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The idea of Asia

As a young boy growing up at a village close to Dhauli in the 1960s, I used to watch with amusement and wonder young Japanese men and women toiling in the sweltering summer heat to build a peace pagoda on the top of the famous hill. They aroused my fascinated curiosity but not great admiration. They did not belong to a country I or my friends longed to visit or settle in. We had read few travelogues in Odia which told us of trips made by the authors to Japan, China or other Asian countries. Most travel narratives in Odia which we read in our childhood centred on visits to western countries like Britain or the USA. Our attitude to China had already been complicated by the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which had left India shaken and Pandit Nehru shattered. But we were more favourably disposed to Japan as our history books told us that the country had extended support to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and had provided him opportunities to form his Azad Hind Fauj during the World War II. On the full-moon night in the month of Kartik, the radio routinely played songs about the voyages undertaken by Odia merchants in the remote past to islands such as Java, Sumatra, Bali and Sri Lanka. But we knew little about these places and they were not more than mere names to be found in a map of Asia. We also knew vaguely that lots of Odias had settled in Burma, but had to leave the country under unpleasant circumstances. Although we knew that geographically India is a part of Asia, the continent never created a sense of belonging or great curiosity in us. Our eyes were focused on the West.

It is not that the situation has changed dramatically over the intervening decades as far as our attitude to our Asian heritage is concerned. We know that Japan has emerged as a mighty industrial nation and we admire its cars and gadgets. China awes us by its scientific, military and economic achievements which have earned it the grudging respect of a super power such as America. A company from South Korea has plans to set up a steel industry in Odisha and newspapers mention it all the time. But the emergence of Asia as an economic powerhouse has not shaped in our minds an idea of Asia. Mo Yan receiving the Nobel Prize for literature does not fill us with enthusiasm or pride nor do we celebrate the amazing feat of the legendary Vietnamese General Giap who defeated the French and the Americans or the spectacular achievements of Iranian filmmakers. Asian thinkers such as Confucius or Al-Afghani or writers such as Kenjaburu find a few admirers among us. To the best of my knowledge only one Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki was translated into Odia and I am sure it did not find many readers. While European authors are read in English translation famous Japanese, Chinese or Arabic works in English translation are ignored. The situation regarding our willingness to learn the languages of our Asian neighbours reveals a picture of indifference and neglect: Chinese was taught at Utkal University in the 1960s for a few years and I remember that Persian was taught at Ravenshaw College in the 1970s. Attempts to offer courses in Japanese in the 1990s had to be abandoned.

Against this backdrop of carefully cultivated ignorance of and indifference to our Asian heritage, a recently published thematic collection titled Ekant Asia (Intimate Asia) edited by Sangram Jena, a noted essayist and an award-winning translator, assumes special significance. The collection comprises twenty-eight excerpts from autobiographies and travelogues in Odia and English which embody the changing Odia response to Asia during the last century. The largest number of excerpts relate to trips to Japan and Burma. In fact, the collection opens with an account of a journey from Tokyo to Calcutta written by Mahesh Chandra Ray, of whom we know nothing at all. The piece was published in an Odia literary magazine in 1907 and in it, Ray conveys a wealth of information about the usual places of tourist interest in Tokyo but what adds value to the essay is the account of what has happened to the Japanese psyche after the spectacular victory it won in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The triumph of a small island nation in Asia inflicting a crushing defeat on the mighty European power, i.e., the Russian empire, had led the Japanese to set up panoramas which they visited in large numbers with their children to celebrate and commemorate the event. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see how these triumphalist gestures of a hitherto despised Asian nation foreshadowed the emergence of aggressive militarism of Japan in the 1940s. Another account of a trip to Japan undertaken in 1906 is described vividly by Kailash Chandra Bharatkar, about whom again little or nothing is known. Bharatkar sails from Calcutta and passes through Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sanghai on his way to Japan. The piece is enlivened by the author's close observation of people and places, social customs and political events. The Japanese appear as guards of a prison camp run in Singapore during the Second World War. One of the prisoners of war, Dolagobind Mohanty, has recounted his experiences in such a camp in his memoirs written in English. Strangely enough, the Japanese who earned great notoriety during the Second World War on account of their brutality, appear engagingly funny, even polite, in Mohanty's account. He gives a hilarious account of the Japanese guards cooking a hen reared by the prisoners who wanted to have occasional eggs in their meals. Radhanath Rath, a clerk who was sent to Japan shortly after the World War II came to end to work with Indian soldiers overseeing reconstruction of the war-devastated nation, was witness to a very different picture of Japan. He describes the horrors of war and the scars they had left on the minds of a proud people and notes with unconcealed admiration the stoical determination with which the Japanese rebuilt their country under the harsh scrutiny of General MacArthur. Sitakant Mahapatra, who visited Japan decades later, presented the beauty and glory of a Japan which rose triumphantly from the ashes and earned the respect and admiration of the world.

The four pieces which focus on Burma reveal the intimate relationship which Odias once shared with this country. Odias had migrated in large numbers in the 19th century to Burma in search of prosperity and to escape deprivation brought about by famines and colonial economic policies at home. In course of time, parts of Burma became home to thousands of Odias who began publishing newspapers from there.