Review – “Paraja” by Gopinath Mohanty

Paraja by Gopinath Mohanty is originally an Oriya novel, translated by Bikram K. Das, based in the tribal lands of Orissa. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the family of Sukru Jani, sons Mandia and Tikra and daughters Jili and Bili, of the Paraja tribe. As the family struggles to retain their family land, to which Sukru is deeply attached, the novel traces the path on which they embark, eventually adding more miseries in their kitty.

Sukru Jani is sitting in his simple hut, making plans for the bright future of his children, how he must marry off his girls to good suitors, and how to find suitable brides for his sons, building them separate huts of their own to start their new life. Unknown to him, Mandia and Jili have already besotted their hearts out. While both his children enjoy their blooming love, Sukru is finding ways to increase his landholdings, so that he can give a part of it to Mandia for his future. After due permission from the forest guard, he began to clear out a fertile piece of land from a nearby hill along with Mandia in hopes of cultivating it before he gets married. But as fate would have had it, the guard’s vulturine eyes for Jili enrages Sukru and he lashes out at him. The guard avenges his insult with a calculative plan, he comes back with more officials and incriminates Sukru of violating the forest laws and slapping a fine on him. With not a single penny at home, Sukru has no other option but to submit himself and Tikra to the sahukar as gotis, bonded labor, leaving the household in the hands of Mandia.
With their father gone and the future gloomy, Mandia and Jili lose their betrothed to other people. Mandia tries his hands at brewing illegal alcohol in the forest, only to be caught and slapped a hefty sum of fine. On finding no way out to pay the fine, Mandia enslaves himself with the sahukar as well. With this sudden turn of events, Jili and Bili are now left alone to fend for themselves. The grain storage runs out soon. It is not long before that a road contractor comes to the village to hire men and women for the work. Foreseeing the uncertainty of the return of the male members, Jili and Bili sign up for the work and leave for the camp on the highway. True, they earn money but along comes the exploitation at the hands of the men at the camp. Before any further harm was done, Sukru meanwhile mortgages his pride, his only piece of highly fertile land to the sahukar, and frees himself. Soon enough, the sahukar shows his true colors, deceit and lies entangle Sukru in a web when the sahukar refuses to give him his land back. Angered, he files a court case only to be defeated at the hands of the notorious and influential sahukar. While Sukru was busy fighting the sahukar, Jili submits herself to the sahukar and becomes his mistress. He becomes depressed, at his life, at the bondage of his sons and at the corrosion of his daughter Jili at the hands of the evil sahukar. Unable to take it anymore, Sukru and his sons, in a fit of rage pounce upon the sahukar and slay him with repeated blows.

The novel follows the slow decline of this tribal family, from the quite prosperity of the subsistence livelihood towards bondage to the local sahukar. The helplessness of a poor tribesman and his family, the exploitation at the hands of the sahukar, and the ultimate tragedy of murder, are all heart-wrenching. The novel gives the readers an insight into the lives of the Paraja tribes-people, their marriage customs, their notions about a woman stepping out to earn, their animosity amongst themselves, and the save-your-own-neck attitude. It is deplorable to see such a turn of events, from the first line of the novel to the last. This novel is not just a sociological and demographical documentation of a family caught unaware of their fate, but an echo of the tribes and marginalized sections of the world.


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