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Mining Six Acres and a Third

What makes Fakir Mohan Senapati’s 19th century Oriya novel so extraordinary?

Colonialism,Modernity and Literature: A View from India

Edited by

Satya P. Mohanty

Orient Longman

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Pages: 262

Rs 695

In a famous essay published in 1990,the poet and literary scholar A.K. Ramanujan asked the question,“Is there an Indian way of thinking?” In the closing years of the nineteenth century,the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati appears to have asked himself the question: “Is there an Indian way of writing a novel?”

Senapati’s brilliant answer took the form of a novel called Chha Mana Atha Guntha,published in serial form in an Oriya magazine in 1895-97,then as a book in 1902,and at long last in an English translation adequate to its linguistic energy and narrative agility as late as 2006. Upon publication of Six Acres and a Third,as the English translation was called,it instantly became obvious that this was one of the greatest novels of the Indian pantheon,as revelatory and powerful today as in its own time.

What did Senapati do that was so remarkable? His novel tells the story of the rise and fall of a greedy zamindar,Ramachandra Mangaraj,as he plots to capture the verdant landholding — the eponymous six acres and a third — of a pair of humble weavers in his village in Orissa. But this in itself was not unique. All over India at this point of time,a generation of writers across the panoply of Indian languages was discovering the power of the novel as a tool to depict the realities and injustices of the world around them.

The crux of Senapati’s achievement lies not so much in what he said,but in how he chose to say it. From the very beginning,Senapati’s narrator uses a plural “we” to bind himself and the reader up with the world of the story,like a village storyteller sitting with an audience of friends and intimates by a lantern under a tree at night.

Sly,salty,riddling and chirruping,the narrator of Six Acres appears not to inhabit a stable world of truth retailed to the reader from on high,in the manner of the classic nineteenth-century British novel. Rather,he is shunted between competing knowledge systems and ways of making meaning,such as the traditional village order,colonial modernity and the flickers of his own nonconformist intelligence.

The great merit of Colonialism,Modernity and Literature,a new book of essays by different hands on Six Acres and a Third,is that in making an argument for the ingenuity and subtlety of Senapati’s narrative art,it also serves to showcase the interpretative range and appetite for ideas of contemporary Indian literary criticism. Edited by Satya P. Mohanty,one of the translators of Six Acres,the anthology brings together striking readings of Senapati’s novel by both Indian and western scholars,in a language that is theoretical and conceptual without being inhospitable to the lay reader.

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The contributors demonstrate how Senapati Indianised the novel by seeding it with the communal intimacy and the scepticism of Indian oral storytelling traditions,creating in place of the “descriptive realism” of contemporaries like Bankimchandra Chatterji a narrative voice as murky and as fertile as the village pond to which Senapati devotes one of his chapters.

In one essay,Himansu Mohapatra explains how Senapati’s “complex and polyphonic realism” produces a more powerfully analytical world-picture than even that of a novelist as socially conscious as Premchand,because Senapati works in such a way as to reveal the “causal joints” of the world. Simultaneously,the “links,nudges and dodges” of the narrator produce “an active reader”,one who discerns the sceptical and critical awareness required of him as a political subject.

The writers also toss Senapati’s novel into a dialogue with books from other languages and traditions,thereby working it into the canvas of world literature. The scholar of Telugu literature Velcheru Narayana Rao compares Six Acres with another late nineteenth-century work,Gurajada Apparao’s play Girls for Sale,to show how both writers deserve to be seen as creators of an indigenous modernity that could see the faults and failings of the traditional Indian order without assenting wholesale to the values of Western modernity.

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Even more interestingly,the critic Jennifer Harford Vargas links the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez not to Salman Rushdie but instead to Senapati. Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Six Acres try to shake off the burden of the colonial gaze,Vargas notes,by employing “underground types of storytelling — mainly oral,ironic,dialogic,and parodic ones — developed by those on the underside of power”.

Without raising the subject directly,Mohanty’s anthology has something to say to the contemporary Indian novel in English. The great mass of novels in this domain today,whether popular novels written in an undemanding style or literary novels seeking a more complex awareness of language and character,remain intellectually lazy and formally unambitious,unthinkingly applying dozens of large and small narrative conventions to the act of storytelling.

Through the independence and energy of his example,Senapati serves as a rebuke to complacent,even consumerist,storytelling,and its demonisation of formal innovation as something self-indulgent or pretentious. As the essays in this stimulating anthology demonstrate,when someone works on the scale that Senapati did to think the novel anew,that book always remains new.

First published on: 01-10-2011 at 12:05:08 am
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