ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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English Fakir Mohan Senapati and the ‘Rebati’ Epigraph

Allusive Politics

During the colonial period, at the turn of the century, when linguistic “nationalism” in Eastern India was on the rise, Odia writers in general, and Fakir Mohan Senapati in particular, were making subversive use of their limited knowledge of English. In Senapati’s “Rebati,” one finds layers of intertextuality generated by the obscure English epigraph.

Any linguistic encounter, especially between a subjugated vernacular language and a dominant cosmopolitan language, has always elicited interesting responses from both: from incomprehension, and curiosity to amusement and ridicule. When such historical moments are represented in cultural productions, the latter might provide historians with insights too valuable and variegated to be ignored. For example, one of the first things that Edward Lear, the Victorian painter-traveller, would do on arrival in a new land was to pick up a few words and sentences from the local language. On his arrival in India in 1873 he makes the following entry in his diary: “First beginning of Lingo. Rusta ke hai?” (Ray 1953). Later, he would go on to compose nonsense verses out of the new language he encountered: his Indian poem, the “Cummerbund” (Lear 1951) is replete with Hobson-Jobson words, which he uses as names of things and characters. But, as the author has shown elsewhere, the poem evokes a vaguely monitory message too in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, even when it was supposed to be “nonsense, pure and absolute” (Satpathy 2002).

If such strategic uses of the strange language of a colonised people as nonsense are staple for a cosmopolitan language faced with the vernacular, what might a reverse situation yield? Pioneers in India’s diverse linguistic regions responded to the challenge of English in variety of ways, from learning to write original works in English to adapting, translating texts from the English literary canon. They also engaged in playful ways of coping with the difficulties ingrained in cultural coding in the foreign linguistic culture. More serious writings took to allusive modes to contend with new, stringent censorship measures, sometimes engaging in destabilising deployment of quotations to fight veiled ideological battles. Fakir Mohan Senapati seems to have adopted all these strategies in his impressive body of work. This article cites examples of his subversive humour using linguistic puns. It goes on to look at his more serious and dissident use of the master’s voice.

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Updated On : 31st May, 2019

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