Book House The Lead

“Six and a Third Acres”: This first modern Odia novel is now available in a new English translation

Author Fakir Mohan Senapati. He is regarded as the father of modern Odia literature.
  • The book “Six and a Third Acres” by Fakir Mohan Senapati was the first modern Odia novel, and has remained at the heart of Odia literary excellence ever since. It was published as “Chha Mana Atha Guntha” in the literary monthly Utkal Sahitya between 1897–99. 


  • Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843–1918) was an Indian novelist, short story writer, poet, philosopher, and social reformer. He is regarded as the father of modern Odia literature. The translation has been done by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre & K. K. Mohapatra, which breathes new life into one of the most brilliant novels in Indian literature.


  • The novel is about village politics, caste oppression, malpractices, and land-grabbing under the zamindari system in colonial Odisha.


  • Read an excerpt from the book “Six and a Third Acres” below.


Ramchandra Mangaraj was a country zamindar with vast tracts of land. He was also a moneylender, giving out loans more in grain than in cash, and was rumoured to have eclipsed all others within eight miles of Govindpur.

He was an exceptionally pious man, a devout observer of fasts and vigils. There may be twenty-four lunar fast days in a year; had there been as many as forty we’d still be hard pressed to say he would have skipped even one.

On such days all he’s allowed are plain water and a few leaves of the holy tulsi. But the other day Mangaraj’s barber, Jaga, accidentally let slip that a full pail of milk and a few hampers of puffed rice, jaggery, and bananas are smuggled into the master’s bedroom on the eve of fast days, apparently so he can break his fast the following morning. And whenever Jaga goes to wash the plates, pots, and pans, he finds them squeaky clean. Some people who were listening traded knowing winks and smiles; one even went so far as to say that not even Lord Almighty Mahadev’s own father would be any wiser if someone were to secretly take a sip or two when their head was underwater!

What was being implied by all this is not absolutely clear to us, but in all likelihood it’s no better than slander. Not only don’t we take it seriously, we’re inclined to rally to the master’s defence: where’s the eyewitness who can prove the master himself emptied those bowls of food? After all, we can’t agree to accept hearsay, wild surmises, and unverified accusations as hard evidence—no judge in a court of law would.

Then, there’s another aspect to consider. According to science, all liquids evaporate. Milk is a liquid! Or does milk, when it’s within the four walls of a zamindar’s house, defy the laws of science? Besides, mice, rats, and moles are everywhere, to say nothing of bugs, mosquitoes, and flies. Which home is free of them? And which living thing in God’s Creation isn’t desperately looking to fill its belly in order to keep the body and soul together?

Unlike the deeply religious Mangaraj, such creatures surely can’t be expected to observe the profound teachings of scriptures like the Haribhakti Vilas. In light of this, we would consider it a mortal sin to entertain even the shadow of a doubt about the man’s piety and spirituality. And then, there’s the matter of circumstantial evidence; the law instructs judges to weigh that too in the balance.

Mangaraj never touched parboiled rice, let alone fish in any form—alive and fresh, or dried and salted. Nor did he even look at food before feeding the Brahmins the day following his fast. He was so particular that all should go well with the noble act of providing a feast for the Brahmins that the local fisherman and the confectioner had each received from him an acre of land. Every feast day, first thing in the morning, the fisherman delivered two big baskets of rice flakes and the confectioner twenty balls of jaggery, each weighing fifty grams. Invitations would be sent out to all twenty-seven Brahmin households in Govindpur, and the feast never ended before mid-afternoon, the sixth part of the day, with Mangaraj himself dancing attendance on all his guests.

He’d go around serving a few closed fistfuls of rice flakes and a pinch of jaggery onto their leaf plates, exhorting them with folded hands to tuck in: ‘Venerable Brahmins, would you be needing more? There’s plenty, of course, but don’t I know your eyes are bigger than your bellies. What’s on your plates is more than your stomachs can hold!’

Should some starving wretch be so bold as to shamelessly ask for a second helping, the master would very generously use all of three fingers to pick up as few rice flakes as he possibly could, and deposit them on the fellow’s plate. Following this the Brahmins would cry out: ‘Full, oh, we’re too full!’ They’d let out long belches and shower blessings on their host, before stepping away from their leaf plates.

Only after the feast was over and, with admirable reverence and humility, did Mangaraj proceed to partake of what was left— one basket of rice flakes and half the jaggery balls.

Now, dear reader, you might well wonder how on earth could one basket of rice flakes, no matter how large, fill the bellies of as many as twenty-seven Brahmins. Well, praise the Lord, and glory be to Him. But if we stop to try and answer all your questions we might as well give up on making any headway with the story. With just a couple of loaves of bread Jesus Christ was able to feed twelve hundred of his followers and still had enough to fill four baskets. With only a ball of spinach Lord Krishna fed twelve thousand disciples of the angry sage Durvasa in the wilderness of Kamyaka forest. If you do not believe in divine sleight of hand, how can we possibly hope you will take even a sidelong glance at our narrative—The Mangaraj Chronicles.

One time, or so it goes, Mangaraj’s cousin, Shyam Malla, his mother’s sister’s son, went to town, fell into bad company, and ate cauliflower fried with onions. His grave sin did not stay secret from Mangaraj for long.

Had Mangaraj not come to his rescue, poor Shyam would be still out there growing stubble on his face. What it cost Shyam is hardly worth mentioning—a mere fifteen acres, only half of the non-taxable land he had inherited.

‘Be careful, Shyam,’ Mangaraj advised, like the caring guardian and mentor he was. ‘This time you got off easily. People didn’t go hard on you out of respect for me. Otherwise, you’d have had to become a Christian, condemning seven generations of your ancestors to wallow in the snake-infested circle of hell for all time to come. What’s more, you should be thankful I’ve made you such a generous offer of five rupees an acre; nobody else would have so much as touched your land for more than two. You’re like a brother to me after all; I couldn’t possibly have gone and left you out in the cold, could I? But it’s only when the going gets tough that people come to me. In good times, does anyone bother to think of me, do I count for anything? Remember the other day when I wanted you as a witness in my criminal case against Bhima the milkman? You went and made yourself scarce, choosing to hide indoors, and weren’t seen for days.’

No wonder, then, that people from the tribe who crucified Christ, and who had a hand in the banishment of the most virtuous woman on earth, Sita, to the wilderness, should also speak ill of pious, generous, god-fearing Mangaraj. Cut to the quick by their scurrilous allegations though we are, we’ll not shy away from putting on record the lies those slanderers have been spouting: that Mangaraj had cheated everyone within eight miles, not even letting them keep land the size of a cow’s hoof; that the only man who managed to escape was his cousin Shyam, but in the end he too succumbed. For eating onions, he had to feed the Brahmins as penance. For eating onions! What about the womenfolk of the Mangaraj family, you might counter, who regularly despatched their housemaid Champa to buy onions? Fair enough. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Champa did indeed make regular trips to the market to buy onions. So what? What proof is there that the ladies of the house consumed them? Palandu gunjan nchaiba. Refrain from eating onions— well, Manu, the lawgiver, might have laid down a rule against eating onions, but where did he rule against buying them? Look, we’re totally unwilling to get into a quarrel with people whose sole purpose is to sully the reputations of perfectly respectable women from a prominent family.

Excerpted with permission from Six and a Third Acres: A Novel, Fakir Mohan Senapati, translated from the Odia by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre & K.K. Mohapatra, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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