'Those accusing me of objectifying women were all bullying women'

Persecuted Santhal writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar tells Prasun Chaudhuri that disapproval does not deter him

By Prasun Chaudhuri
  • Published 1.04.18
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It's a Sunday morning and we are in the eastern parts of Calcutta. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is in the city to attend the People's Literary Festival organised by the NGO, Bastar Solidarity Network, and described as a congregation of "critical and resistant voices". This is not the Jaipur Literary Festival. No celebs, no palaver, no champagne nor cheese. The auditorium, Sukanta Mancha, is poorly lit and stuffy. There are some ancient pedestal fans but instead of whirring relief they are merely making a lot of noise. That apart, there are 500 green and red plastic chairs and one stark stage.

What the place does not seem to be wanting in is energy. Sowvendra agrees. In recent years he has attended enough literary festivals. "Unlike the more famous lit fests, this one eschews big sponsors."

The organisers are mostly university students and academics who have been protesting "state-sponsored terror against Adivasis" in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Today being Ram Navami, they are shouting slogans against "religious fundamentalism" and "majoritarian nationalism". Even the posters on the walls are gritty.

One of them shows the dismembered torso of a tribal woman on a bloody plate. Her eyes are unseeing, her arms missing, only her swollen breasts jut out imperiously, proud even in death. Behind her is a blue sky with white clouds and tri-coloured balloons and these words - Pledge allegiance to the flag/ And when you cannot/ Each thread will cut through... To teach you, your kind was not meant/ For this country.

Sowvendra is patiently waiting for his turn to speak in a panel discussion titled "Writing the Unwriteable: The Politics of Talking Dirty". He has come from Ghatshila in Jharkhand. Thus far, he has written two books, a novel - The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey - and a collection of short stories, titled The Adivasi Will Not Dance.

It is Day 2 of the fest. Many of the chairs are unoccupied as a large section of the audience is stuck on the roads blocked by multiple Ram Navami processions. In time, Sowvendra takes the podium and after a brief introduction starts to read the short story, November is the Month of Migrations. It is about a Santhal Christian woman, Talamai, who migrates to West Bengal during the paddy harvest season. She stoically agrees to have sex with a policeman at a railway station in exchange for Rs 50 and two cold bread pakodas. "She knows the routine... She knows: everything is done by the man... In less than ten minutes, the work is done," he reads sans inflections.

This book from which he is reading nearly cost him his job. No sooner was it published than he was accused of portraying Adivasis in poor light, denigrating Santhal women. The protesters, many of them Santhal academics and writers, harassed him in forums - online and offline, alike. His effigy was burnt and so also copies of his book, the now famous, or infamous, The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Eventually, the Jharkhand government banned the book and he was suspended from his government job - he is a doctor at a health centre in Pakur in northeastern Jharkhand.

After his session, sipping tea at a roadside stall, Sowvendra tells me what happened with The Adivasi.

The collection met with critical acclaim in many a quarter and was even translated into a number of Indian languages. But a section of Santhal intellectuals was not happy.

What followed was a virulent social media campaign accusing Sowvendra of indulging in pornography. And when some women came forward in his support, they were not spared either. "The irony is, the same people, who were accusing me of objectifying women in my stories and were calling for a ban on my book, were bullying women on social media," he says. Elsewhere, he has commented on camera that politicians who objected the most had the worst case histories of crime against women.

Sowvendra's works are replete with keen observations on Santhal life, still at the crossroads of urban civilisation. Their obscure villages, the hinterlands rich with minerals, squalid towns and deserted habitations from his tales have a universal appeal.

"Every story is scoured out of real life," Sowvendra says. The Mysterious Ailment was inspired by Kishoripur, his ancestral village - a few kilometres from Jharkhand's border with West Bengal - where his umbilical cord is buried. The Sahitya Akademi citation for the Yuva Puraskar he was awarded acknowledges this umbilical connection. It reads: "Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is a novel about Santhal life written from the perspective of an insider."

Insider, but a privileged one, or so I gather once he starts to talk about his childhood and growing up years. It explains the quality of anger expressed in his work.

"I grew up in the copper town of Ghatshila. The factory is in a place called Moubhandar near the Subarnarekha river," he says. His father used to work in the government copper company. His mother was a doctor.

He went to school at Musaboni, 50 kilometres from Jamshedpur, deep inside the wooded hills by the copper mines. "It was run by nuns who escaped from Burma [now Myanmar]," he adds.

Both of Sowvendra's published works are dedicated to Baba-Bo-Biti, meaning Father-Mother-Aunt in Santhali. And while he writes in English, he speaks in mellifluous English mixed with Hindi and Bengali. "When I write I think in all these languages but the words are framed in English. I profusely use phrases from different languages instead of translating the unique expression of a particular language," says our man of impeccable manners.

Soft-spoken he might be, but he is no pushover. When a fellow writer from Jharkhand, present among the audience, suggests his writings could be toned down in Hindi or Bhojpuri, he is aghast and says outright - "Why should the truth be whitewashed?"

The steel shines through his portraitures as well. In the eponymous short story, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, the protagonist, 60-year-old troupe master Mangal Murmu, refuses to perform at the foundation-laying ceremony of a steel plant. The land on which it has been built used to belong to the Adivasis. At the inauguration attended by the President of India, Murmu tells all: "We have nowhere to go, nowhere to grow our crops. How can this power plant be good for us? And how can we Adivasis dance and be happy? Unless we are given back our homes and land, we will not sing and dance."

When I ask Sowvendra to sign a copy of the book with a message in Ol Chiki, the script approved by the Government of India to write Santhali, he signs off " johar", a salutation. He's been one of the advocates of Ol Chiki, while many others push for Santhali in Roman, Devanagari and Bangla scripts. "It will give Santhals and their language a distinct identity," he says.

At this point we are interrupted by a bunch of students who want to say hello to Sowvendra. They seem to know his stories by heart and are quoting him back to him. "My apologies for my bad handwriting," he says as he autographs copy after copy of his books.

A teacher from a remote Adivasi village expresses relief that the ban on Sowvendra's book has been lifted. What about his suspension, he asks. Sowvendra replies, "I told the investigators, a government servant does not need to take permission to write a work of fiction." He hopes he can return to work soon.

He is impatient to return to the rural health centre at Pakur, where he has to man the outpatient department. He also visits villages for immunisation."I get a lot of inspiration while at work," says Sowvendra. In the meantime, he has written two novels and some short stories.

His next book, another collection of stories, My Father's Garden, is slated for release soon.