The British occupation of Orissa took place in 1803. Militarily it was not at. All an exciting event. The invading army marching into Orissa from the south met little resistance. In fact, it had no difficulty in finding collaborators on the way. A local chieftain, whose little kingdom lay on the route taken by the British army did not come forward to help it only because he had been told that Englishmen had faces like those of pigs, and that they had such large ears that they slept on one ear and covered themselves with the other to keep warm on cold nights. In any case, the army did not need collaborators since the Marathas, then ruling Orissa, simply fled. Fourteen years later, resistance against British rule was mobilized by the dispossessed chieftains, but their rebellion was swiftly crushed. With the old military aristocracy of Orissa thus subdued and humbled, the British now set about colonizing an exhausted, defeated society.
A Time Elsewhere tells the story of the transformation of a traditional society under the impact of colonial rule. This story has of course been told time and again in the travelogues, memoirs, reports and letters written by the colonizers themselves. But in the master narratives constructed by all these, the colonized is rarely allowed to speak for himself; to have a voice. He is allowed only a bit part in the drama of colonial encounter. A Time Elsewhere seeks to construct an alternative narrative in which the colonized is not content to be only written about; he is seen as shaping his own destiny. The book does not only deal with the collapse of an old order; it dramatizes the emergence of a new order out of the debris of the old.
The novel begins, appropriately enough, with the events leading up to the disastrous famine of 1866. In this famine nearly a third of the entire population of Orissa perished, while a callous colonial bureaucracy steeped in the utilitarian doctrines of J.S. Mill, refused to act or intervene. The dogmatism of the colonizer matched the fatalism of the colonized, some of whom chose to die by the wayside rather than lose their caste by going to a hospital run by the British. The 1866 famine exposed the vulnerability of a traditional social order placed under colonial rule. The contact between a militarily and technologically superior society and a community rooted in age old custom proved disastrous for the latter. For its survival, the traditional social order of Orissa had to adapt painfully to the harsh reality of colonial rule, and to forge new techniques of survival and resistance. A newly emergent Oriya intelligentsia, themselves a product of the education system introduced by the colonial rulers, now took it upon themselves to apply these new techniques. It is not without significance that in the famine year the first printed Oriya weekly the Utkal Dipika (Lamp of Orissa) was launched by Gourishankar Ray who served as a clerk in the commissioners office at Cuttack. What the magazine offered to the devitalized Oriya society in 1866 was the possibility of cultural resistance to British rule.
If the first half of A Time Elsewhere is dominated by accounts of the dismal fate of decadent feudal lords and the deeds of colonial bureaucrats, in the second half the narrator celebrates the achievements of the emergent Oriya intelligentsia, consisting of schoolteachers, minor government officials and lawyers. Refusing to be relegated to the margins of the colonizer is master narrative, they seek to step into the role of narrators themselves. Writing, therefore, assumes a special place in the lives of the Oriya intelligentsia in the nineteenth century Fakir Mohan Senapati translates the Ramayan in order to overcome a crisis in his personal life. Pandit Harihar Das translates Horner into Sanskrit. Radhanath Ray writes poems celebrating localities and landscapes of Orissa. Pyari Mohan Acharya, expelled from school for defying British authorities, writes a history of Orissa.
But a price had to be paid for such an impressive achievement. In contesting the hegemony of the colonizer, they could not but interrogate some of the central assumptions underpinning their own society. While resisting the British, they could not at the same time avoid becoming collaborators. The pressure of the dialectic of collaboration and resistance proved too much for several members of the Oriya intelligentsia. Caught between conflicting value systems many of them experienced an acute crisis of identity. It is not to be wondered at, then, that Pandit Harihar Das loses his mind, Fakir Mohan descends into alcoholism for a time, Madhusudan Das embraces Christianity and Madhsudan Rao and Biswanath Kar reject the caste system and become Brahmo Samajis. Contact with the culture of the colonizer makes them aware of their individuality and leads them to question, and sometimes even reject, established customs, rituals and conventions. It is significant that A Time Elsewhere opens with the worries of a dying king without a kingdom about problems of dynastic succession and ends forty-eight years later, with Radhanath Ray a self-made man and an established poet, experiencing a profound crisis of conscience and taking responsibility for his actions. No other conclusion could be more fitting for a narrative dealing with the decay of an old order and the emergence of a new one under the impact of colonial rule.
Constructing a counter discourse which gives a voice to the colonized is, however, only one of the achievements of A Time Elsewhere. The brilliant narrative strategies the author employs in writing the social and cultural history of Orissa in the latter half of the nineteenth century accounts for much of our pleasure in reading the book, Unconfined by the conventions governing the writing of scholarly history or fictionalized biography the narrative shifts its focus constantly so that no single person or event dominates the centerstage, A picture of Orissa changing rapidly under alien rule is pieced together from fragments of biography, What gives coherence to this kaleidoscopic picture of the past and serves to unify the narrative is a vision of decay followed by regeneration.
The book is everywhere enlivened by flashes of wit and robust humour, The colonial encounter dramatized here is sometimes tragic, often funny but never dull, We are told how Sir Cecil Beadon, the lieutenant governor, looked like a white-faced monkey to the boy-king of Puri, who is later tried for murder by a judge whom people took to be Charles Dickens’s son because of his surname, The Oriya astronomer, Pathani Samanta, washes his hands after the white commissioner shakes him by the hand, And, while a controversy rages over British plans to take over the management of the jagannath temple, people in the temple town seriously debate whether it is right to kill a flock of vicious monkeys who make life hell for them.
In translating this book I have benefited immensely from the advice and suggestions of the author, Dr J.P Das, I am deeply indebted to my friend Kamalakant Mohapatra for his encouragement and support, I express my sincere thanks to Loknath Panda for word processing the manuscript, I thank the Sikshasandhan team for their cooperation, I feel sincerely grateful to Basant Kumar Pal, who has painstakingly proofread the translation.
Back of the Book
[J.P. DAS IS] THE QUINTESSENTIAL RACONTEUR WITH AN INSTINCTIVE MASTERY OF FORM.
In A Time Elsewhere, fiction and history come together in a sweeping narrative spanning fifty years to create a minutely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century Orissa.
‘The novel revolves around the fortunes of the ruling family of Puri. It traces Divyasingh Dev’s career as he inherits the throne, becomes a debauch and, ultimately, a murderer who is banished to the Andaman Islands for life. As Divyasingh spirals out of control, his mother Suryamani, the Rani of Puri, emerges from behind her veil as the real ruler, shrewdly and gracefully negotiating the pressures brought to bear by the Empire. The book is also an engaging portrayal of the great intellectual and cultural ferment that marked the clash of the east and the west as figures from Oriya history who played crucial roles in culture and politics during that tumultuous time are brought to life. Eakir Mohan Senapati and Radhanath Ray, educationists I and writers, lead the charge against the hegemony of the English and Bengali languages; Gourishankar Ray, who helped set up the first Oriya printing press, publishes the Utktil Dipika, a periodical which quickly becomes the conscience keeper - for Orissa; and Pyari Mohan Acharya, expelled from school for defying the British authorities, writes Orissa itihas, ‘a history of Orissa.
Lucidly translated from the original Oriya best-seller Desh Kaul Parra, A Time Elsewhere is a riveting account of a half century in the life of a people. It will fascinate both the student of history and the general reader.
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