The Adivasi Will Not Dance
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Price: Rs 399
Last week, when Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s maiden collection of short stories The Adivasi Will Not Dance was released, India was reeling under a fresh political uproar: the public debate between beef-eaters and cow-protectors was at its zenith. Dadri, a lesser known village close to Delhi was suddenly brought into the limelight. The debate was all about the food habits of Indians in different parts of the country.
Incidentally, They Eat Meat!, the very first story in The Adivasi Will Not Dance, has dexterously dealt with the tensions that arise because of differing food habits. Similar questions are posed by other stories like November Is the Month of Migrations and Eating with the Enemy. In They Eat Meat!, the protagonist Panmuni-jhi, who is used to eating fish, meat and eggs, is placed in an unenviable position after her husband gets transferred from Bhubaneswar to Vadodara. After leaving Bhubaneswar, she feels stifled because of the strict vegetarian rules in Vadodara.
In November Is the Month of Migrations, Talamai gives away her body to a Railway Protection Force jawaan for food. In Eating with the Enemy, Sulochana forgives the enemy that made sexual advances towards Mathabhangi, her adolescent daughter. She shares a meal with her enemy to bring about a truce. Given the ground realities of the country, it is unsurprising that in these three stories, it is women who are left, right and centre in the “food wars”. Food has been connected with socio-political tension, mitigation of age-old rancour and sexual exploitation in the above stories. Here’s a line from each tale, each the tip of an iceberg.
“Can you assure us that you won’t cook any non-veg in my kitchen? No meat-mutton-egg-chicken-fish. Nothing.” (Mr Rao, the landlord asks to Biram-kumang in They Eat Meat!)
“‘Let’s celebrate,’ Babu proposed. They went to the market and bought mutton, a full bottle of Bagpiper whisky, and chilled soda (Babu, Mohini and Sulochana before drinking together to bury the hatchet in Eating with the Enemy.)
“Then he 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 fifty-rupee note into her blouse, eats both the bread pakoras, and walks back to her group. (Situation after Talamai sleeps with a jawaan of the Railway Protection Force in November Is the Month of Migrations.)
Hansda is perhaps the first novelist in the canon of Indian English fiction who hails from a tribal community. And although he has written in an “alien” language, one can hear and taste and smell the lives of the Santhals through his intense writing. At the same time, it would be an injustice to confine Hansda’s work as merely “tribal” literature.
In the titular story, Hansda has vividly portrayed the socio-economic life of the Santhals, the tribe to which he belongs. But unlike so many other writers, he has maintained an arm’s length distance; he has refrained from archaic, sensual descriptions of Santhal clothing or hairstyles (he is similar to Romesh Gunesekera in this aspect).
Writing on tribal life is not a new phenomenon for Indian vernacular languages. Gopinath Mohanty is a Jnanpith-winning Odia novelist who has written major novels that depict tribal life, like Paraja and Dadibudha. The legendary Bangla author Mahasweta Devi is a household name whose novels on tribal life and society have enthralled generations of readers.
But both of these writers are outsiders to the tribal community. Hansda is perhaps the first novelist in the canon of Indian English fiction who hails from a tribal community. And although he has written in an “alien” language, one can hear and taste and smell the lives of the Santhals through his intense writing. At the same time, it would be an injustice to confine Hansda’s work as merely “tribal” literature. There is a universal nature to his fiction that is hard to miss.
In short, Hansda has been successful in transporting his own culture without imposing the same upon his readers. In each page, readers stumble upon tribal diction, words used by the Santhals in everyday conversation. But even without knowing the exact shade of meaning of the word (and without a glossary), the reader can easily make out its broad implication, so that the flow of his story is not disturbed.
Each of these 10 stories is unique in its content and treatment. In Sons, we learn about the upbringing of the sons of two sisters. One son is brought up in a house of privilege but ends up as a robber, while the other sister’s son endures childhood hardships and becomes a doctor. Another notable feature is the way the author has handled sex scenes; these are intimately done, but with a dollop of chutzpah. Here is a passage from November Is the Month of Migrations:
“The policeman grabs her buttocks, raises them and, adjusting Talamai, penetrates her. Then he starts pumping, grunting as he heaves himself into her. Talamai lies quietly, observing the changing contours of the policeman’s face in the dim light. At times, the policeman grimaces. At times, he smiles. Once, he says, ‘Saali, you Santhal women are made for this only. You are good!’ Talamai says nothing, does nothing.”
Before wrapping up, the reviewer must confess his delight at the fact that Hansda named this anthology after a story that first appeared in The Dhauli Review, an e-journal edited by yours truly.
Hansda’s previous book was his debut, a novel called The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. It was critically acclaimed and bagged the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, in addition to being shortlisted for a bunch of other awards. With this book under his belt, he is now well on his way to becoming India’s answer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Manu Dash is a writer, translator, publisher and editor. He has recently edited an anthology called Wings Over The Mahanadi: Eight Odia-English Poets (Poetrywala, Mumbai).