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Book Review: Letters To Jorina

22/05/2021 at 2:07 PM

(Reviewed by: Chinmay Kumar Hota, a noted columnist and book reviewer)

Newspaper and TV reports regularly tell us how wars and natural disasters ravage people’s homes or dispossess them in some corner of the world. Yet, the reports fail to reveal the trauma the destruction or loss of a home brings to its dwellers. Ganeswar Mishra, in an earlier short story, ‘Moola’ (Root), portrayed the psychological upheaval of a young character as he watched five labourers dismember their thatched house. The house had once protected his family and offered them a sense of rootedness. Mishra has used the same idea of rootedness as a significant theme of the letters that form the reviewed book’s contents.

The writer of the letters has a fictional name, Alok Das, and so do the places and temples in Odisha (but not the ones located abroad). The letters’ recipient is Jorina (real name or imaginary?), an academic and writer of Caribbean origin, who has made England her home. Alok had met Jorina in England as a fellow researcher in a university. Alok returns to India to his work and family while Jorina stays back in England and marries Ben, a photographer. Alok and Jorina share a refined sensibility about relationships, art, culture and humanity. While we do not know what Jorina writes in response to Alok’s letters, her interests and curiosities are occasionally used as a springboard for the latter’s narration. 

For instance, Jorina’s shifting to a new apartment leads Alok to deliberate on the importance of one’s home. In the western culture, changing a residence could be an economic necessity, but for an Indian, it snaps deeper ties. The writer goes on to say, in another essay, “The house people are born in – even if it’s rickety, thatched and made of mud – is their real home. Later houses can never be as intimate and alive as that first dilapidated house of thatch and mud. The house from where you begin your journey is your real house – there’s no exaggeration in his statement by a certain poet (p48)”. The lane where the writer’s house is located in the imaginary city of Jahanpur, unmistakeablyPuri, is like an extended home for the neighbours. A strong bonding is all too evident among the residents, whose womenfolk even look forward to their share of piousness from Alok’s temple-going grandmother. 

The author finds this love for one’s original home a becoming sentiment for the inward-looking Indians. Indians, through the ages, ‘felt hesitant about giving importance to the world outside, about leaving the security of their own patch of land’. This sequestered mentality has cost Indians dear with frequent invasions and subjugation by outsiders. The Homeward Ho! attitude has brought India terrible consequences. Still, despite the sufferings, great religious thinkers, poets and philosophers have grasped the ‘sense of time in its totality’, enriching theIndian ethos. 

Despite Indians’ affinity for their homes, remaining stuck there is not what Mishra advocates. After all, he owes many of his views and the idea of the book to his going away from home. The writer has just returned from the world to synthesise his collected observations with deep-seated beliefs his Indian-ness has shaped. This synthesis brings out the cosmopolitan in him as he basks in the beauty of foreign landscapes, cuisines and similarities and differences between cultures. Thus Indian inwardness is mirrored in the Spanish adage that one whose ‘shoes have been covered with Spanish dust’ is bound to return there. The similarity of sophisticated Spanish cuisine with ordinary Odia cooking shows that parallels exist in human taste, however much different the people may be. 

Mishra finds parallels between the reactions and behaviours of his Londoner friend Henry and his own villager father. This similarity amuses him, and he concludes, ‘differences between humans boil down to the clothes they were; inside, people are the same (p58).’ 

Despite the resemblances between humans and their cultures, an incident that focuses on the contrast brings up the book’s most poignant episode. The fulfilling life that the narrator’s grandmother lived in the narrow confines of a temple city is so unlike the sad life and unsung death of an elderly lady Alok befriended in Spain.

Mishra’s world view is as sympathetic as it is all-encompassing; he condones no acrimony or show of superiority between people and cultures. He finds divisions and rigidities of all kinds hard to stomach. They do not gel with his firm view that ‘the very essence of being human is to be a wayfarer, a nomad. (p57)’ . Mishra’s nomad wayfarer, of which he is the epitome, is strikingly similar to the image renowned author Pico Iyer’s traveller evokes when the latter says, “…home lies in the things you carry with you everywhere and not the ones that tie you down.” (Pico Iyer, The Man Within My Head). 

Letter to Jorina is a slim book of hardly seventy pages, and forewords, afterwords, and such stuff try to put flesh on the text’s bones. The afterword by Himansu S. Mohapatra, one of the book’s translators from Odia, touches on the thematic questions that the letters raise. His attempt to give a definitive verdict on whether the book is a novel or a collection of letters – a question posed by Mishra himself – is fascinating. 

The translation quality is impeccable because the depiction captures the author’s mood so well, joyful now, euphoric or reflective next.  

Letters to Jorina Author: Ganeswar Mishra
Translated from Odia by Himansu S. Mohapatra & Paul St-Pierre
Publisher: Author’s Press (2021)
Pages: 72
Price: Rs250/ $25

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