In the middle of the fifteenth century, Sarala Das, an apparently unlettered but divinely blessed (his own stout claim, so who are we to dispute it?) scribe set out to render the Mahabharata into Odia (previously spelled Oriya; follows from Orissa now being spelled Odisha; a matter of reclaiming one’s identity, yes?), which until then was available only in Sanskrit, and while pegging away at it, went overboard and invented a whole slew of stories, episodes, incidents, weaving them all into the fabric of the grand Indian epic.

Among others, he visualised a fantastic being having the body parts of nine animals: the navagunjara, the form in which Lord Krishna apparently manifested himself to his favourite Pandava, Arjuna, when the poor fellow was sunk in deep despair.With the head of a rooster, neck of a peacock, waist of a lion, hump of a bull, tail of a snake, a leg each of an elephant, tiger and deer, and a human hand holding out a lotus, the mysterious creature has come to be interpreted in more ways than one.

The one that appeals most is that it is a symbolic representation of the nine basic human emotions as defined in the Indian literary tradition: shringar (love, beauty), hasya (laughter, humour), adbhut (wonder, amazement), raudra (anger, resentment), shanta (calmness, tranquility), veera (courage, fearlessness), bhayanaka (fear, trepidation), karuna (compassion, pity) and, finally, vibhatsa (disgust, repulsion).

In our way, we too have tried to fashion a navagunjara of sorts out of the vast riches of the modern Odia short story while putting together this anthology.

But instead of keeping it confined to nine parts, we have let it run to twenty-four, the last two being historically quite significant – the very first modern story to appear in the language (which, incidentally, was written by none other than the maestro, Fakir Mohan Senapati, considered the father of modern Odia prose) and the first modern story by a woman writer.

The emergence of the new medium of modern short stories in the different Indian languages goes back to the late nineteenth century, roughly to the same point of time, give or take a decade or, at a pinch, two. It owed its inspiration to: one, the winds of a renaissance blowing over a colonised country that stimulated the creative spirit; two, the influence of the West, where short fiction had made significant strides since the middle of the nineteenth century; three, the felt necessity of reaching out to a larger audience in a way it would better understand; and, four, the growing realisation that the complicated truths underlying the mind-boggling human predicament were better purveyed in prose, rather than in poetry.

Like in the other Indian languages, the modern period of Odia literature was a product of the colonial encounter. Until then, poetry dominated and what little prose existed was in the form of myths, legends, tales, fables, parables, anecdotes, sketches and episodes. (There had been sporadic prose writing in the past: notably, Rudra Sudhanidhi in the seventeenth century and Chatura Binoda by Brajanath Badajena in the eighteenth.) The short story in the modern sense, focusing on only one incident, a single setting, a limited number of characters, and covering a short period of time did not exist.

As a genre, therefore, the modern Odia short story is only a hundred and twenty years old and counting.

But one hundred and twenty is a mythic (and magical) number in Indian lore. Anyone, or anything, existing for one hundred and twenty years is considered to have lived a full and purposeful life in the Kaliyug. A decent length of time in which there has been every opportunity to fully express all that has been experienced in life: joy and sorrow, happiness and bitterness, success and failure, hope, love, lust, despair and death (of others), mundanity and spirituality, and so on. The same seems true of the genre under scrutiny.

The genre germinated in 1898, with the publication of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s “Rebati”. (Included in this anthology in the Appendix, not only because it has the honour and distinction of being the first Odia modern story, but because it continues to be read and discussed, admired and anthologised to the present day.The first century of the story was celebrated in 1998 with several celebrated writers of the day reimagining, re-imaging and reworking the story; there was even an anthology of these stories trying to bottle old wine in new containers, appropriately named Rebati Rebati, to commemorate the occasion.)

No other first modern short story in any other major Indian language is quite as fêted and celebrated as this. And what’s more significant, “Rebati” bears no signs of a tentative beginning, or fumbling for effect in the new medium. It has, besides, all the quintessential features of Senapati’s oeuvre: energetic and robust use of colloquial language, humour, lack of heavy-handed didacticism and value judgement.

For a first story, “Rebati” is a haunting portrayal of a young girl’s burning desire for education – almost like aspiring for the moon, in those days – and the price she pays. Of course, the misfortunes that befall the family are not as causally related as the grandmother of the unlucky girl would have us believe. It has come to stand for a harrowing tale of love, loss, and death in the time of cholera in a nineteenth-century Indian village. (Readers and critics have never ceased wondering why, when dealing with a subject dear to his heart, Senapati laid out such a grim scenario: the eponymous heroine, her parents, the young man she falls in love with and who reciprocates her feelings, her carping grandmother who chants curses like mantras – all perish.)

Literary historians have pointed out that Fakir Mohan Senapati was probably the first Indian writer to write a short story in the modern sense of the term with his “Lachhamania”, published in 1868. Sadly, this story, which appeared in a literary journal of the day, remains lost to posterity. (Doubtless, there will be a re-evaluation of the genre of Indian short story, when, if ever, it surfaces.)

In its day, “Rebati” inspired several fictional forays into the problematic realm of women’s education in all its ramifications, including Reba Ray’s “The Sanyasi”, which has the distinction of being the first modern short story by a woman writer (included here in the Appendix precisely for that very significant reason). Published in 1899 in the pages of Utkal Sahitya, the same literary journal in which “Rebati” first appeared, Ray’s story may seem only marginally less grim. Instead of killing off all the characters as Senapati did, Ray kills only the girl but exiles her husband to sanyasihood.

Senapati also inspired a whole host of Odia writers into trying their hands at short fiction, which, thanks to the burgeoning proliferation of literary monthlies and bi-monthlies, received a huge fillip. The monthly journals encouraged short stories not only because of constraints of space but also as a way of introducing variety into their content.

Senapati’s stories and novels marked the emergence of a new literary form out of a long tradition of folklore and orality. The world of swooning princesses and swash-buckling princes living in enchanted castles gave way to an active engagement with the problems and preoccupations of a prosaic everyday world peopled with ordinary beings. The expansive and digressive oral narration of marvellous incidents by a garrulous, avuncular narrator was soon displaced by an authorial presence controlling the economy of the narrative and addressing a literate reading public.

The Odia short story has come a long way since “Rebati”. It has provided generations of writers with a ground for restless experimentation with techniques of narration.

At a rough count, there are over one hundred thousand stories scattered in anthologies, collections and magazines. The short story has never lacked a fascinated and enthusiastic readership.This may be due to the fact that it has remained rooted in tradition while seeking to transform it. It has absorbed alien influences without becoming alienated from its milieu.

The social world which framed the background for Fakir Mohan Senapati’s stories has since been transformed. Senapati sought to dramatise the transition from orality to literacy, from the country to the town and the shift from a communitarian way of life to a more individualistic mode of living. The trauma associated with the break-up of a traditional social order gave his stories their poignancy and continued to shape the vision of a large number of his successors.

But the pace of change has accelerated since India’s independence and the social world of the Odia short-story writer has fragmented under new and irreversible pressures. Modern Odia short stories are not so much preoccupied with articulating nostalgia for a lost order as with giving voice to defining the anxiety of coping with a rapidly changing world, which often appears quite hostile and incomprehensible. In the process the form of the Odia short story has had to be adapted to accommodate the new and unsettling experiences of change.

Senapati’s contemporaries were not as technically accomplished as he was and have long dropped out of sight. They not only lacked the maestro’s extraordinary energy and narrative power, but his dexterous use of the earthy vernacular too.

It is impossible to convey the richness and variety of a century-old tradition of short-story writing within the compass of a single anthology, let alone select the greatest stories ever told. What we have attempted here is to bring together a handful of representative stories which, we hope, will give the reader not only an idea of the evolution of the form in Odisha, but also its variety and fecundity.

Not all of them are shining examples of flawless craftsmanship, but their hold on the Odia mind has not lessened. No wonder most of these find their unerring ways into vernacular anthologies and textbooks. Having been together for over a quarter century at the business of translating Odia literature in English, Leela, Paul and I had a tough responsibility to dispense with a large number of stories we had already put into anthologies in the past.

Repetition of those stories would have left a reader with a sense of déjà vu. Therefore, we left the old selections alone and, barring just about two or three, translated new stories by the acclaimed and established short-story writers for this anthology. Our overall aim has been to highlight the range and variety of Odia short stories written over the last one hundred years.

We are aware several serious practitioners of the genre have been left out because of the constraints of space. But then an anthology is like a zoo or an aquarium; at any given point of time it keeps more specimens out than in. Which, however, does not prove that those outside the pale of this anthology – or for that matter any – are any less significant.As we have always held, an anthology is just an anthology and not the end of the world in terms of literary recognition; and a truly great story or a truly good writer will survive the caprices, machinations and meanness of any anthologist or anthologists.

The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told

Excerpted with permission from the segment of the “Introduction” by KK Mohapatra to The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre and KK Mohapatra, Aleph Book Company.