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Notes of a native son Hansda S Shekhar

Notes of a native son Hansda S Shekhar

11 Aug 2017 No comment 38 hits

One of India's best young writers, and good friend of Goa, is fighting a cultural battle with significant implications for the rest of the country. On August 4, an irate crowd targeted the brilliant author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar in his home city of Pakur, in Jharkhand. Accusing him of being "the shaitan of Santhal society", they burned an effigy of the doctor (he works at a government health centre) and winner of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar Award. The purported offence is "pornographic writing" which "showed serious lack of sensitivity towards the tribal people of India." But what is really at stake is the question of who has the right to speak for or represent a culture.

Shekhar is a startling and unique talent. There is literally no one else like him. Just 34 years old, he writes in an engaging style from and about a cultural universe otherwise entirely absent from Indian letters — the tribal firmament in rapidly changing, contemporary India. It's never fair to burden limitlessly talented young writers with comparisons, but here it is impossible to ignore deeply resonant similitude with the African-American pioneer James Baldwin. Notably, that correlation was first highlighted in Goa, when Shekhar launched his book of short stories, 'The Adivasi Will Not Dance' at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival 2015, at the hands of eminent Konkani writer, Damodar Mauzo.

One of the best stories in that collection is being used to manufacture outrage against its author. 'November is the Month of Migrations' is stark and unforgettable, just three pages describing the season when "Santhal men, women and children walk down from their villages in the hills" to board trains to West Bengal, where "they will plant rice and other crops in farms owned by the zamindars".

Trailing along is Talamai Kisku, 20, who is beckoned by a railway police jawan. "Talamai debates if she should follow, and decides to. He is offering food, after all, and she is hungry." When he asks, "Will you do some work for me?" Talamai knows what work he is talking about. He uses her, saying "Saali, you Santhal women are made for this only." But "She just lies — passive, unthinking, unblinking — as cold as the paved ground...as still as an inert earthen bowl into which a dark cloud empties itself." Finally, the jawan "gives Talamai two pieces of cold bread pakora and a fifty-rupee note and walks away. She re-ties her saya and lungi, stuffs the note into her blouse, eats both the bread pakoras, and walks back to her group".

It is a masterly feat to condense and communicate such intense pathos and horror in a few unadorned lines. The scale of Shekhar's achievement is directly akin to all-time great Sadaat Hasan Manto, whose shorter-than-short stories remain the most searing evocations of Partition in 1947. 'November is the Month of Migrations' acutely recalls 'Khol Do (Open It)', where Manto writes about Sirajuddin, desperately searching for his abducted daughter, after a nightmare escape to Lahore. "A succession of images raced through his mind. Attack... fire... escape... railway station...night...Sakina." He finds her nigh-unconscious in a hospital. "The doctor looked at the prostrate body and felt for the pulse. Then he said to the old man, "Open It" [meaning the nearby window]. The young woman on the stretcher moved slightly. Her hands groped for the cord which kept her salwar tied around her waist. With painful slowness, she unfastened it, pulled the garment down and opened her thighs."

Shekhar's critics aren't bothered about the obvious literary merit of his work. They are incensed about other things. The author told me via e-mail, "This is tribal cultural politics. This is the politics of region, script, identity... a very layered and complicated issue. All I can say is those who hate my books without even reading them, will hate them no matter what." But this turf battle is markedly like what plays out in other parts of India, including Goa. Some Santhals support the tribal-created Ol-Chiki script, and maintain Sarna (their animist faith). But converts to Christianity back the Roman script. Shekhar thoroughly confounds those stereotypes.

But why shouldn't that be the case? Why should a few individuals determine what is suitably or insufficiently Santhal, or Goan, or Indian? In this regard, the recently departed poet and scholar Eunice de Souza complained, "My blood boils when I hear an Indian talking about "Indian culture". This is a primitive impulse, finding something coherent and limited and saying, "This is Indian culture", and everybody else is excluded." It should be noted she was a sincere admirer of 'The Adivasi will not Dance', calling it "a fine book of stories." This most discerning of critics wrote, "I'm not interested in the ethnicity of writers, just whether they have something to say that deepens one's understanding of the world. Shekhar does just that...'The Adivasi Will Not Dance' is a remarkable achievement."

The writer is a photographer and a widely published columnist. Views are personal


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Source: Notes of a native son Hansda S Shekhar

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