Among the contemporary women short story writers and novelists of Orissa, Pratibha Ray would undoubtedly rank as one of the most gifted and accomplished. With an impressive crop of eighteen novels, seventeen collections of short stories, one travelogue, nine books for children and ten for neo-literates, she has received numerous awards including the Sarala Award and the Orissa Sahitya Akademi award, the latter for her novel Shilapadma in 1985. She received the Moorti Devi Award in 1991 for her widely acclaimed novel Yagnaseni. A former Professor of Education, she was a member of the Orissa Public Service Commission.
Pratibha Ray began her career as a modern writer of romance with Barsha, Basanta, Baisakha, (The Rain, the Summer and The Spring) a novel with a typical rural ambience that immediately captured the hearts of the Oriya readers. Later, even as she branched out to explore the more hidden recesses of the human psyche and character, she continued to use the same colloquial style with an eye for the odd detail that became the hall mark of all her fiction, including the best of her tales. Her early education and upbringing at Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack left upon her writing a lasting impression of rural Orissa.
Ray’s short story and fictional world is not an imaginary landscape. It is rooted in a concrete socio-historical reality and Orissa’s rich cultural heritage. Her main strength lies in her ability to employ the traditional mode of narration in order to depict the changing pattern of Orissa’s primarily rural culture Many of her stories and novels such as Adibhoomi, published in a translated form by Orient Longman, use a powerful tribal setting. Although Ray’s locales vary with the story line and the inevitable denouement, there is always a discernibly unique thematic and narrative pattern in her fictional landscape. Whether it is “Shapya” (The Curse) that received the Katha Award for 1994 or others such as “Bipralamba”, or translated stories like “The Gentleman”, “Hunger”, “The Other God”, “The Untouchable God” or “The Mango Tree”, Ray excels in the leisurely unfolding of the drama of human emotions. In most of such tales, the actual “event”,”happening” or plot plays a subordinate role. The focus of attention in the bulk of these realistic works is not on the “happening” though there is the inevitable tour de force in many stories, as in the best of Chekhov or O Henry.
Ray’s stories are unsparing in their indictment of social evils and injustice. Bigotry and obscurantism of all kinds are her particular bete-noir as in “The Other God”, a story that offers a savage critique of the so called “civilized” behaviour of man. In this story as well as the equally moving “The Untouchable God”, Ray shows us the evil of blind religiosity that negates the drive for human fellowship. While a faith in the genuine spiritual is always affirmed, such as in the story “Chandrabhaga and Chandrakala”, a great many of the tales seem to question the claims of tradition and authority. In Ray, such interrogation often leads her to question patriarchal modes of conduct and belief. She, of course, chooses to describe herself as pro-woman rather than as a feminist. This attitude has varied manifestations in stories such as “Moksha” (The Salvation) where a couple Shoshi and Nuri Das live together under one roof for forty long years, yet neither speaks nor see each other’s face. Or it may be expressed through the use of masterly irony, depicting a complex trade-off between the need for sexual identity and social respectability as in “Shapya”.
Ray is also powerfully drawn to myths and legends and often builds intricate narratives around themes that are part of the racial consciousness. For instance, Shilapadma deals with the story of Konark. Similarly, Yagnaseni is a reworking of the Mahabharata story seen primarily through the eyes of Draupadi. Written in an epistolary mode, the novel, available in a translation form (Roopa), makes an important contribution to this genre at the all India level.
In her tales, Pratibha Ray seems to prefer the dissidents, the drop-outs or the odd ball rather than heroes and heroines in the classic sense of the term. Her stories suggest a constant spirit of questioning and search for the meaning of life. In personal life, she fought and led a campaign against the powerful priestly orthodoxy of the Jagannath temple of Puri.