Fakir Mohan Senapati’s alternative discourse
IN a series of orders ranging from 26 December 2019 to as recently as 7 May 2021, the Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of West Bengal directed the selective hiring of ‘Doms’ – an ‘untouchable’ caste – for disposing COVID-19 positive dead bodies from the mortuary of various hospitals as well as the construction of separate ‘Dom rooms’ adjoining the mortuary.1
If the ongoing pandemic has been used to justify the continuing violation of constitutional protection of ‘untouchable’ castes in ‘independent’ India, the order exposes and reinforces a long history of discriminatory caste practices in India’s social geography. One of the earliest representations of such practices can be found in the 19th century novel, Chha Maana Atha Guntha, or Six Acres and a Third (1896): Fakir Mohan Senapati describes the site of the novel, Gobindapuras ‘divided into three quarters: the Saanta or master’s quarter, the weavers’ quarter, and the Brahmin quarter.’2 Further, ‘the Dom quarter, some four or five hundred steps from where the weavers lived, was surrounded by rice fields. It was not a separate village; it formed part of Gobindapur. There lived ten Dom families and Gobara Jena, the village chowkidar. For his services, he received an acre and a half of land.’3
That it is possible to refer back to a 19th century novel to find historical continuities for contemporary practices of segregation is telling of the stubborn persistence of specific forms of oppression, despite political freedom. And yet, the very ability of the novel to withstand continual reevaluation of its relevance to address new problems in changing times makes the novel a classic.4 Often recognized as the ‘culmination of the tradition of realism’5 in modern Indian literature, Senapati’s novel provides an illuminating description about changing social relations and the law in colonial rural India through the story of an evil landlord and moneylender Ramachandra Mangaraj who exploits poor peasants and appropriates the property of others, including that of the weaver couple Bhagia and Saria.
And yet, the novel is not merely an instrument of representation. Its robustness as a classic lies more in his analysis of the ‘ideological underpinnings of the literary representation’6 of the object of representation, in this case, of colonial Indian village society. If colonial social relations persist today, it is because they produced and are reproduced by the very ideological frameworks that Senapati critiques. It is for this reason that I find Senapati’s novel written in Oriya – itself a site of resistance against Bengali cultural hegemony in the colonial context – instructive to understand our cont-emporary social world.
A response to Reverend Lal Behari Day’s Govind Samanta, or Bengal Peasant Life (1878), Senapati exposes Day’s Orientalist representation of Indian village life by mediating between the object of representation, i.e. Oriya villagers, and the colonialist assumptions of the novel’s English-speaking Oriya readers through the literary innovation of the sardonic touter-narrator who inhabits the lower rungs of society and alone can survive Mangaraj’s oppression.7
Thus, while rewriting Day’s representation of women bathing at the village pond, Senapati gives ‘a brief history of Asura Pond, as told to us by Ekadusia, the ninety-five-year-old weaver’8 and makes a direct address to ‘English-educated babus’9 to ‘not be too critical of our local historian, Ekadusia Chandra. If you are, half of what Marshman and Tod have written will not survive the light of scrutiny.’10 As Satya Mohanty notes, by rehabilitating the village historian and questioning the authority of English historians of Indian village life, Senapati makes as his primary object of satire, ‘the English-educated babu, who imitates colonial values mindlessly and accepts uncritically its condescending attitudes toward indigenous Indian culture.’11 Rather than in the 1960s then, as Syed Farid Alatas states in the introduction of this issue, the problem of intellectual imperialism and the resultant phenomenon of the captive mind was already recognized by colonial writers such as Senapati in the late 19th century.
In fact, the first few pages of the chapter Bhagia, the Weaver, and Saria, His Wife help demonstrate a few of the traits of the captive mind as elaborated by Syed Hussein Alatas12 almost a century later. First, the narrator appraises the domination of western thought13 by remarking that the English-educated babu can understand the role and function of the village temple only if ‘we use English instead of native terms: the temple in the village functioned as a church, a public library, a restaurant, and a town hall.’14
Second, the uncritical imitation of western thought15 is critiqued in the import of ‘ruchi’ – taste, without which, one is considered a fool, uncouth, uncivilized; it is thus that the literary reputation of the great 18th century Oriya poet Upendra Bhanja who wrote in the tradition of classical Sanskrit poetry had been attacked by contemporaries in the modernist literary journal Bijuli (literally lightning).16
Third, the narrator points to a separation from one’s own intellectual pursuit:17 ‘Ask a new babu his grandfather’s father’s name and he will hem and haw, but the names of the ancestors of England’s Charles the Third will readily roll off his tongue. To be considered a scholar, it is necessary to have read about the English or the French; there is no point in learning about oneself or one’s neighbour.’18
Senapati’s narrator uses irony to highlight the dependence of the method of
thinking on current stereotypes.19 Thus, ‘if you are a civilized babu, you
will surely believe that this saying (as stupid as a weaver) is absolutely true…But, “weaver intelligence” is a complicated expression… the word weaver denotes a stupid person, but not every stupid person is a weaver. Think of the Manchester weavers, who made the British Parliament tremble. It is thanks to them that you can present yourself as a babu.’20
Fifth, unlike Day’s novel, where the absence of colonial rule indicates a captive mind that is alienated from the major issues of one’s own society,21 Senapati never ceases to critique the changes wrought by colonial rule. For instance, under the new system of English law, ‘the clever and the rich get off, even though in truth, they are guilty of hundreds of crimes; while the simple and poor get into trouble and are harassed for their innocence in the law courts.’22
Six Acres is exceptional then because it is an ‘epistemic’23 intervention that critiques ‘ideology that inheres in our representational habits.’24 However, it is not only an early identifier of the problem of intellectual imperialism, but also a critique of the problems that inhere in Indian society itself, and a powerful early reminder that political freedom is meaningless without economic and social freedom.
Written from the ‘perspective of the horse, the ordinary villager, the foot soldier’,25 while Senapati draws attention to the exercise of power enabled by the dominant colonial legal system, he alludes to an even more revered authority, the classical Indian discourse of the Nyaya Shastra (The Treatise on Logic). Through the novel, he mimics its syllogistic reasoning to provide a critique of the prevailing caste-based hierarchy, thus trans-forming the Shastras into an instrument of subversion.
Thus, Senapati first establishes the manner in which knowledge of the Shastras is used to legitimate Brahmin dominance. Pandit Sibu was, like his grandfather, ‘a great scholar…could recite all five chapters of the Amarkosh dictionary, without even looking at the text…His ‘stepfather’s uncle’s son’s brother’s brother-in-law’s cousin had studied the Nyaya Shastra at Nabadwip’ and it was owing to Pandit Sibu’s family that ‘scholarship had not altogether disappeared from the Brahmin quarter.’26
Senapati then challenges Brahmins’ ethical claims of being natural superiors; if according to the Shastras, the hallmarks of Brahminhood are ‘self-control, meditation, performance of duties, purity, contentment, forgiveness, honesty, simplicity,’27 a description of the modern Brahmin reveals discrepancies:
‘Listen to me, O king Pariksha.
These are the qualities of Sundar Tripathy,
A Brahmin of our time:
He takes rice gruel with salted fish,
Of learning he knows nothing;
Adorned with the sacred thread and sandal paste,
He pulls weeds from the rice fields;
A meal of curd and rice flakes, he always craves,
Prayers and the gayatri Mantra, he never chants;
He catches small fish in the rice fields,
And never opens his sacred books;
He steals rice from clients who are his hosts,
At learned gatherings, he never says a word.’28
Tripathy had inherited the position of family priest because he was lawfully begotten a Brahmin; citing the Shastras that a guru applies the balm of knowledge and opens the eyes of his pupils blinded by the disease of ignorance, Senapati delegitimizes the hereditary privileges of Brahmins by asking defiantly, ‘Now tell us, is a person your guru because he is learned or because he is the son of a guru?’29
But the Shastras are also used to describe the everyday life of the labouring classes. Thus, the narrator uses the Shastra: ‘All rivers run to the sea, where they lose their sweetness and become salty’ to describe the exploitation of the twelve farmhands, all untouchables, and young daughters-in-law in the Mangaraj household who are ‘infused with a spirit of hard work and a sense of dedication’ and ‘lose themselves in their master.’30 A little later, the narrator once again uses the Shastras advice that ‘only the small-minded make a distinction between mine and thine,’31 to ironically justify Mangaraj’s capture of half the seedlings from the plot of land of Shyam Gochhaita, a Bauri, an untouchable, who was left to howl and grovel at Mangaraj’s feet for mercy, in vain.
And yet, this is not a dichotomous tale between Brahmin and dalit, for corruption and exploitation is so endemic that traditional kin relationships disappear even as changing social relations wrought by colonial rule enable new alliances for the exploitation of one’s own community. Thus, Jena, although himself a Pana – an untouchable caste – was a ‘bribe taker’32 and had become rich through scheming with Mangaraj in the exploitation of his kinsmen. Thus, ‘it was suspected that they (Panas) were involved in thefts, dacoities, and waylaying travellers. This suspicion was based on knowledge of the number of times the police visited the Panas, and the Panas visited the prison. Our Gobardhan had one great quality: if a Pana was jailed, he looked after his helpless family members. He arranged for them to have supplies of grain from Mangaraj’s store.’33
If on the one hand, the narrator directs us to the disruption of caste solidarity, it also exposes the social nexus between the moneylender – who emerges as the most important figure of colonial village life – and the law. And yet, in an anticipatory response to Subaltern Studies’ recognition of the challenges of writing a people’s history in the absence of written records, Senapati writes from the perspective of the labouring poor, providing us an insight into their social worlds and documenting resistance. It is thus that he says in his ironic manner of the oppressed Panas, ‘detractors, however, always remain detractors; these people never stopped bad-mouthing Jena. They attached a very different meaning to this good trait of Gobardhan’s and cast aspersions on Mangaraj’s charity toward the Panas’ families.’34
What is crucial here is Senapati’s deployment of speech as a method of resistance of the oppressed: if postcolonial studies have emphasized the reading of silence as a mode of resistance, especially for women, Senapati’s attribution of speech as a form of resistance to the Pana men poses a necessary question: what of the women in Senapati’s novel? Do they speak?
Such a question is important given that the three primary female characters in the novel: Saantani, Mangaraj’s wife; Champa, Mangaraj’s mistress; and Saria, Bhagia’s wife; all eventually succumb, through death, to the subjugating power of a patriarchal system. And yet, their death is not an absolute death, they haunt the present either as ghosts or as god, they live on in the novel as after-lives, not living, nor dead, but half-dead.
Even though Champa is ‘Harakala – the mistress of all wicked arts’35 – she is more intelligent than Mangaraj as he himself admits; she conspires with Mangaraj to capture Bhagia’s six acres and a third, and then steals Mangaraj’s wealth after he is imprisoned and runs off with the barber Gobinda, but is then killed by Gobinda in a competition of greed. However, she does not die; instead, she becomes a ‘huge ghost… sitting on the banyan tree and shaking its branches; sometimes the ghost would go to the riverbed at mid-day and scatter sand to the winds. The ghat was no longer called Gopalpur Ghat; it was known as the Abode of the Ghost.’36
Saria on the other hand, is an honest weaver, ‘a simple, innocent ewe’37 whose idyllic marital life with Bhagia was filled with ‘such heavenly qualities as devoted love between husband and wife, holiness of affection, absolute bliss, unfailing physical well -being, and simple piety.’38 However, she nurtures ‘a strange longing for children;’39 not only does this result in the fetish of her cow, Neta, but she is driven to mortgage the six acres and a third to Mangaraj to secure a loan to build a temple for Goddess Buddhi Mangala who will grant her a child. However, Bhagia and Saria are unable to repay the loan on time, and Mangaraj brings down their house and takes away Neta.
Saria sits on the same spot in the Mangaraj household for eight days, wailing ‘my six acres and a third, my six acres and a third, my Neta, my Neta’40 without eating anything. She would cling to Saantani’s feet and weep bitterly. A few days later, at midnight, Mangaraj gave her twenty blows on her back with a bamboo lathi. Saria died but in Mangaraj’s sleep while in prison, he would see ‘a terrifying figure in the sky with long hair hanging loose from its monstrous head.’ It seemed to be ‘the same woman working the spindles on the verandah of the weaver’s house… who had now assumed this monstrous form and looked so grotesque and fearsome. And this terrifying figure thundered at him, “Give me my six and a third acres”.’41
Saantani too had not eaten for seven days and would weep along with Saria. She flung herself at Mangaraj’s feet, entreating him to return Saria’s land, but he did not pay heed to her, and kept quiet when Champa abused her. She refused medicine and soon passed away. Perhaps the only unnamed female character in the novel, Saantani found great happiness in serving mankind, had no desire to dominate, treated everyone equally, and always took the side of the weak. She was the ‘living embodiment of such heavenly qualities such as kindness, love, and devotion.’42 She believed her sacred duty was to serve her husband, and although fate denied her a husband’s affection, she suffered this neglect without complaint. And in fact, when Mangaraj was being haunted by Saria, Saantani, full of light, seated on a jeweled throne far above the circle of the sun in the endless sky was beckoning him, still forgiving. It is in the godly vision of this protector of the unprotected and redeemer of the fallen that he found refuge and toward whom his soul fled.
Ulka Anjaria reads the narrative silence around Saria and Saantani as more than a mere reflection of the morally compromised social worlds of late nineteenth century feudal Orissa and colonial India; rather, it is also a device to generate an ‘ethics of description’43 of such marginalization. Moreover, if the idealized figures are a response to the silencing of women, silence is also used by women as a weapon of empowerment. Thus, Saantani’s silence is resistance to the injustice of her husband keeping a mistress, an active rejection of the frantic and self-serving garrulity of the world of Mangaraj and the lawyers,44 and as Rabi Shankar Mishra suggests, by not speaking back to her husband but conducting herself as per her own values rather than his, she maintains her dignity and power.45
Claire Horan disagrees that Saantani is a mode of empowerment because she represents an oppressive Indian ideal that casts women solely as wives and mothers who should emulate the honour and purity of goddesses. Women, she argues, should not have to lead lives of suffering and self-denial in order to be mourned at their death. Moreover, by turning Saantani into a god, perhaps Senapati was already questioning the ideal of a perfect woman:46
‘A man is fully a man only when all these elements (such as kindness, attachment, love, affection, jealousy, hostility, and cruelty) are in proper harmony, but he loses his humanity when one element comes to dominate. When that happens, man turns into either a god or a demon.’47
On the other side of the spectrum is Champa, to whom he is unsympathetic, and yet, describes as powerful, intelligent, and strong, possessing strength equal to Gobind. As Horan notes, ‘for a male author in the late 19th century to suggest that men and women have equal strength and force of character was unusual in any culture.’48 And in fact, Senapati’s ideal relationship is based on equality. Thus, not only do Saria and Bhagia suffer equally, but they have an egalitarian relationship with Bhagia being a vessel, and Saria its well-fitting lid. They form a whole, neither functioning without the other. It is thus, Horan suggests, that Senapati saw the human soul – human nature – as ungendered.
I want to take seriously Horan’s claim of an ungendered human soul: Senapati’s intervention is not limited to arguing for an equality between male and female bodies or noting the possibility of masculinity in female characters; rather, he articulates an emphatically feminist position that is not tied to a gendered body but to a mode of being. Thus, even though Champa, Saria and Saantani demonstrate agency, none represents the vision of an alternative world; if Champa and Saria are caught in the fangle of fetish, one of wealth, the other of child, Saantani is rendered not human but god. It is in fact Bhagia who, in his madness, provides a critique of the capitalist-patriarchal society and thus occupies the feminist position of an ethical universe.
And yet, this does not mean that for Senapati, only a male character could embody his ethical vision; rather, not only do the characteristics of greed for wealth, unbridled desire for a child, and unconditional kindness in Champa, Saria and Saantani respectively serve as critical comments on the normative values of patriarchal discourse, but also depict the challenges faced by those born female in a patriarchal society. Thus, for instance, Saria, perhaps closest to Bhagia in Senapati’s ethical vision, is accused of bringing disgrace to the village by being barren, driving her to take the mortgage to please the Goddess.
Bhagia was simple-minded, hardworking, generous, and had no enemies. When Saria was troubled about the lack of a child, he consoled her, ‘God has not given us what we want. Why pine for it?’49 After Saria dies, he becomes the figure of madness and hysteria; at the Cuttack Sessions Court where Mangaraj is being tried for Saria’s death, ‘a madman appeared, a rag tied around his waist, his hair disheveled, and dust covering his body… He broke into a wild sort of dance, shouting, “Saria, Saria!”…When he caught sight of Mangaraj, he lunged at him to bite him.’50 Arrested, in prison too, he danced wildly and shouted, ‘Oh my Saria, oh my six and a third acres,’51 trying to bite Mangaraj whenever he saw him.
Saria’s desire for a child is framed by a capitalist patriarchal discourse that convert desire into meaningless drive, feeding on individual creations of fetish to replace the alienation wrought by capitalism. It is thus that Saria’s last words remained Neta – her fetish to replace the incomplete desire for a child – and six acres and a third. Bhagia on the other hand, in his madness, exposes the madness of the prevailing system; his madness, like hysteria, serves the function of a symptom that exposes the garb behind a seemingly well-functioning system. It points to the fact that something is wrong, despite claims to the contrary.
And yet, this does not mean that Bhagia had a natural right to the property: rather, by suggesting that Bhagia’s father acquired the contentious six acres and third of land because of his power, Senapati questions the moral justification of land ownership, suggesting that all property is theft and the real owners are only those who create social value, the labouring masses. It is precisely this suggestion that Bhagia embodies in his madness, rendering unstable and tenuous easy binaries between colonizer-colonized, male-female, landlord-peasant.
While concerned with the identification and disruption of power then, the novel acts not merely as an ‘unrelenting critique, satire, and skeptical analysis’52 and neither does it limit itself to documenting resistance; rather, it embodies the madness of capital’s encounter with ‘culture’ and locates in precisely the figure gone mad by this encounter, the potentiality for an alternative ethical vision. For the figure gone mad poses an irruption, forcing an interregnum, compelling a questioning of what is otherwise taken for granted, in an attempt to make moral meaning in both discourse and action. As such, it anticipatorily answers S.F. Alatas’ call ‘to go beyond merely talking about the problem to actually practice alternative discourse.’
1. Anurag Bhaskar, Subhajit Naskar, Priyanka Preet, Ramachandran, ‘Selective Hiring of “Dom” Caste Amid Pandemic in West Bengal: The Casteist Attack on The Constitution’, livelaw.in, 05 June 2021.
2. Fakir Mohan Senapati, translated from Oriya by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P. Mohanty, Jatindra K. Nayak, Paul St-Pierre, Six Acres and a Third: The Classic Nineteenth Century Novel about Colonial India. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, p. 78.
3. Ibid., p. 97.
4. Melvin Richter,‘Introduction’, in Martine J. Burke and Melvin Richter (eds.), Why Concepts Matter: Translating Social and Political Thought. Brill, Leiden & Boston, pp. 1-40, p. 9.
5. Sisir Kumar Das, A History of Indian Literature, 1800-1910. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1991, p. 296.
6. Satya P. Mohanty, ‘The Epistemic Work of Literary Realism: Two Novels from Colonial India’, in Ulka Anjaria (ed.), History of the Indian Novel in English. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, p. 49.
7. Satya P. Mohanty, ‘Introduction’, in Six Acres, p. 6.
8. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 19.
9. Ibid., p. 20.
12. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism: Definition, Traits, and Problems’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 28(1), 2000, pp. 23-45.
14. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 87.
15. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’.
16. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 58.
17. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’.
18. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 84.
19. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’.
20. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 85.
21. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’.
22. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 85.
23. Satya P. Mohanty, ‘The Epistemic Work of Literary Realism’.
24. Satya P. Mohanty, ‘Introduction’, in Six Acres, p. 23.
25. Ibid., p. 2.
26. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 80.
27. Ibid., p. 88.
28. Ibid., p. 89.
29. Ibid., p. 90.
30. Ibid., p. 46.
31. Ibid., p. 48.
32. Ibid., p. 97.
33. Ibid., p. 99.
35. Ibid., p. 55.
36. Ibid., p. 202.
37. Ibid., p. 111.
38. Ibid., p. 95.
39. Ibid., p. 92.
40. Ibid., p. 160.
41. Ibid., p. 216.
42. Ibid., p. 145.
43. Ulka Anjaria,‘“Why Don’t You Speak?”: The Narrative Politics of Silence in Senapati, Premchand and Monica Ali’, in Satya P. Mohanty (ed.), Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2011, pp. 153-172, p. 158.
45. Rabi Shankar Mishra, ‘Chha Mana Atha Guntha: The Language of Power and the Silences of a Woman’, in Meenakshi Mukherjee (ed.), Early Novels in India. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 240-60.
46. Claire Horan, ‘The Representation of Women and Gender Relations in Six Acres and a Third, in Satya P. Mohanty (ed.), Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2011, pp. 173-186.
47. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 149.
48. Claire Horan,‘The Representation of Women’, p. 178.
49. Fakir Mohan Senapati, transl. by Rabi Shankar Mishra et al., Six Acres, p. 96.
50. Ibid., p. 167.
51. Ibid., p. 211.
52. Satya P. Mohanty, ‘Introduction, in Six Acres, p. 14.