Khan Market bookshop in Delhi, I decided to spend a whopping 800 rupees on the Orissa edition of The Beautiful India reference book series.
There is a different edition for each Indian state, approximately 350 pages, written in imperfect Indian English (albeit scholarly Indian English) in the style of a mid-twentieth century social science Ph.D. dissertation. In other words, it is the kind of book that would cure insomnia in a sloth; a very, very dry reading on the history, economy, language, culture, politics, demographics, industry, art and architecture of the state. But one of the few gems was the section on Oriya literature—specifically the names and themes and significance of prominent writers, novelists and poets—that set me off on the path of local literary adventure.
Within the otherwise drab pages of that textbook I discovered the name of Umesh Chandra Sarakar, whose 1888 story Padmamali is considered the first-ever novel written in Oriya. Fakir Mohan Senapti (1843-1918) is called the father of modern Oriya prose. In the late 19th century a literary movement called Satyabadi came along, known for its Oriyan nationalistic spirit. There were satirists and romantic poets and fiercely politicized short story writers. The famous brothers Mohanty, Gopinath and Kanhu Charan, wrote now-classic stories on themes of social consciousness and cultural battles with modernity during the post-partition era of early Indian nationhood.
I desperately wanted to read these works to understand the place where I’d be spending a year or more of my life.
By further chance, I stumbled upon a glorious website called Grassroots Books India, billed as the largest website of Oriya literature in translation (though it could equally call itself the only website of Oriya literature in translation). Here to my delight I found Padmamali and many of the works of Senapti and the Mohantys and other important Oriya writers, available in English translation, for download in PDF format—absolutely FREE!
Grassroots Books, a non-profit, aims to “open doors to India’s best writing — selected and translated by a distinguished group of writers and translators — by publishing and promoting these works on the web. We also serve as an advocacy organization for literature in translation, producing events that feature the work of Oriya writers and connecting these writers to the world at large.”
NB: Fellow Orissa-based VSO volunteer Sheila Ash has written a very informative introduction to and review of some Indian and Oriya lit on her blog, Ashramblings.