In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Khattamshud, the enemy of imagination and the ruler of the Land of Chup, tells us what he knows about stifling stories. “To ruin a happy story, you must make it sad. To ruin an action drama, you must make it move too slowly. To ruin a mystery, you must make the criminal’s identity obvious even to the most stupid audience. To ruin a love story, you must turn it into a tale of hate,” he says. In today’s India, where pockets of Chup proliferate everywhere, we could add one more ingredient: To ruin a story, you must turn it into a matter of honour.
The honour of Gounder women was invoked in a campaign against Perumal Murugan’s novel, Mathorubhagan, in Namakkal two years ago. Just recently, the Jharkhand government has banned Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of stories published in 2015, on the charge that it dishonours Santhal women. In doing so, the government legitimised an old and vicious online campaign by a section of people in Jharkhand — both tribal and non-tribal — which railed at Shekhar for writing “porn”. The Santhal writer, who is also accused of misrepresenting his own indigenous people, has also been suspended from his job as a government doctor in Pakur.
The wise men and women who sit in angry judgement over books have not been known to read before reaching for the gun. Still, it might surprise you to know that the story for which Shekhar was pilloried on Facebook — “Semen, Saliva, Sweat, Blood” — was written for a 2012 anthology of erotic stories. It is not even a part of the book that has been banned. It might surprise you further to know that six of the 10 stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance feature women protagonists, some of them unforgettable characters.
One of the most striking works of Indian fiction in English in recent times, The Adivasi Will Not Dance is not an anthropological study of dancing noble savages. Shekhar would rather tell the story of the inhabitants of a mineral-rich land, left powerless by state and big capital. His characters are flesh-and-blood people, following their desires and compulsions against the indifference of a coal-blackened landscape.
The Adivasi does not lust, his critics seem to suggest in their prim horror at the sex in his writing. Nor does the Adivasi woman make difficult choices, involving her body and survival, it would seem from the cries of dishonour that rang in the state assembly over a three-page story. “November is the Month of Migrations” is inspired by the annual journey of many Santhals in search of work to the paddy fields of Bardhaman in nearby Bengal. Its unsentimental account of the choice one such migrant makes — sex for money and food — is as much a story as a punch in the solar plexus.
Shekhar’s women lust and hunger, sometimes with terrible consequences for themselves. Life throws everything at them: Illness and starvation, leering men and allegations of witchcraft. But they survive, as rice-mill workers and prostitutes, as unpaid maids and battered mothers.
The year-round celebration of literature and writers might make you think otherwise, but the backlash against Shekhar and Murugan underlines the essential loneliness of the writer, especially she who lives away from metropolitan literary salons and networks. When I spoke briefly to Shekhar, on the day his effigy was burnt in Pakur and before the government swung into action, he had just returned from treating patients with dengue hemorrhagic fever in Sangrampur village, 5 km away. “I am not afraid, and I cannot afford to be afraid,” he had said.
As a proponent of the Ol-Chiki script, Shekhar, a follower of the Sarna religion, suggested he might have angered that section of Santhals who write their language in the Roman script, the legacy of a Norwegian Christian missionary. The BJP state government, headed by a non-tribal chief minister, aims to champion the Adivasi cause by endorsing the witch-hunt against Shekhar. It is, at the same time, ramming through an anti-conversion bill that is being bitterly opposed by Christian groups in the region. In this electoral calculus, the rights of a lone writer are easy to discard.
What happens when a community turns against the writer who speaks for and about them? That abandonment is a special wrench when it comes to writers like Shekhar, who are nourished by the deep roots they have struck in their land. And yet, the writer owes his community nothing but the truth, as perceived by his imagination.
The campaign against Shekhar, which sprouted and took on an ugly, beastly life on Facebook, also shows how easily technology now allows the state and the community to intrude into what was once a relationship between writer and reader. All someone has to do is post a screenshot of a page that “offends him” to rally the mob in a mission of hate. In a more autarkic time, it was possible to retreat into the space opened up by a writer’s imagination, without having to deal with the hectoring voice of the community. Reading, too, was an act of solitary renewal.
Last year, when P. Murugan resurrected the writer Perumal Murugan after a Madras High Court order dismissing a ban on his book, he spoke of the censor that now sits within, testing every word he creates. But he also spoke of the silence and solitude that he hoped would eventually replenish the wellspring of his fiction. “Please do not ask me to speak. Let me be quiet. And write. I shall speak to you through my written words.”
The question remains: Will Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar be allowed to find a way out of his silence?