If you don't like a book, shut it, or argue with it. Hansda Souwendra Shekhar's critics chose to burn his effigy and copies of the book, revealing only their intolerance
In 2015, Hansda Souwendra Shekhar published a collection of short stories, called The Adivasi Will Not Dance. The stories received wide acclaim. Indian fiction in English is often obsessed with middle-class and urban concerns; here were stories revealing an under-explored region. The book won the Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Puraskar that year, and the following year it was short-listed for the Hindu Literary Prize.
The stories have received wide praise for their sensitive portrayal of rural Jharkhand, in particular the Santhal community to which Shekhar belongs. Shekhar is a government doctor, working in the small-town India that rarely gets written about in English media or in fiction, unless something catastrophic occurs there.
Around that time, a campaign began against the book and the writer, initially on social media. Shekhar was called obscene and worse, and criticized for portraying the Santhals in a poor light, causing offence to the community. The campaign gained momentum in recent weeks, reaching a crescendo in early August, with articles in local newspapers. A petition was launched on the internet calling upon the Sahitya Akademi to withdraw the award he was given in 2015. Some activists organized a demonstration in Pakur, where Shekhar lives, and burnt copies of his book and his effigy. Other Santhal writers issued a statement defending Shekhar. But the government acted as governments have done—the hospital where Shekhar works promptly issued a show-cause notice to him, and the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Jharkhand government banned the book.
India has been through this before. Instead of protecting the writer’s right to express his or her thoughts freely, the state sides with those claiming offence and bans the literary work. This curbs imagination, narrows public discourse, and prevents the free exchange of ideas and interpretation. The few who claim to have been offended by a writer’s interpretation succeed in imposing their view on others. Their campaign misinterprets the writer, vilifies him, describing him as a purveyor of obscenity.
The universe Shekhar presents is quite different from the way his detractors have described his writing. Far from being obscene, his writing is sensuous; far from being exploitative, it is compassionate; far from being voyeuristic, it is realistic; and far from being derogatory, it is humane. There is sex in the writing, but it does not titillate; there is emotion, but it is not mawkish.
The stories offer a glimpse of an India in transition, where its diverse communities attempt to figure out how the other lives and make adjustments in lives at a time of rapid social, cultural, and economic transition. It is prescient about what is becoming of India, and the stories are witness to the transformation that uproots lives pitilessly. Meat-eating outsiders struggling to settle in a vegetarian Vadodara; Adivasi boys learning the way the “sophisticated" world operates; a woman compelled to trade her body for food; the matter-of-fact trafficking of tribal women; the desperation to which women are driven; a woman trying to establish her identity, and branded as a witch; the hapless life of a sex worker; and the desperate defiance of a musician, disheartened by his community’s dispossession and betrayals, who refuses to perform before the president of India.
These stories are not meant to offer comfort or entertain. They present reality as Shekhar sees it. It is fiction, but drawn from the reality Shekhar encounters daily. Shekhar’s stories focus on the vulnerable and the marginalized, and show how perplexed they are in the wider world, where they possess little and get less. He is not the first to tell such stories—how urban India sees tribal India as exotic is a story told before. In the case of the Santhals, in Satyajit Ray’s powerful film Aranyer Din Ratri (Days And Nights In A Forest); in the case of a poor woman exchanging sexual favours for food, in Ray’s Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder).
To be sure, merely because a book has won an award does not mean readers have to like it. Readers can avoid the book, express their disapproval by writing about it or telling other people, and writers aggrieved about an unfair portrayal of their community can write their own stories to offer their interpretation. If you don’t like a book, shut it, or argue with it, as Salman Rushdie, himself no stranger to controversies, once said.
But Shekhar’s critics chose to burn his effigy and copies of the book, revealing only their intolerance. In this, they were not in any way different from the fundamentalists who succeeded in getting the Indian government to ban the import of The Satanic Verses in the 1980s, or the caste groups which got a district official to force Perumal Murugan to stop writing. It took a legal battle and an enlightened judgment from the Madras high court to get Murugan to write again.
The ban on The Adivasi Will Not Dance only applies to Jharkhand, and his book is available elsewhere in India, as well as through online book stores. If a court challenge against the ban in Jharkhand is attempted, it may even succeed. But the malaise runs deeper. Should a society let courts be the arbiter of what can and cannot be read? Should politicians or judges be deciding the stories we can tell? Should mobs that burn effigies decide what a writer is allowed to imagine? If that happens, the singer will not sing, the writer will not write, and the Adivasi will not dance.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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