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A literary crusader
May 25, 2022 COMMENT comment
A literary crusader
By Anita Panda Mishra
Exemplary litterateur Dr Pratibha Ray talks about women's tumultuous journeys from myth and history to current times, and persistent misogynistic attitudes. "Nothing much has changed for 'Draupadi' apart from having to marry five men at the same time. Women still have to face similar dilemmas in a discriminated world."
The first Oriya woman to be conferred with the coveted Jnanpith award for 2011 and a slew of prestigious accolades for her meritorious contributions to Indian literature, Dr Pratibha Ray is an iconic author, academician and humanist-reformer, a household name in Odisha and in many parts of India through her translated works. "Love and let live" is the motto of this popular fiction writer, who has set a benchmark through her outstanding achievements as much as for her universally acclaimed novel Jagyaseni with its brilliant portrayal of the epic character Draupadi in her 'self-searching' quest of a woman's true identity.
Born to a Gandhian teacherpoet father in the remote village of Alabol, Balikuda, Cuttack district of Orissa, 1943, Dr Ray grew up reading classics of Indian and world literature in an environment that was a fusion of intellectual and cultural influences.
Her literary sojourn began at age nine, with her first poem being published in the 'Children's Corner' of a reputed newspaper. The quest for a casteless social order based on equality, love, peace and integration reflected in her work can be attributed to the influence of her Vaishnavite family. Her first novel Barsa Baisakha Basanta (1974) proved to be a best-seller, stealing the hearts of the rural female readers, followed by Shilapadma ('83) winning her the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award. A spate of novels followed and her masterpiece Jagyaseni ('84) was adapted into a dance ballet by Hema Malini, staged and telecast, in which her Panchali – feminist in undertone, superbly essaying the plight and journey of a woman demanding social justice, challenging the male ego, rebelling against being an object of exploitation, lust and power-brokering – emerged as the social reformer, the 'New Age' woman and the voice of today's 'Nirbhaya', instantly endearing herself to pan-Oriya readers, bagging her the Moortidevi and Sarala awards.
It is the retelling of the legendary epic from Draupadi's perspective by a woman writer. Ray successfully attempts to banish the stigma attached to Draupadi's name, delving into her mindset, both as the Pandava queen and a strong woman, humanising and highlighting her feminine roles as a daughter, sister, wife, mother and daughter-in-law! Amazingly written, with a steady flow of emotions and justified situations, it's an eye-opener on the status of women in our society through the ages, reflecting its deeply entrenched misogyny, striking at the very roots of our culture and traditions. It offers an amazing insight into the great empress's thoughts and feelings, effortlessly evoking the sheer helplessness and rawness of that one scene where her excellence as a story-teller outshines in describing the gamut of emotions in her protagonist – angst, admiration, revulsion, respect, sensual and maternal love towards her five husbands, coupled with agonising pain at the death of her loved ones.
It is a tale of the history of oppression of women by ruthless men, tumbling empires and the gender equation. "From Satipratha to widow remarriage, the eternal quest for a male heir and several others, it's the obsolete, misinterpreted dictates of the past that have created all this," says Ray. Has it been status quo then from 'Draupadi' to 'Nirbhaya'? "Nothing much has changed for 'Draupadi' apart from having to marry five men at the same time," she says. "Progress and education notwithstanding, women still have to face similar dilemmas in a discriminated world."
Do strong, vocal, powerful women then invite punishment? "In a male-dominated society, women who attempt to break age-old stereotypes often invite opposition and are forced into quiet submission. But with education and changing times, women are breaking the mould and becoming trend-setters for others. From Rani of Jhansi to the modern-day feminist, women have continually fought their battles courageously and empowered themselves in the process," replies Ray.
"The woman-hating tormentor" who reared his ugly face in the 'Nirbhaya' tragedy, "can neither be wished away, nor ignored" in the words of columnist Vinita Dawra Nangia, men like Dushasan and Duryodhan now don subtler garbs and roam free amongst us "on the streets, buses, autos, in the guise of a teacher, cop, CEO or a politician." This, according to Ray, is due to "a corrosion of our underlying ethics and values" with "rules, regulations and social norms framed strictly for women". The "problem needs a holistic approach for tackling it effectively" with a similar necessity for males, the process of change having already begun, slow and unnoticed though. Women alone can change this by protesting against any kind of unfair discrimination both at home and workplace.
On the 'itemisation' of women across mediums (cinema, TV, ads), she states: "The commodification of culture has created this negative trend. Education, awareness and exposure will help women in carving out dignified lives for themselves. This requires greater media responsibility in depicting women with dignity and sensitivity."
Though branded as a communist or feminist in the quest for establishing a secular social order, she remains unfazed: "On the contrary, it makes me even more dedicated to my cause. I don't believe in borrowed 'isms', rather in man's inherent goodness beyond gender and geography. The world is my home." The passionate researcher and humanist, ever empathetic towards the "misunderstood, neglected and exploited lot" was irresistibly drawn to the obscure, snake-infested hills of Eastern Odisha inhabited by the aggressive Bonda tribe, where she witnessed murders, encountered ferocious tigers but eventually won their love and trust donning their attire and that of her writers' fraternity, penning Aadi Bhoomi, a rewarding chapter of her career.
The mother of three has inculcated a similar attitude towards life in her off spring too, sharing a great equation with them and creating a close-knit family. In her non-literary avatar, she is a multi-tasker, extending her creative talents to gardening, cooking, reading and interior decoration, juggling the roles of a dedicated wife, bahu, committed mother and a doting grandma to three grandchildren. Her next 'magnum opus'? "I've a lot of unfinished work… Miles to go before I sleep," she sighs.
Her upcoming work "always a secret" from her readers is slated to be a "surprise!" Her autobiography is ready for the market, and one marvels at the literary genius for excelling at spinning fabulous tales, winning awards and mesmerising her readers.
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