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Representation of Women and Gender Relations in Six Acres and a Third

In the narrator's statements concerning women in the novel Six Acres and a Third as well as the relationships between female and male characters, author Senapati presents vivid, complex and non-sexist images of rural women. Many of the narrator's comments reveal his society's injustice towards women and the need for change. Senapati's overall critique of social injustice includes women among its victims and his vision for economic and social reform empowers both women and men.

Representation of Women and Gender Relations in Six Acres and a Third

In the narrator’s statements concerning women in the novel Six Acres and a Third as well as the relationships between female and male characters, author Senapati presents vivid, complex and non-sexist images of rural women. Many of the narrator’s comments reveal his society’s injustice towards women and the need for change. Senapati’s overall critique of social injustice includes women among its victims and his vision for economic and social reform empowers both women and men.


n Six Acres and a Third, Fakir Mohan Senapati defends socioeconomic ideals that were radical in the late 19th century, when he was writing. His novel raises questions about ownership and the fair distribution of wealth. His stylistic choices challenge the very way that peasants were written about by the British and by British-educated Indians, or babus; he writes with deeper and less stereotyped characterisation, thus providing a more subtle and realistic account of their lives. No less important is Senapati’s continual questioning of not only the colonial British authority, but also the authority wielded by Hindu tradition.

There are many unequivocal statements in the novel criticising the way the caste and legal systems benefited only the rich or dishonest. The narrator comments on this injustice throughout the novel, and it is clear that he thinks reform is needed. He disputes the power of the brahmins and their right to unquestioned social privilege several times in the novel. In one example, the narrator compares brahmins to dogs and vultures, noting that “Brahmins, even if they are utterly worthless, are the kings of all thirty-six classes” (p 78). The narrator’s attitude is clearly that the brahmins do not deserve their high social position. Specifically referring to the unjust legal system, the narrator remarks, “Under this system, the clever and the rich get off, even though, in truth, they are guilty of hundreds of crimes; while the simple and the poor get into trouble and are harassed for their innocence in the law courts” (p 85).

Amidst all his arguments for social and economic justice, what does Senapati say about women? In his attempts at realism, does he present a realistic view of the village women as well, a complex view that allows for subtle differences between women? Is Senapati as progressive on women’s issues as he is on the others? Through a close reading of Six Acres and a Third, I argue that in his narrator’s statements concerning women and the relationships between female and male characters, Senapati presents vivid, complex, and non-sexist images of rural women. Further, many of the narrator’s comments reveal his society’s injustice towards women and the need for change. Senapati’s overall critique of social injustice includes women among its victims and his vision for economic and social reform empowers both women and men.

Representation of Women

Much of the information we receive about the author’s attitude toward women comes from the narrator’s statements. Deliberately flighty and inconsistent, the narrator often uses humour to present his opinions. Other times, he comments seriously on what he considers to be general truths. He is a powerful and intelligent character whose judgments we can align with those of the author because, as Satya Mohanty argues, his “critiques add up to a coherent and systematic social and ethical vision” (p 8) – a vision that Senapati would not have had him expound so persuasively if it were not intended to be taken seriously.

This narrator argues in several instances that a woman’s character matters more than her appearance. The narrator states that the readers can recognise Champa and Saria because “human beings are known not by their faces, but by their characters” (p 113). The narrator’s statement uses the generic term “human beings” (in Oriya: ‘manushya’) rather than the more specifically gendered term ‘purusha’ – “men”. His comment not only questions assumptions made on the basis of colour or caste but gender as well. This statement suggests that Senapati’s vision of reform includes changes benefiting women as well as men.

In a chapter titled ‘Champa’, the narrator expands on this idea that character matters more than appearance by ranting unequivocally about which features of women should and should not be described in proper literature. The chapter is not really about Champa at all. In fact, the most we glean about her is from a few sprinkled adjectives, all of which give us a negative view of her character. Instead of actually informing the readers about Champa, as one would expect, this chapter raises general questions about the representation of women in literature.

The narrator mocks tradition by saying that, according to the classical rules of literature, an author should “do nothing but describe [a heroine’s] beauty, forgetting everything else about her” (pp 56-57). He then mocks both traditional Indian authors and babus, saying that traditional Indian literature compares women to elephants, while babus are no better since they imitate the British by comparing women to horses: “How absurd to compare four-footed creatures, such as horses and elephants, to women!” The narrator next provides a humorous poem which both makes fun of Kalidasa’s1 literary authority and describes Champa with unidealised physical characteristics, giving her depth and making her character more believable:

Her eyes are decorated with kajal,

Her mouth full of betel,

Her body, massaged with oil and turmeric paste.

Draped in a sixteen-cubit sari,

She moves as fast as a she-dog.

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Her hair has a top-knot trimmed with flowers;

So heavy is she, one knows not

Whether she walks or runs.

Thick metal rings adorn her fingers.

Gesturing wildly she marches through the fields, Her jingling anklets striking terror in the hearts of villagers (pp 60-61).

Although Champa is here compared to an animal, the comparison is not between their appearances but rather her manner of moving, which reflects an aspect of her personality.

The narrator’s discussion of women in literature has two main purposes. The chapter ‘Champa’ undoubtedly uses this discussion of women to address the culture of babus by mocking Indians who would docilely accept either English or traditional Indian attitudes and standards. But the narrator’s argument should also be read as empowering women. The narrator states that women should not, like animals, be valued simply for their bodies or attractive appearance. The description of Champa demonstrates that an important female character need not be beautiful, but should be well-developed. This dual purpose of the chapter, to mock babu culture and criticise superficial characterisations of women, is refreshing, especially considering that many historical ideologies that have attempted to challenge colonial rule have involved and even explicitly promoted the denial of rights to women in the name of respect for traditional native lifestyles.

In this chapter, the narrator pleads for the complex presentation of a “heroine”. Rather than a description of Champa’s appearance, the first words that are used to describe her role are “authority” and “power” (p 55). It should be noted that neither Champa nor any other female character in Six Acres and a Third is important for her looks. In Champa’s case, this point is emphasised when she disguises herself as the wealthy aunt of a new daughter-inlaw in Ratanpur. The women are convinced by her forceful personality and her elaborate ornamentation, but after she leaves they engage in a “long and lively discussion” of her ugliness (p 136). Her plot was effective in impressing the women despite her displeasing physical appearance.

So insistent is Senapati that women should not be prized for their looks alone that the only female whose appearance is described in great detail is Neta, Saria’s cow:

Her hide was black, and on her forehead was a white mark in the shape of the moon. It is said that a black cow with such markings belongs in a rich man’s house. Neta’s horns were narrow, strong, and close together; her tail was thin and long… (p 93).

The description comprises a lengthy paragraph. One may question why Neta’s physical appearance deserves so much attention while human appearances are given no emphasis. The answer may lie in the subsequent comparison of Neta to a paper mill (p 93). Neta’s appearance is important because her body is a commodity; she is important only for what she can produce. Remembering also the narrator’s disgust at comparisons between women and animals, it follows that Senapati objects to traditional authors’ insistence on physical descriptions of women partly because he feels their worth should not correspond to their physique.

Another chapter, ‘Asura Pond’, also questions descriptions of women in popular writing, this time by rewriting a chapter of Bengal Peasant Life, by Lal Behari Day, one of the first Indian authors to write about village life in a realistic way. Senapati and Day both present the women as quite petty in their everyday interests and conversations; the culture of the washerwomen at the pond revolves around household duties, motherhood, and village gossip. But, unlike in Day’s version, Senapati’s Asura Pond women have differentiated names and personalities, even without being developed characters. Jasoda is prone to anger and intolerant of children; Pali is a good cook and wants everyone to know it; Lakshmi focuses mainly on her own prettiness. Although these characters are minor and superficial, each woman is unique in Senapati’s version.

It is also significant that Senapati shows the village men to be as petty as the women. At their washing place at the pond, the men converse about farming and livestock. Senapati seems to find this conversation so much less interesting than that of the women that he lends it only a paragraph of description while the women are given two pages. The narrator remarks:

It was not as if the men were silent while they bathed. No, like the women, they too talked a lot. But their talk was repetitive, always centring on the same themes. Therefore, there is no point reporting at length what they talked about [...] These are familiar subjects. It is not necessary to elaborate on them here (pp 108-09).

By mentioning the “familiarity” of the men’s conversation topics, Senapati points out that both the society being described and the society of the intended reader are male-dominated. In his privileging of women’s conversation, we can see Senapati’s desire to represent women; since the male world has had more written about it, he does not describe it in as much detail as he does that of the women.

The main female characters also seem to possess varied characteristics. Of course there is Champa, who has already been mentioned. The narrator refers to her as the heroine (p 121), just as he calls Mangaraj the hero. Because of her menacing and untrustworthy nature, she is compared to several animals: a “shedog”, a “she-jackal”, and a “cockroach”. Her heavy gait is like that of a “she-dog” when she storms through the village causing trouble (p 61). The comparison between Champa and the jackals is clarified by the juxtaposition of the end of chapter 13 and the beginning of chapter 14. It is midnight as Champa and Mangaraj plan their evil deeds at the end of chapter 13, and chapter 14 begins with jackals howling at midnight (p 62). Like a jackal clearing away the carcasses of other animals, Champa enjoys and benefits from the suffering of others.

The narrator says Champa is like a cockroach because she and cockroaches have “the same complexion”, but Champa’s superstition states that cockroaches bring wealth, which she certainly does for Mangaraj (p 119). Although she has greater intelligence than the zamindar, he still has social power over her. Senapati points this out with a private bedroom scene where Champa positions herself at Mangaraj’s feet, yet he tells her that surely she can think of a plan for them both:

Though I have failed, you can certainly find a way. If you put your mind to it, something could be done. For three years I have tried to trap that weaver, Bhagia; but as soon as you took the matter into your own hands, the deed was done (p 122).

Mangaraj clearly recognises and admits Champa’s superior intelligence as the reason she could succeed where he had failed. Not only does Champa’s talent at trickery provide the basis for her success at stealing, but this talent is the most likely explanation for Mangaraj’s attraction to her. Although she does not have a pleasant physical appearance, this scene suggests that Mangaraj prefers her to his wife as an object of desire. The suggestion that having intelligence rather than beauty could make Champa more

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

attractive as a sexual partner is another instance of Senapati’s view that women should be described complexly and valued for more than their appearance.

In addition to being described as powerful and intelligent, Champa is described as strong. About her arguments with Gobinda, who is her accomplice in stealing from Mangaraj after his arrest, the narrator comments that “two persons of equal strength pulling in opposite directions do not budge” (p 188). For a male author in the late 19th century to suggest that men and women can have equal strength and force of character was unusual in any culture.

Whereas Champa is clearly a complex character, it is difficult to say whether Saantani, an important female protagonist, is a complex character or an idealised figure. Saantani, Mangaraj’s wife, is very different from Champa. She, like Champa, is strong, but her strength should be distinguished from Champa’s strength

– Saantani’s strength is of the more traditionally feminine kind. She has inner strength and goodness, the kind necessary to withstand suffering and to deny herself for others. Whereas Champa is a wellspring of both genuine and false emotions, the Saantani restrains herself even when she is alone. She is also shown to be generous to a fault. She gives back to the villagers what her husband takes from them. Rather than fight her husband openly, the Saantani protests by not speaking. The narrator praises her for her tolerance (p 144), and after she is dead, the villagers remember her and praise her for her wifely devotion and her purity (pp 143-44).

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Saantani represents an ideal rather than a realistic character. As Rabi Shankar Mishra has pointed out, Senapati does not provide the Saantani2 with a real name. Furthermore, she is not even identified as “the Saantani” until after the narrator has elucidated Mangaraj’s intimate relationship with Champa. Before this scene, she is simply referred to as “the zamindar’s wife”. Instead of having a unique name, she is named and defined by her role as wife to Mangaraj and mother to the village.

Whereas Champa is compared to animals, the narrator generalises the Saantani’s characteristics to those of womankind: “A tenderhearted woman can endure sorrows which would break a man’s heart. A woman’s capacity for tolerance is greater than that of any man (p 123)”.

Further evidence that the Saantani is an idealised rather than a realistic woman is that characters in the novel see her as a saint or goddess-figure. The entire village grieves for her when she dies, even though many people did not interact with her much in life. Moments before his death, her image comes to Mangaraj as a goddess seated on a jewelled throne (p 217). The epigraph of the chapter “Saantani”, by including the phrase “…their deeds shall be remembered for ever” (p 142), encourages the reader to view her as a saint rather than a realistic, flawed human being.

Mishra has argued that the Saantani’s life represents a mode of empowerment to women. I would disagree – first because she leads a life of suffering and second because she represents an Indian ideal that casts women solely as wives and mothers who should emulate the honour and purity of goddesses. I would argue that this ideal is oppressive to any woman who does not fit this mould, and women should not have to lead lives of suffering and self-denial in order to be mourned at their death. Directly after telling us that the villagers thought of the Saantani’s character as noble and pious, the narrator says the following, implying that the villagers felt that a women should hold these beliefs and


Fate had denied her a husband’s affection, which is what a woman

treasures most, but she suffered the neglect without complaint.

She simply believed that to serve her husband was her sacred duty,

and performing this duty gave her joy (p 144).

It is clear that the villagers thought of the Saantani as a good role model, but it is an entirely separate question whether Senapati thought of her as a role model for women. John Boulton, a biographer of Senapati, theorises that the idealised character of the Saantani is modelled on Senapati’s grandmother, Kucila Dei, who, Senapati felt, was the one member of his family to give him the affection and care he needed as a child. In addition, Boulton argues that the grandmother’s lack of assertiveness resulted in a dysfunctional household. He argues that early in his career Senapati created powerless but virtuous characters like the Saantani and his grandmother, believing them to be perfect; however, in his later writing Senapati creates more realistic heroines, who have qualities that can be used and viewed both positively and negatively [Boulton 107].

I think Senapati was already questioning what a perfect woman would be like when he wrote Six Acres and a Third. There are other positive female characters in the novel, and the villagers, not the narrator, voice their belief that the Saantani is the perfect wife and woman. In creating her character, Senapati may have been merely drawing on a cultural ideal rather than his personal concept of an ideal woman. We cannot know whether he thought a character like the Saantani was a good role model for women or he was only describing her role as a common or desirable one among village women.

Gender Relations

While many of the narrator’s comments about the Saantani suggest that women are sweetest when serving their husbands, there are plenty of comments to suggest that the narrator is criticising this social value. The novel emphasises and encourages criticism of social values and norms. Just as Senapati criticises the colonialist mindset of babus, he criticises the way women are thought of and treated in traditional rural villages. The narrator discusses the hardships of Mangaraj’s wife by comparing them to those of servants: “The Shastras say: ‘All rivers run to the sea, lose their sweetness and become salty’. How right that is! In the same way, wives and servants lose themselves in their master” (p 46). Here is another place in the text where Senapati’s desire for social reform benefiting servants is aligned with benefiting women as well. Social justice includes both men and women.

The narrator makes fun of the women of the zamindar’s household on one hand and calls them victims on the other. Within the narrator’s jokes, there is subtle social criticism. The daughtersin-law are characterised as lazy women who do not work but only sleep all day and cause fights between the servants (p 54). In their defence, he gives the impression that perhaps they have so little to do that they are not completely to blame for causing trouble. The narrator uses the position of the daughters-in-law to poke fun at the idea of propriety and honour for women, the idea that to mention women would be to dishonour them and their family. He first claims that he cannot speak of these young women for propriety’s sake, then goes on to describe their slovenly habits (pp 53-54).

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

The narrator also makes a playful joke about the maid servants in the house, saying “the women in the house outnumber the men and their voices drowned out all the others, except the barber’s” (p 52). Although this joke plays on stereotypes of women, Senapati balances this negative view by making fun of male figures as well, such as when the narrator jokes about brahmins wandering around idly reciting slokas (p 49). Furthermore, if the reader were to question why the women so outnumber the men in the household, s/he would find that the narrator addresses this question with a jibe at the practice of child marriage and the sad plight of village widows. The narrator lists the names of the servants, but he cannot list them all because there are so many. He explains, “Some were child widows, some had been widowed young, and some were born widows; only a few had husbands” (p 54).

Women’s victimhood is also addressed in their recurrent association with birds. The victims in the novel, men and women, are compared to small birds that must seek protection from the traps and predation of larger, more powerful birds. The narrator tells us that the maid servants flocked to Mangaraj’s house “like birds seeking shelter in a large tree” (p 54). The zamindar thinks to himself, “Come, sweet birdies, step into my trap” (p 76), referring to men from another village also as small birds; he plans to trick them into giving up their property. After Mangaraj’s downfall, both his daughters-in-law and his servants again become birds, suffering from grief and confusion “just as Bani birds chatter in fear when a dhamana snake comes into their nest” (p 204). Note that both men and women are compared to small birds. The fact that this comparison to birds applies for both men and women suggests that both are victims of economic and social injustice, although they can be affected in different ways.

This bird motif is further developed in the ‘Asura Pond’ chapter. This chapter has both the novel’s most detailed descriptions of nature and its most obvious anti-colonial social commentary. In this pond scene, Senapati implies that in some ways colonialism lessens the inequality between traditional Indian men and women by subjecting both to injustice. This is an exception to his general critique of unequal gender relations. Asura Pond is the site where the different species of birds compete for fish. The British kingfishers come out of nowhere, attack instantly, and return home with much acquired wealth. The Hindu cranes are stupid, says the narrator. They wait all day and catch only a few fish. The kite is smarter and cleverer than the cranes. The kite is like a brahmin, swooping down only once in a great while, but catching a big fish with minimal effort (pp 103-04).

Women play a part in this competitive tableau. Each type of woman is a different flower on the pond. The waterlilies are Hindu daughters-in-law who must hide from view during the day and can only blossom at night, while the ratalilies are like “educated Christian ladies” who think themselves too good for the waterlilies (p 104). The competition among the birds explains the direct economic conflict between ordinary Indians and the British colonisers, as well as between the higher and lower castes. The flowers signify an indirect conflict in which the prestige of traditional Indian women is threatened by the Indian women who left behind their native lifestyles in order to live like the English invaders. These new Indian women dress and behave differently from traditional Indian women and so choose not to associate with them; the British colonisers have therefore caused a rift between these two groups of Indian women just as they have exacerbated caste differences for the men.

In the system of Asura Pond, the men, unable to catch fish, suffer economically while the women, scorned flowers, suffer socially, but both spheres are part of the same unjust system. This scene suggests that while men and women have separate roles in society, they suffer equally from colonialism. The men are the breadwinners, or the fishers, and so their suffering is quite visible. They either make money for their families or they cannot feed them. The women’s role is more social, but they are also negatively affected by colonialism. They must choose between traditional gendered Hindu values and British values as to how they should dress and conduct themselves to bring the most honour and respect to their families.

Just as Senapati showed men and women to suffer equally from colonial injustices, there seems to be no gender difference in the severity and significance of other forms of human suffering in this novel. The aforementioned scene testifies to this, and so does the characterisation of the weaver couple, Bhagia and Saria. Saria is described as a “simple, innocent ewe” (p 111). She and her husband are ignorant and thus easily victimised. Champa tricks


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Saria into mortgaging Bhagia’s and her land, six acres and a third, by appealing to her in this order, on the basis, first, of the ability to have children, then of her religious piety, and finally of her love for her husband. Bhagia loves Saria just as much. In fact, they are inseparable, and it is easy to imagine that Champa could have appealed to Bhagia on the same bases and he would also have been brought into her scheme.

Not only do Saria and Bhagia suffer equally, but they have a very egalitarian relationship and both fulfil the same important role in the village. Their marriage is another exception to Senapati’s general critique of inequality between men and women. Saria and Bhagia really seem to be two halves of the same person, performing the same function for society – “Men and women worked together to weave the clothes” (p 83). The chapter ‘Bhagia, the Weaver, and Saria, His Wife’ is named for both of them together, and the narrator says that Bhagia is “like a vessel with a well-fitting lid” (p 90), referring to Saria. The two are parts of a whole, neither functioning without the other.

It would be easy to write them off as just the innocent victims of Mangaraj and Champa’s tricks, and to say that they had an important role in the novel only in terms of plot development. On the contrary, it is notable that Saria and Bhagia are the only happy couple in the novel, and hence their relationship provides a model of a successful marriage. Although the villagers think of the Saantani as the perfect wife, Bhagia and Saria’s marriage is doubtless more fulfilling for both of them. The narrator remarks of them, “Such people enjoy a bliss which one imagines exists only in heaven” (p 91). They work side by side, make decisions together, and care for each other in their sorrows. Senapati, through the character of Saria, provides an alternative role for a wife, as the equal of her husband.

Six Acres and a Third has several pairs of male and female characters who share a way of thinking about life and common goals, although some of them come from different castes or circumstances. Bhagia and Saria are not the only twin souls in the novel. In addition, Mangaraj and Champa have a like way of seeing the world. As Boulton points out, “Champa and Mangaraj had risen from the same dark depths and shared the same passion for property and envy of established prestige” [Boulton: 246]. Saantani and Mukunda are both good people who experience hardships with silent tears. The barberman and the barberwoman are both loud and forceful people who dominate the social life of the village. These pairs of similar male and female characters show that Senapati is in some ways gender-blind, since he has given similar roles to the men and women in his novel without denying some personality characteristics to one gender.

Senapati’s View of Gender Roles in Society

As I have argued, the characterisation of women in Six Acres and a Third is varied and realistic, given the cultures, castes, and historical circumstances of the women represented. Besides the types of women represented in the major characters of Champa, Saantani, and Saria, there are several additional types and walks of life represented by minor female characters. This wide range of women characters represents alternative opportunities for women.

Most of the women, like the women at the pond, spend the bulk of their time on their household duties and on working in the fields. The narrator describes the village women chattering as they pound rice (p 90). But there are women in the novel who do more than this. There is the nautch girl, the dancer, who has a lucrative career. Then there is Manika, the barberwoman and the most intriguing minor character. She is wildly superstitious, telling all the women that she saw a vision of the goddess Budhi Mangala in order to sustain her prestige. She is also very skilful and clever, with a great capacity for intrigue. Then, she is opinionated and argumentative, and is well known for being so throughout the village.

The narrator comments, “A woman who was so well known must be lucky” (p 131). This raises the question of what paths of success were available to women and at what cost. Manika seems in some ways more successful than more moral women like Saantani and Saria, but she is also less likeable. All the other villagers and the readers see her flaws, but she is also a person of high standing in the village. She is someone that people can go to with their questions or problems. In this way, she seems like the middle ground between the more feminine strength of Saantani and the more masculine strength of Champa. Perhaps Manika is an example of the more balanced female characters, “good women with cunning”, that Senapati’s biographer, Boulton, thought were more common in Senapati’s later works [Boulton: 281]. Manika occasionally causes problems, but for the most part she uses her intelligence and savoir faire for the good of the village. Her character walks another type of avenue that Senapati opens for women.

Senapati’s treatment of women is far from perfect by today’s standards. Saantani, rather than being a realistic, believable woman, represents an ideal traditional Indian wife, an impossible role that he does not definitively challenge. In addition, his generalisations about women are not entirely sympathetic; the majority of the village women tend to be petty, superstitious gossips.

At the same time, he also provides female characters that do not fit the stereotypes. Furthermore, Senapati never implies that any failings of the female characters are due to a natural or innate disposition of women. He does not generalise the identities of rural Indian peasant women to women in any other walk of life. Instead, he points out the challenges that even his less sympathetic women characters have faced because they were born female in a patriarchal society.

I would like to end with the suggestion that Senapati saw the human soul – human nature – as ungendered. That explains the care he took to construct and describe his women characters, for it was a very conscious effort to repair damage done to women by his society and societies around the world, to give women the more realistic literary and social representation they had so long been denied.




1 The lines that follow are a playful parody of a few lines from Kalidasa. 2 “Saantani” is a title which refers to her role as the zamindar’s wife and

the mother of the village.


Boulton, John (2003): Essays on Oriya Literature, Prafulla Pathagara, Orissa.

Mishra, Rabi Shankar (2001): ‘Chha Mana Atha Guntha: The Language of

Power and the Silence of a Woman’ in Meenakshi Mukherjee (ed), Early

Novels in India, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

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