Book: The Adivasi Will Not Dance
Author: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Publishers: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 140 pages
Price: Rs 399
Not too long ago, faced with an avalanche of awards being returned to sender, the stunned government called the writers’ protest “manufactured”. The less cynical response was to ask: why have writers suddenly turned ‘political’?
As if, politics was a pair of dirty shoes to be left outside the sanitised hallways of literature. To read Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s remarkable collection of stories is to realise the error of that view. The truth a writer seeks to represent embraces his entire world — its injustice and humanity, its darkness as well as its grubby redemptions. A writer sees through the glass, darkly, and if he does not turn away from what he sees — in that his writing
Like many of the writers who spoke out against what poet Jayanta Mahapatra called “the growing asymmetry” in the country, Shekhar lives, works and writes far away from metropolises and literary power centres. A medical officer in Pakur, Jharkhand, his stories are rooted in the Santhal Parganas; his characters are the disenfranchised people of this bountiful land. The title of the book draws from the final story in this collection. Its pithy protest is clear enough.
“We Adivasis will not dance anymore…We are like toys — someone presses our ‘ON’ button, or turns a key in our backsides, and we Santhals start beating rhythms on our tamak and tumdak…while someone snatches away our very dancing grounds”. Mangal Murmu is a leader of a dance troupe, a fixture for years at government ceremonies, where his music and performance have been the token straw figure of “culture” in the tableau of governance. He has seen his land been ravaged by the Indian state’s appetite for coal, and this is his defiant cry against the destruction of the tribal way of life.
Nevertheless, this is not a collection raging against the dying of the light. It can also discomfit you with brief, brutal matter-of-factness. ‘November is the Month of Migrations’ is a four-page story about a young girl journeying to Bengal from Jharkhand with her impoverished clan in search of work and money. A policeman on the way offers her a transaction: a bread pakoda and some money if she has sex with him. “Talamai takes care not to scream, or even wince. She knows the routine…In less than 10 minutes, the work is done.”
The political is not always a bitter pill, however. One of the most enjoyable stories in the collection, ‘They Eat Meat!’ is about Panmuni Soren, who moves to Vadodara from Bhubaneswar with her husband’s transfer, and find it a place obsessed with purity and cleanliness. Not only do they have to give up their largely non-vegetarian diet in order to find a house, they are gently told by their landlord to conceal their tribal identity. “People here believe in purity…tribals, even lower-caste Hindus, they are seen as impure.” But licit appetites do not disappear once they are labelled illicit, and the story captures the comedy of Panmuni and her landlady bonding over the forbidden pleasures of a fried egg — finally, it is the 2002 riots that bring a rare unity in a divided neighbourhood.
If literary critics once agonised over the postcolonial Indian’s ability to use English to represent an Indian reality, Shekhar’s writing seems to laugh at that question. These are stories that ring with the accents and abuses of the Santhali language, without so much as an apology of a glossary. While he is telling the story of often desperate people, Shekhar does so with both humour and sensitivity. None of the characters turn into stock representations of the Exploited. They are flesh-and-blood individuals, with their tragic flaws and the sweeping force of their strange desires.
In this collection about people living on the edge, is it any wonder that so many of the characters are women, the ground always slipping from behind their feet? Some so insignificant in the scheme of life that their parents even fail to find proper names for them — Talamai means middle daughter; Mathabhangi in ‘Eating with the Enemy’ is the girl with a broken head. But Shekhar draws each with care and empathy. The stand-out stories are about Baso-jhi, a kind, wise elderly woman, abandoned by her sons, and her attempt at finding a new home; and Sona, a prostitute famed for the pleasures she can unlock in her clients.
The Adivasi Will Not Dance, Shekhar’s second book, is a collection of stories written from the margin, against the grain, and told with great skill and humanity. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a writer to be sought out and discovered. May his tribe increase.