I cannot always define what stories are. As a teaching assistant for a creative writing course, I should have some semblance of the definition, but I don’t think there’s one. And that’s what I told a student who asked for one.

But that prompted another question: “Do you think I should write critically?” I thought she was hinting at the stories that offer themselves up as bait for analysis (as almost every story that’s written these days, fictional or otherwise), but no. She was asking whether she could respond to a prompt demanding a fictional piece through an essay. Alternatively phrased, “Can I challenge your expectation?”

Anita Agnihotri’s Mahanadi: A Novel about a River – translated from the Bengali by Nivedita Sen – stirs what I expect from the novel as a form of literature. Agnihotri anthropomorphises the Mahanadi into a river that eavesdrops on the lives by which it flows. But the eavesdropper narrates like a storyteller who cannot tell what will seize the reader through 488 pages of prose.

Like a river in which water from multiple streams flows, the novel sweeps in and out of the lives of those in villages, towns and cities affected by the Mahanadi, through, among other things, a forced separation of friends, abandonment by a son, or a man who desires his dead friend’s wife.

Too much information

But Agnihotri’s intertwining of these stories unravels because each narrative combs through characters like a detective who refuses to miss a clue. She does not assume that her reader is perceptive. Instead, she analyses her writing for her reader, and reaffirms the impression that they draw from sentences which already tell you everything you need to know. While it may be comforting to recognise that you’re reading the story as the writer intended, the consistent spoonfeeding is frustrating.

“Among the Shitulias, you could count a handful who had got lease documents for their land. Which meant that after this, they would be able to build houses on private land lawfully. Nobody would say they were trespassers any more. They were waiting for when they could build their houses as part of the government plan. But how would they? Who would get their names passed in the village assemblies? After that, those names would have to be approved by the panchayat committees. Every year, thousands of people who had no patrons in politics got left behind like this.”

Sen’s translation helps self-identify a pattern in Agnihotri’s fiction: over-explanation that turns the form of the novel to something else, like churning cream until it changes to butter. But perhaps this excess of illustration speaks of the nature of the river as a narrator. It introduces customs like a travel guide trying to charm the tourist with the ways of communities unacknowledged in mainstream media. Like an outsider enchanted by the communities, the river is disjointed from the realities of the people it affects.

“In this locality, there was the custom of wearing a ring and amulet made of the cast-iron column or screw attached to the boat. Middle-class householders came and got these things made by the boatmen. These rings ostensibly helped you overcome difficult, impossible situations like old age or not being able to get a daughter married.”

What is history?

Fortunately, Agnihotri hosts a broad number of other characters in the novel. While each left a fleeting taste of helplessness in my mouth, Himirani and Malati’s story made me pause. The mahul flowers in their village swore in their friendship. But the construction of the Hirakud dam, and the protests that followed, tore them apart.

Kuber’s mother Himirani euphemises this “narrative of people’s heartbreak” through a story about birds whose trees drowned in water. Her policing of this “harsh truth” of history, and resistance in passing the experience to her child, illustrates the trauma of remembering. When Kuber grows older, Himirani asked him “to bring mahul sakhi over once for her to see.”

Agnihotri uses this arc to unravel the events that followed the development of the dam. But as you read it, you can’t identify the main character. Their stories bleed into one another, and the writer asserts that history does not belong to one person.

The novel questions the idea of history too. It asks, “was practising a historical awareness a matter only for the upper classes and highly educated people?”. In the Boudh district, villagers don’t care that it’s the centre of the practice of the Buddhist religion.

This example reflects a narrator close enough to recognise the villagers’ interactions with history, whether it’s theirs or not, but distant enough to recognise their ignorance. It is an educated person who asks this question. For the villagers, Buddha becomes a god, the Budharaja. They build their own history. Agnihotri’s prose, however, tackles this history as an essay, not as fiction.

“The statue of Buddha’s bust was their village deity. On Nabanna or Nuakhai, the day of the new crop, the paddy is offered at the temple abode of the gods. Today was such a Jhantanua or the new crop for Shiv. The rural arhar dal, which was known as kandul, had a new crop celebration too. So had the newly harvested moong. Even in the tenth century, did the worshippers or sculptors of Buddha’s image know how much the meaning of god would change in the hands of human beings?”

While one form may slip into the other, the writing in Mahanadi is not telling a story as much as it’s informing the reader of possible stories. Agnihotri beckons customs, traditions, and communities into the novel, but not as a storytelling tool, crumbling the fiction. I’ve never read the stories about the communities in Mahanadi. But if it is fiction, the exposition would congeal with the characters’ experiences, and I could have got this novel in a slimmer avatar.

Mahanadi: The Tale of a River, Anita Agnihotri, translated from the Bengali by Nivedita Sen, Niyogi Books.