Sunday, January 28, 2007


Six Acres and A Third-Fakir Mohan Senapati
Shah of Shahs-Ryszard Kapuscinski

The 19th century author, Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918) is regarded as the father of modern Oriya literature. Born in a small village near Balasore, Braja Mohan, as he was called contracted a serious illness as a child. He recovered only after being blessed by a Fakir (muslim mendicant). Thus was Fakir appended to his name.

Rare though this incident was, Fakir Mohan grew up to be rarer author.

In the nineteenth century, vernacular literature in India revolved around the romance or chivalry of mythical and royal heroes. Literary works were either paens to heroic characters or embellishments of divine romances or homage to India's ancient past. The Western form of prose, the novel, was still in its infancy. And for those literary figures that had embraced it, it was still a vehicle for expressing the lores of the old.

Senapati, in significant departure from this tradition of his time, started writing about the common man. His novels were rural plots and had the farmer, weaver, and herdsmen as protagonists. In his world, the haves were the zamindar or the city bred babus of British officialdom. In another bold move for his time, his characters spoke in a form of Oriya that was entirely colloquial.

But why am I suddenly blogging about an Oriya author of the past?

Because, a few weeks ago I stumbled upon his famous work Chha mana Atha Guntha (Six Acres and a third). Set in rural Orissa, around 1898-1900, Chha mana.... revolves around an evil zamindar Mangaraj, and how he sets his sight on a rent free plot of land (six and a third acres in area) belonging to a weaver and uses guile, deception and the legal system to usurp it. The beauty of the plot is that although the exploitation of the poor is clearly centrestage, Senapati engages his readers into rural life with wit, sarcasm, and dry humor to wade us through the daily events, the squabbles and the gossip. Despite the banter there is the underlying irony of the hierarchy of exploitation. Of the landless by the zamindar, and of the zamindar by the colonial rule and policies. Mangaraj's devious ways ultimately lead to his nemesis but though his tale has a moral end, the same does not hold for his brand of exploitation.

"It was rumoured everywhere that the judge Sahib had taken away Mangaraj's zamindari and given it to a lawyer, and that this lawyer would come with ten palanquins followed by five horses and two hundred foot soldiers to take possession of it on the next Makara Sankranti. On hearing this the people of the village reminded one another. "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."

The wit and irony throughout the plot is what makes this book immensely readable. For instance, take Mangaraj's portrayal as a miser:

Mangaraj treated his farmhands like his own children. Now, parents are never satisfied unless they personally make sure there children have eaten their fill. So as soon as his farmhands sat down in a row for their midday meal, the zamindar would call out: "Cook, bring the rice gruel. Hurry up. My boys are dying of thirst." The cook would then serve two large bowls of watery liquid to each one. And if a farmhand ever resented having to drink so much gruel before the meal, Mangaraj would deliver a long lecture on the health-giving properties, persuading them to drink up. Only after that would he arrange for rice to be served, and then go for his bath.

There were seventeen drumstick trees in the master's orchard, and their leaves possessed certain medicinal properties. They aided digestion, were nourishing and delicious; besides they helped restore sick to health. We do not know if books really claim such properties but then we have no expertise in this field. We have merely written down what we have heard from Mangaraj himself. Naturally enough, not a single leaf found its way to the market; they were reserved exclusively for the nourishment and well being of Mangaraj's farmhands.
People who are wise can effortlessly sort the good from the bad. They know that everything the drumstick tree produces is good, except, of course, the drumsticks themselves. Which is why Mangaraj never served those to the farmhands; those went straight to the market.

This great literary work is now available to us in the form of a translation "Six Acres and a Third" (by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P. Mohanty, Jatindra K. Nayak and Paul St.-Pierre, with an Introduction by Satya P. Mohanty) that was published by Penguin Press in 2005.

Polish journalist and author, Ryszard Kapuscinski died last week. A foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, Kapuscinski traveled around the world in the 60s and 70s covering dozens of coups and revolutions. He wrote about these in a dozen or more books, approaching the situation through his own encounters.

He was in Iran in 1979 when the Shah was deposed and Khomeini took over power. In Shah of Shahs (Translated from Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand), he relates a small incident pertaining to language and words; and weaves around it the conflicts in new societies being shaped out of crumbling colonies.

"And now what is he saying?" I ask again, because I don't understand Farsi.

"He is saying," one of the young men tells me, "in our country there is no room for foreign influence."

Khomeini goes on speaking and everyone follows attentively. On the screen someone's trying to quiet a group of children at the base of the platform.

"What is he saying?" I ask again after a while.

"He is saying that nobody will tell us what to do in our own home or impose anything on us, he is saying 'Be brothers to one another, be united.'"

That is all they can tell me in their halting English. Everyone learning English should understand that it is getting harder and harder to communicate in that language around the world. The same is true of French and, generally, of all European langauges. Once Europe ruled the world, sending its merchants, soldiers, and missionaries to every continent, imposing on others its own interests and culture (this in usually rather bogus versions). Even in the remotest corners of the world knowing a European language was a mark of distinction, testifying to an ambitious upbringing, and was often a necessity of life, the basis for career and promotion, and sometimes even a condition for being considered human. Those languages were taught in African schools, used in commerce, spoken in exotic parliaments, Asian courts, and Arab coffeehouses. Traveling almost anywhere in the world, Eurpeans could feel at home. They could express their opinions and understand what others were saying to them. Today the world is different. Hundreds of patriotisms have blossomed. Every nation wants to control and organize its own population, territory, resources, and culture according to native traditions.

And some gems on development a la Shah of Iran style:

Development is a treacherous river, as everyone who plunges into its current knows. On the surface the water flows smoothly and quickly, but if the captain makes one careless or thoughtless move he finds out how many whirlpools and wide shoals the river contains. As the ship comes upon more and more of these hazards the captain's brow gets more and more furrowed. He keeps singing and whistling to keep his spirits up. The ship looks as if it is still traveling forward, yet it is stuck in one place. The prow has settled on a sandbar. All this, however, happens later. In the meantime the Shah is making purchases costing billions, and ships full of merchandise are steaming toward Iran from all the continents. But when they reach the Gulf, it turns out that the small obsolete ports are unable to handle such a mass of cargo (the Shah hadn't realized this). Several hundred ships line up at sea and stay there for up to six months, for which delay Iran pays the shipping companies a billion dollars annually. Somehow the ships are gradually unloaded, but it turns out that there are no warehouses (the Shah hadn't realized this). In the open air, in the desert, in the nightmarish tropical heat lie millions of tons of all sorts of cargo. Half of it, consisting of perishable foodstuffs and chemicals, ends up being thrown away. The remaining cargo now has to be transported to the depths of the country, and at this moment it turns out that there is no transport (the Shah hadn't realized). Or rather there are few trucks and trailers but only a crumb in comparison to the need. Two thousand tractor trailers are thus ordered from Europe, but then it turns out that there are no drivers (the Shah hadn't realized). After much consulation, an airliner flies off to bring South Korean truckers from Seoul.

Kapuscinski was often mentioned as a favorite for a Nobel Literature Prize. His new book Travels with Herodotus is due for release in March 2007.


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