Maithili, a language spoken by the people of Mithila ( north-eastern Bihar and adjoining Nepal) isn't one of those languages known for its literature as is with other leading languages in India. Once a mighty empire, the region lost its prominence over the centuries and has become the part of the state of Bihar post the independence. Surendra Jha Suman, is considered one of the leading writers from this language and Sahitya Academy has done a commendable job in making it available for the larger reading community by this translation.
Modern Maithili literature, claims it roots to the celebrate poet Vidyapati, who lived during the 14th-15th century. A staunch devotee of Lord Shiva, he was known for his love-poetry and his dedication to Shiva. Legends has it that the lord himself was pleased with his devotee, and incarnated as Ugna, a man-servant to the poet's house. The book had the origin of its name to this Ugna, the lord himself. Surendra Jha Suman, quotes and uses the poet through out his novel, as one inspiring the people of Mithila through his words and life.
Kinsmen of Ugna, paves the same path of caste struggle and the upbringing of the downtrodden. The protagonist Tulsi, born to a poor backward caste, had the typical upbringing, that is prevalent in the early days of independence. The issue of social injustice, untouchability, servility was rampant and the young Tulsi himself was victim of few unpleasant experience. It might be these early experiences that made Tulsi into taking up the cause of the people of his caste. Discontinuing his studies and the possibility of a better paid job, Tulsi instead decided to work among his people to bring education and better living to them. The effort did receive support from a few forward thinking leaders and the enthusiasm of the members of the community. The small gathering of the people paved way to a bigger school and proper methods of education to the underprivileged. The wind of change was coming to the closed quarters of the 'backwardness' of the tribe. They were more positive and collective and the unity saw them through few tough times. Along with the social changes, the calls for the resurrection of the Mythili language and culture was on the raise. While the community elites were divided, they organised two separate events - one for the upper casts and the other for general public, the voice of the people were heard and acknowledged. The book however, do not focus its energy on the caste conflict or the local power struggle much, barring a few attempts of jeopardy by his upper-caste friend and classmate. So much was his popularity, that he was elected to the regional administration through election beating his erstwhile friend. The book ends at a high note with the newly crowned people representative decided to get married to an invalid from a lower caste.
I'm not sure of the date of publication of the original works, but the language and the setting give me pointers to the early 60s. Surendra Jha Suman, manages to portray the social fabric of the region and the sentiments, without getting propagandist, pretty effectively. He also focusses his mirror to the 'alternate reality' of the neo-rich Urban metropolis pointing us to nastiness behind the glowing curtains of the city. May be he is wanting us to appreciate the local life.
I have seen the 'class struggle' , not in the same sense as the Marxian thinkers project, as a key theme in many a writing across various languages. The 'caste' struggle , the continuous efforts of the backward classes to bring themselves out of the poverty, chaos of life and the need for social equity has been a major topics of many yesteryear writers. While for most of the Urban modern day readers, this might be a subject that is as over used as the 'holocaust' stories of 40s. but it did have a major effect in shaping the modern India, post independence.
One of the qualities I find attractive about the regional language literarature, is its simplicity. The innocence and earthly narrative. There is no pretentious writing and no superficial ideologues. It may be too simple and not carry any profound intellectual debates nor follow some of those established western norms of literature. I like some of them for the same. The book has been translated amicably, without loosing the flavour of the local language. Does it read as smooth to a non-Indian as it is to an Indian ? I think, in this case it does. In comparison to the other heavy weights of Indian Literature, this might not be one that stand out. But, in the context of the Mythili literature, and in bringing out the post independent social changes in the Mithila region, this must be a significant work of fiction.------------------------------------------------------------
The Kinsmen of Ugna
Surendra Jha 'Suman' ( translated from Maithili by Ratneshwar Mishra 2010)