Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
Sumanyu Satpathy (ed. and trans.)

The Voyage Out:
Contemporary Oriya Short Stories by Women

Bhubaneswar: Rupantar, 2007
ISBN: 978-81-904197-0-3; 132 pp.; Price: Rs. 195

reviewed by Subhash Chandra

  1. Bhasha literatures (regional language literatures) are caught up in a paradoxical situation. They are aesthetically rich, generate reliable knowledges about Indian culture and are authentic representations of complex experiential reality. They are known to constitute the core of Indian culture. And yet they are considered insignificant and have been relegated to the margins of the canon. It is Indian literature in English, which has been considered India's most valuable contribution to the world; it rules the roost in terms of visibility, reach, and fat royalties and is perceived as having literary merit. This, despite the fact that Indo-Anglian writers are from metropolitan centers, write about concerns of the urban elite or middle class whereas, to use a cliché, India lives in its villages. As for addressivity, most of these writers package India, quite often its seamy side, for the Western reader, who wants to 'do' India by proxy. Of course, they forcefully deny the allegation of marketing India to the West.
  2. Another category of writers that adds to the corpus of Indian writing in English is the diasporic writers whose works are generally personal-angst-centric and quite often misrepresent India and its culture either by representing India, frozen in a time warp, that is, India as it was at the time of their departure, or by romanticising India through an overpowering sense of nostalgia—outside literature Indian diaspora create 'little Indias' (or Indian ghettoes). And yet it is the literature in English, as mentioned earlier, which holds the centre stage, is the subject of active academic/critical discussions and finds publishers comparatively more easily.
  3. India lives and breathes in the regional language literatures, and translation is the means, by which these important texts are disseminated across boundaries within and outside the country. Therefore, any work of translation from a regional language performs a dual function: visibilising the regional literature and consolidating nationhood.
  4. The Voyage Out: Contemporary Oriya Short Stories by Women, a translation of Oriya stories by women, in this sense is a valuable addition to the body of translated works. The anthology also explodes a pernicious myth, born out of patriarchal strategies to erase/degrade women's literatures, that there have been no Oriya women literary writers. Of course, there was a comparative dearth of women's writings in the 1970s, but in the later decades, several women writers of note, such as, Kuntala Kumari Sabat, Sarala Devi, Basant Kumari, Nandini Satpathy, Binapani Mohanty, Pratibha Ray, Yasodhara Mishra and Sarojini Sahoo, to name only a few of the most prominent writers, had already published their stories in some of the leading magazines in Orissa (p. 7).
  5. And yet, as Sumanyu Satpathy, notes their works were not anthologised. For example, in the anthology edited by Pathani Patnaik,[1] of the twenty-one stories, only two were by women. Similarly the 'Puja Special' number of Samabesha, a standard magazine, carried only three stories and two poems by women writers.[2] Satpathy's anthology recuperates Oriya women's literature, to demonstrate the tradition of Oriya women's writings, something, feminists in the West assiduously did in the sixties and later.
  6. Ever since 'personal is political' came to be used as an empowering strategy by feminists, the location of the writer/translator in gender, caste, class became important. Can one trust a male translator to transcend his ingrained gender biases/subjectivity while translating writings by women? In the postmodern context objectivity is suspect, all writing is discourse, and therefore ideological.
  7. However, the translator and editor of The Voyage Out is conscious of this pitfall and has tried to address it to the extent that it is possible. Raising the issue in his Introduction he states:

      What happens when a man translates these stories by women? It is possible that the words he chooses are not true to the woman's feelings. As a male translator myself, I am aware of this danger, one reason why I got the first drafts of some of the sensitive stories done by two women, Sushma Satpathy and Aparna Satpathy. I have made changes mostly in terms of syntax and readability, and retained the more crucial expressions. I have also taken care to consult them as and when I had any doubts about my own translations. Similarly, I consulted some of the authors such as Yasodhara, Sarojini and Supriya when they were available and willing to go through the translations (pp. 14–15).

  8. As for the translation per se, there is much to be desired. It has long been accepted that translation is transcreation, that is, the translation is not a literal rendering of the original text, but is a capturing of the spirit or the mood in the target language. Each language has its own idiom and syntax, and a literal translation would result in infelicities/distortions, besides attracting attention to itself, which would adversely impact on the readability. This is what seems to be happening largely in The Voyage Out. Some of the examples of the infelicitous or awkward sentences are:

      She felt as if she was drowned in a huge wave of sorrow (p.26).

      …you have no sense, Sadhu (p. 28).

      Where is the dearth of evidence? (p. 59)

      There was so much of breath beyond her throat that her eyes were burning (p. 61).

    There are several other instances of this type.
  9. The MS has not been properly copyedited, as many grammatical errors have crept in. To wit: '…he was out since morning' (p. 55), '…as if until that day Ritu was studying on her small writing desk' (p. 58) and several others. Also the anthology is dotted with printing errors such as, '… was quite natural ate her age' (p. 43), '…Subha have amidst such plentitude'(p. 49), 'Like the fellows Indians' (p. 72) and many others, which mar the pleasure of reading.
  10. A crucial question that needs to be discussed when considering any writing by women, as also in relation to The Voyage Out, is whether it subverts the metanarrative of gender, whether it leads to consciousness raising, if it is not representing empowered women in the stories. For this purpose, the stories in the anthology can be grouped in three categories: (i) feminist stories (ii) anti-woman stories (iii) those stories, which do not deal with women's issues.
  11. Whether by accident or design—perhaps by design—the anthology is encompassed between two radically feminist stories. The first story, which is short and crisp, 'Kanaka's Husband' by Bina Devi is about a woman, who exercises her choice. It does not matter that she chooses motherhood. What is important is that she refuses the marriage proposal of one of the richest men, because she does not want to abort the child. She wants to marry a man who would be a father to her child, and get him a dignified life in society and therefore she chooses to marry a poor rikshaw-puller[3] who barely earns enough for daily meals. She has lost her beauty, health and luxury, but she comes across as an empowered woman who holds her own. The last story, 'The Tale of a Rainy Night' by Hiranmayee Mishra, is about a lesbian who is a famous writer. Having lost her breasts to cancer, she leads the life of a lesbian. Of course, she reveals her grief to Subarna, a journalist who has come to interview her. But she maintains her dignity, does not want pity and tells the journalist to forget the lesbian encounter of the previous night and not to see her again. It is highly creditable for a woman writer to have written a lesbian story in a regional language, Oriya—the readership of regional language literatures is often conservative.
  12. The collection also contains another lesbian story, 'Behind the Scene' by Sarojini Sahoo, with two happy, ebullient, fun-loving women, who are shown entangled both physically (they sleep in each other's arms) and emotionally. What is noteworthy is that the story is told from the point of a woman, Pooja, who is traveling with her husband, Upmanyu, and who sees the pristine joy of the two women who are traveling in the same section of the reserved compartment. The lesbian joy initiates self reflection in Pooja and is used as a textual strategy to inferiorise heterosexuality. Looking back, Pooja finds her own life empty, confused, and even absurd; her comfortable marital position notwithstanding. The metanarratives of heterosexualaity and patriarchy, of which heterosexuality is a necessary component, are subverted. Not only that, the story celebrates lesbian sexuality. To wit: 'Pooja noticed that the two women, locked in an embrace, were fast asleep. They looked like two flowers in a single stalk' (italics mine) (p. 80). And the conclusion clearly points to the superiority of lesbian bonding, when Pooja muses 'Life was strange, Pooja thought. The real magician was she who knew how to live' (italics mine) (p. 83). 'Behind the Scene' is reminiscent of Vijaydan Detha's story 'Off the Beaten Track' which, too is celebratory of lesbian bonding, and talks about two lesbians Beeja and Teeja, who are represented as happy, frolicking, nature's children, one with the rhythm of nature and swirling clouds.[4]
  13. I would like to talk about two more stories, which would be favourites of feminists, as they create women who are unfazed by the male power, and who tackle the problems that confront them without male support. In 'A Mother from Kalahandi,' by Gayatri Sharaf, Amrita is not shattered by her husband's Swapnesh's sexual escapades. Instead, she sends back the Adivasi girl, who her husband had bought for his extra-marital sexual gratification, to her village, and ensures that her son is brought up properly, unmindful of Swapnesh's reaction. The other story that needs to be discussed is 'The Heroine,' by Pushpa Mohanty, whose protagonist, Karna, is truly a heroine, inasmuch as, she gives it back, to the rake, Neel Lohit, who is obscenely rich, powerful and who takes a new woman to his bed every night. 'The women of this city [Bhubaneswar] could give anything, their modesty, virgin bodies, just anything, for this man. Even married women would stray from their oath of chastity and fall prey to his lust' (p. 92). Such was the attraction of this man!
  14. Karna visits him, spends time with him, and is entertained by him with drinks and seductive talk. But at the end, without, allowing him to come close to her, she leaves money on the bed, telling him that that is his fee for entertaining her. The binary is reversed: the male is turned into a prostitute, and a figure of contempt. But there is a telling irony built into the story: Karna was the girl, whom he had rejected when the marriage proposal came to him; and he had rejected her without meeting her.
  15. However, there are some anti-woman stories in the anthology: the title 'Bonsai' in Yashodhara Mishra's story, is the metaphor for the protagonist, Sushama, a woman who has remained a 'bonsai'—stunted—and not grown in stature or self esteem, and all she can do is fret and feel frustrated with the debilitating married life she is leading. 'Family Fortunes' by Shakuntala Panda, is a negative representation of woman and reinforces the patriarchal discourse of woman being responsible for looking after the family and the children. Maya is condemned for not being a good wife, and a responsible mother; in fact, she is portrayed as a cruel mother, instrumental in their son's death. Binapani Mohanty's 'The Open Window' shows a woman trying to assert herself, who walks out of marriage to lead a free life with her lover. But the new context is worse. She is turned into a virtual prisoner by her lover. So, she walks back into the same old family, she had left behind.
  16. The third category of stories, deals with communal harmony, ('The Inner Voice'), romance that never happens, ('Ketaki's Grove'), the other face of terrorists, who are as human as anyone else, ('Moonrise') and the betrayal of a woman by her close friend who seduces her husband into having a fling with her to get a job for her unemployed brother ('The Friend'). Though it is no longer the fashion in literary criticism to talk of the literary qualities of literature, I would like to point out that some of the stories lack depth, complexity and nuanced representation of characters and issues.
  17. One must talk about the publication scenario of regional language literatures or their translations in India. The dynamics of publishing in the final analysis turns out to be profit and loss. The publishers are in it for money. These books seldom offer that. There are few publishers interested in bringing out books in Bhasha literatures or translations from regional language literatures and for this reason not many are enthusiastic about translating these works. The few publishers and translators who take up the translation and publishing of works from regional languages are the ones who do it for the love of the language or their region. It is the zeal of service that motivates them to take up such projects.
  18. In the light of this, the translator, Sumanyu Satpathy, and the publishers Rupantar, deserve compliments for making this anthology happen, notwithstanding the limitations from which it suffers. Additionally, women's writings value lies in its ability to engage with the dominant forces of patriarchy and heterosexuality, and The Voyage Out undoubtedly generates feminist discourse in India—a country, where not much feminist writing by women exists.
  19. A word about the cover of the book, which is commendable for its thematic relevance, visual appeal and aesthetic richness. It has a painting by Jamini Roy—a celebrated Indian painter—which is suggestively ambiguous. The three women in the painting signify multiple meanings: they indicate traditional culture through the bowls of (possibly) rice they are carrying and yet they do not look confined. They are shown standing or perhaps, poised for walking into the freedom of open space, poised for the Voyage Out.


    [1] Pathani Patnaik, Oriya Galpamala, New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1973.

    [2] Samabesha, Puja Special Number (published on the occasion of Durga Puja), 333rd issue, 1986.

    [3] A rikshaw is a manually-pulled, wheeled carrier, which is used by the poor people to earn their meager livelihood.

    [4] Vijaydan Detha, 'Off the Beaten Track,' in The Dilemma and Other Stories, ed. Madhu Kishwar and trans (from Hindi) Ruth Vanita, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997, pp: 3–35.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 2 November 2009 0934

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.