Here Lies God’s Plenty: A Comprehensive Book On Odisha’s Vyasakabi Fakirmohan Senapati

Fakirmohan Senapati: The Making of an Author. Debendra Kumar Dash and Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik. Vidyapuri, Cuttack. 2023. Pp. 371.

Fakirmohan Senapati:The Making of an Author, published by Vidyapuri, is unprecedented for two reasons. Firstly, it is a comprehensive assessment of the entire oeuvre of Senapati. Secondly, it is the first such study to have been written and presented in the English language. Admittedly, there are scores of studies in Odia of Utkala literature’s Vyasakabi and Saraswati, many of them very good. But no study has attempted a complete survey of Senapati’s writings and a holistic analysis of his diverse and multifaceted corpus.  The book is a happy product of the capacious, scrupulous and rigorous scholarship that Dash was known for, and, the agile and subversive critical sensibility of Pattanaik.

In many ways a dream book, incorporating the life’s work of Dash and Pattanaik, it is the best tribute to the memory of Dash who passed away last year after completing the work.  In the way it is written and presented, involving hitherto untapped archival sources—the striking example being the use of the unpublished manuscript of Senapati’s autobiography which he termed Mo Jibani as distinct from the two bowdlerized titles in circulation until now, Atmajibana Charita and Atmacharita—and containing a wholesale reassessment of Fakirmohan’s opus—the book will be a definitive reference point for Senapati studies for years to come. No wonder Satya P. Mohanty states unequivocally in the introduction that the book ‘belongs on the shelf of every reader who wishes to understand Fakrimohan Senapati and his times’ (p. x). The book advances the discourse on Senapati, the writer, in several significant ways. The principal contribution of the book, however, is that it creates an enduring, full-bodied image of Senapati for analysis and appreciation within before exporting him for consumption outside.

One cannot fail to notice the lopsided nature of Odia society’s—and this is inclusive of studies on Senapati written by Odias in English—projection of its iconic writer on the national and global stage. Resting on the singular case of one novel, Chha Mana Atha Guntha or rather its English translation Six Acres and a Third, this projection has been top heavy, with no support provided by a close scrutiny of the total output of the writer. Based on this single work, comparisons have been drawn with other enduring figures of world literature—the acclaimed book Colonialism, Modernity and Literature: A View from India (2011), edited by Satya P. Mohanty, being a case in point—and also with Indian writers in other languages. While this sort of wide framing is extremely important, it has to be acknowledged that in the absence of a comprehensive view of Senapati, evolved from within, a view of what he stands for in Odia society and culture, it is bound to go only so far. Other regional greats like Bankim Chandra, Bibhuti Bhusan, Tagore in Bengali, Premchand, Bharatendu Harischandra, Phaniswarnath Renu, Agyeya in Hindi, and O. Chandu Menon, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer in Malaylam have fared much better in this regard, having been rigorously interpreted for their native audiences before being decked out and sent abroad.

This book sets out to redress the balance by developing a view from within, equipped with which Odia literature can showcase Senapati on the world stage. To drive home the point it will be fitting to provide one sample of such a homegrown analysis. This is how Dash and Pattanaik draw out the quintessence of Fakirmohan’s iconic story “Randipua Anta” (Ananta, the Widow’s Brat: ‘The life divine is a courageous existential choice; a fearless Kierkegaardian leap that can transform a rank ordinary plebeian’s life into an extraordinary moment of effulgent beauty’ (p. 205-6). It is not often that an Odia literary work has been described in such a sublime and majestic way.

Presented in eleven chapters, the book demolishes several myths about Senapati. The first one is the myth of a ‘late style’ that scholars have located in the prose fiction produced in the last two decades of his life. This has had the unfortunate effect of sweeping the writer’s huge repertoire of writings consisting of essays, anecdotes, text-books, historiography, travelogues, translations, and poetry under the carpet. These genres of writing, each of which is treated in a chapter-length study in the book, were the perfect laboratories in which he honed his style and developed those trademark qualities that are said to be the definitive markers of his ‘late style’. For example, as Dash and Pattanaik point out, the ‘synergetic multiplicity of language’ (p.40) that is amply in evidence in his fictions was very much acquired during his days as a history writer, journalist and reporter when he opened himself to the play of languages at the existential as well as cultural level.

The championing of ‘late style’ by scholars and critics, as Dash and Pattanaik have taken pains to show, has also resulted in the canonization of Chha Mana Atha Guntha and the eclipsing of the diverse genres of writing in which Senapati excelled. As against this, the authors pose the timely and cautionary remider that ‘the entire Fakirmohan oeuvre is a network of inter-related themes that extend beyond the framework of single text’ (p. 161).

This indeed is a sterling insight. And it comes with its attendant challenge to the Senapati scholar to expand their reading, to read cross-referentially so as to recognize how the alleged apotheosis of Senapati’s ‘late style’ in Chha Mana Atha Guntha derived from ‘the historian Fakrimohan’s understanding of the process of history and the mythographer Fakirmohan’s insight into the metaphysics of change” (p. 239). Dash and Pattnaik also give us a much needed reality check by tracing the incredibly complex history of reception of Chha Aana Atha Guntha. According to this history, the novel was accorded a cold reception after being published as a book in 1902. It was Senapati’s third novel, Mamu, published in 1913, which was hailed as a masterpiece by the contemporary readership. This was proved not only by its commercial success but by the fact that it was Mamu and his second novel Lachhama that were translated into Hindi during and shortly after Senapati’s lifetime. In fact, the success of Mamu encouraged Senapati to publish Lacchama as a book and to bring out a second edition of Chha Aana Atha Guntha. The authors point out that the canonization of the first novel began with Nilakantha Das’s 1915 essay which argued that Chhamana was the greatest novel in Odia prose fiction. The process reached its culmination in 1955, with Surendra Mohanty, retracting his 1950 claim about Mamu being the greatest Senapati novel, followed closely by his last novel Prayaschita, and rooting for the nonpareil status of Chha Aana Atha Guntha instead.

It is no mean task to furnish a compendium of literary history in course of setting the record straight about Senapati and to do so in a language that is irreverent towards the master discourse whose linguistic instrument it uses, namely the English language. The book’s idiosyncratic style, free of jargons, is a part of that irreverence, the authors’ penchant for some fashionable words such as ‘carnivalize’, ‘deconstruct’, ‘interpellate’, ‘hegemony’, notwithstanding. It can be asserted in closing that Dash and Pattanaik have not only written a solid work of criticism and scholarship; they have also proved by the vigour of their demonstration that Senapti is our contemporary. In the process they have elevated themselves to the numero uno position among the scholars and critics of Fakirmohan Senapati.

(The writer is a noted academic and translator)


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