Seven years ago, warmly kept in the middle of an anthology of erotic stories, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar had his first piece of fiction published in a book. “Semen, Saliva, Sweat, Blood,” a story of solitude, young sex and pain, was crafted with intense erotic scenes and unapologetic declarations of mischief and frustration. His style, direct, simple and precise to describe actions and attitudes, is proof of a new voice in India and among his people, the Santal. More than painting, Hansda chose to let us know what a few young men were doing (many times under a blanket), by also creating something he would use more in the books to come: word sets that in a title or in a narration will transform together into an image.
The book in question, Alchemy: the Tranquebar book of erotic stories II, tells us little about Hansda Sowvendra Shekar. Notably, though, it announced his novel to come in 2013, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. One can only speculate the young writer was exercising his trade by then, after a few workshops and an entire childhood reading classical folktales from India and elsewhere. The task would not only be a question of technique, it would encompass his ability to write candidly (on life, on sex, on love) and about difficult, sensitive matters.
Hansda was most surely building a narrative craft comparable to a kaleidoscope, the colourful invention to watch patterns out of light and little pieces of reality. Seeing through this device, rotating it with our eye against it, the shapes formed inside will all be attractive but different with every turn. Interesting enough, these little pieces of reality inside the artifice would always be the same: tiny crystals, and little rocks, pieces of plastic … similarly, the writer would pick tiny pieces of life to craft his books, one by one, turn by turn.
Initial movement: a woman’s decline
A woman like Rupi Baskey can be found everywhere in Santal villages, well-built and smiling broadly. Capable of anything men can do and more, like painting the walls of her home with beautiful shapes every Sohrae Festival. Hansda then recurred to his people’s collective memories to put his protagonist in the middle of a marriage that goes sour in times and an episode of witchcraft. Whatever happens in The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, you can narrow it to a word, perhaps: endurance.
For Rupi Baskey was not a quiet female, made to her elders’ instructions or subjected to a man. She was pretty much a rebel in her village and in her husband’s eyes. No priest, no in-law would shut her up easily. Only a long undefined disease will weaken her demeanour. Hansda put then around her songs and festivals, work in the fields, maternity. Through her ailment and the struggles inside her husband’s home, Rupi wanders, as the author wants her, from one place to another suffering, anguished by uncertainty.
Witchcraft shows up here. In ‘common’ ways (with dark ceremonies and dreadful scenes, with a limping girl running like a sprinter) but also in a peculiar form that catches the attention of the reader: feminine vengeance, an old treat that operates against rivals and violent men. Hansda is not just narrating the life of a woman (and her village, and her people): he’s using everything that happens in the little hells of rural life to express love, sadness, frustration, envy and solidarity. The usual skeleton of daily life.
The turn of his kaleidoscope reveals how Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, leaning heavily once more on the actions of his characters, builds a book on today’s old traditions and new trends. Women take the lead and, at the same time, they bridge ancient and modern rites with their constant production of life and well being. Men in The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey are the darker points in this pattern, shadows of distinct shape, not much more. What defines this feminine book is the dynamics of a culture that cradled Hansda and how he remembers it in all its beauty and complexity.
A puzzle made of broken scenes
Two years later, a new turn came. In a fragmented pattern, Hansda’s kaleidoscope looks more like a puzzle this time. After winning some prestigious literary awards, including the Sahitya Academy for young writers, our author presented a collection of stories he had published, scattered here and there, along with new material to be read. His dedication, written in Santali (his mother tongue) leaves no room to doubt his respect and love for his people (the translation is ours):
Under the guidance of Marang-Buru and Jaher-Ayo
For our spiritual beings, our ancestors and our contemporaries
Claiming the direction of two major Santal spiritual beings and dedicating the result to all of his people is no minor thing for any artist in these times. Not a religious stand but a faithful one, refusing to be blind to the sometimes harsh reality and majestic strength of the Adivasis. Like in the story that gives title to the volume, “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”. Dignity and poverty draw the lines but no moral comes from it; Hansda writes what pierces his heart, explanations should be left to others.
Again, women, Santal women, poor dejected women take the lead sometimes. One example would be “merely a whore” or “desire, divination, death,” where a troubled widow hurries to meet the inevitable at home. No detailed narrations here, no overcrowded sentences. The direct compactness of Hansda’s style flows like a rivulet towards the lake, smashing in front of his readers, image after image. One more thing stands out in his writing: the use of words in different languages—Hindi and Santali—without a full translation, leaving the readers to understand what they read (most of the time they would, the images are pristine).
“November is the month of migrations”, a story where a poor Santal girl has sex with a railways guard for money, was the epicentre of a scandal in which his effigy was burned and some even asked for the book to be banned and pulped. Nevertheless, Hansda came out of it with a new lease of life, resilient: there is no diminishing portrait of the girl, just an honest look at things that sadly happen to poor Adivasis every day. His detractors, ironically, can now consider themselves co-authors of a single line in the new book (printed on the cover): “Bestselling author of The Adivasi Will Not Dance”.
Authenticity was never a problem with this book. Sexism was just a pretext. So maybe Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s appalling view of life, a disappointed one, sparked the accusations. His writing kaleidoscope is not a happiness machine. Anyway, like Bohumil Hrabal stated in his 1976 novel Too Loud a Solitude, “inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself”.
Men of his life
Comes the last turn of the light artifice—My Father’s Garden—this year. A book with no anecdotal center: no precise chronological narrative here, just a good walk around love and adult life for a Santal gay doctor. Nothing less, nothing more. And that is in itself one shifting point in Adivasi literature: while still rooted in the culture of his ancestors, Hansda is clearly engaging with the present life of this country where medieval prejudices live alongside technological advances and colonial laws. Something no reader should forget: this is a book coming out of new patterns and after the much overdue scrapping of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized the ‘other’.
Using the erotic story that was published seven years ago, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar crafts the first, and sexualised part of this novel. A man in love with men, seducing them, taking care of them and loving them. Again, the carefully crafted sentences: direct and simple, focusing what the characters would do and why they would do them. Nothing weak here, nothing abnormal, just young men in love and shaping their personalities.
After the sex rush the tone paces down in ‘Friend’, the second section of My Father’s Garden. The narration runs slowly and the narrator, the doctor, takes us along to his routines and new places. This enables his reflections on the social landscape of Pakur (way into the Santal Parganas districts in Jharkhand). Alone and blue about his lover, the doctor takes the time to describe life in the margins.
Finally, in a twist of tenderness in the kaleidoscope, Hansda takes us not just to a village and a home life (meals, a garden, politics and yet, again, sadness). He carefully describes the revered grove in any Santal village—the Jaher Than, “the most sacred centre of our faith”—where life and spirits can reside, along birds and trees. But this is not an anthropological wander, the writer is actually using what Michel Foucault termed as ‘technologies of the self’ to make his narrator a more complex character, structuring everything a Santal gay doctor can be and has the right to be. His male lineage, with no disregard of women, is placed here not just as a recitation of importance but transcendence; merely to show love and respect, like any other man would do.
By casually weaving one man’s affections—for his men—Hansda is placing his narrative somewhere beyond sex and gender, probing these are just a part of life, anyone’s life (Foucault comes to mind again). He debunks elegantly the worst myth about gender and sex: homosexual persons are not different, sick, dangerous people … not more than the rest of us. And therefore his books are literature and as such should be taken first and foremost. Good literature, by the way.
The protagonist of the novel hails from his father’s garden, firmly rooted in the past and present in his own personal way, his own masculinity. Then consequently, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is rooting the future with his work. No future will deny him a place in the society to come.
(Luis A. Gómez is a Mexican journalist based in Kolkata, and volunteers for adivaani)