Recounting the days spent in the Harlem of his youth, James Baldwin wrote the searing Letter from a Region in My Mind in 1962, of racial conflict, sexual awakening and the terror and the violence lying in wait just below the surface of things: “I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles – perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worse.” It was, and remains, a fiery testimony of the times, sounding in its articulation of hurt, an indictment of American history.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new novel My Father’s Garden, does something similar to Indian writing in English – it displaces the canon, resists stereotype, and consistently refuses to kowtow to banality. From the very first page, we are given to understand that this garden is no poet’s paradise but is instead a walled territory, no utopian fantasy but a visceral portrayal of what belonging could mean, and just how dangerous identities can be when plotted into the language of desire.

Fiery and compassionate

Set in Jharkhand, My Father’s Garden is divided into three sections, titled “Lover”, “Friend” and “Father”, and perhaps it isn’t without irony that all three introduce us to different contours of masculinities, and their accompanying desires and alienations.

Shekhar’s unnamed Santhali narrator is a conflicted, sensitive medical student, whose coming-of-age requires him to navigate the uneasy complications of clashing intersections – same sex love and desire for a captivating but condescending junior Samir, his subsequent lonely and alienated life as a doctor, bound to hide his adivasi identity, and perennial ancestral burdens that clash with the personal and political. He arrives at these with fiery politics, but more importantly, a compassionate eye. As in love, or in friendship and family, the narrator has few accessories for success, and it is precisely the performativity of these uneasy selves that Shekhar is adept at portraying.

Shekhar’s previous work has been a gritty and hard-hitting denouncement of the historical and continuing oppressions of Adivasi communities, from his own Santhali perspective. As one of the first such portrayals of the Adivasi community in Jharkhand, Hansda’s debut work The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (2014) won the Yuva Puraskar and was shortlisted for various literary prizes. His second book, a collection of short stories titled The Adivasi Will Not Dance (2015), was banned in Jharkhand upon publication, and came under fire for its depiction of Santhal culture.

Challenging convention

The ban and criticisms have proved to only spur the writer on, for My Father’s Garden moves furthest from canonical conventions, its depictions even more challenging and the Adivasi voice more dissident than ever. The novel begins with the eponymous but forbidden Lover (the Splendor-riding gym-going Samir), who can love but only in secret, and always in dismissal of his own sexuality (“a kiss is only for someone special”). This perpetually places the protagonist in a position of the spurned outsider, desired often in private, but as often publicly denied: “I realised I had made a lifeboat of just two kind words from Samir. It was a compromise, and a sorry one.”

The unsaid refrain through the novel, is the matter of shame and disgrace, and of course the pain of betrayal. Shekhar’s unnamed protagonist is on a constant journey of self discovery of his sexualness and tribalness, where both are denials of dignity and justice, and above all, love. But it is precisely the status of the outsider that gives Shekhar’s voice its power, and its immediacy.

This trope carries over into the section ironically titled “Friend”, for we are shown how many conditionals are placed in order to admit to such friendship. Keenly observant of the rituals and power games of small towns, the section gives us Bada Babu, the head clerk at the government hospital where the narrator works as the “Daktar saab”.

Bada Babu is the local strongman who gets things done and who knows everyone. To be friends with Bada Babu is to have your path cleared before you, but of course as we know, and as it turns out ultimately, not without a price. He realises this too late, for when the bulldozers finally arrive, Bada Babu “ every good schemer, every good neta, had made himself safe”.

A dream deferred

Belonging is more often a condition of loss, more nostalgic sometimes than hopeful. The third section “Father”, is the most touchingly evocative, and the closest to the memories of home. The narrator’s father is clearly idolised by the young son. His political aspirations to the national stage are the family’s ticket to success, a decision “that transformed our lives in more ways than one”. The crushing return to reality that follows is only a veneer for the greater project of Adivasi autonomy, which remains a dream indefinitely deferred.

What remains are transplanted memories – the abandoned sacred jaher of the village recreated as the garden that his father builds, as lovely as paradise – “thick, deep green vines of pui leaves climbed the iron grille of the verandah outside our kitchen. Tulsi, dhania and pudina grew lush in the cool space near the tubewell where the water keeps the earth always moist”.

While the novel builds intimate associations with the varying shapes and contours of masculinity, it admits few female characters into such a world. Although the narrator is markedly proud of his mother’s achievements at home and in the world, it is not quite of the same heft and weight as his father’s, revealing a glaring absence. For such a well-written, compassionate work, that there are no women to love, befriend or hold up as ideals, is telling of the many exclusions that could exist, even in promised lands or well meaning Edenic gardens.

My Father’s Garden, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Speaking Tiger.