Battles of Our Own intertwines several different kinds of politics and power imbalances: Identity politics (endlessly rehashed by the long-suffering Pradyumna), party politics (tirelessly stoked and navigated by Harishankar and Co., all of whom seem to be trying to use each other to their own ends with varying degrees of success), family politics (Pradyumna borrows money from his uncle; his uncle is generous but with the expectation that Pradyumna will be obligated to marry his daughter, Runu).
However, Pradyumna and Runu both have secret, transgressive partners – the lower-caste Minakshi and the Christian Peter, respectively, neither of whom has much of a presence on the pages, which is a pity. Pradyumna gets bafflingly pursued by Runu’s younger sister Jhunu, and it is unclear how this wet blanket of a man is so much in demand!
The characters all have a habit of launching into monologues and, truth be told, the narration too sometimes lends itself a bit to the temptation to skim, but this is more of a minor quibble than anything else. Overall the writing is largely sparse – the author has little priority for things like pretty sentences. It devotes the lion’s share of the story itself to the aforementioned themes where character arcs and romanticisation are only secondary.
A feminist soapbox
Each character and their lines, actions, and backstory represents a certain time of political entity and caters to a particular theme. Pradyumna (the passive, privileged outsider who does not contribute much to dismantling anything), Peter and Minakshi (pawns), and Runu and Jhunu (slightly more active pawns), all of whom represent the conflicts of religion, caste, gender, or desire. It would have been interesting if these characters had been slightly more complex.
I was a bit disappointed that there was not one character who was important to the plot, especially a woman. It’s not that the book doesn’t talk about feminism; there’s Mr Deshmukh’s mother who raised her voice against oppressive patriarchal norms and her son to be an educated man, but we only learn about her briefly while Mr Deshmukh is reminiscing about the past.
Runu, Jhunu, and Minakshi only exist to be married, to be impossible to marry, or as an obstacle to marriage. The novel ends up being a feminist soapbox due to the way it is executed, which was rather telling. The cynic in me wants to make a sweeping statement about leftist men, but I am restraining her because I do not believe in sweeping statements.
Conundrums of politics and capitalism
But perhaps I’m being unfair. A major part of the novel is executed primarily through the eyes of two characters, Pradyumna and Harishankar. Harishankar is the one who has a real impact on the plot, but Pradyumna and he are polar opposites – Harishankar tries and tries despite the odds; Pradyumna cries.
Reader, I’m warning you right now that Pradyumna is, objectively, annoying – this is by design, as I have already mentioned. We have all known a Pradyumna. I am pretty sure I have been Pradyumna. Something about his absolute underdog-ness, at least at the start of the novel, drew me a little bit. But he is really, really not a dynamic character.
Everyone in the cast has, and uses, more agency than him. Even poor Minakshi, in the few lines of dialogue she is granted, expresses real anger and frustration, both with the system and with people like him who perpetuate it. But Pradyumna, like the plastic bag of the Katy Perry song, simply gets buffeted around by the winds of the world. All he seems to do is mourn and…be a Brahmin, I guess.
The real hero of the novel is Harishankar, who got kicked out of his old union and tried to start a new, rival union. But the old union will not take this lying down. Poor Pradyumna’s main contribution here is to get decked in the face in an altercation. He seems to me a caricature of, shall we say, a certain kind of political ally.
If you zoom out, Battles of Our Own is a novel about the politics of unionising (and the ways they get complicated by people re-unionising). But the bird’s eye view becomes apparent only after a few chapters, since the story itself is told at a much intimate scale.
I would definitely recommend Battles of Our Own to readers with a strong interest in politics and existential crises. The introduction tells us that it was the author’s desire that the book be translated to English, and I can see why – it is very relevant to our current stage of capitalism and might be worth reading for that alone.
Battles of our Own, Jagadish Mohanty, translated from the Odia by Himansu S Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre, Penguin Modern Classics.