OPINION

A classic novel and the literary view from below



Satya P. Mohanty

Fakir Mohan Senapati's classic Oriya novel is a marvel of 19th century literary realism, complex and sophisticated. It seeks to analyse and explain social reality instead of merely holding up a mirror to it. The novel's literary innovations changed Oriya literature forever.

SET IN colonial Indian society during the early decades of the19th century, Six Acres and a Third ( Chha Mana Atha Guntha) tells a tale of wealth and greed, of property and theft. On one level it is the story of an evil landlord, Ramachandra Mangaraj, who exploits poor peasants and uses the new legal system to appropriate the property of others. But this is merely one of the themes of the novel; as the text unfolds, it reveals several layers of meaning and implication. Toward the end of Mangaraj's story, he is punished by the law and we hear how the "Judge Sahib" ordered that his landed estate, his "zamindari," be taken away. It is sold to a lawyer, who as rumour in the village has it "will come with ten palanquins followed by five horses and two hundred foot-soldiers" to take possession of Mangaraj's large estate. The ordinary villagers react to this news by reminding one another of an old saying: "O horse, what difference does it make to you if you are stolen by a thief? You do not get much to eat here; you will not get much to eat there. No matter who becomes the next master, we will remain his slaves. We must look after our own interests."

Fakir Mohan Senapati's novel is written from the perspective of the horse, the ordinary villager, and the foot-soldier in other words, the labouring poor of the world. Although it contains a critique of British colonial rule, the novel offers a powerful indictment of many other forms of social and political authority as well. What makes Six Acres unusual is that its critical vision is embodied in its narrative style or mode, in the complex way the novel is narrated and organised as a literary text. Senapati's novel (the Oriya original was serialised in 1897-1899 and published as a book in 1902) is justly seen as representing the apex of the tradition of literary realism in 19th century Indian literature. But its realism is complex and sophisticated, not simply mimetic; the novel seeks to analyse and explain social reality instead of merely holding up a mirror to it.

In his magisterial History of Indian Literature, 1800-1910, Sisir Kumar Das calls Senapati's novel the "culmination of the tradition of realism" in modern Indian literature, referring to its implicit links with earlier instances of realism in fiction and drama: "All these plays and novels contain elements of realism in varying degrees, but none can match Fakir Mohan's novel in respect of its minute details of social life and economic undercurrents regulating human relationships." Both the kind of naturalist realism that builds on the accumulation of details and the analytical realism I mentioned, which explains and delves into underlying causes, are achieved in Senapati's novel through a self-reflexive and even self-parodic narrative mode, one that reminds us more of the literary postmodernism of a Salman Rushdie than the naturalistic mode of a Mulk Raj Anand.

Narrator's art

Central to this narrative mode is a narrator who actively mediates between the reader and the subject of the novel, drawing attention away from the tale to accentuate the way it is told. Until we become comfortable with this narrator and his verbal antics, join him in witty interchange, and ponder our own implication as readers in the making and unmaking of "facts," both narrative and social, we cannot say that we have fully engaged with Senapati's sly and exhilarating text

One of the underlying concerns of the narrator's discourse is the question: Who has social and political power? His parodic and humorous invocation of various forms of authority is not just a form of debunking, for it invites readers to engage in a form of moral inquiry as well. Behind the question about power lies a more radical question: what, if anything, justifies power? If social power derives from ownership of property and wealth, which are themselves lost (stolen) as easily as they are won, then both property and power seem insecure possessions, vulnerable to the vagaries of luck and historical accident. Ultimately, these questions lead to the suggestion that all property may be theft after all, and the only true owners are those who create social value, the labouring masses.

Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918) lived during tumultuous times. Orissa was taken over by the British in 1803, and was soon thereafter incorporated into a transnational economic system. Senapati's consciousness of being an Oriya developed in a politicised context where an Oriya cultural identity (like many other minority identities in history) was at risk of disappearing. What drove him was less a desire for literary fame than the need to save and protect the language of the people around him. There was a measure of idealism that inspired him, no doubt, but Senapati had a very clear idea of the strategic interests of the various groups at stake. He understood clearly that the future of at least the Oriya middle-class was bleak if Bengali instead of Oriya became the official medium of communication in Orissa: educated Oriyas who had learned Persian, the earlier language of the courts were going to lose even the few jobs that existed in their towns and cities. Senapati's concern with language as a social force its seductive power, its authority, its abuses clearly grew out of the struggles into which he had been thrust early in his life, the struggles to defend and save a language and a culture.

The linguistic innovations of Six Acres and a Third, Senapati's first novel, need to be appreciated in this wider context. These innovations changed Oriya literature forever, and inaugurated the age of modern Oriya prose, but they are based in a vision of social equality and cultural self-determination. Senapati was no romantic nationalist, and his conception of language was based on his progressive social vision. In his prose works, he sought to popularise an egalitarian literary medium that was sensitive enough to draw on the rich idioms of ordinary Oriyas, the language of the paddy fields and the village markets. If he saw the imposition of other languages like Persian, English, or Bengali on Oriyas as a form of linguistic colonialism, it is because he considered the interests of Oriyas much like the interests of any linguistic community to be tied to democratic cultural and social access to power.

Fakir Mohan Senapati was intellectually restless and adventurous, and had the spirit of a reformer more than that of a writer in search of literary fame. He grew up in a part of colonial India that barely registered in the consciousness of the Viceroys and their officials. But it is from this particular vantage point that he created a unique synthesis of the traditional and the contemporary, a synthesis whose power and example are relevant even today.

Perhaps they are relevant especially today, when the lure of religious chauvinism and romantic nationalism seem to obscure the need for critique the critique of inequality, of dogma, of deep-seated social prejudice. These were Senapati's targets, and in order to attack them, he chose to fashion a voice that was both protean and self-reflexive. His critique was never merely negative, however. It was based on a vision of human equality and cultural diversity, of a radical humanism that was fed by a variety of religious traditions.

Child as fakir

Fakir Mohan Senapati was born Braja Mohan Senapati, which is a traditional Hindu name. In his autobiography, he tells the story of how he came to acquire an Islamic name like "fakir." As a child, he had fallen very ill, and his devout grandmother feared that she would lose him. After praying to "every Hindu God and Goddess under the sun," writes Fakir Mohan, she turned to two Muslim saints who lived in Balasore. She promised to give him up to their religious order as a fakir if he recovered.

He recovered, but then the doting grandmother could not bear to give up her young grandson. So she struck a deal with the saints: she would change Braja Mohan's name to Fakir Mohan and give him up "symbolically": "For the eight days of the Muharram each year ... I [had] to dress up as a fakir in knee-breeches, a high-necked, multi-coloured coat, and a Muslim cap, with a variegated bag hung on my shoulder and a red-lacquered cane held in my hand. Thus attired and my face smeared in pure chalk I would roam through the village morning and afternoon begging from house to house, and in the evening I sold whatever rice I had collected and sent the money to the saints for their offerings."

It isn't hard to imagine the child Braja Mohan, in the process of becoming Fakir Mohan, revelling in the new role he is asked to play. Masks and disguises are wondrous things, especially to a child, and perhaps the young boy was beginning to feel the sense of power that we get from changing roles, from transforming what seems to be natural and immutable. It is certainly this power that informs the rich explorations of Senapati's marvellous first novel. It is a novel that sees the whole world as acting out its assigned roles, roles that can nonetheless be rewritten even as they are being enacted. As we read Six Acres and a Third, we trace the steps of the young child who is still out, wandering from house to house in the village, dressed up as a fakir, daring to see the world with new eyes.

(Satya P. Mohanty, born in Cuttack, is Professor of English at Cornell University. He is Director of the Future of Minority Studies Project's Summer Institute: fmsproject.cornell.edu. Penguin India is publishing an English translation of Six Acres and a Third . This article is based on the introduction to the novel by the author, who is one of the translators.)



Recommended for you