Rupi Baskey was wasting away and it was all the doing of the woman who lusted after her husband. A woman as strong as her, who birthed her son in the middle of a paddy field, had been subject to a witch’s spell.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is the first in English to be written by a Jharkhandi and published by a major publishing firm. Those who take a cue from the title and expect a whodunit will be disappointed. The protagonist, Rupi Baskey’s ailment remains unsolved; in fact, none of the many health issues in the book are given names.
The novel is set largely in two fictional villages in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district — Kadamdihi near Chakulia and Nitra near Ghatshila — and its plot begins by talking about the family of Santhali elder Somai Baskey. Through Somai of Kadamdihi, his daughter Putki and her husband Khorda, the reader reaches Rupi, wife of Somai’s eldest son Sido. After Rupi falls ill, apparently due to witchcraft performed by Gurubari, who has an affair with Sido, the spotlight is on her as she battles with forces beyond her control, but refuses to match evil with evil spells. “There are no names to these medical conditions. If there are, I did not know. Secondly, I did not find it necessary (to explain). Some things should remain unanswered,” said Sowvendra, over a patchy mobile phone connection. He is in Pakur district, 390 km from Ranchi and closer to Kolkata than to Jharkhand’s capital, “absolutely far away from all the buzz about my book.”
This reticence, bordering on an absence of scepticism, is remarkable because the 30-year-old is a medical officer posted at an additional primary health centre in Pakur town. The idea of the book came from the gossip in his village —Kishoripur in Chakulia: “There was an affair outside marriage and a lot of gossip went on about it. I built my story on that.”
Despite the fact that readers outside Jharkhand may not have an idea about the places and cultures Sowvendra was talking about, his first draft — completed in October 2011 — set the characters in a space unencumbered by time. “When I wrote the story first, it did not have a political backdrop.
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It was just a plain story. But when it was accepted by Aleph, my editor Anurag Basnet told me that this was, perhaps, the first time somebody was writing about Jharkhand and the adivasis there. He said that we had to give it some kind of a timeline; that no novel can stay in a vacuum; that it reads like a fable,” said Sowvendra. The final version is set in the 1970s and the 1980s’ Jharkhand. It also casts its eye back in time on Jaipal Singh Munda, the Olympic hockey gold medallist, who led one of the first adivasi political movements in the region.
He admits he did not go beyond talking to his immediate family while researching the book; for the political perspective, there was his grandfather and father, both active supporters of a national party: “Only when I was asked about the book’s politics in an interview did I realise that I have to stand up for a political idea.” This, from someone who also points out, “I do not see myself as an indigenous writer. I see myself as just a writer. ”
This is a rare despatch from Jharkhand, which talks about the suffering of its protagonist at the hands of witches — allegations of witchcraft being often used to victimise women in these parts.
As it turns out, the good doctor does believe that witches exist: “I believe in these things although I do not approve of women being dragged out of houses and burned after being branded as witches. In the Sarna religion, when we pray to a particular god, we have mediums through which the gods communicate with us.” He admits, though, that he is yet to witness the rituals described in the book.
The companion book to the lyrical Rupi Baskey should be Sanjay Bahadur’s novel, the meticulously researched Hul (Roli Books). Both talk of Santhali culture, with the latter using the plot as a means to talk in detail about a great tribal uprising that is not part of popular discourse. On the other hand, Rupi’s story lets the reader navigate the many spaces Sowvendra leaves empty. “If it is not written, it should remain mysterious,” he says.