of the land. But it captures a not-so-recent past which carries many insights that has shaped the modern Odia. It broadly revlolves around key areas of those days – Cuttack, Puri, Khurdha, Balasore and Mayurbhanj. There is enough detail to these places whose references still exist in modern day and that makes the relation (if you are from these cities/districts) with the reader more exciting. Having said that the book also constructs the lives and events happening in almost all other regions of Odisha too. It also gives a very detailed account of the famine that killed millions, wiped out villages of its inhabitants and rendered many more homeless; yet in Indian history it is largely undocumented.
The book may have taken the liberty to fictionalize certain persons but largely the narrative is in the form of reading a book of journal where key and important events have been documented with the month and year of its occurrence. After reading through midway one may also start to question some of the pre-conditioned notions that had been driven into our minds: that of associating torture and pain with the British rulers and of virtue and resistance for some of the litterateurs and icons of Odisha in that generation. At times it seems unclear if many of the great writers and important names that we have heard all through these years had really any inherent urge towards freedom from the colonial rule or the circumstances were as such that there was not any pressing need to get alarmed by our white rulers in those days. Sometimes the coherence, camaraderie and the affinity shown amongst the rulers and the ruled shaves off the traditional image of tyranny for the former etched in the modern reader’s mind. Well this ambiguity though is not to be seen as any kind of flaw in the book. It only further fuels ones desire to know more about the history of the natives of this land and the various administrative affects that brought intellectual, political and religious orders through generations of rulers, invaders and finally the colonial regime.
One will also lament (after reading) at the lack of intellectual curiosity among the natives even in those days that was further fueled by the lack of patronage from the able ones. This is brought forth clearly from the letters exchanged between two greats – Fakir Mohan and Radhanath Ray. Rich and influential Rajas or Zamindars did little to support or show patronage towards them to free them from their bindings where they could have contributed more to the richer heritage of the land. One can very well question why should one show patronage? Well just like scientific experiments, literary and artistic creations are not easily valued by society as relevant. It is when the able ones provide a minimum support the creator can go forward in search of the light at the end of the tunnel. Had Rabindranath Tagore not been from a zamindar family, one cannot wonder how would he have devoted himself into creating some of the most beautiful literary wonders of the world.
It is my privilege and pleasure that I have known Professor Jatindra Kumar Nayak. A Time Elsewhere has been lucidly translated and makes an interesting read for anyone who would like to learn a piece of Odisha’s not-so-distant past. It also somewhat reflects the state of general citizen across the country in those days if extrapolated. There is also a plan to choose various portions from the book and transform it into a period film. I can only hope that the film soon sees the light of the day. Thank you Susant Sir for introducing me to this book.
P.S. Unfortunately we learn little from history and this has only exponentially multiplied over the years. The intellectual hunger is not something that has to be satiated only after certain charter points gets accomplished. It is as much a need for the nourishment for mind and soul as the need of food for the stomach and body. The corrosion in the society’s thinking is thus widely evident with each passing generation. If one has not yet delved into the intoxication of art and artistry they can never value the worth of human mind.