Fakir Mohan Senapati(1843-1918) has a really interesting name, because Mohan Senapati is a Hindu name whereas Fakir is a Muslim name. So, I thought I might as well explain it, my source being the introduction to this edition by Satya p Mohanty. He was born Braja Mohan Senapati. In his childhood he fell gravely ill. After his grandmother had prayed to all the Hindu Gods she turned to two Muslim saints. In exchange for curing him, she promised to give him up to their religious order as a Fakir. When he recovered, she reneged, but agreed to give him up symbolically by changing his name to Fakir.
Six Acres and a Third(Oenguin Modern Classics edition, Rs. 250) is his first novel. He is also said to have pioneered the genre of the short story in Oriya, though his pioneering story has since been lost.
Ramachandra Mangaraj was a zamindar – a rural landlord – and a prominent moneylender as well, though his transactions in grain far exceeded those in cash. For an area of four kos around, no one else’s business had much influence. He was a very pious man indeed: there are twenty-four ekadasis in a year. If there had been forty such holy days, he would have observed every single one. This is indisputable. Every ekadasi he fasted, taking nothing but water and a few leaves of the sacred basil plant for the entire day. Just the other afternoon, though, Mangaraj’s barber, Jaga, let it slip that on the evenings of ekadasis a large pot of milk, some bananas, and a small quantity of khai and nabata are placed in the master’s bedroom. Very early the next morning, Jaga removes the empty pot and washes it. Hearing this, some people exchanged knowing looks and chuckled. One blurted out, “Not even the father of Lord Mahadeva can catch a clever fellow stealing a drink when he dips under the water.” We’re not absolutely sure what was meant by this, but our guess is that these men were slandering Mangaraj. Ignoring their intentions for the moment, we would like to plead his case as follows: Let the eyewitness who has seen Mangaraj emptying the pot come forward, for like judges in a court of law we are absolutely unwilling to accept hearsay and conjecture as evidence. All the more since science textbooks state unequivocally: “Liquids evaporate.” Is milk not a liquid? Why should milk in a zamindar’s household defy the laws of science? Besides, there were moles, rats and bugs in his bedroom. And in whose house can mosquitoes and flies not be found? Like all base creatures of appetite, these are always on the lookout for food; such creatures are not spiritually minded like Mangaraj, who had the benefit of listening to the holy scriptures. It would be a great sin, then, to doubt Mangaraj’s piety or unwavering devotion.
Jonathan Swift – about whom I speak solely from reputation and hearsay – felt the need to create believable characters and put them in situations strangely reminiscent of reality to perform his satire. Fakir Mohan Senapati, in his Six Acres and a Third (translated by a veritable army consisting of Satya P. Mohanty, Rabi Shankar Mishra, Jatindra K. Nayak and Paul St-Pierre),feels no such need. His characters are all caricatures, his Orissa a land that exists only inasmuch as it helps him make his point, but I believed in them nevertheless.
When I finished this book, I thought this was a ‘great’ book in the same way that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, because of its importance. It is widely touted, to the extent that it is touted at all, as being the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature, as showing the ‘view from below’ before most of India had heard of anything along the lines of Marxism, as … well, quite a few more things, as described in Satya P. Mohanty’s (rather averagely written, even if makes good points) introduction. But, now, five days after having finished it, I realise that there may be more to the greatness this book than just importance. Not that I ever thought it wasn’t a very good book, but it just didn’t strike me as a candidate for greatness merely on basis of quality. Now, as I was typing up that quote, I realized that not only had Senapati got me to believe in the caricatures while I was reading it, I still believe in Ramachandra Mangaraj and co.
All he does is make no pretensions at depth, or naturalism. His narrator is nothing more than a ‘dispassionate’ (I’ll come back to these quotation marks) observer, who tells us merely what he sees, what he ‘concludes’, and the results of his ‘research’. This, you would think, isn’t very hard to do. Take, for counter-example, Albert Camus’s The Outsider, a review of which was my first post on this blog. My primary complaint with it was that it felt as if Camus wasn’t trying hard enough to convince us, because everything from the plot to the characters apart from the protagonist struck me as very poorly thought-out. Max Cairnduff commented saying that it wasn’t intended as a naturalistic piece in the first place. Which is a fair reason for disagreement; the primary reason we disagree about quality of art is that some things are more important to some people than they are to others. My point in bringing this up was that I felt no such irritation while reading Six Acres and a Third, which I feel even works as a naturalistic piece. This is so because Senapati makes so little pretence, makes everything he says sound so provisional, that I can take it as the version of truth as offered by someone not completely disinvolved.
And, therein lies the crux of the narration; the book is narrated by a person, or persons – even common people from Orissa and Bihar tend to use the royal pronoun, and the narrator could well be an investigator for the English, so I can’t be sure though I lean towards it being just one person –, who’s not involved but is making a thinly-veiled pretence at being one of the people whose life depends on these people whose dealings he talks of. I can say this because of the way it is said: looking at the quote, you can see three levels of narration, so to say. First, we have the fact that he is using Western courtroom logic to defend Ramachandra Mangaraj. Then, we have the fact that he is revealing facts that can only incriminate the man. Then, he is using the worst logic available to save him nevertheless, inasmuch as he will then be safe in a (caricaturised) court of law. He’s attacking Mangaraj, and thinly veiling it as a defence. The whole book – which, compliments to the author, is very short, less than two hundred very loosely packed pages – passes in such a flurry of multiple but obvious levels of deceit, most of the time more thinly-veiled than the rest of it. Sometimes, we even see trickery in the narrator’s mention of his target audience.
There is a plot, but it only comes in the second half of the book. Senapati packs most of it with a set of vignettes showcasing corruption at various levels – and the various branches of each level – of society, going as high as is relevant from the villagers’ point of view. Brahmins, peasants, zamindars, policemen, lawyers – especially lawyers, since it is their language which is used as the medium of satire –, they all come under scrutiny. There are six acres and a third, not to mention a cow, that are seized, and which go to court etc. Interestingly, even the victims of the seizing aren’t completely honest. Most interestingly, the only good people in the book barely talk; there are two, and one of them gets one scene with three, maybe four, barely functional dialogues. The other one? He only gets a few actions to perform.
It sounds so complex (here, I’m talking about morally complex, all the little implications; my ‘levels of writing’ are actually fairly obvious, even necessary for a book claiming to be a satire). But, when I read it, I thought the book was written in a simple, lucid style with few depths I was surprised to have plumbed. It is nothing more than the highest compliment to Senapati that all of his meaning came across so clearly. After I finished the book, I read Mohanty’s introduction, and there’s very little of this write-up that uses things I’ve learnt from Mohanty. Not because I found the points unworthy but because I already knew them. It was valuable only as a history lesson on this book. It is this simplicity, supported strongly by the cultural – it was the apex of nineteenth century realism in Indian literature – as well as historical – as a burning critique of the British administration – importance that makes this a great book. And I never even mentioned the anger simmering beneath the narrative, with about as much obvious force as this sentence.