MEET THE WRITER

The tribal world strikes back at Indian writing in English through a doctor

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s fictional annals of Jharkhand is elbowing aside many sophisticated works in the English language.

Pakur, one among the 24 districts of Jharkhand, is at best a dark statistic. Among the bottom 20 Indian districts in economic development index, Pakur comes last, according to a study in The Indian Express. Look up Pakur and a list of depressing stories dominate. The state-versus-poor conflict makes news constantly in Pakur in the southern extremity of Jharkhand.

Thirty-two-year-old Hansda Sowendra Shekhar is a doctor at a primary health centre in Pakur. Not exactly a job which those who have been through the hard grind of an MBBS course might prefer.

Only minor ailments can be handled there, and only off-the shelf medicines like paracetamol are given to the desperate poor who come there looking for succour. “If you are in pain you are directed to the district hospital,” said Shekhar, who has worked there for three years though he grew up in Ghatshila, up north.

He might be tending to the needy, but Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar doesn’t spend all his time at the clinic. Last week he was in Delhi to receive the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for young writers, which comes with a cheque of Rs 50,000, for his debut novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. Adivasis Don’t Dance, his collection of short stories, was released this year.

Beating heavy odds, Mysterious Ailment, a novel which cuts a swathe through tribal life and is wrapped in voodoo, myth and raw passion, has been on multiple award shortlists before winning Shekhar the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for Shekhar. It was also longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, as the Indian nomination from the India International Centre library.

From real life to stories

Shekhar says he writes what he has lived through; the stories come from life around him during his growing up years in Ghatshila. The twin life he leads, as doctor and then a writer at night, comprises struggles against various impossibilities – a throw of the dice in the dark for a Santhal writer battling against both prejudice and ignorance.

But every remarkable book finds an editor who believes in it, and Mysterious Ailment went home to Ravi Singh, who was then the co-publisher at the Aleph Book Company. Said Singh, “I found the story gripping, and I had rarely encountered characters as powerful as his, especially the women. They were tragic and joyful, and there was no false nobility about them. He was taking us into a world we almost never find in English-language fiction. It could easily have become a kind of anthropology about the Santhals, but this was a rich and human story told with great vitality and without inhibition or apology. He isn’t afraid of emotion which is a rare thing.”

Added Shekhar: “I got a reply within three months of sending it to David (Davidar) at Aleph. I was surprised.”

Shekhar’s memory baffles him. It helps him enrich his stories with fine details that add to the deep dimensions. He can pick out incidents from Kindergarten when his teacher humiliated him for wearing an incorrect shade of the school maroon sweater. “I am unable to forget things," he said. "Sometimes I feel I am a prisoner of my memories.”

Luckily for us, those memories, bathed in the crucible of his imagination, drive his writing. As a boy, Shekhar read everything he could get hold of, news magazines (Ravivar from the 1980s and ‘90s), Debonair when he was eight or nine (with Malvika Tiwari on the cover) and a host of comics which his parents got for him. Besides these, the books he read began shaping his writerly life.

“Then there was this story by Bhabani Bhattacharya about an old woman, her favourite goat, and a pumpkin vine that old woman had grown," he said. "The goat eats the pumpkin vine and the enraged woman throttles her favourite pet. I learnt two useful phrases from this story – ‘crook of the arm’ and ‘crescent of the pumpkin’ – and I am thankful to Bhabani Bhattacharya for this.”

This dangerous habit of cavorting with serious writers set Shekhar up for a life as a storyteller , though he was also on course to be a doctor like his mother. His first short story was published in The Asian Age when he was 15. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s writings convinced him he could be two people at the same time. And here he is: Doctor in Pakur, Novelist in India.

Primal versus polished

Mysterious Ailment has the innocence of the primordial life, but throws in the raw passion lived in arcadial beginnings of a far-away Eden. It lures the English-language reader into a world they’re unaware of. The sprawling saga of the of Khorda haram family is a far cry from middle-class living rooms.

Both in Mysterious Ailment and in his short story collection The Adivasis Will Not Dance, (published by Ravi Singh at his new company Speaking Tiger) the world often seems unreal to us. Here love is free, uninhibited by inhibition or caution, constructed morality is a distant notion, and damnation and redemption are both expected and endured.

In Mysterious Ailment women dance naked on moonlit nights, apparitions become visible at appropriate times, witch doctors mumble incoherently and wanton young girls like Putki admire the male organ while the moonlight shines off their ebony skins even as young boys watch from top of the tree . Innocence and naiveté accompany part of the narrative, some characters are half-made and dumped, but all this is pardonable in this novel through which the poignant Rupi’s pain and sorrow run like a unifying thread.

In The Advasis Will Not Dance, the story They Eat Meat! is about a Santhal family getting used to life in Gujarat. Here the presumed immorality and crassness of the tribal family is juxtaposed against the assumed purity of the state. Gujarat’s fascination with purity is also placed against the darkness of that state during the 2002 riots. The way Gujarat is compartmentalised into little ghettos, where the pure have to deal with the ‘other India’ – for instance, the hated meat-eating people, are well drawn out. The landlord warns against even boiling an egg, though at the end his wife comes down to cook an egg curry with the tribal family.

Shekhar’s stories are sometimes abrupt, but everywhere empathy and irony rules. In November is the Month of Migrations, Santhal girls are lured by men at the railway station with sweets and a bit of money, and in the ten minutes before the train to Bengal arrives, the sex is done with and the girls run to catch the train. There is overwhelming pain in most of the stories, but Shekhar the storyteller is aloof and detached forcing us to do the judging.

Shekhar’s women are powerful. Putki, the matriarch and anti-heroine of Mysterious Ailment, “who bartered the family’s secrets for a moment of intoxication” and her daughter Rupi, around whom the narrative is wrapped, are among the most daunting characters we have seen. To lead a narrative as seen through the eyes of two tribal women and in the process making them otherworldly is itself a major achievement.

Shekhar’s stories open to us a world we have deliberately dismissed. Now they demand our attention. We can sniff their haunting aura as though it were a Santhal garland made of the fragrant kiya flower.

Read an excerpt from Hansda Sowendra Shekhar's story They Eat Meat here. 

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Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

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