ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

An Oriya Village and the Battle of Plassey

Fakir Mohan Senapati engages the reader actively in his attempt to portray the very ordinary experiences that affect lives in Gobindapur. By using varied discourses and competing points of view and an almost omniscient ironic narrator, Senapati brings to notice human subjects who are otherwise on the margins of privilege. However, these different strands of discourse, while appearing sutured, are also incompatible politically. There is realistic fiction in the way Senapati portrays human nature; at the same time, his depictions of extremes in temperament belong to the realm of folk melodrama. Thus, hierarchical structures of domination, such as those in the village, are much to blame for human suffering, yet the use of folk melodrama by Senapati would appear to locate this suffering in a demonically evil person, i e, a witch. Senapati's truest vision emerges where these twin currents appear to intermingle, when he uses language and irony to play off logic against hearsay, science against superstition and learned discourse against plain speech.

An Oriya Village and the Battle of Plassey

Senapati’s Allegory of the Raj

Fakir Mohan Senapati engages the reader actively in his attempt to portray the very ordinary experiences that affect lives in Gobindapur. By using varied discourses and competing points of view and an almost omniscient ironic narrator, Senapati brings to notice human subjects who are otherwise on the margins of privilege. However, these different strands of discourse, while appearing sutured, are also incompatible politically. There is realistic fiction in the way Senapati portrays human nature; at the same time, his depictions of extremes in temperament belong to the realm of folk melodrama. Thus, hierarchical structures of domination, such as those in the village, are much to blame for human suffering, yet the use of folk melodrama by Senapati would appear to locate this suffering in a demonically evil person, i e, a witch. Senapati’s truest vision emerges where these twin currents appear to intermingle, when he uses language and irony to play off logic against hearsay, science against superstition and learned discourse against plain speech.


riginality, in literature as in other pursuits, is a new way of borrowing and resembling. To an American reader and critic who specialises in British Victorian literature, reading Senapati’s Six Acres and a Third feels familiar and astonishing at once: familiar because the representational problems Senapati faced are well known in western literary history, but astonishing because his bold fusion of various discourses and traditions produces a new event in the mind and a new way of understanding human social experience. The problems he faced in presenting a view “from below” in a local language are formidable enough – then and today – to bear rehearsing. How does a writer of the left use language, inherently class-marked, in ways that break through hierarchies of power, knowledge, and class privilege? How does one write and record speech “from below” without abandoning a language capable of intellectual complexity, irony, and range of reference? How does one mediate between the abstract audience of the print marketplace and the modes and subjects of oral tradition? How does one represent the dignity and actuality of experience “from below” without suppressing the anti-progressive elements that powerlessness produces – the forms of oppression, brutality, and inherited ignorance that occur locally as well as in the capitals and the courts?

These questions assume that fictional representations are never simple transcripts of a pure, unmediated truth. This is true not because (as popular postmodernism would have it) “the real” is a mysteriously elusive and unknowable horizon or thing-in-itself and “reference” is a category so problematic it must be suspended from serious literary discussion. I would suggest rather that language is multiple – a congeries of discourses, styles, modes of transmission, and inherited affinities that bear the marks of the structures of power from which they emerge and that produce meaning in implied relationship to other discourses and styles. Even a plain style, such as Senapati often uses, would be heard by a reader against contrasting discourses in print (ornate, technical, literary, learned) or against the spoken language of the humble (simple, crude, uneducated). These affiliations of style reflect a hierarchy of importance, drawn from the histories of the powerful and internalised as common sense, that elevates some human events while marginalising or silencing others as beneath notice. Thus, in the perspective of the official discourses, Clive’s victory at Plassey stands near the top in the scale of importance whereas the disposition of six and a third acres in an Oriya village stands, as it were, beneath the bottom.1

Given these circumstances, the most direct representation of ordinary experience may, paradoxically, be a form of “perspectivalism” that withdraws privilege from the conventional hierarchies of importance, forces the reader to reorient herself among competing discourses and points of view, and in this way brings human subjects who are beneath official notice into clear focus. This is Senapati’s approach. He parodies learned and professional styles in order to expose their status not as universal sources of human wisdom and moral judgment but as ideological instruments that historically have framed the lives of the oppressed and kept them where they are, no matter what the specific language (Persian, English) of the invader; and he does this through the brilliant invention of an ironic narrator who acts as a wily, mocking, flamboyant orchestrator of audiences, attitudes, and verbal styles. I am here following Satya Mohanty, who argues that to understand the political achievement of Six Acres and a Third one must first understand Senapati’s complex experiments in narrative irony, an irony that produces what Mohanty calls an active reader.2 I too begin with an account of the ironic narrator and the active reader. I will then attempt to show how Senapati forces his active reader to adopt, in opposition to an official perspective, a “folk” perspective that ironically aligns itself on the one hand with the “objective” products of official surveillance and on the other with women as the primary source of gossip and myth and on the other. This muiltiple perspective, I argue, ends in a profound vision of human material existence – embodied in the form of a god-like cow – that consorts complexly with Senapati’s radical political critique and with his religious conception of human destiny.

Eulogy or Folk Narrative

As the book opens, Senapati’s fictionalised narrator3 pretends to celebrate the life of his corrupt zamindar, Ramachandra Mangaraj, by deploying the learned discourses of the Englisheducated Indian intelligentsia – Sanskrit scripture, classical poetry, English science and law, and the logical tradition of the Nyaya school. We learn, for example, that Mangaraj secretly enjoys a meal of milk, bananas, ‘khai’ and ‘nabata’ in the evening of a fast. The narrator hints at this fact then withdraws it by asserting, scientifically, that liquids evaporate, and legally, that no conclusion is justified without incontrovertible proof; like an American newspaper, he uses a superfluity of pages to contain the truth rather than reveal it. In his hands, the learned discourses turn out to constitute an ideological system that enables and rationalises the British policy of ruling through corrupt local elites and a coopted class of minor officials – the babus.4

But the narrator’s purported scepticism (about aspersions on Mangaraj’s virtue) also constructs an active reader who, I would argue, is not so much a postmodern reader, dubious about all truth-claims, as a “folk” interpreter. Situated this way, we as readers become adept at reading between the lines in order to grasp the way power is wielded in Gobindapur – to understand who oppresses whom and how they do it. That, of course, puts us down “below.” In a world governed by official and unofficial duplicity, those who are “below” survive, not by subtle disputation, but by reading the signs, catching hints, forming quick conclusions based on long experience – what is often called “peasant wit.” When the landlord’s milk disappears overnight, you shouldn’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind will blow. In the first reported dialogue of the novel, a villager remarks, “Not even the father of Lord Mahadeva can catch a clever fellow stealing a drink under the water” (pp 35-36) – a remark the narrator doesn’t understand, even though he has studied science, classical literature, and the law.

As the novel unfolds, we recognise not just that we are positioned as folk-interpreters but that the plot is also recognisable as a folk narrative. I mean chiefly by this a form that depicts structures of power through traditional character-types; the landlords, the priests, the nobles, and the supreme ruler are scoundrels feeding off the poor, and the plots are elaborate intrigues either perpetrated or foiled by an equally witty and cynical folk hero (who is strikingly absent in this text). But this level of Senapati’s irony – the unmasking of villainy through the double construction of a “learned” but ignorant (or feignedignorant) narrator and a clever reader – achieves a subtler dimension when the narrator attempts to explain away not just Mangaraj’s deceits but the whole functioning of the system of which Mangaraj is a small part.

From the point of view of peasant and babu alike, the relationships of power are hidden, their sources distant, their manifestations magical. Once Persian was the language of the ruling class and the petty bureaucracy, now it is English; once the Khandayats governed all of Orissa, now they are powerless; once Mangaraj was a sharecropper who received only two acres of land from the village headman, now he owns 572 acres, according to the latest accounts. The only thing certain is that the villagers will always be oppressed – and that clarity is both the achievement and limitation of folk wisdom. But what explains the shifts and the continuity underlying the shifts? As I have said, the narrator begins the book as a miraculous biography, casting Mangaraj as a “pious man,” a “teacher,” a “great soul” like Lord Krishna, whose life is full of “strange and wondrous happenings” (“Indeed, the life of a truly great man is never without miracles” (p 40)). It is the “miracle” of the “self-made man,” the English phrase that weighs ironically throughout the chapter with this title. But in accounting for the whole system, the narrator presents a “deeper” explanation, offered in response to a complaint he puts into the mouths of certain hypothetical babus (his readers) “with B A and M A degrees”: “Alas, Ali Mian, who could not even hold a pen properly, became a zamindar just by writing his name. Even though we can write long essays and hold a pen correctly, we starve.” The narrator replies, “Dear babus, don’t you know that it is one’s fate which ultimately prevails, not one’s wisdom or character” (p 69). Marx of course called this miracle, or fate, the magic of capital. Senapati represents capital through the figure of a rural moneylender, whose “magic” is interest. In a brilliant scene from the life of the young Mangaraj, the sharecropperturned-moneylender appears at the home of the indebted Ali Mian bearing gifts, which he spreads out in the fashion of a genie from an Arabian Night’s tale. Just as magically, the moneylender ends up owning everything in sight. Senapati concludes the episode: “Historians say it took Clive less time to get the Bengal Subedari from the emperor of Delhi than it takes to buy and sell a donkey. How long do you think it will take Mangaraj to get the zamindari of Fatepur Sarsandha from Mian?” (p 76). The peasant-witted reader who can interpret the aphorism on the first page (Mangaraj stole the milk) can by now figure out how Mangaraj will swindle Ali Mian and how the local swindle is similar the onset of British control over India.

Six Acres and a Third, in short, is a partially disguised allegory of the British Raj, in which the vehicle is the story of the rise, daily machinations, and ultimate, catastrophic fall of a native swindler. Complexly, it combines folk narrative with a sophisticated Marxian grasp of mystified power relations under capitalism. But this too is only an aspect of Senapati’s perspectivalism. Having brought down the mighty to the level of common chicanery, it remains to present the common as something with at least equal interest to the mighty.

The Pre-literate World

As he continues the biography of a “great man” exposed as a corrupt moneylender, the fictionalised narrator brings us gradually into the village life of Gobindapur, a world excluded both from non-Oriya print economy and from the training of the British-educated intelligentsia. At this stage, the narrator alternates between calling his readers babus and not-babus and so plays maliciously with the educated Oriya’s own ignorance of his neighbours from “below.” Playing the anthropologist to the “educated” babu, he uses elaborate parodies of Nyaya methods to explain why cowdung does not clutter the streets of the weavers’ section (the weavers do not raise cattle because they weave all day long), or why the childless Saria is not completely happy, or why, finally, the weavers contribute their precious earnings to a shrine. His (fictionalised) readers who are babus will believe that the village weavers built the shrine to a local god because of the saying, “as stupid as a weaver”: “If you are a civilised are probably wondering why the

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006 community’s cash contributions were misused in such a manner” (p 85). On the other hand, “Do you know how cash contributions are raised? Although you may need no explanation, the new babus do, for they are educated: they have studied and have mastered profundities. ...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” (p 84). But why in fact did the weavers misuse their cash earnings in such a way? “Everyday the conch is blown in the morning and in the evening, and the bell is rung in the temple. This announces to everyone – from children to old men – that a divine presence is leading the universe” (p 86). This divine presence also seems unfamiliar to the babu, a point to which I’ll return.

As readers, we are now situated between two epistemological “fields” – the world of the educated reader, who can follow references to British history, Sanskrit poetry, and legal procedure

– and the world of Gobindapur – a preliterate world, bound up in gossip, legends, and popular religious belief. Once again the narrator’s scepticism (close to “irony” in the primary sense of the word as one who professes not to know) produces an active reader. For example, there is a large pond at the edge of town, used by the people for washing clothes, bathing, and meeting to talk. Who built the pond? The narrator dutifully repeats the account given by a 95-year-old weaver, who says the pond was built in a single night by demons. Caught in their unfinished job by the break of dawn, the demons escaped from the eyes of the villagers by building a tunnel to the Ganga:

During the Baruni festival on the Ganga, the holy waters of the river used to gush through the tunnel into the pond. But, as the villagers became sinful, the river no longer did this. Englisheducated babus, do 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 (p 102).

The satirical thrust in the last two sentences – targeting early British orientalists alongside the intellectual sycophants who learn about their own country through privileged amateurs among the conquering race – should not limit the rich implications of this anecdote. The fictionalised narrator, who is pledged to accept only unimpeachable testimony and correct inferences, nevertheless allows dubious testimony to stand –another example of the way he places competing discourses and epistemological frames of reference on the same table and allows his reader to choose. Having learned to read between the lines of Mangaraj’s story, the reader of Gobindapur begins making inferences about the villagers’ lives as well as the zamindar, taking the perspective “from below” in order to judge matters that were not supposed to interest him. The ironic nudge at babus, who are forced to view British anthropology in the same light as a peasant superstition, also leaves the reader free to consider Ekadusia’s account in a light other than that of literal fact. It doesn’t need to be stressed that his myth is based on assumptions – that good and evil are real and have consequences, that the world is ruled by a divine force, that a provincial pond is indeed connected to the world’s sacred spaces, since “water is life” – that are also held by Senapati, or the implied narrator of this book. In fact, we soon witness a mock-heroic battle between two women over a young child’s dirtying of the pond – a portrait in miniature of human spite – as the narrator relates to us a village legend on his own (implied) authority. The village has slowly succeeded Mangaraj and Champa, his evil mistress, as the main character (“we”, “our” the narrator now says), and we inhabit it not just as spectators but as sharers of the villagers’ understanding of the world, of their myths and their religion.

It is not an idealised place: the women quarrel, curse, and foul the water, the brahmins chatter about fees, the thieves are in cahoots with the constable. But it is also a place where people pray for children and are devastated by a good person’s death, where they thrive, suffer, labour and die. And we see it up close, in vivid flashes:

After a quick dip in the pond, the women ran off in their wet clothes; the clothes dripped and flopped around them as they hurried home. Their panic was such that they could not even fill their pitchers to the brim; the half-filled pitchers made loud slapping noises, like the tongues of native patriots haranguing a gathering. Clutching his cane, the village schoolmaster disappeared. Children scattered on the path. Like a policeman dragging an accused murderer, the headboy marched a small boy to the school. Now this same boy was running away faster than everyone else (pp 152-53).

Though we don’t know it yet, a ‘daroga’ from the district headquarters has just arrived to arrest Mangaraj for murder, and the villagers are terrified by the rumour that any and all of them are about to be arrested. As with most of Senapati’s descriptions, this one has traces of allegory and satire – we see a miniature version of the official pecking order (village is to administrative hierarchy as boy is to schoolmaster and headboy) and note the complete helplessness of the villagers in a way linked to the novel’s prevalent imagery of prey animals and predators. But the details, finally, matter in and of for themselves; they bring us in so close that we can hear sounds and distinguish between individuals even in the general chaos. Senapati’s narrator has shifted from comic intrusiveness – a voice digressively and verbosely fearful of digression and verbosity – into near transparency, using a style rapid, succinct, and unselfconscious.

And there are no digressions any more, because everything

matters: Gopi had grown old and was no longer able to work in the fields; he had grown weaker after his wife died. His sons had not asked him to do any work, but Gopi was not a man to sit idle, doing something was better than doing nothing. Last year, he had found a way to keep himself busy. Every morning after eating a handful of rice, he would come to his shop, stay there until evening, then lock his doors with a pipelock and return to his house, one mile away (pp 183-84).

This, and more – about a character of no importance to the plot, if we take plot in the narrow sense of the lives of Senapati’s “hero and heroine”. (Gopi Sahu merely owns the riverside shop where Champa stops in her flight from the ruined Mangaraj and is then murdered by an accomplice.) We also learn the layout and dimensions of the shop, the food for sale, Gopi’s developing opium habit, his daily expenses, and more; we see the scene from his point of view, catch his thoughts (“Gopi looked at his shop and remarked, ‘I have not been able to sell even a paisa’s worth of tobacco today’”), and overhear him singing a hymn (“Like a river/Years of life flow into the ocean/Drunk with worldly desires/Man forgets his real home in heaven”) – a hymn that comments on the singer’s age and poverty, flows naturally from the long, listless day of waiting, ironically presages Champa’s appearance (she stumbles in wearing expensive silk and a peacock-shaped nose jewel), and links the swollen river before Gopi to the river of life that is also the river of death and obliteration (“Previously, the village of Gopalpur had stood on this spot, but it washed away in a flood on the eighth day of Bhodua in the eighth year of the reign of the kings of Puri. Although the village as such no longer existed, its name still survived” (p 183)). Gopi is both a figure in a petty-bourgeois system of exchange and a mortal being resting on the brink of the immortal – and so he is not a digression. The novel is full of these quiet accountings of characters’ lives, mini-biographies that drape around the pompous tale of Mangaraj, along with an even more striking stylistic feature – the narrator’s listing of proper names of characters who don’t even appear in the story.5

For me, the effect of passages like Gopi’s long day is not to add to the competition of ironic poses and shifting points of view but to appear as unvarnished moments of authenticity – human actuality, displayed after all the ideological discourses have fallen quiet – emerging from an implied narrator rather than the garrulous and pompous figure who narrates most of the book. Importantly, the quiet style, so to call it, is an oral style, comparable to the villagers’ itself when they tell their own lives:

I am told I was seven when I was married to a man who, at the time, was 64. My husband sold his land and gave one hundred and sixty rupees to my father for the bride-price. At the time of the wedding, my husband suffered from asthma. This disease killed him. There was no one left in my husband’s family. My father came, sold off all my husband’s property, and brought me home. There I stayed for five to seven years (p 162).

These sentences begin the servant Marua’s deposition in the evidence for Mangaraj’s murder trial. It is actually an official digression: Marua’s account of her life is not relevant to the disposition of the case, and so resembles another form of document, the personal record or case study. From the point of view of Senapati’s perspectivalism, the chapter containing the depositions is, to me, his most astonishing idea. It is both the key episode in the narrative of the rise and fall of the corrupt zamindar and the most dramatic example of Senapati’s ability to create meaning out of the interplay of discursive modes. The narrator, role-playing a defence lawyer, scientific expert, and keeper of accounts, has encouraged his reader to reason by strict inferences and so to question any testimony, including the narrator’s own; the whole novel has, in this sense, been an accumulation of legal evidence for presentation to a jury. The active reader is now prepared to infer the truth of Mangaraj’s case by reading with and against the testimony (in an interesting twist, Mangaraj turns out to be innocent of the specific charge, which is murder). Even more interestingly, we can savour the interplay between the narrator’s quiet presentation of the villagers’ lives – a “documentary” form of recording – with the reproduced documents of a court.

Is Marua’s deposition, to take the instance at hand, a view of village life from “above” or “below”? From “below,” since Marua tells her story in her own words, but also from “above”, since her story belongs now to an official dossier filed before the British judge in Cuttack, where it takes the form – by virtue of its framing, but not its language – as a legal document and a case history. The whole conduct of the case, with the accumulation of depositions and the inquiry into the details of private lives, is a classic example of Foucauldian surveillance because it marks the extension of power into the village (we remember the scattering of the villagers when the daroga arrives). In the official documents, each deposition is preceded by a classification, a grid into which Marua and the other villagers are inserted that defines their relationship to the state in terms of British and Hindu identificatory categories: the patriarchal name, the caste, the age, the geographic terms by which the subcontinent and its villages are organised into an administrative hierarchy (“our” Gobindapur becomes a subcategory of Cuttack). The effect is weirdly othering, since we have already come to know these people as individual villagers rather than subjects.6 By contrast, here begins the narrator’s description of the deceased Saantani’s dearest friend, whom he identifies as the only person in the village who did not cry:

Struck dumb, unable to open his toothless mouth, his long bony legs outstretched, Mukunda, an old farmhand, sat against a hedge and stared blankly into space. It was he who did not cry. Are you interested in knowing his age, caste, lineage, and birthplace? Probably not, for who cares about a poor farmhand, who was also an orphan?” (p 146).

Interestingly, Senapati has the British magistrate deliver a correct verdict (in English, of course, which the narrator has to “translate” into Oriya). Mangaraj is innocent of murder but guilty of deceit and so deserves to be punished, a finding that overturns the recommendation of the corrupt, Persian-speaking daroga who has instituted the case because Mangaraj indiscreetly failed to pay a bribe when it was due. This is a remarkable move in a novel partly structured by its attacks on the Raj, either overtly or allegorically, and that implicitly champions the survival of Oriya as a cultural force. As we have seen, Senapati is more interested in contrasting the official view (taken by British and babus alike) with the view from below than in attacking India’s British rulers as distinguishable from the power system they have in part adapted and in part imposed. But here is the language of the correct verdict: “These wretched creatures (the villagers who perjured themselves in their depositions) do not realise the consequences of what they have been induced to do. They have been duped on account of their simple rustic nature by the counsel of evil men” (p 180). By inserting this condescending bureaucratic language into the summary of a correct verdict, Senapati gives a different view of the political structure of the empire than if the representative of the Raj had simply decided to prosecute an innocent party. Instead, he gives us two complementary portraits of oppression: petty corruption, on the one hand, and racist indifference on the other. The verdict is correct, ironically, because the judge is disinterested: the doings in Gobindapur are not important enough to matter to him.

Many Voices

As we have seen, Senapati’s narrator has several positions and voices. As ironic celebrant of the local elite, he links himself to the discourses of law, science, logic, and scriptural aphorism, but when he narrates from below, he has links to discourses and positions counter to these. As an eavesdropper and reporter – one who can overhear certain conversations and not others but can verify hunches by a look at accounts – he matches what Mohanty usefully calls the figure of the tout; but this also means his words are a form of gossip. In the chapters set in the Asura pond, he gives extensive summaries of the women’s talk, as they gather at the weavers’ ghat to bathe, and of the men’s talk, as they gather at the Saanta ghat after a day’s labour in the fields. Had there been a newspaper editor in Gobindapur, we learn, he would have gathered all the village news simply by listening in at the weavers’ ghat: “He would have found out, for instance, what had been cooked the previous night, at whose house, and what was going to be cooked there today; who went to sleep at what time; how many mosquitoes bit whom; who had run out

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006 of salt; who had borrowed oil from whom”, and so forth (p 105). In satirising the triviality of the women’s topics, the narrator by implication satirises his own topics, since he is the one who spreads the village “news” in print – imitating the style and mode of oral transmission rather than the print mode of an editor’s story (p 7). The relationship grows more complicated as Senapati invokes the gendered stereotypes of gossip – a pejorative term in itself, implying malice, falsehood, and uncontrollable spread, the kind of “loud noise” women produce in the marketplace (p 105), the servants’ quarters, and the pond. (Thus, at the beginning, the fictionalised narrator explicitly sets himself against the evil reports about Mangaraj, all of which turn out to be true, but then later on, he avidly reports on the whispered talk of women.) Oral tradition, then, is feminised in the novel, and the narrator, though implicitly male, finds it hard not to link himself with this gendered source. “Like village women chattering while pounding rice, we have dragged dignified persons like you into our silly stories,” he tells his babu-readers. In other similes he is like a boatman who gets diverted by a current but manages to hold steady (p 112) and an “expert weaver” who can “disentangle a skein once he gets hold of a main thread” (p 111). Narration, in other words, crosses over continually from a main direction or thread into mixture, digression, entanglement. If the structure of the main plot is unidirectional, the “story” of the village, has a structure like gossip: it has ramifications, proliferates, meanders, since like a skein it takes up the whole collective life and folklore of the villagers.

Senapati’s imitation of oral discourse has yet another folk feature, which is like the talk of the washerwomen: it is earthy. Reading the novel, we’re made aware that the official discourses, in addition to flattering the powerful by including only “good” things (and so excluding the truth), say only the “good” things about material existence and so exclude much of what it means to live in a body. The body, the narrator reminds us, is made of blood, flesh, bone, and feces. Thus, in the scene at Asura pond that establishes the women as the source of gossip and myth, someone jokes that the women return a quarter of a pitcher of water for every pitcher they withdraw. Urine, bits of food on toothpicks, and clots of mud during a downpour foul the drinking and bathing water; heaps of dirty laundry line the ghats, and small hills of cowdung cover the doorways of all the villagers but the weavers.

The novel’s complex imagery of water and refuse, always in circulation, receives its fullest expression in a passage as profound and original in its implications as it is ludicrous in its content. Neta the cow is the immediate reason that Mangaraj and Champa determine to steal the six acres and a third of the title from Bhaghia and Saria, the virtuous weaver and his wife. (Saria, who is childless, compensates by prizing and nurturing the cow, who is coveted as a status object by Champa, also childless, and by Mangaraj for the amount of milk she produces – part of a general pattern by which natural desires are diverted to the lust for possessions that in turn are made to signify power or preeminence over others.) The narrator is as impressed as anyone else by this “perfect cow” and spends several sentences in loving praise of her horns, markings, tail, dewlap, and other body parts, climaxing in a peroration:

Her teats were as thick as ropes made of straw, and you can imagine the size of her udder. “Payodharibhutacatuhsamudram.” ...It is said that milk is where a cow’s mouth is. Does this mean you should put a vessel under the cow’s mouth to milk her? No, it is not like that. A cow is like a paper mill. You feed rags, broken string, rotting weeds, and cotton in at one end of the mill, and from the other, you obtain clean, white, beautiful, smooth paper. Similarly, if you feed a cow chaff, rice, gruel, and grass, milk will flow from her udder (p 93).

This passage plays against the narrator’s early attempt to praise the large, loud, and vulgar Champa in a poetic mode that is both dignified and tasteful according to the modern style. But his example of modern taste (“Her breasts are bare, and her smile full of mischief/she gallops like a mare, and like a cat’s her eyes do glare”) works no better than his example from the classical Oriya poet Upendra Bhanja (“Her thighs like the trunk of a banana plant/and her buttocks smoother than a plateau” (pp 58-59)): both are indelicate (he has seen neither Champa’s bare breasts nor her buttocks) and both compare her to a large animal. This collapse of the female body into something large, ungainly, unclean, dangerous, and devouring is a pattern in the novel I only have time to notice glancingly; my point here is that the double ironic deflation of both learned discourse and Champa’s vanity receives a sudden new light when it is compared with the praise of a cow, which is similarly hyperbolic and dependent on learned allusion. Kalidasa’s untranslated Sanskrit compares the fecund earth to a cow whose teats are the ocean, but the effect is entirely different from the mock praise of Champa. In the context both of the couple’s tender love and the “folk” view of the world the narrator has slowly familiarised us with – a view that draws on cosmological fables to convey truths of human existence – we can grasp Neta’s relationship to the source of all life, as well as Senapati’s relationship to Kalidasa. If the fecund earth is a cow, then a cow contains the fecund earth. To convert the passage into the terms of the Nyaya method: if a cow is the earth, and a cow is also a paper mill, then the irresistible conclusion is that the earth is a paper mill. And if Neta is a revelation of the divine, that is because a sacred cow is a cow that’s useful, that gives milk and life. These analogies suggest that Senapati’s religious vision is in large part material – a vision of human existence as animal, as embodied, and as infinitely recyclable.8

The twinning of the two envied objects in the main plot – the six and a third acres and the perfect cow – allow us to see the social world of the novel as a pair of concurrent systems of circulation: “natural” circulation and the circulation of power and goods. The six and a third acres, made fertile and therefore enviable because it receives the drainage of the village, brings ruin on those who expropriate it, since for Senapati possession of riches is also dominance over others. Capital and power also circulate mysteriously, by laws of patronage and interest and deceit, until relationships are transformed and upended, fortunes are made or lost, lives are raised up or destroyed. For Senapati this illicit movement brings down inevitable retribution, which he names the law of karma (functioning in ways oddly like the distant judgments of Cuttack). This law governs in small things as well as large, as the narrator notes in comparing the fate of a little plot of land to the lives destroyed by the Koh-i-noor diamond in its fateful movement from family to family:

And yet, ever since this jewel has adorned the crown of our highly revered, greatly honoured empress of India, who dwells in the White Island and who is manifest like our goddess Kamala, the fame ad power of England have spread all over the globe. . . The point of this is that nothing in its rightful place is ever a source of trouble (p 203).

The irony in this savage passage is unmistakable, since it links the queen’s diamond with the fate of Champa, brutally stabbed on a shop floor in the middle of the night. The bejewelled woman becomes the emblem of the guilt of riches or, if we read the passage straight, of redemption from guilt. Elsewhere, the narrator compares the good woman and the evil woman to circulating streams – specifically Saantani and Champa, the two influences in Mangaraj’s life: “one was turbulent, infested with snakes and crocodiles, and like the Charmaswati, it kept overflowing is banks; but the other, full of pure sweet water, flowed underground, like the river Falgu” (p 148). The comparison of the two women to two rivers brings together the two major forms of circulation in the book – the circulation of riches, and the circulation of water, life, and language. Just as goods out of place produce evil and just as the flow of water can produce filth, turbulence, and death, so can language – circulating, as we saw allegorically on the bank of the Asura Pond in the same way as water and bodily products – produce wisdom or deceit.

As this paragraph continues (it belongs to Senapati’s most extended commentary on the moral structure of human life), the narrator, now shorn of ironising, points out that the elements of the human mind are generally unstable and mixed, though man is capable on rare occasions of being a god or a demon. His whole novel exemplifies the opposition between mixture and extremes by combining two genres that in the end appear to be incompatible politically. His portrait of human nature in its mixture and variability belongs to the world of realistic fiction, whereas his depiction of the extremes – in this case Champa the witch and Saantani the saint – belongs to folk melodrama, resembling a village tradition taken too literally. These melodramatic elements are politically problematic. Structures of domination do, of course, encourage the “evil” elements of the human mind. But Senapati’s portrait of Gobindapur is a devastating and ironic exposure of the structures of domination, from small to large, and locates human suffering in those structures, whereas what I have called the folk melodrama locates the cause of human suffering in a demonically evil person – in particular, in a witch – and draws its emotional power from the scenes of her maniac laughter, her sinister disguises, her bloated, mutilated and infected corpse. Thus, although men have the power in this world to oppress, punish, and grow rich, Senapati’s most garish symbol of destructive domination is the female body – a trope well known to students of the ideological effects of literature.9 Nor do the melodramatic catastrophes suffered by the wrongdoers seem to demonstrate the workings of karmic justice any more than do similar episodes in Dickens. In a world governed by the cataclysmic flow of capital and the sway of empire, the unjust are often spared and their victims suffer randomly. It is perhaps fair to add that although the novel is uncompromising in its vision of corruption and oppression, its good characters are so passive and disempowered that we have no way of imagining, within the parameters of the novel, either the sources of resistance or an ethics that would sustain it.

Senapati’s truest vision of life lies in the intermingling of these currents, not their clear separation. And I have argued, no “current” intermingles more complexly and ambiguously than language, or rather, the forms of language, which the narrator, shifting roles and directions and levels of irony, continually “muddies”, playing logic off against hearsay, science against superstition, learned discourse against plain speech. Most importantly, within and through a portrayal of human beings that is crude, unsentimental, earthy, ironic, even harsh, the novel presents us with a view from below that may not be an overtly political position but is the necessary ground or precondition of any progressive politics. The implied ethics of that view closely matches the seemingly impossible goodness of the Saantani, even though the fictionalised narrator – garrulous, ironic, scornful – is nothing like Senapati’s saintly heroine. As we learn from his eulogy of her, she took the side of the weakest in any argument; she did not know money was “such a precious thing”; she wept “at the suffering of people, no matter whether they were guilty or not”, and “she treated everyone equally...perhaps she had no desire to dominate” (pp 144).




1 For a western reader like me, it’s illuminating to compare Senapati’s achievement to the greatest British novel ever written about a village – George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Both the similarities and differences are apparent in the first sentence of Eliot’s famous Prologue:

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helplesslooking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea, until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life. ...She found her epos in the founding of a religious order.

Major events, like the destruction or founding of a nation, required major genres (the epos); Eliot’s 800 page epos begins with a look at a single afternoon in the life of a child (a failed attempt, a girl child) 500 years earlier. In Eliot’s vision, significance rests only and always in the small, the plain, the concrete – details that ramify unendingly into the epos, or tissue, or biosphere that is “the history of man”. The humble is heroic, the ordinary is extraordinary. But the narrative voice, by contrast, is anything but humble. The view of existence that can comprehend history as a series of experiments performed by Time can only be expressed in a literary language complex in syntax, arduous in its logical leaps and comparisons, vast in its range of allusive reference – in short, a learned language, one that could stand beside the style Milton fashioned for his national epos. The style constructs at the same time an educated narrator and an educated audience capable of following the similes, the syntax, the allusions, the sophisticated moral judgments, as we see in the very first sentence, which “hails” the reader into the circle of the educated elite. And yet, although her fictional project is to show in miniature what a complete view of human variety might look like, that view is from the top down, and Eliot’s celebration of disinterested sympathy, or what she sometimes calls “fellow-feeling”, never cancels out a view of human society that is flexibly but ultimately hierarchical, and that is inscribed in the reified and hierarchised difference between learned and demotic, print and oral, the standardised language of the educated minority and the class-marked dialect of the uneducated majority. Learned language, of course, is precisely what Senapati parodies and exposes as the ideological instrument of power relations that Eliot, at least by implication, upholds. In addition, what for Eliot is a single language subdivided into an “unmarked” standard, universal print discourse and a set of class-marked regional and urban “dialects” is for Senapati a competition of languages in which the local “dialect”, the speech of the people, is the distinct language of Oriya, endangered by the hegemony of English as well as Bengali. If Eliot seeks to dignify the lives of “dialect” speakers by incorporating them under the umbrella of a “universal” elite discourse, Senapati chooses to write in a “minority” language as the only available means of representing lived experience of local life.

2 See the Introduction to Six Acres and a Third, translated by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P Mohanty, Jatindra K Nayak and Paul St Pierre (University of California Press, 2005; Penguin-India, 2006). My citations to Senapati are to this translation as well.

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

3 My terms are borrowed from Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse (tr Jane Lewin, 1980). I mean by fictionalised narrator all the markers in a text that might associate the narrative style with a “voice” or “person” – if not an actual character within the plot, then a person with a more or less unified set of attitudes and speech styles such as those we associate with an actual person. “Behind” nearly all narrative voices lies a novel’s governing point of view, sometimes explicit but most often implicit, which may be sharply distinguished from the fictionalised narrator if that narrator is ironic or only distinguishable in places. A similar distinction may exist among readers. When Senapati’s fictionalised narrator makes direct reference to his readers (as babus, as not-babus, and so forth), he constructs “us” as a character in the novel, sometimes playfully. I would call “implied reader” the active reader constructed by the narrator who shares with him his disdain of babudom and who gets his jokes.

4 The theory of discourses in the west has become very complex. I use the word here in a loose sense as referring to the social dimension of language. A discourse is a recognisable body of texts or form of utterance characteristic of a specific social group. Foucault, the most influential practitioner of discourse theory, focused his work on those discourses that produce official knowledge, such as the discourses of medicine and law. He analysed them not simply as a style of speech with a specific subject matter but as constituting a discipline by virtue of a set of rules about who may speak and what may be spoken. A discipline so constituted functions to exercise power more than to articulate “objective” knowledge. Senapati’s narrator’s use of the discourses of law, literature, logic, and science amount to a parody of the very Foucauldian idea of discourse, since he continually dramatises the excluded content of the discourse (what can’t be said), the excluded speakers (himself, always acting somewhat transgressively in his role as tout) and its investment in power. I use the word discourse somewhat differently when I speak of the various modes of speech in the novel – the colloquial, the legendary, the documentary, the learned, and so forth. Here of course the great work of fictional criticism is Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination (edited and translated by Michael Holquist, Austin, Texas, 1981) . Bakhtin named “heteroglossia” the capacity of the novel to incorporate a variety of discourses within a single narrative such that no single voice, not even the authorial voice, controls the meanings of the statements or hierarchise their value. (“Heteroglossia” is the English neologism for ‘raznorechiye’, literally “vari-speech” or “polydiscourse.”)

5 For example, “The village women rushed in to see the gifts – Rebati, Sukuri, Sakri, Malia, Jenna’s mother, Bhima’s mother and aunt, Hagura’s mother, Sadari, Menki, Kanaka, Netajeji, Sabi, Kamali, Padiapa, Shyama’s daughterin-law, Nalita, Bishakha, and Sumitra, the young daughter-in-law of the cowman’s family” (p 132). A portion of the long paragraph about the daroga’s arrival, which I have cited above, reads: “Meanwhile, Gopalia stopped working and rushed to tell Sama Sahu, his master. Sama Sahu told Hari Sahu, Hatia told Natia, Jemama told Shyama’s mother, and mother-in-law passed the news on to daughter-in-law” (p 152). On a nonhuman scale, I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s naming of all the cows in the dairy farm where Tess works.

6 Here is Marua’s heading: Witness no 3: Name: Marua Father’s name: Lakshman Tihadi Caste: Brahmin Age: Unknown Village: Gobindapur District: Cuttack At the head of all the depositions, the government is designated “The Mighty Government of the Company”. Foucault’s major discussion of the techniques of surveillance in what he calls “liberal” or disciplinary regimes is in Discipline and Punish (translated by Alan Sheridan, New York, 1995).

7 Mohanty analyses this passage somewhat differently, as a parodic reworking of a similar passage in Lal Behari Day’s English language novel Bengal Peasant Life. Mohanty points out that Day’s transcription of peasant speech resembles that of an anthropologist imposing an Orientalist and ahistorical universality on village life. The “referent” of both Day and Senapati, he points out, is “village life in India”, but that would be a very inadequate explanation: “After reading Senapati’s novel, we cannot see Day as simply writing a bout 19th century Indian (or Bengali) village women. We see, instead, another common referent emerge,which can be defined more broadly and specifically as colonial relations, both literary and ideological.” Senapati’s achievement, he argues, represents an advance in the referential function, an advance that is “an epistemic achievement, not just a literary one” (Mohanty p 23). To my mind, this is a fundamental insight.

8 My discussion of “folk” elements is of course indebted to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival as elaborated in his Rabelais and His World. Bakhtin in that book associates the earthy, satirical, ribald, and grotesque elements of folk literature with carnivals in rural premodern Europe, the annual festive occasions accompanying market-days in rural villages. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is always communal, redemptive, and subversive of established social hierarchy. His account accords perfectly with the figure of Neta the cow, a wonderfully exuberant and comic example of what Bakhtin calls the grotesque body, but the “earthy” or “folk” element in Senapati is not always exuberant or subversive. The description of Champa’s dead body – naked, obscenely bloated, foul-smelling, hacked off at the ankles – is both macabre and misogynist, posing a complex challenge to any full account of the novel’s political achievement.

9 In The Ends of Empire (Ithaca, NY, 1993) Laura Brown analyses the satirical figure of the extravagantly ornamented woman in 18th century British literature, demonstrating the ways that a critique of capitalism is deflected from the masculine producers onto the female body by means of a moralised conception of female vanity.

August 26, 2006
Infant Survival: A Political Challenge —Shantha Sinha
Decentralised Childcare Services: The SEWA Experience —Mirai Chatterjee
Food Dole or Health, Nutrition and Development Programme? —Shanti Ghosh
Infant and Young Child Feeding: An ‘Optimal’ Approach —Arun Gupta
Hidden Hunger: The Problem and Possible Interventions —Tara Gopaldas
Universalisation of ICDS and Community Health Worker Programmes: Lessons from Chhattisgarh —T Sundararaman

Implementation of ICDS in Bihar and Jharkhand —Nandini Nayak, Naresh C Saxena Tamil Nadu: ICDS with a Difference —Anuradha Khati Rajivan Rethinking ICDS: A Rights Based Perspective —Dipa Sinha Chhattisgarh: Grassroot Mobilisation for Children’s Nutrition Rights —Samir Garg

For copies write to: Circulation Manager

Economic and Political Weekly

Hitkari House, 284, Shahid Bhagatsingh Road, Mumbai 400 001 email:

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top