Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fakir Mohan Senapati's roundabout fictions

My long essay on Fakir Mohan Senapati's novel Six Acres and a Third appears today in the new issue of Himal, a bimonthly magazine published from Kathmandu.

The 19th century Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati was a most oblique writer – he hardly said or meant anything in a straightforward way. Much of his work is ironical and satirical, and of course irony and satire work through indirection, by way of the meaningful glance rather than the plainspoken word. Yet irony, while aiming to surprise, can sometimes be applied too predictably, and then it becomes as unsubtle as the more homespun narrative mode it disdains. Thankfully this is not the case with Senapati: he worked with a very light and delicate hand.

At one point in Senapati’s newly translated novel Chha Mana Atha Guntha (Six Acres and a Third), the narrator, who often addresses the reader directly, remarks that “unpleasant truths are better left unspoken; in other words, we are forced to forget half the truth and tell you the other half.” This might serve as a loose definition of satire, which tells the truth by denying the truth. When Senapati describes the greedy ways of his hero, the venal zamindar Ramachandra Mangaraj, defending him all the while by saying that he is really a “kind and pious man” who is slandered by his subjects, Mangaraj is exposed more effectively than a simple and uninflected chronicle of his evils could have managed. The narrator is, in effect, repaying Mangaraj with the same duplicity that Mangaraj himself practices on those around him – he has a friendly hand on Mangaraj’s shoulder while simultaneously winking at the reader, confident that “for intelligent people, hints usually suffice”. This jaunty line of attack is Senapati’s way of pointing to unpleasant truths in a way that also gives the reader pleasure.

Chha Mana Atha Ghunta was written in 1902; at this point the novel in India, a legacy of colonial rule, was about four decades old. Most of the novel’s initial practitioners belonged to the new class of Indians who had, after the implementation of Lord Thomas Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education in 1835, received an education in English. (In fact, in 1864 the young Bankimchandra Chatterjee, then a district magistrate in Khulna in Bengal, wrote his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, in English.)

Senapati, like Bankimchandra and many other early Indian novelists, had some connection with the business of government and therefore to British rule. He was born Braja Mohan Senapati, but when a mysterious illness threatened to take his life when he was still a child, his grandmother took him to a dargah and promised to offer him as a fakir, a Muslim mendicant, if he lived. The boy recovered, but the grandmother was loath to give him up, and instead he was renamed Fakir Mohan and made a "fakir" for eight days every Mohurrum. In his autobiography Story of My Life, a classic of Indian literature still to be published in its entirety in English, Senapati recalls the fakir's garb he wore at Mohurrum: "shorts which would reach down to my knees, a multicoloured shirt, a fakir cap, a patchwork shoulder bag, a red walking-stick."

Later, Senapati worked as a schoolteacher and a dewan, or administrator, on feudatory estates. Six Acres and a Third, which is set in a feudal world and concerns a land dispute, probably has its roots in these experiences. Although Senapati’s book is recognisably a novel, it is has many Indian twists with no precedent in the classic Victorian novel then available to Indian writers - it is the novel form soaked in the crucible of Senapati's own reading and experience. Its plot is not linear, its methods of characterisation are fruitfully eccentric, and its storyteller’s tone seems to fuse the form of traditional novelistic narrative with older Indian narrative traditions.

The plot of Six Acres and a Third revolves around Ramachandra Mangaraj’s attempt to appropriate a village farmer’s verdant smallholding, six-and-a-third acres in area. Senapati’s is a moral tale: Mangaraj’s devious stratagems are successful, but soon his deeds return to haunt him, and he falls spectacularly from grace, losing every piece of his wealth.

This plot outline makes the novel sound more unsophisticated than it really is, for Senapati was not just an incomparably subtle but also a happily digressive writer. In Six Acres and a Third, the reader will find long sections on the place of the temple and the pond in village life, extended character portraits such as the one of Mangaraj’s shrewish maid Champa, and meditations upon human nature and Indian history. One of the features of Senapati’s narrative is the multiple levels on which it works simultaneously. “What do these six acres and a third represent?” the narrator asks towards the end of the book. It is reallly a rhetorical question, for we already know how much a plot of land can represent in the hands of a writer as astute as Senapati. His novel casts a searching ironic light upon the injustices of the zamindari system as well, the depredations of British colonialism, the suffocating hierarchies and prejudices of caste, and more generally at man’s capacity for inhumanity to other men.

But the truth is – and this is what is most charming about Senapati – that the author was really a kind of incorrigible ironist. His work is not dependent on the gross folly of the wicked, but the naturally crooked timber of humanity. In fact, if his novel persuades us about anything, it is about the ubiquity of human vanity and frailty. The tone of his narrative is that of the village gossip – sly, garrulous, conspiratorial, and full of hints and winks and insinuations. At one point, while describing the representations of some mythological scenes in Mangaraj’s courtyard, the narrator remarks, “Somewhere in Rajasthan, on seeing the image of a nude woman, Tod Sahib came to the conclusion that all women in ancient India went about naked.” (‘Tod Sahib’ refers to Colonel James Tod, the author of a widely-read book called Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.) On another occasion, we are told about the village priest, a greatly respected man who runs the shrine of the village goddess, Budhi Mangala. “The priest was very highly regarded in the village, particularly by the women,” the narrator notes. “The goddess frequently appeared to him in his dreams and talked to him about everything.” That "about everything" – as if the goddess personally reports to the priest – is a damning phrase.

Cranes and kingfishers
One strand of thought in Six Acres and a Third that seems particularly striking from our twenty-first century point of view is Senapati’s response to the British – their reshaping of Indian civilisation, the adoption of new systems of government and jurisprudence, the newly emergent discourse of Western rationalism and scientific progress, and the missionary zeal of Christianity.

Senapati’s reading of these matters is quite complex. On the one hand, he makes fun of the assumptions of racial superiority held by the British. “Today, in the 19th century, the sciences enjoy great prestige, for they form the basis of all progress,” the narrator declares. “See, the British are white-skinned, whereas Oriyas are dark in complexion. This is because the former have studied the sciences, whereas the latter have no knowledge of these.” Senapati jocularly asserts that what are thought to be racial differences really have their bases in matters of environment: once the Oriyas learn science, they too will become white-skinned, and then the British will have neither an intellectual nor racial basis for lording over them.

But at other points Senapati chastises his own countrymen for the weakness of their opposition to the outsiders. “Historians say it took Clive less time to get the Bengal Subedari from the emperor of Delhi,” the narrator remarks, “than it takes one to buy and sell a donkey.” He is also concerned about the manner in which "English culture is rushing in like the first floods of the river Mahanadi". He mocks the way the new class of English-educated Indians have uncritically adopted Western assumptions: “Ask a new babu his grandfather’s father’s name,” he sniffs, “and he will hem and haw, but the names of the ancestors of England’s Charles the Third will readily roll of his tongue.”

Senapati was a naturally metaphorical writer. Indeed, his metaphors are often striking not just for their vividness and specificity – water lilies fold themselves up and hide during the day “like young Hindu daughters-in-law”; cows chew their cud “like baishnavas, moving their mouths as if they were repeating the divine name” - but for the ways in which grand meanings suddenly emerge from everyday juxtapositions. At one point, speaking of the birds found near the village pond, the narrator notes how the cranes churn the mud “like lowly farmhands” looking for fish all day long, while kingfishers appear suddenly, conduct swift raids, and gorge themselves on the stolen pickings. “Oh, stupid Hindu cranes,” he laments, “look at these English kingfishers…”

The great virtue of this new translation (by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P Mohanty, Jatindra K Nayak and Paul St-Pierre) is that it renders the music of Senapati’s wonderfully salty and colloquial Oriya into a limber and mellifluous English. Nayak has already translated sections of Senapati’s autobiography, and perhaps the entire book will be widely available in an English translation soon. In the meantime, we have this piquant and gossipy book, one of the cleverest and most subtle novels ever written.

Some links: Satya P Mohanty writes about the linguistic and technical innovations of Six Acres and a Third here. A very funny chapter from the novel, "A brief history of the Asura Pond", can be found here. And here is an essay by Jaitirth Rao with some rather unorthodox opinions, "In praise of Thomas Macaulay".

And an old essay on an Indian writer whose work shares some similarities with Senapati: "The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay".


Space Bar said...

"His work is not dependent on the gross folly of the wicked, but the naturally crooked timber of humanity"


I would imagine that this is what separates the writer who works with irony, from the writer who uses savage satire in the manner of a Swift or a Juvenal.

On another tack, there seems to be such a wealth of confidence in the writing from bhasha literatures that the IWE is mostly oblivious of. It's a great pity.

Look forward to reading this one.

anurag said...

Nice post.

'The Hindu' links (under Some Links) are not working. Can you please check them.

Chandrahas said...

Anurag - thanks for that tip. It's fixed now.

And Space Bar - you're quite right about the distinction between irony and satire. Put another way, one might say that comic ironists are warmed by the follies of people, but for satirists these things inspire derision.

There are some elements of both in *Six Acres and a Third*, but in general Senapati leans towards the former mode while reserving the second mode for one or two characters - and even here he is full of surprises. One of the book's most beautiful scenes is that in which Mangaraj, who has been presented ths far as a thoroughly venal man, is suddenly humanised - "forgiven", as it were, by the narrator - by his genuine outbreak of grief at the death of his wife, whom he always treated shabbily when she was alive. We feel suddenly touched by this most unsympathetic of characters - for this brief period all irony and satire have vanished.

And yes, there is a great deal in our vernacular literature that's just as good as anything else in the world, but there aren't enough voices in the worlds of literary criticism or in publishing willing to demonstrate this. I could easily imagine a beautiful series, about a dozen to two dozen volumes long, called "Classics of the Indian Novel". Of all the books I can think of which would be worthy of this label, perhaps no more a fourth would by writers in English.

In fact, *Six Acres and a Third* was first published in America by the University of California Press in December last year, but it appears to have got very little review attention in the American broadsheets - perhaps they, like our very own media, feel more interested in new Indian fiction in English.

om said...

Read the translation of the novel. And now the review. A very informed and incisive take on the novel. As for the lament of neglect by reviewers and readers alike- reading has lost its popularity to other media and we are all responsible for it. Maybe starting with the kids will help for once they are familiar with the joys of reading good literature the future of our books should be in good hands. Looking forward to some more of this good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Amazing, you are an incredible writer. Having read Six Acres and a Third is college I have to say that you provide great insight into the book that really made me open my eyes. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Thanx for highlighting this book in you inimitable and insightful manner.

A refreshingly positive and insightful take on a solid and deserving novel.

I think the story-telling traditions of India are legendary (and perhaps steeped in legend :) or even embedded in our psyche.

From the epics,to Kalidas, to the Panchatantra and all the way down to Premchand. (the exclusions strike me as a glaring need/clarion call for an exhaustive choronology of Indian Fiction to fill in all the blanks, perhaps as an open-source bibliography compilation of sorts)

There simply have to be legions of writers in Indian languages that are just waiting to be re-discovered.

Btw, my grandfather always used that line -- we know 7 generations of the Mughal emperors and the British monarchs but not our own ancestors beyond 3.

SuDhAnSu shines said...

Fakira Mohan Senapati was a revolutionary without his knowledge.It escapes critical attention in most cases. Chandrhas has hinted at it.Thanks.