While the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is still going on, it is not difficult to identify that in most sessions speakers have grappled with the question of censorship and the need to dissent. It is this that makes the presence of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, author of The Adivasi Will Not Dance, so relevant. His second book, that narrates the trials and tribulations of the Santhals of Jharkhand received much critical acclaim. A collection of short stories— published after his much-acclaimed first book The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey — brought forth the plight of the Adivasis and their obdurate refusal to be treated as token heritage toys. But the book was banned by the Jharkhand government saying that it had shown the Santhals in a bad light. Shekhar, who is a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand was also suspended.
Effigies of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Purashkar recipient were burnt and copies of his books were ordered to be confiscated. Undeterred, Shekhar is still doing what he does best — write. On the sidelines of JLF 2018, he spoke to the indianexpress.com about the censorship, its effect on his writing and how being a doctor helped him gain a closer look at the Adivasis’ problems.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Your last book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance was banned by the Jharkhand government on grounds of being offensive and provocative. Do you think, in light of the recent incidents, the right to be offended has taken precedence over the right to offend?
Yes, I think that the right to be offended has taken precedence over the right to offend. After the controversy, I do think twice before writing anything but ultimately go with my instinct. But the fact that I do ponder over before writing is something that has happened only after the controversy. It has crippled me as an artist but at the same time I choose to be emboldened.
Your book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, through various narratives brings forth the various kinds of violence Adivasis are subjected to. The stories are personal and the experiences are private. What are the challenges you face as an author to make such a subject accessible to readers who are far removed from such experiences?
I do not feel any challenge because writing for me is a personal experience and I do not think of my readership while I am writing my stories. Whether my prospective readers know or do not know of the experiences I write about, that does not matter to me at all. Neither at the time when I am writing nor when I have finished writing or at any stage of the publishing of my written work or at any time whatsoever, that it matters. Anyone can read my writings.
The very usage of the word “will” in the title of your book exhibits defiance. Was this a deliberate attempt to subvert the hitherto accepted power dynamic? If yes, how effective do you think fiction is or can be in doing that?
Yes, showing that defiance was a deliberate attempt, as the story, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, is about defiance and asserting one’s rights. As for how effective fiction is or can be in subverting the hitherto accepted power dynamics, well, that is not for me to decide or determine. My work is to write a story that shows defiance. If that story has to subvert the hitherto accepted power dynamics, it certainly will.
In your stories you do not associate sex with love. Rather it is used in a very hard-hitting, disturbing way. In the Indian society, there has been a tradition of associating marriage with sex. This, however, is not the case with the Adivasis. Would you please comment on this discourse?
Absolutely. I will talk primarily about Santhals as I cannot speak for all Adivasis. We Santhals, I think, are comfortable with our bodies and the relationships we make. Sex before marriage is acceptable among the Santhals; Santhal men and women are known to have married one another after they have had a child from a relationship between them; a woman who is not married to a man but is in a relationship with him can reject that man if she believes that she cannot continue that relationship.
Relationship-wise, I think, Santhal women and men have freedom that most other communities do not have. This is one aspect that I have mentioned in my novel, The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey.
Who are the authors who have inspired you?
I aspire to write books like Sense and Sensibilty and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur, and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri; while writing The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, I looked up to The Color Purple by Alice Walker as an inspiration. And while I was in school, when I hadn’t really thought that I would write a book one day, that thought was certainly there somewhere in the back of my head, I was inspired by Tara Deshpande and Upamanyu Chatterjee as I knew them as an actor/VJ and an IFS officer, respectively, and that somehow made me feel that I could have a different, non-book-related primary profession and yet write a book.
Does being a doctor, professionally, help you perceive things in a better way?
Yes, being a government doctor helps me in the way I view things and the way I write about them. Whenever there is any accident or instances of sexual assault, the victim is always brought to the government hospital, and the doctors examine the injuries. We deal with such issues on a daily basis and therefore there is both empathy and a detachment. In my book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, there is a short story ‘Getting Even’, where a 10-year-old boy, who is yet to develop secondary sexual characteristics, is accused of raping a four-year-girl. The story does not reveal whether he actually did it or not, but these are the sort of instances we encounter everyday.
Shekhar spoke on January 25 on the topic — Interrogating the Margins. He was with Manoranjan Byapari in conversation with Arunava Sinha.
He also featured in the session ‘Banned in India’, where he spoke with Mridula Garg and Paro Anand and was in conversation with Salil Tripathi.
On January 26, he spoke in the session ‘Dreamers: Looking at Youth India’. He spoke with Akhil Katyal, Gaurav Solanki, Gurmehar Kaur, Prashant Jha and Prayaag Akbar.