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Allusive Politics

English Fakir Mohan Senapati and the ‘Rebati’ Epigraph

Sumanyu Satpathy ( has taught English at the University of Delhi and is currently a visiting professor, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi.

During the colonial period, at the turn of the century, when linguistic “nationalism” in Eastern India was on the rise, Odia writers in general, and Fakir Mohan Senapati in particular, were making subversive use of their limited knowledge of English. In Senapati’s “Rebati,” one finds layers of intertextuality generated by the obscure English epigraph.

Any linguistic encounter, especially between a subjugated vernacular language and a dominant cosmopolitan language, has always elicited interesting responses from both: from incomprehension, and curiosity to amusement and ridicule. When such historical moments are represented in cultural productions, the latter might provide historians with insights too valuable and variegated to be ignored. For example, one of the first things that Edward Lear, the Victorian painter-traveller, would do on arrival in a new land was to pick up a few words and sentences from the local language. On his arrival in India in 1873 he makes the following entry in his diary: “First beginning of Lingo. Rusta ke hai?” (Ray 1953). Later, he would go on to compose nonsense verses out of the new language he encountered: his Indian poem, the “Cummerbund” (Lear 1951) is replete with Hobson-Jobson words, which he uses as names of things and characters. But, as the author has shown elsewhere, the poem evokes a vaguely monitory message too in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, even when it was supposed to be “nonsense, pure and absolute” (Satpathy 2002).

If such strategic uses of the strange language of a colonised people as nonsense are staple for a cosmopolitan language faced with the vernacular, what might a reverse situation yield? Pioneers in India’s diverse linguistic regions responded to the challenge of English in variety of ways, from learning to write original works in English to adapting, translating texts from the English literary canon. They also engaged in playful ways of coping with the difficulties ingrained in cultural coding in the foreign linguistic culture. More serious writings took to allusive modes to contend with new, stringent censorship measures, sometimes engaging in destabilising deployment of quotations to fight veiled ideological battles. Fakir Mohan Senapati seems to have adopted all these strategies in his impressive body of work. This article cites examples of his subversive humour using linguistic puns. It goes on to look at his more serious and dissident use of the master’s voice.

Subversive Humour

An Odia clerk greets a Sahib with a “good morning” in an apparent show of knowledge of the Sahib’s language to the Sahib himself. Delighted at the prospect of a useful conversation, upon being so greeted, the Sahib responds with few polite sentences in English. The native, who knew no more than those two words of greeting, hesitates and gives his answers in Odia. Unable to follow a word, the Sahib feels insulted and threatens to beat him up with his brolly, upon which the native excuses himself in Hindustani, and says “humko isse jyadi Angrezi malum nahin” (I know no more English than this) and manages to escape. The Sahib is left flabbergasted.1 This piece of amusing nugget could well be construed as apocryphal, but the desire on the part of the native to emulate the Sahib was real and gets satirised in a popular Odia verse by Govind Rath, a contemporary of Senapati:

If I die now I’ll be reborn as a sahib

And put on a cap on my red head

I shall wear pantaloons of cricket flannel night and day

I will exterminate the species of guinea-fowl

And eat at the dining table

If a native comes close to me

I shall call him “dirty” and shoo him off.2

For a person happily deprived of formal European education, Senapati, it must be said at the outset, was a remarkably knowledgeable autodidact, gradually familiarising himself with the indigenous as well as anglophone print culture. Also, and for a person who often chose to deploy irony and pun, Senapati seemed to have had an abiding fascination for the language and literature of the coloniser. In his own candid account in Atmacharita,3 he confesses to being curious about English only in adult life, and goes on to narrate how he learnt the language on his own:

I gave up studying Sanskrit and started devoting all my time to English … Most of the time I studied on my own, and with the help of a dictionary I read Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, History of Bengal, Govind Samant by Reverend Lal Behari Dey, Bible, Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Even this much of English education was to stand me in good stead from time to time. (Dash 2008a: 80)

Senapati puts this phase of his life down to the time when he was aged 22 or 23 years, that is, around 1865–66. Even by his own claims, therefore, his familiarity with the language and literature would be modest. Yet, he was able to write letters to his employers in correct, idiomatic English, of which a few are extant. However, it is his writing elsewhere that gives us a better idea about how he allows his linguistic imagination to run riot. Notwithstanding his limited knowledge of English, he seemed to have made optimum use of it in his short stories, novels, histories and poetry.

It is evident from his numerous references to the works by William Wilson Hunter, James Tod, and Joshua Marshman; the fiction of Walter Scott and Shakespeare; the Bible and so on. His use of the form of the allegory (one major instance being Hata Bahuda [The Haat-Returnee], probably influenced by Pilgrim’s Progress, which had by then been translated by Amos Sutton into Odia);4 and the many English words he spins bilingual puns with (such as “municipality,” “chairman,” “at home,” “bar,” etc) are a few other
instances. But he also makes serious and no less subversive use of the language of the coloniser. A few instances of both methods are examined in what follows, if only to explore the intertextual modernity of Senapati.

In “Ananta, the Widow’s Son” there is an episode where an English official is in the company of a few “native” constables and a daroga. Impressed by one Subal Singh’s bravery, the Sahib asks him if he would like to serve as a constable under him. Subal, who knew no English, answers in Odia. Unable to understand the answer, the Sahib throws a quizzical look at the daroga. Then the narrator says,

The chowkidars knew that the Daroga knew English. But we knew that he had studied only up to the “First Book” level. And he tried to explain Subal’s words in some such English to the sahib: “This Guala Mahakur said he ask his wife. If he tell, he will constable.” Sahib took two minutes to understand this; smiling to himself he took out his notebook from his pocket and wrote something like this: “Subal Singh is fit to be a constable. He seems to be a clever man. He is stout and strong and knows how to show respect to the fair sex.” Then the Sahib ordered: “tum kal fazar dera ka pas hazar ho.” (Dash 2008b: 167)

This episode in the story, written around 1914, anticipates Nissim Ezekiel’s (nd) “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T S” by almost half a century. In any case, if the Englishman here is portrayed as speaking correct Hindustani, elsewhere another compatriot of his was not so lucky; Senapati’s narrator ridicules his ignorance of Hindustani. The Sahib asks his chuprassi (peon) to fetch a female donkey:

Sahib: Hamara ek gadda darker hai; yahan kahan milega?

Chuprassi: Gadda kya?

Sahib: Ye damn suwar ka bacha! Gadda kya bujhne nahin sakta

Chuprassi: Aap kya Gadhha mangta? Kaisa gadhha mangta huzoor?

Sahib: (Unable to find the right Hindi for female donkey) Hamare jaishe gadda mat lao … mem saa’b ka aisa gadda lao!

(Dash 2008b: 243)

If in the stories referred to above, the main plot is not subservient to the issue of the English language, in some other cases, English and English education play a key role in the plots. “Dak Munshi” (or postmaster) and “Sabhya Jamindar” (civilised zamindar) belong to this latter group of stories. In “Dak Munshi,” a poor postman sacrifices everything to educate his son so that he becomes a postmaster. However, he receives a few “ingreji ghussis” or English punches before being abandoned by his English- educated son (Dash 2008b: 92). One is not sure whether Senapati is referring here to a blow or punch, or the newly acquired abuses in English, which he refers to elsewhere, such as “bloody fool,” “damn,” “nonsense,” etc. “Dak Munshi” carries many details that are indicative of the arrival of modernity: posts and telegraph services are an element of modernity for the running of which modern education was a precondition. Senapati, thus, expresses great displeasure through his writing about the uprooting and displacement of traditional, agrarian modes of employment by the so-called service sector.

Senapati’s short story, “Sabhya Jamindar” too carries many references to the historical context: the colonial capital Calcutta also as the financial capital, the synonymity of English education and sabhya (the state of being civilised), the need to hire bilingual interpreters, adaptation of English ways, and so on. The story begins with reference to one of the big English business houses carrying out dealings with Mahapatra Babu of Kolkata. “Whenever Mahapatra Babu had to deal with these big English Babus he managed with a dovaki or interpreter. However, the interpreter always cheated him out of his profit” (Dash 2008b: 76). So Mahapatra Babu thought of giving English education to his son, Rajiva, so that no one can cheat him. Sent to “Kolkata Andrew Akademy,” Rajiva’s studies seem to go on for ever. When asked to return, Rajiva said, in order to learn English he needed to “pass.” Mahapatra Babu too knew “that there was something called ‘pass’ if one wished to learn English” (Dash 2008b: 76).

Later, in the story, Mahapatra Babu dies satisfied that his son was now a “civilised Zamindar.” In between, Senapati offers trenchant satirical broadsides on all the post-Swadeshi sabhas (assemblies) and reformist lectures that were much fashionable in his time by attributing them to the misguided spoilt brat that Rajiva had become. Meanwhile, Rajiva decides to marry his “civilised” English-educated match from Kolkata, Nayantara Dukshapashora (Dash 2008b: 79). It seems she had been sent to a Scottish Baptist Orphan Girl’s School in Assam by her ageing parents, where the headmistress was Miss Douglas. Senapati supplies many other details about what appeared strange about this odd-woman-out, due to her Western education in a traditional environment. When she is introduced to her mother-in-law, she extends her hand to shake it and greets her by using the literal Odia translation of “how do you do?” as “kemanta (for how) kara (for the do) apana (for you) kara (for do)?”5 (Dash 2008b: 80)

Senapati is not only ridiculing the peculiar Odia prose that the British missionary translators used, but he also knew that the linguistic differences carried cultural differences (Atmacharita in Dash 2008a: 77). For example, traditional Odias do not wear their shoes, usually made of leather in places of worship, in homes or the kitchen. Nayantara causes much commotion when she enters these sacred places with her high-heeled shoes. Finally, Rajiva loses all the property that he had inherited from his hard-working and sincere, un-English-educated father, and the readers are invited to shed the illusion that English education is a passport to success.

Technique of Intertextuality

Senapati’s position on English education is more explicit in his discursive writing and lectures. Once he said:

A totally illiterate cowherd boy recites lines from the Odia Bhagabata or Upendra Bhanja under a tree after letting the cattle graze. You can well imagine after how many years that boy would be able to remember and sing or recite a few lines of the poetry of Shakespeare or Milton.

(Dash 2008b: 423)6

But he berates the ill effects of such winds of change in book business. In the poem, “Hata Bahuda,” he says with devastating irony,

Plenty of beautiful and ripe fruits

Are readily available in the shop.

Byron, Pope, Shakespeare,

Wordsworth, Milton and Homer

History, Philosophy, Botany …

These fruits come with strange benefits

The body shrivels to thin, the mind grows thick.

But those who know how to digest these fruits

Win the world with their own knowledge.

 Eating little causes drudgery,

And eating more brightens one’s fate.

(Senapati 1898)

Of course, he deliberately misspells (in Odia) these names, like Byron (“Bairana”) (which sounds like “baigana,” Odia for brinjal or eggplant). It is necessary to cross-reference his bilingual puns too, such as kavi (poet) and kobi (or gobi which in Odia stands for cauliflower, cabbage, etc). In a satirical essay he says, there are kavis everywhere in Odisha. These kavis are of three kinds: phool kavi (cauliflower), bandh kavi (cabbage) and ullu kavi (or ganth govi, that is, knoll-kol) (“Nananka Panji” in Dash [2008b: 248]). Also, one must remember that Odias traditionally call tomatoes, “bilati baingan” and potatos as “bilati aloo,” and so on. It is in this context that one must understand his reference to a “bilati kavi” and conjoin his two kinds of pun: kavi and kovi and bilati instead of bideshi, to evoke the sense of a “foreign poet”/“foreign cabbage.”

In a sombre scene in “Chha Mana Atha Guntha” (Six Acres and a Third), when the protagonist Ramachandra Mangaraj is languishing in jail, utterly helpless, the narrator alludes to the lines of a poem by an anonymous poet. He obviously quotes from memory and says “a vilayati kavi has said …,” etc. According to this poet, the narrator says, “a sunless world and a friendless man are one and the same” (Behera and Dash 2008: 53). In faux seriousness, the narrator says, a man cannot live without a friend. It is worth noticing here that the narrator distances himself from the suffering character (partly because he is villainous), and wishes to provoke some mirth as well. Surely, Senapati had come across the poem in the periodical press with the refrain, “life without friendship.” While he offers a loose translation of it, he does not give any details.7

What happens subsequently is that the “friend” swindles the scheming Mangaraj of all his ill-gotten wealth. After all, the vilayti kavi proved to be no good at offering words of wisdom! Are all these vilayti kavis useless? Why does then Senapati begin his iconic short story “Rebati” with an epigraph from a contemporary vilayti poet. After all, the vilayti kavi proved to be no good at offering words of wisdom as the character concerned continued to suffer as the “friend” turned out to be deceitful. Did Senapati really believe that all the vilayti kavis were useless? The answer is no.

Senapati in the epigraph of his story “Rebati” sheds his penchant for wordplay and for once makes it clear that the lines in English need to be taken seriously as a stylistic device. An epigraph, he had understood by now, becomes an integral part of the text.8 As an allusive device it signposts the thematic thrust of the text. Before we inquire into the epigraph from “Rebati,” in which Senapati introduces a new technique of intertextuality to the Odia reader, it is to be pointed out that the technique of using an epigraph is itself a Western import. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had already been the trendsetter; and Senapati who was familiar with Bankim’s work must have used him as a model. Until now, the writers of critical prose used epigraphs. Senapati made more frequent use of the epigraph after “Rebati.” Though not in every single case, the chapters in “Chha Mana Atha Guntha” were to carry epigraphs, mostly from Sanskrit and the Odia Bhagabata.

Dissident Use of Voice

The authorial intentions behind the choice of an epigraph sometimes go beyond considerations of its relevance to the plot or theme of the main text that follows it. Of course, there is a clear connection between the gist of the epigraph and the theme of the story itself. A familiar example is the discarded epigraph to the “Waste Land,”—“The Horror! The Horror!” (Eliot and North 2001). Eliot grumbled much later that these words from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would have elucidated his poem, the thematic obscurity of which had acquired some notoriety. Surely, the epigraph would have appeared “elucidative” only to those who knew Conrad’s text well. The same is true of his other epigraph from the same novella, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead”; this time to “The Hollow Men” (Eliot nd). Similarly, Bankim’s well-known novel is replete with epigraphs, at the beginning of almost every chapter, from Sanskrit and English texts.

Published in the periodical Utkal Sahitya, “Rebati” (Senapati 1898) is recognised as the first-ever short story in Odia. It is the story of a young girl wanting to study, with a hint of a love angle with her tutor, Basu. Cholera breaks out and both the parents of Rebati succumb to it. Rebati’s old grandmother attributes the tragedy to the curse Rebati invited on the family, because, as a girl she was not supposed to undergo modern education. John Boulton was one of the earliest critics to claim that Senapati’s is a feminist argument and the story is a plea for woman’s education.

Natabara Samantaray too argues that

The girl and her education—both have different meaning in the old woman’s life ... She firmly believed that Rebati’s education was the root cause of death of her parents and loss of property ... This attitude of the old woman is shaped by a long tradition continuing over centuries. (Satpathy and Mohapatra 2017: 206)

However, to highlight education as the main theme of the story is to reduce Senapati’s fictional art to a kind of monologism that undermines his artistry. Fortunately, towards the end of his essay, Samantaray retrieves the narrative from this kind of reductionist reading, and draws our attention to Senapati’s profound humanism, as he goes on to argue that “the core of (the grandmother’s) heart is filled with affection for her granddaughter” (Satpathy and Mohapatra 2017).

Let us now look at the epigraph to “Rebati”:

But oft some shining April morn

Is darkened in an hour;

And blackest griefs o’er joyous homes

Alas! unseen may lower.

Rev J H Gurney9 (Senapati 1898)

This stanza was extracted from the poem “William Tell,” an imaginative retelling of the legend of the eponymous folk hero in Swiss national historiography. The ballad begins thus:

Come, list to me, and yon shall hear

A tale of what befel

A famous man of Switzerland—

His name was William Tell.

(Gurney nd)

The poem must have been one of the numerous retellings of the legend on the folk hero of Switzerland. This legend is recorded in a late 15th century Swiss illustrated chronicles. It is set in the time of the original foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy in the early 14th century. According to the legend, Tell—an expert marksman with the crossbow—assassinated Albert Gessler, a
tyrannical reeve of Habsburg, Austria positioned in Altdorf, Uri.

The question to be asked here is what did the writer hope to gain from providing the story with an English epigraph—perhaps the only instance of an English epigraph in Senapati’s short stories? Of course, the lines are appropriate given the context of the short story: after all, the story is about a happy family in late 19th century Odisha that is suddenly plunged in gloom and tragedy. But it is to be recalled that along with Arnold von Winkelried, Tell is a central figure in Swiss patriotism as it was constructed during the Restoration of the Confederacy after the Napoleonic era. Did Senapati have any subversive intent in alluding to an inspirational legend during the build-up for the Swadeshi movement through this quotation? The answer is in affirmative. For, the lines that Senapati uses as epigraph are immediately followed by the following telling stanzas:

Not yet on Switzerland had dawned

Her day of liberty;

The stranger’s yoke was on her sons,

And pressed right heavily.

So one was sent in luckless hour,

To rule in Austria’s name;

A haughty man of savage mood —

In pomp and pride he came.

One day, in wantonness of power,

He set his cap on high…

“Bow down, ye slaves,” the order ran;

“Who disobeys shall die!” (Senapati 1898: 3)

Surely, the patriotic import of these lines would not have been lost on someone who had already composed allegorical verses for children in his Abasar Bashare (Days of Leisure) (1963): “The Ingenuity of the Donkey,” “The Shirt of Chandamani,” “The White Cat and the Common Myna,” “The Tom Cat and the Black Dog” (Behera and Dash 2008: 376–80) stand out as what one might call as counter-discourse in children’s verse. Some are even finely disguised allegories of the colonial condition hinting at the possible ways of resistance. The white cat in the poem is trying to entice theIndian mynah into giving up its fledglings. The dialogue, though within the framework of nonsense, is meant to be a lesson/warning for the native child: how through cunning to fight cunning. The personae are not difficult to identify for the adult reader. The white she-cat is the thinly disguised Imperial Queen, who is welcomed: “Salaam, Salaam, Come mem sahib.” In the other poem about a black dog and wild cat, the former is able to outwit the latter. The most glaring example of Senapati’s subversive intent appears in “Chha Mana Atha Guntha” itself:

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. Sitting on the bank, a lone kingfisher suns itself, wings spread like the gown of a memsahib. 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. (Behera and Dash 2008: 106)

A few years after the publication of “Rebati,” Radhanath Ray had been forced to suppress his subversive poems such as “Shivaji’s Words of Exhortation,” when his complete works were published, for the fear of punitive action by the British administrators. It is surprising that Senapati’s more explicit lines were published and escaped censorship.

Allusive Politics

Senapati’s epigraphic intervention complete with the indication of authorship cannot be seen as his display of learning.10 Rather, it is an invitation to the reader to go to the full text of “William Tell” so that the reader understands the meaning of liberty. Thus, if the epigraph that the author had originally taken the trouble of providing the story with is ignored, there is the risk of ignoring a veiled subversive element in a story that was written and published in the years between the “Sepoy Mutiny” (first war of Indian independence) and the Swadeshi movement, events that Senapati referred to in his discursive prose.

Thus, Senapati, who responded to the dominant languages such as Sanskrit, Persian, Bangla and English in diverse ways, can be seen as one of the early exponents of the modernist technique of allusive politics. His intuitive response to linguistic strangeness came in the form of wordplay and irony with a view to saturating his works with the rasa of laughter. But his cerebral response to English and English education came in the form of deployments of strategies in the service of anti-colonial resistance. He understood well that the hegemony of the cosmopolitan over the vernacular would result in the loss of linguistic identity, and stretched his creative limits to combat such dominance. The epigraphic allusion in “Rebati” to a relatively obscure ballad is a proof of this.


1 Radhanath Ray is supposed to have narrated this story to his biographer. See D Ray (1941: 20–21).

2 The words italicised here were used in English in the original Odia version of the satire. The author has translated below the Odia original into Hindi for the appreciation and understanding of a wider audience by non-Odia readers of Rath’s bilingualism:

Ab marne-se sahib banunga

Lal sarpe cap dalunga

Cricket-flannel pant in karke

Night day pehnunga

Guinea-fowlon ka vansh marunga

Tabul ke upar khana khaunga

Native dikhne pe, pas aye toh

“Dirty!” keheke dur bhagaunga

European dekhne pe jhuk-kar salaam thokunga

3 Written between 1915 and 1918, and published in book form in 1927.

4 There was no instance of a modern allegory in Odia until Amos Sutton’s translation of The Pilgrim’s Progress into “Swaga Jatrira Britanta” or “Ihalokanka Paralokathare Gamanara Bishayre”. See Bunyan (1836). A second translation appeared later during Senapati’s lifetime.

5 In Hindi it would yield a similarly funny greeting: “Kaise kar aapka kar?” Both in Odia and Hindi “kara” or “kar” would mean “do,” in Odia “tadsama” stands for “hand”!

6 See Senapati’s “Sabhapati Abhibhasan,” delivered in 1914 in Dash (2008b: 423).

7 A little research yields the entire text. The opening stanza runs thus:

Life without friendship...

is like the dawn without the sun.

Life without friendship...

is like the sky without the moon

when the evening has begun…

8 For some reason, his son, the rationalist Mohini Mohan Senapati omitted the epigraph when he reprinted the short story collection, Galpa Salpa (even changing the title of his father’s Galpa Swalpa!).

9 To the best of author’s knowledge no one has tried to track down Senapati’s source for the epigraph. Though Senapati does not supply the reader with the title of the poem, after some research, the stanza was found to be extracted from the ballad, “William Tell” by J H Gurney. The poem was published in the Queenslander (Brisbane, Australia) on 6 July 1867.

10 F W Bateson (1968) had accused T S Eliot of writing “poetry of pseudo learning” on account of Eliot’s use of abstruse quotations.


Bateson, F W (1968): “T S Eliot: The Poetry of Pseudo Learning,” Journal of General Education, Vol 20, No 1, pp 13–27.

Behera, K C and D Dash (2008): Granthabali: Complete Works of Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vol I, Cuttack: Grantha Mandir.

Bunyan, John (1836): Swaga Jatrira Britanta, Trans Amos Sutton, Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press.

Dash, D (2008a): Granthabali: Complete Works of Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vol II, Cuttack: Grantha Mandir.

—(2008b): Granthabali: Complete Works of Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vol III, Cuttack: Grantha Mandir.

Eliot, Thomas Sterns (nd): “The Hollow Men,” All Poetry,

Eliot, Thomas S and North Michael (ed) (2001): The Waste Land, New York: W W Norton.

Ezekiel, Nissim (nd): “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T S,” English for Students,

Gurney, J H (ndSwaga Jatrira Britanta, ): “William Tell,” Trove, https: // 20313964.

Lear, Edward (1951): The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, United States: Dover Publications.

Ray, D (1941): Radhanath Jibani, Cuttack: Friends’ Publishers.

Ray, M (ed) (1953): Edward Lear’s Indian Journal: Water Colors and Extracts from the Diary of Edward Lear, 1873–1875, London: Jarrolds Publishers.

Satpathy, S (2002): “Lear’s India and the Politics of Nonsense,” Children’s Literature and the Fin de Siecle, Roderick MacGillis (ed), Westport: Greenwood Publishers, pp 73–81.

Satpathy, S and A Mohapatra (eds) (2017): Natabara Samantaray: A Reader, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Senapati, Fakir Mohan (1898): “Rebati,” Utkal Sahitya, Vol 2, No 7, pp 44–50.

Updated On : 31st May, 2019


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