Faith in the local
Award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes of a world invisible to English India
In line with the kind of person he is—and the aesthetic that now defines his work—I first discovered Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s work-in-progress on Facebook. Still without a face on his Facebook profile, he came across as exceedingly polite and exceedingly curious about films and literature. I didn’t really interact with him until the day he left a slight hint about working on something about writing on a common friend’s post. Enthusiasm for new—particularly first-time—writers being my default mode, I left a question below his comment: “Are you working on a novel?”
An immediate and detailed response followed. He was working on a novel about his people, he said. Facebook does not allow italicization, but I could read the “his” as thus. His enthusiasm was infectious, and soon, his daily writing word count, the staple of much method writing today, had given way to infectious narratives about his family. He acquainted me with all of them, his industrious parents and his youngest aunt, the axis of his family. I discovered recipes, both from the family archive as well as the land, Jharkhand, that supplied its ingredients. It was only after a few months that I realized Shekhar had not sent me any photographs—his felicity of description had helped me imagine a house, its inhabitants, the neighbourhood, the father’s colleagues, the trade union leaders, and his aunt, for whom he inevitably reserved his most affectionate and grateful words.
I often could not respond to the earliest drafts of the chapters that he sent me. He allowed me that space, never asking for feedback if I did not offer any. Months grew to a year—my nephew was born, and so was Shekhar’s novel. I mention the two together because there is a link. My nephew, then an infant, fell ill; my brother and his wife were stationed in an inaccessible hill town. As new parents, they were worried. Shekhar turned out to be the long-distance medical doctor, prescribing probiotics and other things. I mention this for a reason—until then, I hadn’t quite read his drafts with the consciousness of his being a medical doctor.
This begs the rather simplistic question: Is there any characteristic in his aesthetic that marks his profession?
Let me explain. Last autumn, when two of my friends and I founded the Web journal Antiserious, we wanted to create a visual archive of contemporary India, one that had nothing to do with grand narratives of nation and allied tropes. We were looking to create an album of everyday life, with a strong emphasis on the random and the quixotic.
I had begun to notice that Shekhar’s new posting as a government doctor in Bihar’s Pakur had opened his eyes to visual texts and text-oriented visuals in a way that hadn’t existed when he was working closer home in Ghatsila. My request to him has yielded a rich reservoir—the first of these was a mobile phone shop named after singer Honey Singh. Shekhar’s hilarious essay, “Where Is The Babu?”, that bureaucratic word standing for the penis in colloquial, came from his experience as a medical doctor too.
All this is a good prelude to ask what his writing means to Indian Writing in English. Here too, I must make use of an anecdote. Just before his debut novel, The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey, which won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar this year, was to go to press, a short story by Shekhar was accepted for the Northeast Review, a magazine of arts and culture that I run with two friends. We received a sweet mail from him: Was it possible to carry his short story in the coming issue and not two issues later? The reason charmed us immediately: He wanted to write that his story had been published in the Northeast Review, in his author bio.
In no contemporary writer have I seen the personal so truly reflect the political as I have in Shekhar. That bio of his novel and the list of acknowledgements of where some of the stories of his most recent collection, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, have been published is a great example of the turn in English India. All the magazines and journals that he mentions are based in India. A closet analyst of writer bios and pages of acknowledgements, I have noticed the triumphant declaration of the publication of stories or book excerpts in UK or US-based journals. Shekhar, though, had shown faith in the local. Moral lesson or not, Nissim Ezekiel’s anthem-like line comes to me when I think of Shekhar’s success as a writer and his acceptance by a reading public: Home is where we have to gather grace.
This has no relation to the arrogance of ungrammatical prose and the uninspired plots of commercial novels that are coming out of English India. His novel reveals his intimacy with the world he describes, about communities in Jharkhand where superstition, myth, colloquial history and colliding civilizations are opened inside out for us to see: Why did Rupi get the mysterious ailment and what does it mean to suffer from it? What is this mysterious ailment? That word needs to be italicized in our mainstream understanding of the world of this novel.
In the short stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance too, we find ourselves neighbour to a consciousness that refuses to privilege any kind of living over the other. There is no local patriotism to fuel anger; what we find is a surplus of understanding that comes from a kind insider-outsider.
Talking about the title story, for instance, Shekhar said in an interview, “I wrote that in 2013, after the foundation stone was laid for a thermal power project in Jharkhand. I thought: thermal power projects located in other states take their coal from Jharkhand; hydroelectric power projects have their dams in Jharkhand; but people in Jharkhand do not have electricity. I find this tremendously unfair.” Yet what gives the story its timbre is not righteous anger but the politics of being something like grass, whose existence lies in being stamped on, of the pain of indifference and the hurt of invisibility.
In the photographs he sent from Bihar and Jharkhand for Antiserious, in his conscious decision to send faithful reports of a world that has remained essentially invisible to English India, I can see the same impulse at work. His social media photo reportage from the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, for instance, honest and simplistic as it was, elicited self-conscious laughter from the urban reader: How does one use this shower? he asked in a photo post, compelling the reader to recall the obverse of such a situation in Jharkhand. This ambidextrous nature—his indifference to people’s opinion about his idiosyncrasies and his textbookish politeness to everyone—is part of his appeal, both as a person and as a writer.
Once, when I, in the assumed avatar of an elder sister, scolded him for his obsessive interest in photographs of people who are considered “intellectual celebrities” on social media, he gave me an answer I will never forget: “I don’t want to be ignorant about who they are when I eventually meet them.” And so I was glad when one of my students asked me, a few days ago, about who the writer in the pink scarf on Facebook was.
Sumana Roy is a writer and critic based in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.
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