The Jharkhand government officially banned Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book The Adivasi Will Not Dance in August 2017. The harassment though, had begun months earlier, insidious at first, and then increasingly belligerent. The government gave his book a clean chit in December. However, the flak had come from his home state, his own people. The hurt was palpable. Shekhar dealt with it in the only way he could. He simply went on reading and writing.
India is no stranger to the banning of books. The country’s writing community naturally reacts vehemently and lends its support in such cases. It was no different with The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Nevertheless, at a panel on banned writers at the 2018 Jaipur Literature Festival, Shekhar said that it is not the job of writers to provide protection to a fellow writer. He asked instead for a better attitude towards writers and intellectuals, and more respect for artistic freedom.
Now Shekhar is back with another hard-hitting book, My Father’s Garden, which follows close in the footsteps of his first book for children – the nuanced and charmingly written Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh. Both books are written in his clear-sighted and lucid prose, rich with flora and fauna and literally suffused with the spirit of his native Jharkhand.
While the children’s book reads like a modern day fable, My Father’s Garden lays out, with ease, a view of today’s India outside its metropolises, peopled with characters whose anxieties and desires could be from any part of the country, not necessarily Jamshedpur and the rest of Jharkhand, where the book is set.
Shekhar spoke to Scroll.in about life after the ban, what the garden in his mother’s bungalow near the Ghatsila copper factory means to him and his new books.
Your latest book, My Father’s Garden has just come out. Written in the first person, you seem to have internalised the “other” in this work, almost making it sound biographical. Can you tell us about the inspirations and influences that led to this book?
In writing My Father’s Garden, I have borrowed from a number of lives. Lives of other people and from my life as well, and also lives of trees. Life is the inspiration and influence here. That is all I can say.
You have written openly and in detail in My Father’s Garden, riding the twin worlds of the personal and socio-political with elan. It could court controversy. Do you agree? What are your views on this?
Yes, I agree. Also, I have invested quite a lot of thought and judgement into what I ultimately put into this book. So I will just wait and watch.
My Father’s Garden seems to have moved a few steps further down the same direction as The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Both books present a direct gaze on how the world is (in the books). Before that was your lyrical, almost magic realistic first novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. A similar prose style is reflected in your first book for children Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire. There seems to be a shift in style and gaze between your two more politically driven works and Rupi and Jwala Kumar. Do you agree? Comments?
I agree, but I do not know what to comment on this. I think this pattern just happened. Whatever it is, I am happy and satisfied with it and I am not going to analyse it.
My Father’s Garden opens with two quotes from two contemporary Indian writer-poets. Sumana Roy’s “Tree Sap” and Sharanya Manivannan’s “Boyfriend like a Banyan Tree”. I am intrigued, why, specifically these two quotes?
Both these texts, that I have used in the epigraph in My Father’s Garden, touched me. Sumana Roy’s poem “Tree Sap”, in my opinion, is about maturing, about growing older, about accepting things as one grows older. “With age everything turns viscous / For hardening is a marker of age” – these two lines sum up two-third of the content of My Father’s Garden. And who wouldn’t want a companion – not only a boyfriend – like a banyan tree, the type Sharanya Manivannan mentions in her prose piece, “A Boyfriend Like a Banyan Tree”? Someone strong, understanding, and who would be there for you, unmoving. Hence, I chose these two excerpts for the epigraph.
You are a prolific writer an avid reader and a doctor. Tell us a bit about a day in your doctor-writer-reader’s life.
Work is okay. I do not know what else to say. It is something that I have to do. Reading and writing, however, have taken a hit. I do not have much time so I am refusing most writing assignments that are coming my way. The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey has been translated into Bengali by Bhaskar Majumder. I was supposed to take a look at its manuscript to see if it was okay. The English to Bengali translation has come out very well, but Bhaskar’s concern (and which is also my concern) was the untranslated Santhali words that will appear in the book in their original form. I have tried my best to spell them in the proper way in Bengali, but because I had so little time to read the manuscript because of my office work, I know I have just skimmed through the text. But I am still trying to write. I have stopped taking up commissioned works and am focusing only on my own writings.
The ban and suspension brought about drastic changes in your everyday life. How you were coping then, and how is it now? Since then, do you think there has been any change in the mindsets of the powers that be who instigate these attacks on writers?
While I was still suspended, I just wrote and read and wrote and read. That was how I was coping with the ban and the suspension. Now, after the unbanning of The Adivasi Will Not Dance and my reinstatement, I am just trying to move on. Regarding the mindsets of the powers, I have no idea and I do not want to know.
You have translated some Santhali poets. Can you tell us about your favourite Santhali writers and poets?
I have not read much in Santhali and I have translated only few works, so I cannot really name any favourite. I remember, in 2016, I read a Santhali poem titled “Japanese Encephalitis” written by Chinmayee Hansdah-Marandi. She hails from Odisha and is based in West Bengal now. Her poem was about the Japanese Encephalitis outbreak in her home state, Odisha. The poem was beautiful and painful at the same time, with rhyming lines, about children falling sick and dying and dead bodies and even the stench of dead bodies in a village. I translated this poem into English. I am afraid I have misplaced the manuscript somewhere, it’s been two years but I know that I was not able to bring out that beauty of rhyming lines in my translation.
In the original Santhali, the poem felt like a child talking about the disease and deaths in her village, in a fluid, effortless tone. In my English translation, with hardly any rhyming lines and quite a few words I could not adequately translate from Santhali to English, the poem felt heavy, like an adult simply recounting the events and pretending to create poetry out of those events. Somewhere that tone and nuance seemed to have vanished. I might have failed in this translation but I am happy I tried.
What inspired you to write Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire? How was this experience vis-à-vis writing for adult readers? Do you have more for children in the pipeline?
An unseasonal rainfall in Ghatsila, my hometown, and HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones inspired me to create Jwala Kumar. Writing for children is soothing. Also, it keeps me totally engaged as I have to keep on imagining plot turns and twists and build up new characters. I am trying to write one more book for children.
Nature plays a very strong role in your narratives, a palpable living presence. Not all people growing up in beautiful natural surroundings are likewise inclined. Could you tell us about your personal nature trail? The shrubs and trees of your childhood, the ones you loved, the ones you didn’t.
I have very fond memories of my life in the quarter allotted to my mother by the copper company in Ghatsila. It was a bungalow built in maybe the 1940s or the 1950s and there was a colonial charm in that house. There was a switchboard in that house on which it was engraved: Made in England. We lived in that house for about 17-18 years and that is where I spent my entire childhood and became an adult. There is a phrase in Bengali, “manush hoyechhi”, which means to become a person or to mature or grow up. So that house - technically, my mother’s house - is where I became a “manush”.
Apart from the exposure to nature that I had in our ancestral village, it was this house of my mother whose memories I will cherish for as long as I live. I remember the trees in the huge compound of that bungalow. There was the huge jaamrul tree under whose shade I used to play with my imaginary friends. I remember picking yellow rain lily flowers and tying those into bouquets. I remember the several jackfruit trees and the fragrance of their ripe fruits which, at that time, when I was child, seemed like stench to me.
It was in that house where I first saw coucals. I would be intrigued by these huge birds with wings that were colourful on the inside. It would take me several years and the internet to learn that those birds were coucal. Another intriguing thing I saw in that house was mimosa, the sensitive plant. There was an entire, ankle-high forest of mimosa in that house. There was a raktakarabi plant just outside the gate and my grandmother liked that plant so much she had a stem of it cut and taken back with her to the village. There were tall eucalyptus trees in the compound and we once saw one of those trees getting struck by lightning. The lighting made that tree lose its leaves and colours and turn pale. The irony was that my mother’s bungalow was just next to the copper factory with only an alley about 15-20 feet wide separating the compound of the bungalow from the compound of the factory. We used to face pollution 24x7, but all those wonderful trees survived and they survived exceptionally well.
Any memorable/interesting interactions with readers (not people from the writing world) that you would like to share?
This happened in July 2018. A boy (who is not a friend of mine on Facebook) sent me a message on Facebook Messenger. If that boy reads this interview, I hope he would not mind my quoting his words here. This is an excerpt from what that boy wrote: “Sir my mom has recently read one of your books named the adivashis will not dance and became fan of yours...she was planning writing a letter to you but unfortunately your address is nowhere mentioned in your books.” I think a message like this is the best reward.