Book Review: Sumanyuu Satpathy’s ‘Will to Argue: Studies in Late Colonial and Postcolonial Controversies’


By Mohammad Asim Siddiqui

Discussion, debate and polemics are essential aspects of any culture and civilisation. Difference of opinion can easily turn into a controversy when a country presents a diversity of religions, languages, cultures and interest groups. The role of the ideology of nation, religion, region and community in any controversy, though an important factor, is often not probed enough. Our TV and newspaper headlines present and often create versions of controversies of both minor and major nature. An interesting book which talks about many old controversies and their resonance in our times is suitably titled Will to Argue: Studies in Late Colonial and Postcolonial Controversies (Primus, 2017). Written by Sumanyu Satpathy, former professor of English at the University of Delhi and a commentator of Odia literary culture of the past and the present, Satpathy’s book is located in the period when modernity was taking roots in India and the modern contours of nationalism were emerging. India has witnessed many major controversies since the second half of the nineteenth century, some leading to the partition of the country, division of linguistic states, and making and unmaking of icons, genres, and forms of governance. Will to Argue discusses some major controversies which in many ways have made India what it is today in seven extremely well-written chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. All through the book, Satpathy argues how the very idea of nationalism, which contains many contradictions, is not only a result of some controversies but it also leads to many fresh controversies. He also tries to show that many major controversies have been affected by local and indigenous factors which have not been sufficiently discussed in mainstream scholarship.

Satpathy defines a controversy “as a cultural text—verbal or non-verbal-where members of the public participate in, argue, and debate, by making use of various organs of the media.” A very important issue of the 19th century, namely the debate over Nagari and Persian scripts and Hindi and Urdu languages which played a role in the partition of India and which has been the subject of many books and articles (Alok Rai, Christopher King, Francesca Orsini and many others cover the subject in their various writings) perfectly fits Satpathy’s definition of a controversy. While discussing this Satpathy warns that many more language controversies such as the one in Odisha-among Bangla, Hindi, Telgu, and Odia – were also important and how it is “necessary to examine the imbrication of two or more sets” of languages. Interested in showing the complex nature of literary history, he examines the role of Fakir Mohan Senapati and Premchand “to give Odia, Urdu, and Hindi distinct identities.”  He takes into account the antecedents of the communalization of Hindi-Sanskrit and Urdu-Persian and sees their link with European modernity. The entire issue of considering Hindi and Urdu as separate languages or a common language with two scripts, the arguments made by key players of the time – in favour or against these positions – are briefly discussed by Satpathy with clarity and candour.

An important thread in this fraught issue is the implications of Hindi-Urdu controversy for Odia language. The relationship of Odia with Bangla as well as Hindi has not been all that smooth though there have been such major Odia literary figures as Nandakishor Bal who advocated the cause of Hindi as a national language. It was not surprising that the imposition of Hindi in Odisha met with fierce protests in Sambalpur region. There was also a phase of resistance to the influence of Persian on Odia language. An interesting dimension of this debate, covered by Satpathy, is the enlightened views of Fakir Mohan Senapati about the issue of purity of language and the Odia-Persian interface. Fakir Mohan’s insistence on regional flavour in Odia, his advocacy of traditional education, his misgivings about English and his insight about the relationship between language and power are articulated in this chapter. In fact, his misgivings about the introduction of English education anticipate the views of Premchand expressed in his essays, and very memorably, in his story “Bade Bhai Saheb”. Fakir Mohan’s efforts in producing good books in Odia after the advent of print modernity and his distancing from the communalization of the language are also discussed by Satpathy very clearly. Thus, in his novel Lachhama, unlike Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, he takes the position that Odisha suffered at the hands of Marathas rather than Muslims in the eighteenth century.

Satpathy also writes about the complexity of Premchand’s position on the language controversy. Was Premchand’s switching over to Hindi from Urdu a response to reach a wider readership, and hence guided by economic considerations or he found the Urdu language too ornate? Premchand’s advocacy for Hindustani and his emphasis on bridging the gap between the region and the nation, “prant mein rashtriya sahitya (national literature in regions)” as he wrote in his editorial of Hans, was a position similar to Gandhiji’s. Premchand bemoaned people’s ignorance of the rich literature produced in different regions of India. He further wrote that Hindi could unite all provinces, not perhaps realising some of its disastrous consequences which resulted in anti-Hindi riots in 1965.

Discussing the ideology of Nagari script, Satpathy refers to a famous piece in Odia by Akhilchandra Palit in which he made a case against the Persian script, the capability of English, and wrote that all languages in “Aryabrata are derived from Sanskrit and Prakrit” and that “diversity of script rather than of language is more damaging to the unity” of the country. Declaring Hindi a lingua franca, he averred that in Nagari script “readers will see how unfamiliar regional languages appear to be familiar.”

While seeing value in the methodology adopted by Pollock, Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia in their attempts to present the rich literary history of India, Satpathy emphasises the need of “the more challenging task of interweaving the strands of individual linguistic literary histories.” Otherwise, it will be difficult to explain how Hindi-Urdu controversy ended on a bitter note and others such as Bengali-Odia, or even Hindi-Maithili could avoid that tragic fate. By focussing on Fakir Mohan Senapati and Premchand, two iconic writers, Satpathy demonstrates that they “inherited and inhabited a shared discursive space and a history, even while responding to local ideological compulsions.”

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In one very interesting chapter of the book Satpathy discusses various viewpoints about the nature of the text and issues of authorship of Sarala Das’s Odia Mahabharata. He informs us that “it was the first complete vernacular rendering of the epic composed by a single author…in India.” Its popularity was such that the oral version of the text has been transmitted from generation to generation and transcribed on palm leaves, often taking into account local tastes. The ‘definitive’ edition of Mahabharata was prepared by the Department of Culture, Government of Odisha, by examining twenty-one different palm-leaf manuscripts, the complete volume finally appearing in 1965.

The controversies about its dating started in the mid twentieth century first through questions raised by Odia novelist Gopinath Mohanty whose views were countered by Odisha historian Krishnachandra Panigrahi. Mohanty placed Sarala Das in the late ninth and early tenth centuries unlike most commentators who generally held the view that Das wrote this epic in mid-fifteenth century. However, taking a different line, poet Gyanindra Verma considered the issue of Das’s birth and death irrelevant and stressed his greatness. Satpathy also comments on the nature of ‘history’ in the epic and on Sarala Das’s attempt to connect the events in Mahabharata to the history of Odisha which explains the use of many indigenous traditions in Das’s text. Other important aspects of the text covered by Satpathy include the self-reflexivity in Das’s text, lack of standardization in Odia language before the age of modernity, reception of Das’s Mahabharata in mid-nineteenth century and a pre-history of the twentieth century debates over the text. Thus, as early as 1867, Sarala Das’s Mahabharata was charged for its impurities and its distance from the Sanskrit original. Satpathy cites the views of many other prominent figures like Mayadhar Mansinha and Surendra Mohanty about Das’s importance. With his thorough grounding in western literary theories, Satpathy also tries testing some of them in talking about the issues of exaggeration, interpolation, textuality, authorship and editorial interventions in Das’s Mahabharata. However, what is undeniable is that, to quote Mansinha, Odia masses “care little for pedantic accuracy” and simply love Sarala Das’s Mahabharata.

Intersectionality of adaptation and queer theories is an exciting area which has produced many good studies in the last few decades. Tagore’s adaptation of an incident from Mahabharata in his poetic play Chitrangada raised many eyebrows. Later famous Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, whose queer sexual identity is discernible in most of his films, presented a queer reinvention of Tagore’s play. Satpathy, also a scholar of gay studies, studies the phenomenon of many gay readings of Tagore’s works “irrespective of the original intentions of Tagore.” In many of these readings, Satpathy notes, “gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘I’”, not only in Tagore but in other instances too are interpreted as suggesting the idea of homoerotic love. It is a different matter that Tagore drew his inspiration from “Upnishadadic teachings through the medieval Bhakti to the rural folk traditions of the Baul.” Ghosh, playing the role of Rudra in the film, explains “that Chitrangada was conditioned to be a man by his father, and so her body language needed to be shown to be that of a man.” Pouncing on what he considered a queer moment in Tagore’s play, he interpreted the story of Chitrangada as that of desire. Satpathy is aware that many such readings of older texts are routine in queer studies. A very important point in his essay is the employment of Brett Farmer’s concept of ‘fantasmatic spectator’ which shows “how gay spectators can engage in queer fantasmatic negotiations of mainstream film. {He} suggests that in their readings of the Hollywood musical, gay spectators latch on to those points of rupture or excess to which the musical is so spectacularly prone and mobilize them to construct patently queer forms of fantasmatic desire.”

Satpathy also takes note of some minor and major controversies around the figure of Gandhiji and his ideas. Discussing in passing neo-conservative scholar Richard Grenier’s attack on Gandhi, Indian politics and Hinduism in his book The Gandhi Nobody Knows, written after Attenborough’s film Gandhi, Satpathy also briefly mentions African media’s criticism of Gandhi of his alleged racism. However, the main thrust of this essay titled “Gandhi Before Gandhi: Two Little Pre-histories of the Great Soul” is to show that some very powerful symbols and practices associated with Gandhiji, namely the confessional mode of writing and the idea of khadi, existed much before Gandhiji’s use popularised them, investing them with further meanings. Even the confessional mode of writing, as Satpathy notes, is not strictly confessional as many of Gandhiji’s confessions were made in personal communications, and in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth, Gandhiji does not mention at all “the most sensational of his affairs of the heart, i.e. his relationship with Sarala Devi of the illustrious Tagore family.” Reading some important facts of this relationship from Rajmohan Gandhi’s account, especially Gandhiji’s promised “spiritual marriage”, and his son Devadas’s objections to this special relationship, Satpathy cites Gandhiji’s personal communications between 1933 and 1935 with Father William Lash, E. Stanley Jones and Margaret Sanger to present this little narrative from the life of the Father of the Nation.

In talking about confessional mode of writing and khadi, Satpathy brings “the Mahatma Gandhi-phenomenon into sharper relief by tracing how what were common became exclusive through their reiterative association with the Mahatma.” He examines the genre of confessional writing by looking at Odia poet Radhanath Ray’s account of his affair with a much younger Bengali poet Saraswati Nagendrabala, whom he was mentoring. Ray’s extant confessional autobiography, and his “public confession” titled “A Grievous Sinner’s Most Humble and Piteous Entreaty to the General Public”, predate Gandhiji’s confessional mode of writing. In these writings Ray feels guilty for his fallen state, and for the tragic suicide of Saraswati. Satpathy is of the view that Radhanath Ray and Gandhiji’s “sense of sexual guilt” appear to be “derived from Non-Hindu traditions”, possibly Christo-Buddhist, or simply Christian. In fact, despite his disavowal of Christianity, Satpathy notes, Radhanath Ray “internalised Christian- Brahmo discourses” and in his confession “mentions at least one European Christian poet, Dante.”

In the same way Satpathy examines the “verbal prefiguration of the charkha in the Odia public sphere and its configuration in Indian village economy before it acquired its metonymic status as the Gandhian tool for Swaraj, and the subsequent inextricability of the two—the man and his indigenous machine.” He discusses at length Fakir Mohan’s essay “Arata” in which the Odia writer analyses the ‘poor state of Odisha economy”, the reasons for such poverty and a way out of the situation by emphasising “the earlier self-sufficiency” and a “return to the old practice of hand-spinning with the charkha.” In fact, twenty-five years before writing this essay, Fakir Mohan had delivered a talk in which he lamented Odisha weavers’ discontinuance of the practice of loom. Satpathy writes that Fakir Mohan not only spoke against British goods, he also “talks about the invasion of Japanese and German clothes.” Invoking Ashis Nandy’s idea of ‘critical traditionalism’ and Spivak’s term ‘strategic essentialism’, Satpathy advances his term ‘strategic traditionalism’ to discuss Ray, Fakir Mohan and of others’ invocation of “traditions with suitable modifications for strategic reasons.” Satpathy’s purpose in talking about the confessional mode of writing and the use of charkha is a call to scholars to widen the nature of their archives to reach sound conclusions.

A very remarkable feature of Sumanyu Satpathy’s style of writing is his honesty and candour in talking about issues which have become even more controversial now. Thus talking about the demolition of Babri Masjid, he can write that “the mention of Babri-Faizabad always figures in the national imagery, not in terms of the numerous Buddhist ruins, but only as the silhouetted image of three domes on which weapon-wielding Hindus seem to be gesticulating in warlike postures….Whereas, the Masjid structure is a part of historical fact, it is pitted against claims over the birth of a personality, whose historicity cannot be proved with the tools of archaeology.” There are examples galore of such honesty and candour in Satpathy’s account of other controversies in Will to Argue: Studies in Late Colonial and Postcolonial Controversies.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is Professor and Chair, Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.


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One thought

  1. A very detailed review very precisely abridged. Although I am not familiar with the author dealt with in this article, the topic of controversies seems as old as human race itself since Man is by nature contentious. Then of course there are a multiple points of views to relate with. Historical facts have been so often bungled and reproduced, that it wouldn’t be wrong to consider that there is an entire industry of falsification out there, which has been proactive. I feel that the importance of history is inasmuch as we can look back and review our mistakes in order to learn from them, so that we do not repeat them. But the tragedy of Mankind is the unreliability of memory and forgetfulness. Controversy will be there as long as human race exists.
    As far as Men of importance like Gandhiji are concerned, even confessions are given inasmuch as a person is willing to or considers important enough to reveal. So it is very much a personal choice. Plus, human beings are so complex and undergo so much change in their beliefs and personality, that it would be unfair to categorize them as types.


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