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A Subaltern's Tale

A Subaltern


The stories within the stories also contrive to tell us more about the novel and

A Subaltern’s Tale

Six Acres and a Third (Chha Mana Atha Guntha)

by Fakir Mohan Senapati; translated from the Oriya by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P Mohanty, Jatindra K Nayak and Paul St-Pierre; Introduction by Satya P Mohanty; Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp 222, Rs 250.


ix Acres and a Third, originally written in Oriya as Chha Mana Atha Guntha towards the closing years of the 19th century, is a novel in the social realism genre and is also a parable. It details life in the Oriya village of Gobindapur, dominated by its scheming, manipulative and overly pious zamindar, Ramchandra Mangaraj. The zamindar, who is the central character of the novel, rises from humble beginnings to become one of the richest landlords in the district of Cuttack, but he has always unashamedly coveted the eponymous six and a third acres of land of the novel, owned by a hard-working and childless weaver couple, Bhagia and Saria. Mangaraj’s methods are subtle and appear innocuous, as he entraps and inveigles successive victims into debt, compelling them to mortgage and finally lose their lands to him. Thus, not only does he, when required use his position of power as zamindar to cower the innocent, naive lower caste people of the village, his image as a pious, man of god also fools many of his victims.

However, the novel has other layers too. It is a story of exploitation, of hierarchy and oppression, of Orissa’s subordinate position and the progressive neglect of its culture and language under the colonial scheme of things, and also about the implicit changes wrought by colonialism. The novel is set at a time when colonial administration and its various appendages have just begun making their presence felt in Orissa, a century and more following the British conquest of Bengal. Six Acres depicts the impact of life in Gobindapur following the introduction of new systems of land administration and rent acquisition, legal modes and even the newly imposed police hierarchy. It is against this context that the events in Gobindapur village, in the zamindari of Fatehpur Sarsandha unfold.

Mangaraj is actually a “rentier”-farmer, who has managed to wrest control of the zamindari, from the dissolute and debtridden zamindar in Midnapore, Sheikh Dildar Mian. Mangaraj schemes to become richer, robbing people of their land while pretending all the time to be concerned and god-fearing at the same time. Farmhands belonging to the untouchable castes of the bauris and panas cultivate Mangaraj’s lands. Besides, the village, located on the banks of the Asura Pond, has its brahmin and weaver communities, who are equally poor and depend on Mangaraj’s double-edged munificence. He survives because he has learnt to effectively use the new colonial system to his advantage; his property has been acquired not by merit but by guile and the unabashed use of power and privilege.

The Novel as Parable

Six Acres is of a piece with novels of a similar genre written in that period and yet different in several ways. It is in several ways a parable: Of the retribution and ruin that inevitably follows unrestrained greed, of how power and privilege are shortlived, and how goodness and honesty are all too often ignored yet have a far longlasting impact. In the end, Mangaraj finds himself in jail accused of murder; he is robbed of his property by a lawyer, as conniving and shrewd as Mangaraj was once. Champa, his evil mistress, who had played a role in depriving a poor weaver couple of their fertile land, escapes with her stolen wealth but is murdered while her murderer meets a gory end. The evil has been exposed, and though colonial systems do not ensure that Mangaraj pays for his evil, his downfall appears imminent in the natural order of things.

its protagonists; it is this mode that also makes Six Acres an example of the traditional genre of storytelling. For instance, the daily events at Asura Pond, the very manner of its creation, the quarrels between the women there; the events that unfold in the village of the doms when Champa, Mangaraj’s equally scheming and extravagant mistress, pays a surprise visit. There is also the description of the village chowkidar, Gobindram Jena who assures people of his protection only if he is given a hearty meal in exchange.

Encountering the Narrator

But the novel also comes to us, its modern day readers, via several mediations. The events are being narrated by someone broadly identifiable as a “tout” – a person who occupies the very bottom rung of the legal ladder, whose mode of narrating is ingratiating, but satiric and also ironical. This sly, ever observant narrator is someone who straddles both worlds – the colonial world of newly instituted legal systems and one who is familiar with the intricacies of life in Gobindapur. He appears helpless but by his very use of satire and subtle irony, ably opens up the novel and its characters for the reader. He seems to be making a mockery of traditional systems and those imposed by colonialism as well.

Sheikh Inayat Hussein was a top class daroga of Cuttack district…In recognition of his competence he had been in charge of the Kendrapada police station for the last 12 years. There had been a rumour last year that he would be transferred elsewhere, but this was only because he had failed to send the usual gifts for the peshkar and the sirastadar in the headquarters at Cuttack on time. His companion, munshi Chakradhar Das, was a very experienced police clerk. Chowkidars could tell you that the magistrate sahib was very pleased with the reports the munshi wrote (p 154).

It is through the narrator that the story unfolds, layer by layer. Un-deciphering the narrator, where he speaks from, forms yet another layer of the novel. His tools of narration bring home evident truths. He

Economic and Political Weekly September 30, 2006 is sincere and yet facetious in his attempts to convince the reader, conveying the truth by hinting at its very antithesis. Every chapter begins with his ruminative thoughtful meditations – defending Mangaraj’s hypocrisy in matters of piety and religion; the many reasons as to why the brahmins remain poor and why they quarrel over petty matters; the philosophy spouted by the women at Asura Pond, and he also waxes lyrical, misquoting (deliberately) Kalidas’ Sanskrit classics at will, about Champa’s beauty. The very subtlety in the manner of narration also implies that Six Acres is a critique of the present inverted nature of all universal values and the colonial system itself. Of how goodness and simplicity too has suspicious beginnings – Bhagia, the poor simple weaver who loses his land, had inherited it from his weaver-father, who being the head of the community had helped himself to the fertile land at the very head of the canal waters. The dissolute landlord, Sheikh Keramat Ali had inherited his property from his father. At first, a horse trader, who owing to the generosity of the British district magistrate becomes a ‘thana daroga’ and then goes on to become a big zamindar. Towards the latter half of the book, Mangaraj’s trial begins in the appropriately solemn manner; there is none of the arbitrariness that is associated with the justice delivered by custom. There is due regard to the role of evidence produced, examination and reasoned debate, but the trial progressively meanders to a farcical conclusion.

The other mediation is through the mode and very manner of translation itself. Six Acres, a work set in colonial times, comes to us, the post-colonial reader in English as part of the Penguin Modern Classics series. The translator’s mediation is in turns an explanation of the novel and also a deconstruction, especially of the narrator. The introduction reveals the immediate socio-economic context of the novel, but more importantly, it seeks to interpret and define the narrator for the reader. For the narrator, more than the author speaking to us, or even the story itself, is at the forefront of Six Acres. It is his mode of telling, his homespun, doggerel philosophy that takes centre stage as the novel itself does not fall into a conventional narrative mode. It is in fact very skewed, and unstructured in narrative. For instance, the story of the weaver couple, Bhagia and Saria, appears only towards the middle of the book.

The book as the ‘Introduction’ states, can be evoked in direct comparison to a book published around the 1870s, Lal Mohan Dey’s Bengal Peasant Life. But Dey’s book is realistic in its depiction of village life in Bengal, it is also submissive in tone, and also gives an anthropological explanation of the various classes of people in an everyday Bengal village. Senapati’s book takes on various disguises. Not only in the manner and figure of the narrator, but in that the writer had to effectively disguise his motives. In the tools employed by the writer, artfully mixing traditional techniques of storytelling with sarcasm and humour (through the figure of the narrator), he sought to evade attention. At the same time, he sought to draw the attention of the Oriya speaking reader like him, who was aware of the ill effects of colonialism.

Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918), the writer, was witness to the ruin brought


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The Sarai-CSDS Independent Fellowships allow the time for individuals from diverse backgrounds to either begin or continue research into specific aspects of media and urban culture and society, broadly and creatively defined, and to also think carefully and rigorously about the various public forms in which their research might be rendered. The research fellowship will run from March 2007 to the end of October 2007. All fellows are expected to attend a final workshop on their work at the beginning of November 2007 that will be hosted by Sarai-CSDS. English applications should be postmarked on or before October 31, 2006; Hindi applications on or before November 13, 2006. The research can be done and presented in Hindi, English, or a combination of the two languages.

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Economic and Political Weekly September 30, 2006

about by the processes of colonialism. He had seen the progressive degeneration of Balasore, a thriving port city that derived its fortunes from the trade in salt, but was progressively ruined when the British imposed a monopoly on the salt trade. Moreover, following the division of the province into three administrative units, the Orissa culture and the Oriya language suffered. And under the overweening inroads made by colonialism, and the symbiotic dependence it placed on the educated native, Senapati had to make veiled criticism of the colonial system. A situation not very different in which, as has been argued, Bankim Chandra Chatterji found himself. In several of his novels, Chatterji railed his countrymen, the people of Bengal, appealing to their atavistic heroism to rise against their oppressors, never identified in his novels, as the British.

Senapati who also worked in the colonial administration used an innovative approach in his writing. It was perhaps effective with his readers then. His readers now are very different. The English educated post-colonial Indian would perhaps read this not merely as a literary text, but also because it gives voices to those from below, as a historical document. In that sense, it is also a subaltern text.



Economic and Political Weekly September 30, 2006

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