Confronting realities

Freedom’s Ransom traces the orbits of two distant worlds, India and Bharat, as they weave their different ways and finally overlap.

Freedom’s Ransom, Prafulla Roy, translated by John W. Hood, IndiaInk/ Roli Books, p.313 pages, Rs. 295.

Chhath, the holiest of the Hindu festivals celebrated in Bihar, climaxes with the worship of the rising sun on the fourth day of rituals. Though the post-Diwali observance is the more popular, another Chhath is marked just ahead of the onset of summer, in the month of Chaitra. In common with agrarian societies across the world, the festival pays obeisance to the sun for its munificence and magnificence.

Significantly, there is no mention of Chhath in Prafulla Roy’s Freedom’s Ransom (originally published in Bengali as Akasher Niche Manush, literally the People Under the Sky), though the action takes place in the height of summer. One of the reasons could be the fact that the sun that beats down on the human drama played across the fields of undivided Bihar is anything but merciful or generous. It is a cruel, unrelenting force of nature, as demanding and as unbending as any of the powers that rule the land.

The physical breadth of Roy’s novel is limited. At one point, one of his protagonists defines his world thus: “To the north was Manpatthal taluk, to the west was the Bijuri railway station, to the east was Hanthiagunj and to the south was Naosheraganj.” Within these boundaries lies the even smaller fiefdom of Raghunath Singh, archetypal old-school landlord who must now look to electoral politics for validation and protection of his heritage. And caught in vicious circles within that fiefdom are Raghunath’s bonded labourers, India’s most wretched.

Distanced world

Roy’s novel is curiously undated, a fact that works both for and against its narrative. India is independent, we gather from the mention of the five-year plans and the excitement over elections. For a narrower time-frame, we have to look to the introduction by translator John W. Hood, who says the novel is “set at the end of the third quarter of the twentieth century”. But since there are few identifiable trappings of the early-70s in the book, the timelessness works as a distancing factor as well: The modern reader would be hard pressed to regard the story as a reflection of the recent past, let alone anything more contemporary.

That is rather ironical, for, the purpose of the translation is surely to point to the existence of the land called Bharat beneath the glitter of the nation called India. As Roy states again and again in the book, in this tract of Bihar — or in any part of invisible India — there is no law but the landlord’s, no democracy but of the goons, no rights but of the rich. That’s the way it has always been; that’s the way it will always be.

Yet, when Dharma, one of Roy’s protagonists, lets it slip to the reader that he is collecting the two thousand rupees that will buy freedom from bondage for his and his betrothed’s families, a knot of tension builds up. It is a fight so uneven, so unfairly loaded, that you know the outcome even before the first salvo has been fired.

As Dharma collects his ammunition in secret, Raghunath Singh, his owner, prepares to fight a very public battle: that of the vote. While Dharma works overtime, trapping birds in the forest to feed the ever-hungry contractors building the other India’s roads and bridges, Raghunath plots and plans and manipulates his chances of victory. This, too, is a result one can predict long before the first vote has been cast.

Distant as the two worlds are, their orbits overlap the day Raghunath Singh appreciates that each of his bonded labourers — overlooked, ill-treated and dehumanised for generations — too, is a vote. Apparently overnight, he morphs from master to mendicant: Who is to know that the sudden humility comes with a catch?

No place for sentimentality

Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2003 for his novel Krantikal, Roy’s evenhanded story-telling is a lesson in objectivity. In depicting a relationship as skewed as the landlord-labourer one, it would have been easy to use broad brushstrokes in black and white. Roy resists the temptation — though he makes no secret of where his sympathies lie — but he respects the history that has shaped these people. Freedom’s Ransom is a compelling bit of story-telling not because of the suspense or the shock value of its pages, but because it looks reality unwaveringly in the eye. Sentimentalism or wishful-thinking does not have a place here: At the end of the novel, when Dharma raises his voice against Raghunath Singh, it has all the impact of a sledgehammer because it’s entirely plausible.

A novel that is so deeply rooted in the author’s first-hand experiences always runs the risk of losing something in translation and, in this case, it is perhaps the ease and immediacy of the vernacular. Hood is an Australian scholar who now spends six months a year in Kolkata; he has written extensively on Bengali art, cinema and has books on Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta to his credit. (Interestingly, Roy himself has been adapted extensively for the big screen.) But this book, somehow, leaves one with the idea that a second, less-literal reworking of the text would have erased some of the irritating Bengali-isms (the multiple references to “fourteen generations” of lineage, for instance) and made for a smoother read.

(Source: The Hindu)

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