It has been the busiest novel of our times. From the moment of its publication Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar's THE ADIVASI WILL NOT DANCE was fighting an unreasonable ban imposed on it by the Jharkhand Government, excavating voices long buried deep under the political tantrums and tickling readers to dance until they stop being 'dunces'. Sudip Bhattacharyya explores why this book has sent ripples across the nation.
“Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right and you can blow a kneecap off the world.”
I am not sure if Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar has ever come across Warren Ellis’ masterwork, the dysfunctional and direct gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem. However, this quote came up instantly in my head as I read through his slim and unassuming volume, The Adivasi Will Not Dance. After reading through it, I honestly believe we have our own Indian Spider Jerusalem because Hansda too has a loaded gun, and his stories are his bullets. I went from one story to another searching for a resolution, encountering a relentless tone and I resolved to plough through one after another despondent character’s depressing tale. That does not mean that this author is sacrificing art for politics – so many writers can be accused of that these days. He is masterful, may be a bit raw and he never dawdles in a narrative. His stories are tight, packed with dark humor and pathos and extensively engaging.
I think like many people I first heard about this book when it gained some notoriety in Jharkhand. It didn’t interest the media outlets that much as say, the unfortunate death of an actress in a bathtub, but it did gain some traction. The Jharkhand government promptly banned the book on grounds of the text hurting Santhal values and depreciating Santhal women in a pornographic manner. The author was suspended from his work and it was only after a lot of deliberations and court orders that his book and his profession (medical officer for the Government of Jharkhand), were redeemed.
Perhaps the New India cannot sustain the idea of the society which survives in the “outskirts”. We have enjoyed our books of upper-middle class Indians with their shenanigans, their love stories, their campus literature. I won’t name any of the mediocre, yet wildly popular writers, but if you are familiar with the trends in Indian writing you know them already. I don’t think that is bad at all – I think it’s bad that these voices have drowned out the voices of the tribal, the religious minorities, the ones outside the limits of urban society. And here is a young man re-claiming that space. But how does Hansda reclaim that space?
Simply by not sugarcoating his stories. He uses none of the literary tropes, he never mellows down. He keeps some indigenous lines, some real dialogues with his characters but provides no glossary. It can be simply jarring if you are unprepared, but you learn to come to appreciate it. His shortest story, November Is the Month of Migrations, which is at the heart of controversy, runs for only four pages – barely four pages, but by the time it is over I felt like someone had clenched my gut, hard. A Santhal woman travelling with a group to West Bengal and prostituting herself for a bit of food… what struck me was how nonchalantly he tells his story, how nonchalantly his characters behave. There is no trauma. It is routine.
I remembered a few lines from W.H. Auden’s poem, The Shield of Achilles:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
Auden brings out the banalities of war in such a stark light, it is almost uncomfortable, appreciating his art. Truly, people who do not understand Auden will not understand our writer from Jharkhand. They will simply claim: the stories are pornographic (as the officials of Jharkhand Government claimed). I am sure that is the case with many of Hansda’s critics, especially those who willfully misinterpreted it. Indeed, it had been a long time since I had read something so direct and so gut-wrenching; the closest parallel I could draw near home, was with a remarkable man who had left India in 1948, never to return.
Saadat Hasan Manto.
Manto’s works contain a seething anger, the rage of an eloquent alcoholic, the distaste of a man who had seen the depravity of his countrymen. His stories sometimes did not even have to span pages- he could kill you with a few lines. He called them ‘Sketches’.
The two friends finally picked out a girl from the dozen or so they had been shown. She cost forty-two rupees […] After spending the night with her, one of them asked her, ‘What is your name?’
When she told him, he was taken aback. ‘But we were told you were the other religion.’
‘They lied,’ she replied.
‘The bastards cheated us! […] ‘selling us a girl from our own faith. Let’s go and return her!’
Where Manto butchers, Hansda redeems with dry humor. He never goes full dark, and there is still hope in some of his narratives. In the first story, They Eat Meat! a whole community comes together to protect Muslim residents during the Gujarat riots. In Blue Baby the stillbirth of a child, believe it or not, means the opportunity for redemption. In Eating with The Enemy, a woman and her husband’s mistress build up their friendship over years. In Basho-jhi, an old widow is identified as dahni, a witch and is discarded by his own sons as well as the villagers.
The titular story is perhaps the most powerful, and I had to read it over and over again to just find a sense of completion. It is wisely placed at the end of the book, and it is one of the rare stories in the book with a direct, first person voice:
They pinned me to the ground. They did not let me speak, they did not let me protest, they did not even let me raise my head and look at my fellow musicians and dancers as they were being beaten up by the police.
The story begins with a bullet, and it never relents. Mangal Murmu, the protagonist, laments about the loss of his way of life but also expresses the anger that is due to him. He is part of a dancing troupe, and the bigwigs from the Government want to have a show of tokenism. He goes on to say how his farmland has been stolen by corporations and how his “new” profession is stealing coal from trucks which drop them along the road:
‘We are like toys—someone presses our “ON” button, or turns a key in our backsides, and we Santhals start beating rhythms on our tamak and tumdak, or blowing tunes on our tiriyo while someone snatches away our very dancing grounds. Tell me, am I wrong?’
It is shameful, it is riveting.
It makes me angry.
While I was reading this book, I talked with my mother about Hansda and his stories and I was surprised when she talked about something that happened during her childhood. My grandfather, who was supposedly formidable in his youth as a government official, turned out to be quite shrewd too. She told me that whenever there was any work that needed to be done in and around the house, like cleaning the weeds in the yard, repairing walls, picking fruits, my grandfather would go straight to the railway station and wait for tribals coming in from Jharkhand. They would work more for less money. A simple math problem. Right?
I also recently visited the Andamans, famous for their adivasi communities. When we travelled through the lands of the Jarowa, one of the most prominent tribes around the area, the atmosphere in the car was that of tense anticipation. It was as if we were waiting to spot a wild animal, an exotic creature. Even in the remote spots of Bankura and Purulia of our state, tourists behave in a similar fashion observing their lifestyle. I am ashamed to say that is what the ‘adivasi’ and their culture mean to most.
Why should the Adivasi dance? What is there to dance about? His lands have been stolen, his living has been privatized, his livelihood is penury. No one should talk about tribal culture if they have no idea how to sustain tribal livelihood. They are an integral part of the identity of India. I support their cause. I support Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, and how he uses his pen to carve a straight path to our ears.
Hansda is no nihilist, and the depression in his stories are real, yet never oppressive. He has gathered his stories from 2002 to 2015, for thirteen years he has been finding to give vent to these narratives. Quite obviously these stories accumulated such strength of voice, such practicality of real life over the period that each word has become as powerful as a bullet. The author has the ability to share his bullet, but sometimes he chooses the kneecap, and sometimes the heart.
TITLE ART : Prapti Roy
Next post on 21st April