If he wasn’t born in Odisha on this day of January 13, 1843 we Odias would be reading and speaking Bengali today. Fakir Mohan Senapati, a legend of Odisha was way ahead of his time. He was a writer, patriot, social reformer and a shrewd strategist rolled into one, who fought for the survival of Odia language which during his time was on verge of extinction.
Had he not been there, in all probability Bengali would have taken over Odia as the medium of teaching in the state where Odia is the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority. Many eminent, powerful Bengalis at the helm of affairs those days living in Cuttack led by one Anandilal Mitra made this fallacious proclamation – “ODIA EKTA SWATANTRA VASA NAYE, “Odia is not an independent language”.
Fakir Mohan fought tooth and nail against this wrong notion. He strategized in order to achieve the goal of saving Odia language from total annihilation. First he started an printing press in Odia and published several books in his mother tongue. Odia survived as an language, thanks to his efforts and the likes of Sri Gourishankar Ray and Utkal Gouraba (The Pride of Odisha) Sri Madhusudan Das and the Das duo of Utkalamani (Jewel of Odisha) Sri Gopabandhu Das and Pandit Nilakantha Das.
Fakir Mohan’s life was a story of personal tragedies and struggle. Born in the district of Balasore, he lost his parents at an early age. In abject poverty he worked as a laborer to finance and further his childhood education. A lanky man of small frame he suffered from multiple ailments. Tragedies struck him one after another as he lost his wife, remarried and lost his wife again. He went through bouts of alcoholism in order to cover up his frustrations with life.
He did several odd jobs to make a living – doing business is sea salt, working as an accountant and being DEWAAN (Prime Minister) of Vassals and Zamindaars (Landowners). Though never financially secure, it didn’t stop him from writing some brilliant short stories – from serious ones like REBATI where a girl child’s education was blamed for cholera deaths in her family to funny ones like PATENT MEDICINE, the story of a perpetually drunk servant. This play was later immortalized by its musical version made by the multitalented Akhshay Mohanty. Personally I was impressed by his short story DHULIA BABA (The Sand Shrouded Saint). In that epic story the writer has exposed the duplicacy of a BHANDA BABA (fake mendicant).
Fakir Mohan realized that Odia language can only be taken to the next level by popularizing and expanding its literature through various publications. His friend Gourishankar Ray published an Odia magazine named UTKAL DIPIKA (The Lamp of Odisha) for the first time on August 4, 1866. They left no stones unturned by reporting the failure of British administration to prevent and contain the great famine of 1865-66 when millions died from starvation.
Mr. Senapati irrespective of being weak and having a weakness for alcohol lived 75 years at a time when average human longevity was less than half of that. He loved Brandy and had a good number of English friends who supplied him with Foreign brands – a luxury those days. On one cold winter evening of 1866, when he was 23 years old, there was a hot discussion amongst drinking buddies inside the exclusive Station Club of Cuttack. They were pulling legs of E J Barton, the Assistant Collector of Khurda who was accused by a local woman of fathering his daughter. It was the outcome of an affair of an Englishman with a native girl in an age without contraceptives.
The folks believed her, for the little girl was looking like an English Mem with her sparkling blue eyes and reddish white skin – a genetic trait nowhere close to the generally dark complexioned local men. A Khurda man’s progeny can’t be our blue eyed boy. The case was eventually dismissed for the lack of evidence at a time when DNA test was strictly fantasy.
This news about the blue eyed girl came like a bolt from the blue on that blue, starry evening at the Club as gossip filled tongues kept wagging about the spicy incident in the milieu amongst the bland, mundane life of the government officials. The English ladies gossiped and giggled at the hot news as hot as their evening tea. This news was picked up by Utkal Dipika and was arguably the first tabloid scoop by an Odia magazine. It certainly helped increase its circulation. Nothing much has changed 150 years down the road. Spicy gossips sell well.
Fakir Mohan was smart and witty. While working as Dewan in Keonjhar he was kept under house arrest by mutineers. He was closely monitored, not allowed any communication to the outside world. He wrote a letter to one of his close friend – “Dear Bholanath Khamaria. Send me 100 betel and 100 betel nuts. Irrigate the sugarcane fields by watering from North. Otherwise, you will lose the entire field of crop”.
The letter looked too innocuous to raise any kind of suspicion. His captors duly sent it to the intended addressee. Needless to say betel was the code for guns and nuts for bullets. The instruction was to attack from the north, lest the sugarcane field (the palace) will be destroyed. The recipient decoded wily Fakir Mohan’s note and soon sent armed soldiers to rescue him.
Sad that the name a statesman of great stature now languishes in the dustbins of history, restricted only to a Government College in Balasore named after him. Hardly anyone remembers him these days. My thousands salute and tribute to the man for his service to the state of Odisha on his 179th Birthday.
By: Sambeet Dash