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

A+| A| A-

Two Classic Tales of Village India

Reading Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third and Premchand's Godaan from a comparative perspective, this paper shows how some stories write the world in a more realistic way than others by providing a better "epistemic access" to it. Godaan presents a moving human document and social panorama but Six Acres considerably deepens the "referential" function of its own discourse by rewriting reference as "epistemic access" to the structures of domination. The novel of a tyrant and of a tyrannical system thus becomes the product of a complicit social ideology and discourse, encouraging scepticism about what is given. It problematises the real so that the rules of this world can be rewritten, unlike Godaan, which settles for the familiar reality of psychodrama.


Two Classic Tales of Village India

Himansu S Mohapatra

Reading Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Six Acres and a Third and Premchand’s Godaan from a comparative perspective, this paper shows how some stories write the world in a more realistic way than others by providing a better “epistemic access” to it. Godaan presents a moving human document and social panorama but Six Acres considerably deepens the “referential” function of its own discourse by rewriting reference as “epistemic access” to the structures of domination. The novel of a tyrant and of a tyrannical system thus becomes the product of a complicit social ideology and discourse, encouraging scepticism about what is given. It problematises the real so that the rules of this world can be rewritten, unlike Godaan, which settles for the familiar reality of psychodrama.

The paper is forthcoming in Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India, edited by Satya P Mohanty (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan).

Himansu S Mohapatra (, a critic of comparative literature and a reviewer of translated Indian fiction, teaches in the Department of English, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.

f, as the post-structuralists argue, the real cannot be accessed except through texts, then realism, in the sense of an engagement with a mind-independent world, and textuality would appear to be at odds with each other. Such an opposition would, however, be a false one, and it is bred by an outmoded positivist epistemology. The “what” of the narrative, its thematic purpose as well as its wider philosophical and social vision, cannot be narrowly tied to its verbal construction. Granted, the world comes to us in the shape of stories, but I wish to show how some stories write the world in a more realistic way than others, precisely by providing a better “epistemic access”1 to it. This access is, of course, theory mediated and not innocent. The present essay, concerned with a realist auditing of fiction, will attempt to demonstrate its thesis by reading Fakir Mohan Senapati and Premchand from a comparative perspective. Further, it will seek, through this comparative reading, to unravel the differentiation within the tradition of Indian literary realism to which both the authors owe their allegiance.2 The texts of choice for this enterprise are Senapati’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha3 (1897-1899) and Premchand’s Godaan4 (1936), these being not only the representative novels of the two writers, but also the best-known exemplars of social realism in the Indian context.5

Exploring Realist Epistemology

Though widely regarded as watersheds in the development of novelistic realism in their respective languages, Chha Mana and Godaan employ different realistic methods to portray a primarily rural India. A proper comparative analysis of these two novels should attempt to arrive at a finely calibrated view of their techniques of realist representation. The Lukácsian opposition between naturalism and realism comes to mind here. Proposing as it does a distinction between a realism that is primarily one of descriptive accuracy and a realism that is more analytical, it is a helpful starting point for analysis. But such a critical procedure can have a much wider resonance by drawing on the kind of philosophical realism developed by philosophers like Quine, Putnam and Boyd, and as applied to literary analysis by Satya P Mohanty.6 The question this critical procedure asks of novels is not whether they are just good and coherent pictures of the world, but also whether they are good causal explanations of the same. This paper, therefore, proposes to evaluate Chha Mana and Godaan in terms of the degrees and modes of “epistemic access” they provide to their referents by enabling an understanding of the micro-structures of the social world they depict. This is a new way of doing comparative literary analysis based on the idea of what Mohanty has called in a recent essay “the dynamics of l iterary reference”.7

december 13, 2008

An exploration into realist epistemology in the Indian context is best undertaken by recalling a distinction that Amiya Dev has made between the discourse-driven early Indian novel and its mimesis-dominated later avatar.8 Dev is of the opinion that the development of the Indian novel can be understood in terms of the gradual disappearance of this discourse in favour of what he calls a “composite mimesis” (p 185). This may well be the trajectory of the Indian novel from Chha Mana to Godaan, but I would like to argue that the gain in mimesis in Godaan goes along with a certain loss of analytical depth. The real achievement of Chha Mana can be appreciated, I believe, if we see its self-conscious narrative discourse as the main force behind its attempt to reorient the reader by clarifying connections among social phenomena that ignorance or ideological mystification has obscured. This epistemological work characteristically takes the form of (literary) postmodernist frame breaks without that accompanying (theoretical) postmodernist scepticism about truth claims. Dev himself amplifies the relationship between fictional self- consciousness and realism when he sets out to show how they are complementary to one another in the early Indian novel. As he says, “The novel is fiction only by definition, but its main purpose is truth. And that purpose will be defeated if the reader does not recognise its contents. Thus the mimesis needs breaks which are filled up by discourse. The early Indian novel is in particular need of these breaks and thus of this discourse, for it is a new genre and is as such quite self-conscious” (p 185).

But then Dev does not seem to draw out the revolutionary implications of his illuminating comment. If he is right about the analytical, truth-telling function of discourse in the early Indian novel, he is surely not on firm ground in suggesting a seamless evolutionary logic whereby discourse is sublimated into mimesis. Besides, his definition of realism – which he equates with mimesis

– as an objectified process of representation, is partial and inadequate. Realism, to quote him, is “an unsentimental depiction of life’s crassness, an un-ameliorated presentation of experience, an objective and adjectiveless description of life processes” (p 185). This positivist emphasis on “adjectiveless description” and its conflation with “objectivity” seems more like an account of naturalism than of Luckácsian realism. The account is certainly not true of the realism of Chha Mana where the empirical datum, the so-called unproblematic referent, is brought into play by an active epistemological reorientation of the reader to the underlying socio-economic currents and processes, to what the scientific realists describe as the “causal joints” of the world. Chha Mana’s realism depends less on adjectiveless description than on an engaged attitude, an attitude that deliberately draws attention to all our habitual “adjectives” so that they – together with their social origins – can be analysed critically.

For instance, the referent of a certain significant narrative section in Chha Mana, which is the source of its most eloquent anticolonial social commentary (chapter 12 titled “The Asura Pond”), is colonial relations. Its counterpart in an earlier and much discussed work of social realism, namely, Rev Lal Behari Day’s B engal Peasant Life (1874), which served in some ways as a model for Senapati’s novel, is the timeless, orientalised Indian village. In so far as it is derived from an ideological act of suppressing

Economic & Political Weekly

december 13, 2008

colonial relations, it is far from being an innocent referent. Thus, as Mohanty has rightly observed in his introduction to Six Acres and a Third, the writing of Chha Mana is a rewriting where a central norm of realist writing – plain and unvarnished presentation of social and economic reality – is being audaciously revised to get at the core of that reality. In other words, referencing can be both simple and complex and can work as much to mystify and obscure as to clarify. That passage from obscurity to clarity suggests, as Boyd says, a “process of referential refinement”9 which has nothing to do with the linguistic transparency that critics like R aymond Williams have tended to see as the strength of 19th century British realist novel.10 Thus an advance in the referential function of literary discourse of Chha Mana is not irreconcilable with the quality of self-reflexivity that a number of recent c ommentators on the novel have noted.11

This is not to say that Godaan subscribes to the positivist fantasy of pure description any more than Chha Mana does. But it can be said that the distinction between a mimetic realism and an analytical realism that two classic tales of village India help to mobilise has a lot to account for whether or not we have a genuine analysis and critique of social relations. Though overtly concerned with the margin, Premchand’s straightforward narration precludes awareness of the subtle inscriptions of the excluded in the dominant discourse. Senapati’s zigzagging narrative d iscourse articulates a rich critique of social power even as it p rovides a richly metaphorical articulation of what lies at the bottom of the social pyramid. What follows is a reasonably detailed and fairly substantial analysis of the two orientations of realist epistemology, top down and bottom up, as manifested in the selected novels.

Godaan: About Below

Godaan is a compelling story of village India. It has always been read as a memorable record of rural life in India, caught between tradition and modernity, between bondage and freedom. For Premchand’s critics this novel marks a break from what they call “idealistic realism” (adarshatmak yatharthavad) to “realistic realism”12 (yatharthavadi yatharthavad). The latter term is an acknowledgement of the fact that in this novel Premchand has finally moved towards an allegorisation of proletariat India. While there is no doubt about the author’s pro-poor and progressive sympathies, it is also crucial for us to recognise this as an ideologically dictated position. There are other elements in the author’s ideological universe which point to its unsettled and ambivalent nature. For instance, the novel gives evidence of Indian society’s cheerful habituation to colonial modernity in the early decades of the 20th century. The colonial presence is very much taken for granted by the novel. The assimilative politics that is at work in it strips the colonial presence of its alien character.13 This causes the society pictured in Godaan to split less and less along cultural or civilisational lines. Maybe this also explains why reference in Godaan works to eschew analysis, except of the individual p sychologising kind, in favour of description and p ortraiture.

The novel contains the most powerful evocation of social r eality imaginable. But without ironic analysis and anatomising of it, this inhospitable social reality seems to be perceived by the


characters in the novel as a kind of fait accompli. In other words, social analysis seems to have taken a back seat in the novel to individual character analysis. Irony in Godaan, as in Premchand’s other major works, seems to have a reduced scope, being restricted to the limited interpersonal space between characters in the novel. Though used to stunning effect by the novelist as an instrument of revelation of conduct, it does not seem to radiate from or penetrate into the centre of the narrative discourse at the heart of the novel.

Take the representative example of the encounter between the zamindar, Rai Sahib, and the peasant, Hori, early on in the novel. The former lectures Hori about the evil of the zamindari system in particular and about the evil of wealth in general. He tells Hori how his greedy relations profess love of him only for his wealth:

Our parasitic existence has crippled us. (...) Sometimes I think the government would do us a big favour by confiscating our lands and making us work for a living. (...) We’ve fallen prey to the system, a system that’s completely destroying us. Until we’re freed from the chains of wealth, the curse will keep hanging over our heads and we’ll never reach those heights of manhood which are life’s ultimate goal (p 26).

While he is lecturing away thus in an altruistic vein, a servant brings him news that “the men on forced labour have refused to work” (p 26) and will not continue if they are not given food. At this he leaves his philosophising mode to return instantly to habitual whip-cracking mode. And he snaps at the man thus:

“Come with me”, he declared, eyes bulging. “I’ll put those troublemakers in their place. They have never been given food in the past. Why this new demand today? They’ll get the anna a day they always get, and they’ll damn well do the work whether they like it or not” (p 27).

Expectedly enough, Hori is left bewildered by this sudden outburst of anger, wondering about its contradiction with “all this talk about right and goodness” (p 26) that went before. This is fine irony by all accounts if, by irony is meant the discrepancy between the seeming and the real. But being confined to an interpersonal space, this fails to rise to a higher level and take on the power and force of narrative irony which implicates the reader more fully. Those links, nudges and dodges of the narrator in Six Acres, which produce the active reader, leading her to identify connections between disparate and discrete phenomena, are missing here. Irony, as Paul L Sawyer observes in a recent EPW article, works in Chha Mana to bring separated “epistemological fields” – one learned, print-literate and babu and the other folk, oral and peasant – into contact and collision. It is true, of course, that Six Acres neither personalises the encounter between the exploiter and the exploited nor is seen as imputing agency to those from the margins who are among the exploited. In this sense Hori (or Dhaniya) is a rounded and realised character with an inner life, a function surely of the “composite mimesis” that Amiya Dev has talked about. But the characters also fail to become the vehicle of an authorial mobilisation of irony with manifold ramifications.

An analysis of the spatial configurations in the novel shows the same flawed way of seeing which presents a fragmentary p erception of the social whole, leading to a mixing up of s ymptoms with their social causes. That is to say the kaleidoscopic shifts between the cityscapes of Lucknow and the villages of Belari and Semari in Godaan are descriptive triumphs. But they do not involve an analytical comparison of the two social spaces. The locales are widely spaced out and probably would have run away in opposing directions if not held together within the covers of a book. The economic relationship of rent and revenue that clearly exists between them is suggested, not dialogised.14 Thus their physical distance from each other becomes a mirror image of the reifying colonised consciousness that sees



Essays from Economic and Political Weekly

A compilation of essays that were first published in the EPW in a special issue in May 2007. Held together with an introduction by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, the essays – that range in theme and subject from historiography and military engagements, to the dalit viranganas idealised in traditional songs and the “unconventional protagonists” in mutiny novels – converge on one common goal: to enrich the existing national debates on the 1857 Uprising.

The volume has 18 essays by well known historians who include Biswamoy Pati, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Peter Robb and Michael Fisher.The articles are grouped under five sections: ‘Then and Now’, ‘Sepoys and Soldiers’, ‘The Margins’, ‘Fictional Representations’ and ‘The Arts and 1857’.

Pp viii + 364 2008 Rs 295

Available from

Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd

Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact:

december 13, 2008

the country and the city as discrete and autonomous entities with nothing but a landmass or a road or some form of transport to connect them. This has repercussions for the realism of Godaan, moving it towards spectacle rather than towards the tracing of a systemic logic underlying superficial social p henomena. It also disables the realism of the novel from adopting the vantage point of “the view from below”.15 As we shall see a bit later in the essay, this is a different thing from an overt p ortrayal, albeit one that is tinged with a humanitarian s ympathy, of the poor and the downtrodden.

On the face of it, Godaan may be seen as addressing marginality more straightforwardly than Six Acres. Its narrative surface admittedly permits a more direct echoing of its core story of chill penury freezing the genial current of the human soul.16 The novel traces the career of a poor peasant couple (Hori and Dhaniya), as their lives are laid waste by the debt-rent trap set up by the zamindar and the village middlemen. It is their tragic lives that are dramatised. Further, the novel contrasts their simple lives and those of other villagers with the ostentatious lives of a bunch of townspeople. The gift of a cow or godaan that the title refers to is an ironic registration of the collusion of Hindu religion (with its built-in rituals of caste) with social and economic exploitation, as also of the victim’s unconscious participation in such pseudo religiosity.17 As Thomas Jandl has pointed out in his impressive review of the novel, Godaan critiques cultural institutions and traditional power structures, “showing how caste and religion cause needless suffering and impede e conomic growth” (p 201).

Be that as it may, Premchand’s can be said to be a view from below only if one thinks of his proletarian sympathy in terms of the novel’s declared moral ideology. Its rhetorical structure does not seem to support what it is ideologically conditioned to tell. For one thing, it seems to back off from an active, analytical view of poverty as the outcome of social and economic conditions, p referring to present a contemplative, humanitarian attitude to the poor. As a matter of fact, it tends to incline more towards the latter view as it progresses. It details the protagonists’ suffering, but factors out of their consciousness a political re-description of the social situation that produces suffering. Premchand seems to hint at the alternative explanation more through the “persistent and controlled rebellion”18 of Hori’s wife, Dhaniya, than through the anger and rebelliousness he attributes to Gobar, their son. She rails constantly against Hori’s passivity and fatalism, pulling him up constantly for his self-sacrificing i dealism. The final gesture of denial and denunciation of an unjust social system is resoundingly delivered through Dhaniya at the end of the novel:

Dhaniya rose mechanically and brought out the twenty annas earned that morning from the twine they had made. Placing the money in the cold palm of her husband’s hand, she stepped forward and said to Datadin, “Maharaj, there is no cow or money in the house. There are only these coins. This is his godaan, his gift of a cow.” And she collapsed on the ground, unconscious (p 437).

But the narrative voice holds back from an analytical piecing together of the elements of this genuine rage against an unjust society. Instead, through a tacit valorisation of Hori’s common

Economic & Political Weekly

december 13, 2008

sense, it recommends conservatism and a worldly wise tempering of anger and indignation. It is in this context that the idealised portrayal of village life that we have at the opening of c hapter 21 in the novel seems inspired by an organicist ideology:

Six months of every year, Indian villages resound to the beating of drums and the clashing of cymbals in celebration of some festival or other. … The village of Belari was no exception. Neither the threats of the moneylenders nor the curses of the agent could restrain these celebrations. Nor did it matter if there was no grain in the house, no clothes on one’s back, and no money in one’s purse. The instinctive joy of life could not be suppressed. To live without laughter would have been impossible (p 266).

The passage reproduces the conventional dichotomy between the calculating city and the spontaneous and the instinct-driven village.19

The narrative also wavers between an ideological commitment to the village and a deeper instinctive fascination for the city.20 The widely spaced out locales, as shown earlier, is a case in point. They connect intermittently through the reformist zeal of some among the city-bred characters (Mehta and Malti) who have seemingly come under the influence of Gandhian thought. Village life is seen as authentic in one sense, but as quite limited and f oolish in another sense. The agency and cleverness imputed to the characters in a village setting is shown to have deserted them in an urban setting where they either founder or revert to their country bumpkin ways.21 The city comes across as the place of power, intrigue, money and political chicanery, but also as the place from whence good governance can issue through a Mehtalike gesture of hard-boiled philosophical aloofness. And capping it all is the almost complete absence in it of the British coloniser, despite the novel being set in pre-independence times. It truly is an interesting case, as the Complete Review’s review of the novel has put it,22 pointing to that habituation to colonialism mentioned earlier.23 No wonder, the novel is unable to make much of the culture of “westoxication”,24 which is such an important ingredient of colonial modernity in India.

Six Acres and a Third: From Below

In its main outline Chha Mana tells essentially the same village Indian tale of suffering and exploitation, bringing in a weaver couple, Bhagia and Saria, and a resident and much more bloodyminded landlord, but cutting out the urban spread of Godaan. But this resemblance between the two tales, extending even to the micro-level of the cow, is at the level of the unfictionalised content. There is no echoing of the potential tearjerker in the n arrated surface of Chha Mana. The bulk of its chapters are devoted to tracing the obscure origin, meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of the zamindar Ramachandra Mangaraj. The victims do not occupy more than a couple of chapters, the tragic disposition of their six acres and a third happening early on, and off stage at that. It would almost be a victor’s story to judge by the lack of the kind of fuller portrayal of the poor that we find in Godaan. And despite the fact that this sentimental fabula is not the point of Chha Mana, not another tale from the huge corpus of 19th century Indian prose fiction can be imagined, which is written, as Mohanty says in his introduction, “from the perspective of the horse, the ordinary villager, and the foot soldier – in other


words, the labouring poor of the world” (p 2). How is the view from below articulated? It is, as I will show, through the epistemic exercise of discovering and piecing together the “causal joints” of 19th century colonial Indian society.

A characteristic move of the narrator of Six Acres and a Third is to point out the gap between the apparent and the real through irony and playful debunking of forms of social power. This involves the narrator, by his very nature a side-glancing one, in considerable digressions from the main action. These digressions are, however, crucial to the epistemic exercise I have talked about, helping to dredge up the “not-said” of labour, an entity that has been consigned to a limbo-like existence on the margins of society and discourse. The epistemic power of this move lies in showing these excluded aspects of labour and its abuse as the secret cause of the dog-eat-dog world of the novel.25 Mohanty has rightly begun his introduction by referring to one such voice from the margin, one that is articulated by an ordinary and anonymous villager towards the close of the novel: “Oh, horse, what difference does it make to you if you are stolen by a thief? You do not get much to eat here; you will not get much to eat there. No matter who becomes the next master, we will remain his slaves. We must look after our own interests” (pp 205-206). This, seeing the change of power in an Oriya village from the “defamiliarising” point of view of a horse,26 disabuses the reader of any notion that with the zamindar Ramachandra Mangaraj yielding ground to Ram Ram Lala, the clever town lawyer, change has really occurred. All that has been said in the earlier part of the narrative about the awesome power of lawyers to fatten themselves at the expense of the society weighs heavily against this possibility.

Senapati has used here a device somewhat akin to the famous Dickensian device of the street eye-view (the reader may be put in mind of Jo, the street-crossing sweeper in Bleak House (1853)) to show those frequent reshuffles in the corridors of power for the charades they really are. But he has also gone further than D ickens by using a language of indirection and suggestion rather than of direct statement. A careful scrutiny of the rhetorics of the novel reveals strategically placed allusions to the labouring poor, labour and the theft of the fruit of labour by the rich and the powerful. These allusions and digressions create a “rich metaphorical subtext” (Mohanty 9) about exploitative forms of social relations known to human history, culminating in the latest and the most efficient that the 19th century has devised, namely c olonialism. In this unilateral world of victimisation or colonisation, conveyed, as Sawyer has observed, through the novel’s “prevalent imagery of prey animals and predators” (Sawyer 4784), only the faces and the names of victims change, but not their social locations, their existence on the margins of the society.

A close reading will, in fact, show allusions floating in at regular intervals in the novel to various forms of exploitative labour. We hear of the “free labour” extracted from the bonded labourers under the feudal social arrangement of Dewan Ganga Prasad Singh (chapter 2, p 43) and of bonded labour supplied by the lowly farmhands who work the fields of Mangaraj (chapter 12, p 101). These tell a tale of unremitting and one-sided toil by the toilers of the earth. Like Darwin reading the social pecking order into the natural world, Senapati’s wily narrator sees the exploitative structure replicated in the avian world (comparison of kaduakhumpi birds with gotipuas, of cranes with lowly farmhands) and in the cosmology of the illiterate villagers (Banasura getting the Asura pond dug by the demons, a work, incidentally, of free (read coerced) labour by his slaves). This grand recit of exploitation of labour not only frames a contemporary story of defrauding of a weaver couple of their six acres and a third, but also runs through the narrative like a leitmotif pointing to the view from below. The metaphorical heart of the novel’s r adical social vision can be glimpsed in the following comment of the narrator.

Four kaduakhumpi birds are hopping about like gotipuas, like traditional dancing boys. The birds are happy and excited because they are able to spear and eat the little fish that live in the mud. Some might remark that these birds are so cruel, so wicked, that they get pleasure from spearing and eating creatures smaller than themselves. What can we say? You may describe the kadukhumpi birds as cruel, wicked, satanic, or whatever else you like; the birds will never file a defamation suit against you. But don’t you know that among your fellow human beings, the bravery, honor, respectability, indeed, the attractiveness of an individual all depend upon the number of necks he can wring? Some sixteen to twenty cranes, white and brown, churn the mud like lowly farmhands, from morning till night. … A pair of kingfishers suddenly arrive out of nowhere, dive into the water a couple of times, stuff themselves with food and swiftly fly away. … Oh! stupid Hindu cranes, look at these English kingfishers, who arrive out of nowhere with empty pockets, fill themselves with all manner of fish from the pond, and then fly away. You nest in the banyan tree near the pond, but after churning the mud and water all day long, all you get are a few miserable small fish. You are living in critical times now; more and more kingfishers will swoop down on the pond and carry off the best fish. You have no hope, no future, unless you can go abroad and learn how to swim in the ocean (pp 103-104).

This passage from the Asura Pond chapter, with its persistent allegorising of the way human social affairs are conducted, is evidence of Senapati’s complex and polyphonic realism. This realism is not only diagnostic in a Lukácsian sense27 (in bringing h idden or disguised causal connections to light, that is), but also, as Sawyer has suggested, “perspectivalist” (Sawyer 4782) in that it stands conventional hierarchies on their head by causing the top and the bottom to switch positions.

It is another important aspect of the text’s concern with causality that the narrative eliminates a purely humanitarian concern for the suffering poor which is epitomised in a poem written by Tagore on a similar subject. “Two Bighas of Land”,28 written only a few years before Chha Mana, anticipates the novel’s theme of loss of land. The poem sings in an elegiac and lyrical manner of Upen’s eviction from his two bighas of land. Tagore versifies the tragic tale of depeasantisation that Lal Behari Day presents much more elaborately, though not necessarily more realistically, in his prose narrative, Govinda Samanta.29 If Senapati has learnt from both of them, he seems to have done so negatively.30 There is only a surface resemblance between the two tales of the loser of paternal acres and his own story of loss of land. Upen, the protagonist in Tagore’s poem, is more a vehicle of the romantic-nationalist attachment to land than a device by which to foreground a

december 13, 2008

socially orchestrated land enclosure drive by the wealthy. The framing of Bhagia serves to focalise this much more powerfully than the framing of Upen, and, to some extent, of Hori. For example, it contests the naturalisation of social relations based on property. It is not that there is any question about the gross injustice of Bhagia’s eviction from property, his ancestrally held six and a third acres; there is also a question mark placed on the acquisition of his ancestrally held six and a third acres, which the narrator delicately sources to his privileged inheritance of the property owned by his village headman father. No wonder Sisir Das in his brief but eloquent commentary on Six Acres said that Senapati’s literary anatomy of property and poverty far exceeded that of Tagore in this poem.31 Involving as it does a significant epistemological shift of focus towards the social bases of poverty and property, Senapati’s realism offers a searing analysis of a social system.

Chha Mana thus presents neither a cautionary tale about the victor nor a pitiful tale of the victim. The emphasis instead is on the historical process of change of social class and power viewed through the lenses of land and language. The passage from the bhumydhikari to the zamindar-cum-mahajan is the shorthand for the vast groundswell of change that has brought us from precolonial to colonial India. As the novel ends, other ramifications of colonial modernity come to the fore. That the novel does not close can be best seen from the anti-closural reference to the continuance of the structure of domination under a new name (Ram Ram Lala). The process of British takeover of Orissa is told twice in the novel. First it is told telegraphically through the story of Ramachandra Mangaraj’s first act of land grabbing (“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 F atehpur Sarasandha from Mian?” (ch 8, p 76)). The second time it is told in the affective way typical of novels. It is this second story of the stealing of six and a third acres, which shows British power in India to have entered a new phase of bureaucratic hardening with the shift of the power base from the class of village zamindars to the comprador class of urban middlemen, from a village to an urban India. The “causal joints” of the society that the novel deals with are finally laid bare.

The novel then embodies a mode of telling that seeks to cut through the mediating layers – metaphysical (property), ideological (social hierarchy) and textual (print literate, pen-driven) – to a view of the labouring poor with their alternative mythology (horse and cow), ideology (marginality) and textuality (orality). Chha Mana thus considerably deepens the “referential” function of its own discourse by rewriting reference as “epistemic access” to the structures of domination rather than simply as a moving human document and social panorama. The referential vagueness of the early account in the novel of a tyrant and of a tyrannical system is revealed, paradoxically through a process of peeling off of the veil of social illusion, to be the product of a complicit social ideology and discourse.


If the two instances of social realism inscribed in Chha Mana Atha Guntha and Godaan are as radically different as the above analysis has shown them to be, then they are crucial to an understanding of the perspectivally differentiated development of a realist epistemology in Indian literature in the late 19th and the early 20th century. My approach to this issue, informed initially by Amiya Dev’s distinction between the discourse-dominated early novels and the mimesis-dominated later novels, has tried to take more on board by bringing into play the distinction between descriptive and analytical realism. As a matter of fact, in light of the analysis just conducted, we might like to see Senapati and Premchand as doing different and, in fact, opposing things as realists. Senapati’s novel provides referential refinement and “epistemic access” through its self-reflexive narration that holds the mediating mythologies impinging on consciousness up to scrutiny. Premchand’s novel minimises this interrogative aspect as it moves towards a fuller psychological portrayal. Ironically, however, the label of a realist seems to have attached more readily to Premchand than to Senapati. This is because realism has over the years been identified with the kind of descriptive familiarity and psychological profiling that we a ssociate with the panoramic psychodrama of Premchand’s n ovels. Senapati’s Chha Mana, on the contrary, encourages s cepticism about what is given. Its epistemic achievement is to have problematised the real so that the rules of this world can be rewritten. This tradition of radical social critique is among the forgotten legacies of realism in Indian literature.32 This essay is a contribution to the ongoing recovery and reassessment of 19th century literary realism in India and an attempt to trace the social and philosophical implications of the many varieties of realist writing.

Notes and References seminar held in Bhubaneswar on 5 March 2006. Senapati’s novel. These are Stubble under the They have also inspired such books as Banamali C loven Hoof by C V N Das (Cuttack: Cuttack

1 The phrase “epistemic access”, as used by the

Das’s Fakir Mohan aur Premchand: Tulanatmak Sahitya Sansad, 1967), Six Acres and a Half by AM

postpositivist philosopher Richard Boyd, denotes

Samikhya (Fakir Mohan and Premchand: A Com-& BM Senapati (Bhubaneswar: Publication Divi

the kind of precision with which scientific terms

parative Analysis) (1986). One of the latest essays sion, Ministry of Education and Broadcasting,

refer to the external world. Terms like reptile,

to have been published on the two writers is 1967) and A Plot of Land by Nuri Mishra (Cuttack:

mammal and gold, for instance, do allow us

Sumanyu Satapathy’s “Meeting and Parting of Cuttack Student’s Store, 1969). Six Acres and a

access to the internal structures of the different

Ways: The Responses of Premchand and Fakir Third, published by the University of California kinds of creatures and metals designated by these

Mohan to Language Issues”. English Studies in Press in 2005 and by Penguin India in 2006 and terms. Satya P Mohanty, drawing on Boyd, makes India, Vol XV, January 2007, 145-53. This essay is translated by a translating team of four, happens the same kind of argument for literary reference. based on a presentation that Satapathy made at to be the latest and the most influential English Also see note 6. the Bhubaneswar seminar. For information on the translation of Senapati’s novel till date. That 2 The pairing of Senapati and Premchand has been seminar, see the IACLALS newsletter for July Senapati’s novel has inspired so many translaas much a part of serious academic discourse as of 2006. Satapathy also filed his report on the con-tions into English, not to speak of its translation popular perception, both of these occasionally ference in this issue under the title “Saviours of into almost all major Indian languages, is a testaworking together to produce seminars and con-Language”. See page 8 of the newsletter. ment to its power and prestige. Evidence has just ferences such as the Central Sahitya Akadmei 3 There have been three earlier translations of emerged of yet another English translation, as yet

Economic & Political Weekly

december 13, 2008 67


unpublished, of the novel, done in 1982 by Sanjukta Mohapatra for a certain American audience at the University of Chicago at the suggestion of Richard Allan Shweder, a faculty member in the Dept of Comparative Human Development of the same university. In this essay I have often called the Senapati novel by two names: its Oriya title, often truncated to Chha Mana, and by its latest English title, again truncated to Six Acres. All citations from the novel are from the latest publication.

4 The text of Godaan being used here is that of the English translation done by Gordon C Roadermel, titled The Gift of a Cow, published by George Allen and Unwin in 1968. Premchand’s novel has also inspired multiple translations into English and has been rendered into all major Indian languages, Oriya included. As a matter of fact, this essay has also checked the English text against the text of the superb 1981 Oriya translation done by Golak Bihari Dhal. In this essay, Premchand’s novel is referred to as Godaan throughout. All citations from the novel are from the English translation by Roadermel.

5 I agree entirely with the premise of Satya P Mohanty and Harish Trivedi that, given the time lag between Senapati and Premchand, and, given, the latter’s complete ignorance of the former, “in the lack of translation”, the relationship between the two authors should be seen “as more of broad genealogy rather than that of influence or even inter-textuality” (p 4781). This explains why I have not respected chronology in the presentation of the argument of my essay where Godaan precedes Six Acres instead of following it. See the introduction to the special section on “The Literary View from Below” in EPW, 18 November 2006.

6 The book where Satya P Mohanty has mined the resources of this new realism, which he calls “postpositivist realism”, for purposes of literary analysis is Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism Objectivity and Multicultural Politics, published by Cornell University Press in 1997 with its Indian reprint coming out from Oxford University Press in 1998. This author’s review of Mohanty’s book was published in The Hindu Literary Review dated 6 December 1998 under the title “A New Realism for The Times”.

7 This brief essay, offering a distillation of Satya P Mohanty’s realist theory of identity, is called “The Dynamics of Literary Reference: Narrative Discourse and Social Ideology in Two 19th Century Indian Novels”. It is published in the volume Thematology: Literary Studies in India, brought out by the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University in 2004. It posits a complex account of literary reference in relation to Chha Mana Atha Guntha and Bengal Peasant Life.

8 The essay in question is “Reading Chha Mana Atha Guntha”, originally published in Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vol 31, 1993-94 and reprinted in Fakir Mohan Senapati: Perspectives on His Fiction (ed) Jatindra Kumar Nayak (Prafulla Pathagara 2005). Page references to this essay are from the book.

9 Cited in Mohanty “The Dynamics of Literary Reference”, 235.

10 Although Raymond Williams has found himself obligated to offer a more complex account of the 19th century British novel in isolated essays written at a later stage in his career in response to the sophisticated and challenging Marxist work on literary form developed by Althusser and Macheray, and, to some extent, by his younger Marxist colleague and one-time student Terry Eagleton, his most influential book The Country and the City (Frogmore: Paladin, 1973) treats the 19th century novel as a documentation of social reality. The novel’s form and its prose medium, he seems to imply, incline it towards the documentary, thus ushering in an era of realist writing where, unobstructed by the “tinsel trappings of poetic pride” that marked the pastoral and the country-house poetry of Andrew Marvell, Philip Sydney and Ben Jonson, historical verities transpire without mediation as it were. Williams’ case for realism in this work is not very different from that of Lal Behari Day with its stress on “plain and unvarnished” description.

11 Satya P Mohanty was the first to call attention to the accentuated mode of the novel’s telling in his introduction (see 3) to Six Acres and a Third. This aspect has received continued attention in the essays by Paul L Sawyer and Ulka Anjaria that have been published in a special section titled “The Literary View from Below” in the journal Economic & Political Weekly, 18-24 November 2006.

12 Akhshya Kumar cites this opinion in his review of a monograph on Premchand titled Premchand: Novelist and Thinker by Govind Narain Sharma in Spectrum Tribune, 13 August 2000. The review is titled “A Close Look at the Godaan Man”.

13 Chha Mana, of course, is an eloquent record of the entry of British capital into traditional Oriya society, creating at the level of the superstructure that phenomenon of “othering” of Oriya society by the capitalistic and racist values of the west. The novel thus deepens our perception of the conflict between cultures in hierarchical contact, which it was the privilege of Padmamali (1888), the first Oriya novel by Umesh Chandra Sarkar, to trace in outline form, as can be seen from this brief passage: During the period in which this narrative has been set, the young folk, unlike their modern counterparts, had no knowledge of English and therefore they had not learnt to forsake moral conduct and decorum of behaviour. They did not arrogantly denounce their forefathers as stupid. At that time modern principles and theories were not in vogue, and people were orthodox in their outlook (p 42).

The English translation of Padamamali, by Snehaprava Das and Paul St-Pierre, was published by Grassroots in 2005.

Also instructive on this point is the first Malayali novel Indulekha (1889) by O Chandu Menon (translated as Indulekha by Anitha Devasia for Oxford University Press in 2005). From the start, the novel sets out to explore the deeply ambivalent response of colonial Indian society to English education, showing in its pages the contradictory unity of a desire for and a fear of English that continues to mark Indian responses to English even to this day. The novel juxtaposes the narrator’s praise for the hero Madhavan’s skills in the English language (“Surely, I do not need to reitrate that Madhavan used the English language with remarkable dexterity (2)) with the warning voiced by other characters against it for its socially disruptive effects (Didn’t you get to know how that rascal Madhavan insulted me. At an ill-fated moment, I gave him an English education; this is the result of that (p 42)).


e Be B
” h” h
s cs c
ognised as a feature central to the novel genre. It designates the bringing of discourses into nonhierarchical contact that contributes to the process of what Bakhtin has termed “novelisation”. As Satya P Mohanty and Harish Trivedi say in their brief introduction to the special section in EPW, Six Acres and a Third is a Bakhtinian novel which dialogises “colonial society and culture” (p 4780).

15 The margin in literature is amenable to either a top-down or a bottom-up view. The classic topdown view about the below was proposed by Matthew Arnold in a formulation which has become proverbial, namely, that literature is a “criticism of life”. Goerg Lukacs entered the qualification to this view when he said in the introduction to his Writers and Critics and Other Essays that for criticism to be worth its grain it had to be from below, not above. Paul Sawyer has, in his EPW essay, used George Eliots’s Middlemarch and Senapati’s Six Acres and a Third to exemplify these approaches which can be characterised as about below and from below respectively.

16 This comes across to the reader, as Thomas Jandl points out, as a narrative “dripping with 400 pages of tearful misery, largely of the characters’ own making” (p 201). This points to Premchand’s

Review of Labour May 31, 2008 Class in Industrial Disputes: Case Studies from Bangalore –Supriya RoyChowdhury Employee Voice and Collective Formation in Indian ITES-BPO Industry –Philip Taylor, Ernesto Noronha, Dora Scholarios, Premilla D’Cruz The Growth Miracle, Institutional Reforms and Employment in China –Ajit K Ghose Soccer Ball Production for Nike in Pakistan –Karin Astrid Siegmann Labour Regulation and Employment Protection in Europe: Some Reflections for Developing Countries –A V Jose Labour, Class and Economy:Rethinking Trade Union Struggle –Anjan Chakrabarti, Anup Kumar Dhar For copies write to: Circulation Manager Economic and Political Weekly, 320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

december 13, 2008

humanitarianism or “idealistic realism”. Mark by way of contrast Senapati’s economising of the tale of misery as part of his concern with an analytical realism. Jandl’s review essay on Roadermel’s E nglish translation of Godaan is published in Yale Journal of International Affairs. Summer/Fall 2005, pp 201-203.

17 This needs to be contrasted with Senapati’s take on the cow in Chha Mana. Drawing on the elevated metaphor of Kalidasa and debased imagery from the industrialised world (the paper mill), it dwells on the cow’s use value. This incidentally is an example of the way Senapati layers the discourse of the novel at crucial points, thus helping it to produce a much richer realism. When Paul Sawyer speaks in his essay, “An Oriya Village and the Battle of Plassey: Senapati’s Allegory of the Raj”, of Senapati’s commitment to the below without this entailing a sacrifice of a language rich in allusiveness and range of reference, it is this i nterplay of textuality and analysis that he has in mind.

18 Jandl (p 203). Jandl contradicts himself, however, when, after asserting in the beginning of the paragraph that in Godaan “rebels constantly fare better than those who remain passive”, he concedes that Dhaniya’s “miseries persist to the bitter end” (p 203).

19 Jandl rightly reads Godaan as a cautionary account of the way in which “culture often can be an obstacle to social and economic change” (p 201). He cites caste as one such negative cultural institution or force. What I am trying to argue is that the ideology that is inscribed in the organicism of the above passage can also be seen as promoting the kind of culture-society divide that lies at the roots of aploliticism.

20 This goes against the grain of the received image of the novel which has always been regarded as being convincing about the village and unconvincing about the city. As a matter of fact, the city part of the novel has been cut out of some English translations of the novel aiming to give readers an abridged version. Even Roadermel, in his introduction to the English translation of the complete novel, is of the view that the city characters are more like cardboard cut outs than they are flesh-and-blood. This, coupled with Premchand’s critique of urban forms in Gaban (1931: English translation by Christopher King (2000)) and Godaan and his positing of a utopian G andhian/Hindu social ideal, based in the village (this space, being a Walden-like intermediate space with all real-life conflicts spirited out of it, has a purely metaphorical relationship with the village of Lakhanpur which is the scene of action in the novel) in Premashram (1918; Oriya translation by Golak Bihari Dhal (1975)), seems to plead against his urban bias. Still it makes sense to talk about Premchand’s Balzacian fascination for the city as a place of intrigue, duplicity and desire.

I have found confirmation of my view in a recent article by Harbans Singh in Tribune Spectrum (25 September 2005) that Premchand’s later works (he mentions Gaban and Premashram in parti cular) “explode the myth that Premchand is representative only of the rural and the masses toiling inevitably towards defeat and misery”. One may wonder about the application of the thesis to Godaan, but I have deeply felt that the scenes, situations and themes that Premchand set up in Premashram reverberate throughout his oeuvre, Godaan included. Notice the way in which the passion triangle involving Gynashankar, Vidya (his wife) and Gayatri (the other woman) is replicated in the passion traingle involving the city-bred characters, Khanna, Gobindi (his wife) and Malti (the other woman). And, of course, Premshankar’s spiritual detachment finds a match in the philosophical hardboileddom of Mehta.

21 Gobar is a case in point. He does not actually fare better by escaping the caste-produced cultural templates of village India, as Jandl seems to think (p 202). He has his fulness of being only in his native environment, uprooted from which he withers. Consider the way he is a foil to his father Hori. He does not share his father’s attitude of passive and fatalistic acceptance of subordination. When he returns to his village after a year in town he takes on the village power brokers like Datadin, Jhinguri Singh, Lala Pateswari and Nokheram with a rare boldness and even orchestrates dramatic performances caricaturing their hypocritical behaviour and conduct.

While the impetuosity of youth can be said to play a part in his militancy, it is also shown to be a conscious act. In the city, however, he is reduced to a cipher, a part of the mob that is infinitely manipulable by demagogues like Mirza Khurshed. Premchand’s point may be to show the city as inherently chaotic and evil with the potential to mislead the innocent lad from the country, but he seems to have reckoned without the agency he had imputed to this character earlier. In other words, Premchand’s realism does not address the question of the registration and processing of the change of environment in Gobar’s consciouness. Notice by way of contrast how Mehta and Malti move with ease between scenes and settings. Though humbled by the innocence of country ways (Mehta’s encounter with the jungli girl in chapter 7), they do little to reverse the logic that privileges the city over the country. They seek out the country in chapter 37, but as charity givers and, as such, are regarded by the villagers as cult figures.

22 Unfortunately no date is given for this review which appeared in Complete Review and which I gleaned from the Internet.

23 Godaan gives evidence of an increase in two-way traffic between the British/American ruling class and its Indian counterpart. The society that the novel portrays is one that is securely held in imperial embrace, meaning that it is a world where the sons and daughters of the wealthy make it to England and America effortlessly for education and training. For instance, the English educated son of Rai Sahib leaves for England with his newly married wife Saroj (sister of Malti, herself an England-educated doctor), a doctor by qualification, just when troubles are brewing between father and son over his morganatic marriage. This, in a way, is a reversal of the plot convention of the classic 19th century English novel whereby the problematic Englishman is packed off to the far-off colonies to buy a temporary peace for England. Even in Premashram, the authority of Premshanakar, the inspiration behind the utopian rural ideal embodied in his Sabarmati-like hermitage of love, derives in a large measure from his long stay in America. This is an ironic fulfilment of the wish of the narrator of Six Acres for a Calibanesque taking on of the West, as expressed in the line “to go abroad and learn how to swim in the ocean” (p 104).

24 Invoking the term “westoxication”, originally used by the Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmad, the Indian sociologist Dipankar Gupta says in his book Mistaken Modernity: India between Worlds (New Delhi: HarparCollins, 2000) that the term portrays better than “westernisation” the kind of addiction to the consumerist values of the west prevalent in postcolonial India. As he says, “Westoxication is about the superficial consumerist display of commodities and fads produced in the West. … Westoxicated people are not westernised in the true sense at all. They use their privileges of birth, and their superior access to wealth and power, to flaunt their social distance over the rest” (p 11). Senapati’s novel is, among other things, a superb satire on the Oriya babus on their road to “westoxication”.

25 The “economic telling of the novel’s plot”, to quote Ulka Anjaria, is in this sense most instructive. It is meant to reveal the gap between appearance and reality. The plot to defraud the weaver couple of their six and a third acres is first hinted at early on in a chapter ostensibly devoted to the presiding deity of the village of Govindpur, Buddhi M angala. We are told about how one morning the villagers come upon tell tale signs of a puja or propitiatory rites being performed at the shrine of the Goddess the night before. Each chapter that succeeds then goes on to reveal the malevolent scheme of Ramachandra Mangaraj in bits and pieces until the pieces are fitted together in the chapter titled “The Police Inquiry” in a gruesome display of causality underlying the miraculous phenomenon of divine visitation. See Anjaria, “Satire, Literary Realism and the Indian State”, (p 4796).

26 Tolstoy’s story “Khlostomer” in which a horse looks sardonically at the institution of private property comes to mind here. Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, however, reads off his formalist agenda from this Marxist story in his influential essay “Art as technique”. The essay is included in David Lodge (ed), Modern Criticism: A Reader (London: Longman), 1986.

27 The definition of choice from Lukacs is, of course, the one that Anjaria has picked from Studies in European Realism, namely, “everything is linked up with everything else. Each phenomenon shows the polyphony of many components, the intertwinement of the individual and social, of the physical and the psychical, of private interest and public affairs.” See Anjaria, “Satire, Literary R ealism and the Indian State” (p 4800).

28 See The Tagore Rachanabali for the original Bangla poem titled “Dui Bigha Jami”. Incidentally, the first line of the Bangla original Sudu cchilo dui bigha mor bhuin (I only had these two bighas of land) refers to land in its traditional sense as bhuin, which translates as soil, rather than in its more contemporary sense as jami, which likens it to a marketable commodity. Chha Mana also plays on these shifting meanings of land, showing the passage from bhumi (soil) to jami (commodity), instigated by the colonial law pertaining to land. A new essay by G N Das titled “Rediscovering Ramachandra Mangaraj: Chha Mana Atha G untha: A Critique of Colonial Rule” illuminates the link between the rise of the new class of money-lender-cum-zamindar, typified by Ramachandra Mangaraj, and the colonial land tenure system introduced by the British in Orissa. The essay is forthcoming in the Baroda-based Journal of C ontemporary Thought.

29 Bengal Peasant Life, to which a reference has been made earlier in this essay, is also known by its alternative title Govinda Samanta, so named after its eponymous protagonist.

30 On this subject an earlier article titled “Writing Peasant Life in Colonial India” by H S Mohapatra and J K Nayak, published in Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abraod (Spring 1996, pp 29-40) is instructive. Also the essay by G N Das, referred to above, comments on the structural differences between Bengal Peasant Life and Chha Mana Atha Guntha, showing how the first novel is a simple and straightforward story of the victim while the second is a complex and sophisticated narrative about the social and economic process that goes on, in that telling expression from Marx, behind the backs of individuals.

31 Sisir Kumar Das, A History of Indian Literature, 1800-1910 (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi), 1991, (p 206).

32 Among the forgotten legacies of Senapati’s novel is also the key issue of multilingualism. The polyglot surface of this Oriya identity-defining novel is something of a wonder. At a conference on the novel held in Delhi during 3-5 January 2007 a distinguished panel of scholars, writers and comparatists pleaded for a reading of the novel which would see it as a “cautionary account of the process whereby a rich heteroglossia was giving way to an impoverished monolingualism, designated by the nationalist shift to the concept of the mother tongue”. See in this connection the present author’s report on the conference titled “Reading the Indian Novel”, published in The Hindu L iterary Review, 4 March 2007.

december 13, 2008

To read the full text Login

To know more about our subscription offers Click Here.


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top