Award-winning Santal author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, who has written the acclaimed novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (2014) and a collection of stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance (2015), both works of fiction that explore the Adivasi life, suddenly finds himself thick in the middle of a vicious controversy. A group of Adivasis in Jharkhand, where he works as a government medical officer in the town of Pakur, have launched an online and offline campaign against him and his writing, which, they claim, objectify and exploit Adivasi women. His writings, they contest, is pure “porn” and run down Adivasi culture.
The controversy has caught the attention of local newspapers in Jharkhand, with reports stating that in a meeting his detractors have set a date and time – August 4, at 11 am – to burn Shekhar’s effigy and copies of both his books at a park in Pakur.
Several Adivasi writers and academics, meanwhile, have taken note of the online campaign and the offline threats – including a parody page called “Pornocopeia” on Facebook – calling for a boycott of his books. A group of supporters has written a joint statement rejecting “this cultural gatekeeping and thought and moral policing” and trace the beginnings of what they call a “smear campaign”.
Turning Facebook into a make-believe court of tradition and customary law, some self-appointed “defenders” of Adivasi cultural and literary heritage – some of whom are not even Adivasi – believe they’ve levied the ultimate insult to a Santal author: pornstar, porn king, and porn writer. Adding emoticons to their declaration on July 16, 2017, the group tagged the author in question, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Santal writer.
Denunciations of Shekhar and his works have been issued in the most degrading manner, because according to this group (Ivy Imogene Hansdak, Sunder Manoj Hembrom, Francis Xavier Soren, Santosh Besra, Shirijol Dingra, Alakjari Murmu, Inncocent Soren, Tonol Murmu, Raj Kumar, Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, Gladson Dungdung and others) he has defamed Santal or Adivasi culture with his “pornographic” writing. This soon escalates into calls for bitlaha – ex-communication and lynching within the Santal people.
A letter was sent off to Sahitya Akademi on July 20, 2017, questioning the criteria used to award the Yuva Puraskar, 2015, to Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, claiming that as conferring this award “showed serious lack of sensitivity towards the tribal people of India”.
Even if Shekhar’s novel was the only submission for the awards in 2015, the jury would have had to read it to judge it. They read the 224 pages, 60,000-word novel, including the 1,075 words incidental to the storyline that contribute to the “unmentionable acts” (sexual activity) in three sections, and found enough merit in the narrative for the award.
The citation reads: “Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is a novel about Santal life written from the perspective of an insider. The narrative weaves the warp and weft of Santal life in an idiom that is fresh, intimate and original. The characters in the novel are life-like and vivid and stay with the readers. His experiment and innovation with language is something that will remain a kind of milestone for new writers…”
Are we going to hold the jury accountable for not dismissing the novel and judging it solely on its 1,075 words describing sexual relations? The protestors can surely excuse this gross oversight.
Pornography is not just what the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory defines, as Ivy Hansdak quotes in her letter to the Sahitya Akademi, but also what an individual sets as a threshold to what is acceptable to them in terms of sanction, deviance and limits in sexual activity. Hansdak forgets to mention that the dictionary cites as pornography important literary works such as Ars Amatoria by Ovid and Boccaccio’s Decameron. It even discusses pornographic elements in the Old Testament. Has Hansdak read these or does she intend to denounce them as well?
If the paragraph from Shekhar’s book quoted in the letter offends or sexually provokes the protesters, there’s little that those who do not have the same reaction can do. What and whose standards are they using to aver that “the sexual activity appears to be abnormal and deviant”? Why is sex unclean or unspeakable? Do we denigrate Marang Buru (the principal supernatural being of the Santals) for his role in getting the first Santal man and woman (Pilcu Haram and Pilcu Budhi) to engage in sex for procreation? Are we going to judge those who engage in sexual activity for reasons other than procreation?
The first time Shekhar was on a Facebook trial for his writings and this award by this very group was in 2015, when a Hindi translation of his story November is the Month of Migrations from his collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance was reviewed by Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, a non-Adivasi who called the story a denigration of Adivasi women and society, among many other allegations. The version that Pankaj read of November is the Month of Migrations was an unofficial Hindi translation published in the Adivasi Pratibha Ki Khoj, the special issue number 146 of the Hindi literary magazine Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, founded and edited by former trade union leader and MLA Ramnika Gupta.
Pankaj formed an opinion not only of the story but also of the character of the author from this single translation and accused the author in the choicest of words, highlighting the author’s profession as a doctor, in a short note accompanying the unofficial Hindi translation republished in the website AsurNation, a website created in the name of the Asur Adivasis.
We had a ringside view of this vilification and soon realised that the protesting group had not even read his works. For example, they were circulating a page of the story Semen, Saliva, Sweat, Blood stating it belonged to Shekhar’s book The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Activist Gladson Dungdung started circulating this page certifying, “the author was a porn writer”. If they’d read either or any of his works, they’d have known the stories were from two separate books – Semen, Saliva, Sweat, Blood is from the anthology Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II published in 2012. A Facebook confession from Ivy Hansdak last week shows the works being judged without being read:
“Yes, even i don’t have the nerve to read his second book bc i heard horrible things about it. I only have the first novel which i bought out of curiosity” (July 19 at 2:46 pm)
So their initial calls for revoking the Sahitya Akademi award in 2015 were misplaced too: November Is the Month of Migrations and Semen, Saliva, Sweat, Blood are not from the book that won the award. They didn’t care about fact-checking. This circulation was deceiving and misleading – or perhaps intentionally so.
This group could have taken their objections to the author directly and engaged with him in an open-minded manner. Instead they chose to mock him with pejoratives such as “pornstar”, discussed his looks, sexuality, made homophobic taunts, commented on his last name written first, called him a rapist, sick-pervert, mental patient, a danger to female patients, intimidated him with threats of social and literary boycott, excommunication, bodily harm, doing harm to his job, and calls for the public burning of his books.
The online barrage of insults and threats then was transferred to Shekhar’s Facebook friends, people they didn’t even know. They sneered at them for appreciating his “porn”, asked one to recreate a sex scene with the author, film it and post it online. They made Islamophobic comments about the supposedly Muslim male Hindi translator of the story published in Yudhrat Aam Aadmi.
We passed the story November Is the Month of Migrations around to several Santals and other Adivasi friends and asked for their reactions.
All of them, without exception, said the story was painful, disturbing and sad, which made them reflect on the difficult, complex lives our Adivasi women live. This story could be about exploitation, choices borne of desperate conditions or free will, but all it did was evoke tears, a lump in the throat and profound grief. Not one of the readers said the story sexually aroused them. Doesn’t this reaction betray the definition of pornography they quote and the accusations of him?
Also, this was not the first time an Adivasi author had written a fictional piece about Santal women engaging in sex work. In an unpublished Santali short story, Mit Pai Caole – (One pai of rice), written in January 1970, the author, who went by the pseudonym Bir Baha, wrote a first person account of his maiden visit to Dumka and overhearing a conversation of Santal women displaced by the Masanjore Dam trading in sex. Bir Baha writes about a group of Santal women complaining about one of them named Cundki who had “jeopardised the rate” by working for as little as “ath ana” (50 paise). Cundki responds to this allegation by saying, “Ath ana can get us at least a pai of rice.”
This story and Shekhar’s story show that even after nearly 50 years, the situation for some Santal women in the Santal Pargana has not really changed. So how is Shekhar “pimping the adivasi woman for diku (non-tribal) consumption”? He has just stated a fact. Yet, far-fetched allegations roll off the tongues of the protesters effortlessly and with complete impunity.
Some critique Shekhar’s work as not portraying an Adivasi philosophy and worldview, especially Pankaj. Where is the Adivasi edict that prescribes what a writer should write or not and how to do so? Are Adivasis only meant to comment on their ways, customs and traditions? Do they not have the permission to explore themes in their own style and language? Can they not have an opinion on the world outside of them, world politics, science or whatever they please?
Moreover, which Adivasi philosophy allows for bullying and persecuting an Adivasi and his works, inciting the community against him and verbally assaulting anyone who tries to defend him? Is there an Adivasi ideology that promotes memes and cartoons to reinforce a prejudice against the author and his works, dragging in others from the publishing industry too into attempts at humour?
If there is anyone showing a “serious lack of sensitivity towards the tribal people of India” it is they – these trolls, both Adivasi and non-Adivasi, who are vilifying Shekhar. No matter what, they will find fault in Shekhar’s writings and his so-called “dirty” mind as they’re on a self-declared warpath to salvage Santal/Adivasi society.
There is also the accusation that “he has no literary merit, his English is sub-standard”. They’re going after him with no rationale (or a disproportionate one.) They’re now politicising Shekhar’s use of the name of a character in Semen, Saliva, Sweat, Blood, blaming him for using the name of a leader of the Jharkhand movement deliberately to defame him.
Shekhar’s disteactors even accuse him of a “major distortion of the Santal creation myth (Karam-Binti)…” These erudite protestors forget that we come from an oral tradition and that there are several versions of the Karam-Binti which are different from the written versions. There are Santals who say some sequences in the creation narrative are missing or not recognisable in the printed versions. Do they intend to say that these Santals are not the “true” Santals because their belief of the myth is different from that of the objectors? They’re using the arrogance of printed text to subjugate people of orality, like the “diku”s have been doing.
Their aim is nothing but provocation. They’ve been trying all the permutations and combinations in their desperate attempts to garner support for their supposed “movement”. They’ve made a bogeyman out of Shekhar and his works.
When we ask people supporting the protesters’ misleading narrative to read his work first, they respond, “No, no, we don’t read such stuff.” They have slandered his artistry just because they can. As for their own readings of his works, it is almost like they’re doing a speed-reading of his books and stories, digging for keywords to be incensed with, instead of reading a story without prejudice.
How are their inflammatory, threatening words and intent not reinforcing the stereotypes of tribals being “primitive savages”? Might we say this – some of their opinions and manner of speaking confirm this stereotype. If there’s anyone making generalisations about Santals, it’s this group, who think they speak for all Adivasis or Santals. Their letter to the Sahitya Akademi is certainly not “on behalf of the tribal people of India”.
Repeating that Shekhar is objectifying Santal women does not make it true. Echoing the same accusation only amounts only to propaganda. It is they who are sensationalising the narrative. If telling a story of a Santal woman and describing a sex scene is objectification, then they are missing the point. But we know all of them have turned tone-deaf to any reasoning.
Writing is not a crime, even if it were pornographic, so there is no reason to turn Shekhar into a villain. No one is forcing anyone to read material that offends their modesty. Those who claim to protect the purity of the community, by wearing blinders and dismissing the ground realities of the everyday battles our men, women and children encounter and fight, are not heroes. Their puritanical beliefs are their responsibility alone and they should not make martyrs of themselves. It is time to turn the mirror inward.
We reject this cultural gatekeeping and thought and moral policing. Hansdak, Hembrom, Pankaj and the others’ attempts to indoctrinate and mislead people are condemnable. George Orwell called such people the “thought police,” a retrograde repressive force oppressing free will and thinking.
There is no justification for these venomous attacks and this maliciousness. This Adivasi group has shown the worst of themselves and our “educated class”, which is doing more disservice and “damage” to our Adivasi community than Shekhar’s writing ever could.
In 2007 Shekhar addressed the violence against the Adivasis in Assam in a national newspaper. He was a student then. He is the same author who, last year, jeopardised his job with the government of Jharkhand when he wrote against the anti-Adivasi domicile policy in Jharkhand.
We, the undersigned Adivasis strongly condemn these literary activists and self-styled guardians of Adivasi culture and morality, their hypocrisy, acts of provoking the community and their smear campaign against author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar.
- Ashish Birulee, Journalist and Photographer
- Lipika Singh Darai, Filmmaker
- Zoba Hansdah, Research Scholar, TISS, Mumbai
- Ruby Hembrom, Founder, adivaani
- Priyanka Priyadarshini Marandi, Research Scholar, IIT Delhi
- Sneha Mundari, Filmmaker
- Seral Murmu, Filmmaker
- Akash Poyam, Founder, Adivasi Resurgence
- Priyanka Purty, Student, IIT Bombay
- Nora Samad, Program Assistant, Eklavya
- Priyanka Sandilya, Research Scholar, TISS, Tuljapur
- Sujit Kumar Soren, Director, Santali Academy, Sido-Kanhu Murmu University
- Aashish Xaxa, PhD Scholar, TISS Mumbai