In 2010, Akhila Naik, a writer based in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, became the first Dalit author to write a novel in Odia. His book, Bheda, follows the story of a Dalit school principal’s son, Laltu, who drops out and becomes an activist. Laltu takes on the powerful upper-caste duo of a businessman and a politically influential lawyer who runs an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakha in the village.
The book served as an important corrective to Odia literature, which has seen few representations of the Dalit experience. Bheda also brought to fore issues such as corporate loot of natural resources in Odisha, the resultant environmental degradation, and the Brahminisation of Odisha’s culture, among others.
In July 2017, an English translation of Bheda, by Raj Kumar, a professor at Delhi University who belongs to the same Kalahandi community as Naik, was published by Oxford University Press. Martand Kaushik, a senior assistant editor at The Caravan, spoke to Kumar about Bheda and the society it portrays.
Martand Kaushik: How did you come upon Bheda, and what made you decide to translate it?
Raj Kumar:Bheda came out in 2010 as a novel. It had earlier been serialised in a magazine called Paschima, which is a very small-time Odia magazine, published from western Odisha. I read it when it came out and I was so happy with the kind of issues it raised, and with the language, the structure, the style. I became really interested in making Bheda available to a large audience, and that is how I decided to translate it.