Snehaprava Das, the translator of Manoj Kumar Panda’s short story collection One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator, considers the translator’s role comparable to that of an artist. For, like a musician or an actor, a translator, too, interprets a work of art. One Thousand Days, then, is a collaboration between Panda’s profound meditations on human existence and Das’s interpretation.
Translated from Odia into English, the fourteen stories in the collection explore the plight of human beings, especially those on the margins, in a social system that justifies oppression based on the absurd hierarchies of class, caste, and gender. The contemporary relevance of these stories, therefore, cannot be understated.
Human nature, explained
The story titled “Kaniska” explores the bond between a physically disabled baby and a young baby-sitter brought to take care of him; the two characters become important pieces in each other’s lives. The story describes a fundamental quality inherent and intuitive in human nature. Panda writes:
“It is an ancient habit of man to fill up empty spaces; he has always been preoccupied with filling up empty wombs and empty tombs.”
The story “Filling in the Blanks” expands further on this, recognising that human beings fall short in the process of filling the blank spaces in their lives, and yet continue to play this game “without scruple, without shame”.
In the title story, a husband reflects on his married life as he decides to take his ailing wife off life-support; he highlights another aspect of human nature, the eagerness to play god. He says:
“Poor human being. How desperate to approach immortality…How ridiculously eager to play the role of god. Yet without power. And inescapably trapped by his own limitations.”
Why we are what we are
The stories place theses aspects of human nature within the perimeter of a social system that makes humans what they are. It is this system that constructs hierarchies and prescribes norms that trap people in a web of superstition, economic hardships, alienation, and despair.
The story “When the Gods Left” depicts this effectively. It presents the predicament of a man belonging to (what is deemed as) a “low” and “untouchable” caste. He carries the carcasses of animals and human beings and disposes of them. Speaking to his dead wife, he says:
“My old wife, you know we are untouchables. Our mortal remains will not find their way to the Ganga or the Godavari. They will go into the gutter…I will follow you soon and we will resume our jobs. You will sweep away dirt…and I will get rid of carcasses.”
The story provides an ironic commentary on the norms of the so-called “upper” Brahmin castes. It describes how a cow is brought home with many rituals and is seen as holy, but as soon as it dies, the many gods that resided in her body seem to leave instantly for heaven.
In the Translator’s Note to the collection, Das writes that Panda’s stories present “a melancholic picture of man on an ever-expanding canvas of pain and despair…as he is pitted against a system that is destined to wipe out his very existence.”
The final story in the collection, “The Alphabet Garden”, poetically describes the conceiving of a child in the womb. What begins as a hopeful beating of the heart ends with violation of dignity and death. The parting words of the story are “You are shanti, shanti, shanti”, which remind one of the last line of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.
There is hope still
In the face of the existential crisis experienced by the characters in the stories, the collection also presents a faint but consistent sense of hope. The characters are connected through their dreams. The motif is introduced in the story “When the Gods Left”, where the protagonist is described as having two passions: sleeping and dreaming. The bond between him and his wife is described in these words:
“They smiled at each other’s dreams, at each other’s speech and silences.”
The motif is central to the story “The Dreamer’s Tale” where the protagonist conjures up a red horse in his dream and pursues the desire to own it in reality. A note of caution is rung in the tale as Panda distinguishes between pursuing one’s dreams and pursuing illusions; the latter, as the story depicts, can only lead to despair.
One Thousand Days is a collection of sometimes realist, sometimes bizarre, and always eclectic stories that depict human nature at its rawest, exploring the causes of crises in people’s lives, and offering a little hope here and there in the face of despair.
One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator: Stories, Manoj Kumar Panda, translated from the Odiya by Snehaprava Das, Speaking Tiger.
Nidhi Mahajan is a postgraduate student of English Literature at the University of Delhi.