By Bhaskar Parichha
“The 19th century Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati was a most oblique writer — he hardly said or meant anything in a straightforward manner. Much of his work is ironical and satirical, and of course irony and satire work through indirection, by way of the meaningful glance rather than the plainspoken word. Yet irony, while aiming to surprise, can sometimes be applied too predictably, and then it becomes as unsubtle as the more homespun narrative mode it disdains. Thankfully, this is not the case with Senapati: he worked with a very light and delicate hand.“
-Chandrahas Choudhury (Author of ‘My Country is Literature–Adventures in the Reading Life’)
Father of modern Odia literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s birth anniversary is around the festival of Makar Sankranti (mid-January) every year. There are a bevy of festivals by various names celebrated across India during this period.
As a novelist, short story writer, poet, philosopher, social reformer and forerunner of Odia nationalism, Senapati (1843-1918) played a foremost role in establishing the distinct Odia identity. But for his sweat over a lifetime, Odia — which is today India’s sixth Classical language — wouldn’t have survived the onslaught by adjoining vernaculars. The life of Fakir Mohan is undeniably the story of the “resurgence” in Odia literature. He protected the Odia language from near extinction.
Mallikashpur village of Balasore district neighbouring West Bengal is where Senapati began his formal education — when he was nine years old. Since he could not pay for his tutoring, he is said to have even worked at his teacher’s house to pay the fee. Balasore’s Mission School was his Alma Mater, and he went to become a teacher where he served until 1871. Still later, he rose to become the headteacher. Around this time, he started teaching Odia to the Balasore Collector John Beames.
Fakir Mohan learnt English all by himself with the help of a dictionary. He readto read several famous classics — Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, the English Bible, and Bengal Peasant Life by Lal Behari De — he started learning English at twenty-three. Fakir Mohan’s instinctive wisdom was recognised even by foreigners.
The early life of Fakir Mohan was one of courage and dexterity. His accomplishments were amazing. A multi-tasker, Fakir Mohan, even worked as a labourer in a port. He ventured into the wood and paper business having worked in a press only to become an editor. Besides being a teacher, Fakir Mohan became a dewan of Athagarh and later of Tekkali in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.
In the second phase of his life, Fakir Mohan worked as administrator in the princely states of Nilgiri, Dampada, Dhenkanal, Daspalla, Pallahara and Keonjhar. As a manager, Fakir Mohan was very efficient and successful. During Keonjhar Praja Meli (people’s agitation against the feudal lord), he escaped cleverly writing a symbolic letter to the king.
Mayadhar Mansingh, another celebrated, Odia called Fakir Mohan the ‘Thomas Hardy of Odisha’. He had the ability and expertise in whatever arena he laid his hand on. These prodigious abilities were reflected in his later-day writings as well. Although Senapati translated from Sanskrit, wrote poetry, and tried numerous forms of literature, he is known primarily as the father of modern Odia fiction. His four novels, written between 1897 and 1915, mirror the socio-cultural conditions of Odisha during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.
The time in which Fakir Mohan lived was the darkest period in the history of modern Odisha. The infamous ‘Naanka’ Famine of 1866 — which one third of the region’s population — hurt the economic and social condition of Odisha beyond recovery. The deprivation during this period has been documented in many of his stories and novels. In course of time, he emerged as a novelist of rare caliber not only in Odia but also in a pan-Indian setting.
Senapati’s Rebati (1898) – recently translated into thirty-six Indian and foreign languages — is widely recognised as the first Odia short story. It is the tale of a young innocent girl ‘Rebati’ whose desire for education in the context of a backward conservative society went beyond the ordinary. The village where the protagonist lived was hit by the killer epidemic, cholera. Rebati’s grandmother – the last survivor — believed that it was the craving for education that brought misfortune to the family. In fact, ‘Rebati’ was one of the earliest stories in the realm of world pandemic literature.
‘Randipua Ananta’ is a story of a very notorious, errant youth who in the end transforms himself. While the flood water entered the village through a hole of the river-embankment, Ananta pulled the wooden door of his house and covered the hole standing as the supporting pillar and asked villagers to pile soil onto it. Gradually, his body heaped-up up and at last he was buried. Ananta dedicated his life to the welfare of the village and was a rare character in the Odia short story genre.
‘Dak Munshi‘ (The PostMaster), ‘Sabhya Zamindar‘ (The Educated Feudal Lord), ‘Patent Medicine’, ‘Adharma Bitta‘ (The Ill-gotten Money) are the other famous stories for which Senapati is known far and wide. But, it is the three novels — Chha Mana Atha Guntha (Six and a third Acres,1902), Mamu (Maternal Uncle, 1913)and Prayaschita (Penance, 1915) — which have made Senapati immortal because they explored the realities of community life in its manifold dimensions.
Chha Mana Atha Guntha is the first Indian novel to deal with the exploitation of landless peasantry by the feudal system. The importance of this novel is that it was written much before the October revolution and even before the emergence of Marxist ideas in India. Set in Orissa in the 1830s, it is about village politics, caste oppression, social malpractices, and land-grabbing under the zamindari system in colonial Odisha. Both a literary work and a historical document this novel provided a unique ‘view from below’ of Indian village life under colonial rule. Ten years after this novel came Mamu.
Prayaschita was the last of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s ‘trilogy of crime and justice’ novels — to use the epithet coined by the eminent Senapati scholar John Boulton. It was published just three years before the death of Fakir Mohan. The novel is unique because it sheds light on Senapati’s increasingly dark and tragic perception of colonialism. The novel was a defender of the traditional values and the Hindu way of life which the writer saw was gravely threatened by an alien value system of the British which had made huge inroads into Indian society.
Lachhama is another novel by Senapati dealing with the anarchic conditions of Odisha in the wake of Maratha invasions during the eighteenth century. It narrates the historical romance of Rajput lady Lachhama and her husband Badal Singh, in the backdrop of the political disturbances between the Mughals and Marathas to gain supremacy in Odisha. The story is set in a period of early advent of the British in India during which Nawab Alivardi Khan was Governor of Bengal. The depiction of love, honor, courage and revenge of the woman protagonist Lachamma is significant.
Fakir Mohan also wrote the first-ever autobiography in Odia – Atma Jeevan Charita. It gives a socio-cultural account of Odisha along with the novelist’s own life spanning over half a century and makes for prodigious reading.
Senapati wrote a long poem, Utkal Bhramanam, in 1892. Literally meaning Tour of Odisha, this poem is not a travelogue but a commentary on the state of affairs of that time, written satirically. He has also translated the Mahabharata, the Gita, the Ramayana and Boudhavatar Kavya into simple Odia verse.
Fakir Mohan’s innovative technique, ineradicable characters, humour, imaginativeness, and the insights into the rural milieu had few parallels. His contribution to Odia language and its revival was immense.
Senapati was a great genius, a versatile personality and an ardent literary artist who breathed his last on June 14, 1918, when Odisha hadn’t become a separate province for which Senapati fought relentlessly. He is unsurpassed and commands great respect among the authors. In the words of Dr. J.V. Boulton, Fakir Mohan is the Gorky of Odisha. The Dhammapada estate conferred on him the enviable title Saraswati. He was also endowed with the title of Katha Samrat (Emperor of Fiction) and is rightly called Vyasakavi.
His fiction and short stories reflected the theme of social realism, societal reform, and preservation of cultural values. Fakir Mohan dedicated his whole life to the development of the native language in the late 19th and changed the course of Odia literature.
Fakir Mohan is to Odia what Prem Chand is to Hindi and Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengali literature.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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