A Portrait Of Tribal World In “THE PEOPLE OF SUNAPUT”

Anjali Sahoo

Imprint: Authors Press, New Delhi, 2013
Price: Rs. 395

“The people of Sunaput”, originally authored in Odia and later rendered into English by Veteran Novelist Dr. Hrusikesh Panda, presents a clear-cut storyline of the people of Sunaput, the golden village at the altitude of 3000 feet in the hilly plateau of Southern Odisha. The golden village was known for its fertile and flat fields, bountiful crops including mandia, suan, paddy, mustard and niger, plenty of honey in beehives, mahwa flowers, fruits and seeds in mahwa trees, mangoes, jack fruits, tendu fruits, jamun berries, fish in brooks and paddy fields. Through forceful descriptions, the author illustrates the exploitation, mistreatment, land alienation, government-induced displacement and its aftermath on the tribal life and living in an unbiased manner. The origin, upheaval and ultimate decline of vicious movements in this territory also finds narration with utmost rational fervor in a fictitious fabric. This fabricated account seems truer than the truth itself that lies in fragments inside the hilly terrains of Odishan tribal world because of the well-portrayed tribal-specific realism and its universal plea. The stoic verdict of Keshab, the protagonist of the novel that “ We (Here the Tribal people) are not destined to have a home or children in this birth.” is the central spot around which the entire plot of the novel goes on moving. It indirectly exhorts rather ironically that running means civilization.



Tribal-specific realism found in the novel reflects faithfully and recounts candidly the life and living of the tribal planet, rather with tiny tidbit and minute tidings. A detailed and microscopic sketch of tribalism in general and humanitarian values of the human in tribal people of Southern Odisha in particular is presented with greater emphasis on the age-old exploitative mechanisms of the modernized society. It shows how the concrete hearted people living in concrete cities have tried to concretize and in a sense paralyze the tribal values and viewpoints callously.

Realism normally upholds pros and cons together. The faithful reflection and loyal reverberation of the concrete society with abstract touch, tint and tone seems very lively and bubbly in the realistic setting of the book. Here the tribal beliefs and practices, their superstition and black magic, their alcoholic propensity and gullibility along with their simplicity, honesty, brotherhood and tolerance- all are handled with even-handed adeptness. The concept of free and voluntary labour in tribal society is quite ubiquitously managed throughout, providing a realistic tribal ambience to the novel. The deeply felt experiences of the author with his carefully designed incidents roam inside the paragraphs of the book, listlessly caricaturing the moneylenders, contractors, petty government officials and VIPs.

A few important extracts from the book can exhibit clearly how the fragments of tribal-specific realism are found randomly here and there to provide the book a tap of liveliness, vivacity and dynamism. They are as follows.

A few young men demand money from the contractor for their daily wages and hear the following bizarre words, which surprise even the readers in the course of their reading. This is nothing but a sheer violation of legal and moral laws of the land. The contractor speaks to them as follows.

“When you return to your village, ask for wages from your chieftains. Your animals graze in the forests, right? That forest does not belong to your father, right? If your animals graze in the forest of the government, you must work free for the government, right? You grow crops in the hills, which belong to the government, and you do not pay taxes, right?

The tribal people in real are normally voiceless, it also holds true for the people of Sunaput, the golden village. Only the protagonist Keshab has a voice of his own, sometimes provocative, sometimes rebellious, sometimes thoughtful and sometimes perturbed by ethical dilemmas. All others seem almost ignorant and wordless, befitting to the tribal mood, milieu and mindset. The selection of names like Sukura, Fulasundari, Dhanafula, Sahib Jani, Salt Jani, Gurei, Sunadhara etc also adds strength to the typical-tribal-realistic structure of the novel. The words like kankadagadia, Chakulia panda, pranam, gandabhairav, Dadibudha etc provide an Odishan tribal milieu in the novel to crop up. Bride price, fishing habit, marriage by elopement all show the variegated tribal social basics in the novel. Their habit of tobacco smoking, handia drinking, their belief in witchery, sorcery and their role as Beju and Bejuni in their society are characteristically tribal. Catching crabs from the river bed also shows their subsidiary occupation of fishing. Their innocence and virtuousness finds expression in the undercurrent of the simple questions like “How can I cheat my master”? And “How can he misappropriate Sambaru’s wife?”

The story of man eater is also naturally tribal. Superstition engulfs everything here. Through the character of the wife of a voluntary labourer whose husband is taken away by the man eater, the author portrays:

His wife was squatting on the village street and was wailing in endless bursts, interrupted only with silent tears. When a tiger kills someone, the dead one becomes an evil ghost, a duma. The villagers wondered and argued whether the widow was crying out of unbearable sorrow or the duma had entered her body.”

The author in the novel has showed exploitation in many forms and facets with high sincerity and moral uprightness. Exploitation has been traced rather symbolically in the protracted and peculiar naming of a money lender and trader Shasanpuri Sanyasirao. Let us read the depiction.

“In course of time Shasanpuri Sanyasirao arrived at Sunaput every year during harvest time with a cartload of salt, tobacco, cheap jewellery of shining white metal and coarse cotton cloth. He bartered one kilogram of salt for three kilograms of rice, a coarse white cloth for twenty kilograms of mustard. He bought two goats for three rupees, the amount of land tax one had to pay for cultivation with one pair of bullocks and a plough.”

Yet the people of that world do not envy Shasanpuri Sanyasirao because they know as if the most civilized groups of the universe that

The poverty of exploiters is at the core of their affluence. ***********The wealth of an exploiter does not make him an aristocrat; his innards are pervaded with poverty and fear. An exploiter is always alone and obsessed with uncertain apprehensions.”

Another exploiting agent is the forest guard who belongs to a place far away from here i.e. Assam and tries to dispatch these young hands to his country. The physical and mental torture with associated agony gets reflected in the maltreatment of the exploiter. We can trace the degree of exploitation from the following words of a runaway young man here,

The forest guard made us work all the time, and his wife beat us every day. They gave us little food.”

The foot prints of exploitation can also be seen and severely heard in the frank and rebellious words of Keshab:

The rulers only take away, they give back nothing. The officials come to the village and take away gifts and illegal taxes in pairs of bamboo baskets; but when these officials summon the villagers to look into their grievance in their courts, they do not look at the villagers; they have forgotten everything and they pass strange orders.”

And here again his thoughtful words coming out of his gullible mind reveal the exploitation in its blatant form:

If electricity is the soul of the economy of a country, it must be a duma, an evil spirit. Otherwise how can it happen that not even one person from the ten thousand families who were uprooted did not get a job? And not even one acre of land was irrigated!’’

The penchant of tribal people for flowers, their inclination towards songs and dances in moonlit night exhibits their love and association with Nature. The poems pulled out and embellished in the books are quite appealing for their lucidity and clarity. They more or less serve as an added glory to the overall framework of the book. The festivities and aesthetic expressions of the tribal people are exhibited through the ease and eloquence of these poems. They are very well identified for their flow, fluency and flood. In the midst of exploitation and misuse, still they live on dance and song and say

“And great officials of the great government, you are also great gods for us, we had never done anything to hurt you, we never faulted in serving you the sacred offerings, we satisfied you, yet you uprooted us, you did not even give us time to bring a scrap of cloth, you banished us from your world, oh officials, you must be very funny and inscrutable gods!! We sing and sing and dance and dance, we laugh uproariously. So please go away sadness, we are too busy here, we have no time for you. Sorrows please go away.”

The helpless condition and the hapless circumstances of the tribal people have been portrayed by the author with precision and authenticity in the following extort. Land settlement programme has come to them as a gloomy nightmare. Even they don’t have their land documents of ownership with them due to mortgage of land in money lender’s records. This can be clearly audible from the following words:

“No records of rights and no receipt for the tax paid for our land. Our village does not have a signed agreement with the king’s court for conferment of feudatory rights on the village chief. We do not even have temporary permits for cultivation with pickaxe. How can we claim that we own the land?

Their utmost trust on the divine power is also found echo from their group conversation here:

“That’s right! There is Dharma, there is verity, the eternal principles of righteousness which saves the world. How can the government not know which farmer is cultivating which pieces of land for generations? ****There are Gods in heaven, on earth and in every village.”

What a painful scene has been described in the paragraph where Keshab after returning from jail as a freedom fighter finds his village no more, nor even the village of his betrothed Dhanafula because of the construction of the project. He asks mad questions rather which suddenly transpose the complacent people before him to a world of restiveness and anxiety. Each one of them is overtaken by the realization and remembrance that they do not own a home or any land any more, they will not have any kinsmen who will stand by them and they are pervaded by a sense of emptiness.

“Where did my villagers go? Did they set up a new village in a forest? Or did they go down and became indentured labourers of moneylenders? How can we meet these people of our own, where can we find a space?”

The tribal people are truly nature worshippers. They revere the elements of nature as Mothers. It can be sorted out from the pathetic words of Salt Jani. The author through the characterization of Salt Jani has attempted to portray the passionate association of the tribal people with the elements of Nature. The description is as follows.

When during the excavation of dam, the trees were felled, the axes have made thud-and swish sounds as they hit the hard bark and the soft pith, Salt Jani had been fervid and discomposed, and he had entreated passionately, dear, please do not kill them. He had fallen at the feet of the wood cutters and pleaded with pathetic humility. *************** Excavators and dumpers had come and dumped soil and stones in the area. The body of Salt Jani had disappeared under the heap of soil.”

Exploitation is shown at its best here. When the truth dawns upon Keshab regarding the fact about Sanyasirao that he receives about half of the cash compensation given by the government for acquisition of all the land of Sunaput for the Crab Pond dam and he allows the other half of the cash compensation to be shared between officials in charge of land acquisition, settlement of land and rehabilitation of displaced people and no one from Sunaput village receives any compensation other than Sanyasirao he comes out in tears shouting…

“Gandhiji, everything you did was wrong. I say that you are a first class deceiver. The freedom movement was okay in your terms, but after the freedom, India slipped away from you. That is not such a great error. But why did you drive us up on a fool’s errand? You told blatant lies though you swore by truth. You said that if we went along the path carved by you, we would tread true path to independence.’’

Serfdom and bonded labour is narrated through the character of Sukura and Gurei. Sanyasirao in the name of Dharma made them serfs during their search for their lost children. All from top to bottom have taken advantages from the tribal people for their illiteracy, ignorance and vulnerability. The eco-activists pitch their voice against slash-and burn cultivation. The forest officials use this opportunity to raise the rate of illegal tax for cultivation on forest land. The eco activists fan out to the village and hold meetings. Their bullets miss the real targets and hit the poor farmers, like retired hunters often become environmentalists and conservationists. As a result, they suffer through severe and unprecedented drought and famine.

The picture of hunger deaths on news papers with Government help for funeral ceremony is really sarcastic. Frequent visits of VIPs in pomp and grandeur to stand in their hard times are simply cynical and ironical. News like death due to starvation, misappropriation of subsidized food grains by the government controlled shops, mass migration, bonded labour -all find place of prominence in the novel. The roles of the Programme like ‘Incessant war with Poverty’ and company like Petroleum Tree Company have remained enormously doubtful. A number of deaths including the deaths of Dhanafula and Keshab at the end make the novel overwhelmingly tragic.

Keshab’s monologue is really very firm, forceful and self-assertive here in this context;

He asks to himself,

“How much longer will you believe that the present system of governance will restore your rights and your livelihood, your right to existence? Can you not see , what the present arrangement has snatched away and what it has given you back, how it has stymied you, how can you not understand this?”

He appears exhausted and defeated in his reply:

“Nothing really has changed. The same old plays of exploitation are re-enacted, with the same scenes and acts, the same dialogues, the same acting. Only the actors have changed to some extent, their numbers and designations have changed but the same play is staged again and again. We have to destroy the system. Swami Bhairabananda, you were right. Gandhi sir, you were wrong.”

The author recounts exploitation with an altogether different feather through the character Albert, a white evangelist, anthropologist and researcher. This highly aspiring character exploits the tribal people and expects that his thesis will lead to a revolutionary and paradigm shift in the extant theories about evolution of man, evolution of languages, migrations of people and would lead to a new, unified, permanent and fundamental anthropological discourse.

By the way, Keshab’s joining in an organization has serves as a turning point in the plot of the novel. It transforms him quickly as if wonderful magic. He remembers the stiff words of Bhairabananda.

Colonialism and exploitation are not coterminous issues. What happened to the Bhudan Movement, the voluntary donation of land by the people with land? The donated land was appropriated by touts”.

He begins to resemble that of a venerated guru of any religion because his words resemble the universal sermons like:

Stand on your own feet and don’t lean against anyone else. You must recognize your enemies. These enemies reside inside you, inside your mind, in your frailties.”


You can never win for ever with violence. You may reach some short goals through violence, but violence would never lead to sustainable or permanent solutions to your problems.”

Again Keshab’s words to his mother

Ma, let the revolution go on. Let the world be rid of evil and injustice. Let there be an end to exploitation. We pray that we should be mere mediums in the process of purification. Let our sorrows fuel the fire of this battle.”

To conclude, these are the basic resounding words, echoed in the authorial voice of the novel “The people of Sunaput”. The authorial voice, though unspoken yet explicit, is felt everywhere inside the book, every now and then, propelled by the spokesman role of the protagonist. The maintenance of authorial distance amidst the feelings of perpetual belongingness is also very crucial and charismatic. I am almost surprised to find that the word ‘Tribal’ has very rarely been used in the novel but full effort has been endowed here to recount and relate the tribal planet of Southern Odisha with all its dreams and delight, darkness and devastation. The title choice of the book is not figurative nor fictitious but unadorned and effortless. The odia version of the novel, i.e. the original work was written in the 1990s, but it surprisingly holds true even today in many aspects and respects!! The author’s expertise and aptitude in both the languages, source, i.e. Odia and target, i.e. English can be essentially unearthed in its lucidity of expression and coherence in presentation. The language used in the novel is neither colloquial nor lexical, but somehow a mixture of both. The author is at his best while describing the grass root level realities of the tribal world of Southern Odisha. The mixed effect of fact and fiction, thought and imagination, experience and deliberation can be easily traced inside the sane and sensible version of the book. It neither censures the life of the nature worshippers for their ignorance and credulity nor sponsors armed rebellion as a key to their tribulations. This English translation of “SUNAPUT RA LOKE” will surely reach to a wider readers cluster, positively claiming the status of an original work of literature.