Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in English (2015), and joint winner of the Muse India-Satish Verma Young Writer Award 2015, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a writer and medical officer working with the government of Jharkhand. Known for his stories and articles on traditions and cultural roots of tribal India, Sowvendra Shekhar has also been shortlisted for the Hindu Prize 2014 and Crossword Book Award 2014, in the fiction category, and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2016.
He speaks to Guardian 20 about his life and how his background has influenced his writings.
Q. Which part of India do you come from?
A. I come from Jharkhand. My hometown is a place called Ghatsila, in the East Singbhum district of Jharkhand. Ghatsila is famous for its copper factory and mines, although I do not know exactly how many mines survive today. I grew up in Moubhandar, the part of Ghatsila where the copper factory is. Moubhandar has this lovely industrial township and that is where I lived for more than 30 years. I went to school in Mosaboni, the part of Ghatsila where the copper mines are. Now my family has shifted to Ghatsila —or “proper Ghatsila”, as many would call it–the headquarter of the entire Ghatsila area. Moubhandar and Ghatsila are five kilometres apart.
Q. When did you start writing?
A. I cannot really remember. May be when I was eight or nine years old. I would re-write fairy tales, like, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, in my own words, make my own illustrations, and staple the pages in the form of a book. But yes, I do remember when I was first published. I was first published in December 1998—I do not remember the date, but it was aMonday. I was 15 years old then, a student of standard 10th. I had published a short story in “The School Age” page of Asian Age newspaper. The short story was called “Joys and Sorrows of Childhood”, although its original title was “Amit Returns Home”. My protagonist was a boy called Amit.
Q. Your works The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey and The Adivasi Will Not Dance touch upon the lives of tribal people and their culture. Could you talk about this?
A. The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey is about the culture of the tribal people. The Santhal people, to be exact. And not in much details, but just a little bit—the social system, the religious faith, myths, songs etc.—to create a background. The stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance do not really talk about the culture of the tribal people. They talk about the tribal people as they are now, their situation now, the predicaments they face.The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey spanned five generations of a Santhal family, the time frame spans right from pre-Independence India to the age of mobile phones and DTH service. The stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance all have a contemporary setting.
Q. Why did you choose to name your book The Adivasi Will Not Dance?
A. I chose to name the story “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” as the name of the book comes from the name of this story. I chose to name my story “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” as an act of defiance. Adivasis are made to dance at government functions, are made to entertain VIP guests, but what do they get in return? Adivasis are among the major casualties of all the development programmes of the government, be it roads, dams, power plants, or any factory or industry for that matter. So what might happen if Adivasis refuse to dance at a government programme, which has been organised to lay the foundation stone of a thermal power plant which would, again, displace several Adivasis from their villages? So, once I had this idea, I turned it into a story, and since my editor and I had this feeling that this was the strongest story in the collection, we decided to name the collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. The title does not say that the Adivasis refuse to dance or sing altogether, because an Adivasi community cannot be imagined without music and dance. It says that Adivasis refuse to be forced into singing and dancing against their will.
“The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey is about the culture of the tribal people. The Santhal people, to be exact. And not in much details, but just a little bit—the social system, the religious faith, myths, songs etc.—to create a background. The stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance do not really talk about the culture of the tribal people. The Santhal people, to be exact.”
Q. How has your association with tribal culture influenced your work?
A. Of course, being a part of a tribal society has helped me greatly, especially in writing The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey. I can claim to have an insider’s view.
Q. Why is it that in contemporary India, tribal culture rarely gets the space it deserves in public discourse?
A. Well, not just tribal culture, even the places tribals belong to are not really known to many people in contemporary India. I remember, at an event, I was introduced as a tribal writer from Chhattisgarh. I wasn’t hurt or anything, but yes, the ignorance—Jharkhand being mistaken for Chhattisgarh and vice-versa—was somewhat rankling. I hope this changes.
Q. You are also a physician. How has that impacted your writing?
A. My answer to this will be almost the same as the answer to the question about my association with the tribal society. That I can claim to have an insider’s view while writing about–fiction, non-fiction etc.—about doctors or hospitals or illnesses. Also, being a doctor puts me in a lot of memorable situations, helps me meet a lot of people, grants me exclusive access to a number of places. A week ago, I published an essay about violence against doctors and medical professionals in India and the Medical Protection Act, which, I think, was received quite well.
Q. Do we have enough contemporary writers taking a real interest in, and engaging with, tribal culture ?
A. Yes, we have tribal writers writing about their lives and tribal issues. There is Easterine Kire from Nagaland and Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who write in English. Then there are tribal writers who are writing either in Hindi or their own mother tongues. Recently, I read some poems by Parimal Hansda from his collectionDhunwa Otang Ok Kana—literal meaning: ‘The Smoke Is Blowing Away’–which won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2016 in Santhali, and I found those poems to be very good. Then I read some very lovely poems in Santhali by Chinmayee Hansdah-Marandi.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
A. Yes. I am working on two novels that are forthcoming from Speaking Tiger. I am also working on a translation from Santhali to English. I am writing a paper. And I am also doing reviews of select books. So, my hands are quite full.
Q. Why did you choose to keep your surname as your first name? Was there any specific reason to do this?
A. This question would be best answered by my father. Actually, my father wanted to have an impressive name for me. So he gave me a long name and placed the surname at the beginning.