Book title: The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Author: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Published by: Speaking Tiger
Genre: Fiction: Short Story Collection
In this collection of stories, set in the fecund, mineral-rich hinterland and the ever-expanding, squalid towns of Jharkhand, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar breathes life into a set of characters who are as robustly flesh and blood as the soil from which they spring, where they live, and into which they must sometimes bleed.
Troupe-master Mangal Murmu refuses to perform for the President of India and is beaten down; Suren and Gita, a love-blind couple, wait with quiet desperation outside a neonatal ward, hoping—for different reasons—that their blue baby will turn pink; Panmuni and Biram Soren move to Vadodara in the autumn of their lives, only to find that they must stop eating meat to be accepted as citizens; Baso-jhi is the life of the village of Sarjomdih but, when people begin to die for no apparent reason, a ghastly accusation from her past comes back to haunt her; and Talamai Kisku of the Santhal Pargana, migrating to West Bengal in search of work, must sleep with a policeman for fifty rupees and two cold bread pakoras.
The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a mature, passionate, intensely political book of stories, made up of the very stuff of life. It establishes Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar as one of our most important contemporary writers.
About the Author:
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize (2016). His debut novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar and was nominated for The Hindu Prize, the Crossword Book Award and the International Dublin Literary Award. His last published work My Father’s Garden which was Shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Litearture (2019). He also translates prose and poetry from Santhali and Hindi into English.
The ten short stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar offer varied themes around the politics of oppression: people who are judged on the basis of what they eat; what it means to belong to a minority population and where in there are further levels of being better off than others; how being in a cycle of any form abuse can seem to have got over but in reality continues and how it looks easy for an observer to point out what is wrong about it but the people involved continue to being part of the same. The ten stories are defiant in their rawness, in the way they comfortably tackle political narratives and themes while taking us to the personal lives of people who are trying to find agency, find a voice, find someone to listen.
All the stories are set around Adivasis and their struggles: having to fend off being exploited in back breaking labour at the cost of not having personal joys and connections; to seasonal migration in search of work which can also entail the sale of bodies for use by men; to being used as cultural tropes that depict the celebratory nature of Adivasis who in reality have naught to be happy or content about their livelihoods being snatched, their homes uprooted and their access to their own lands stopped.
The stories in this collection are deep and give voice across a cross section of people in different socioeconomic settings: a government employee who is a tribal and has to hide it behind an upper caste sounding name; a domestic help; a young woman who is trying to find her way back to her lover while acting like a comely wife to a husband she wants to leave behind; an older woman who is marked by her own family and then the larger society as a witch. They talk about common themes of moral corruption; of how power shifts affect the oppressed and the oppressor; of the social pecking order that exists within one caste, one community.
My personal favourites from this collection: ‘Getting Even’ that stands out for the way it paints a simple looking picture of a complex system at work: the workings of a Government health care office where the poor clamour to get treated but in this case, come with a certain agenda that is a commentary on fissures within a community and the title story for the personal yet political narrative that resonates with every mariginalized community that ends up used as token representation at social and government gatherings and who are not heard ever.
It is the writing that draws attention: it is searing and cuts no corner when talking about sex, something which is much needed given how writing on sex in India often borders between titillation and overt romanticism on the other. Hansda’s writing tackles sex as just another physical connotation in a relationship: be it consensual, transactional or for pleasure. This book was banned by the Government of Jharkhand on the grounds that it represented Adivasi women and Santhal in a bad light, a huge irony given that the narratives on the culture and the lack of agency that women have is because of entrenched oppression and sheer exploitation, something that the government is party to in the way it uses women labour force and pay lesser for back breaking work that comes with no benefits except a paltry pay, in the way brute State force is used to take away the land and resource rights of people that leads them to desperate ways to fend for themselves. That people can froth at the mouth over fiction while choosing to remain silent on real exploitation and subjugation of women shows a mirror to the society we live in today.