Hansda Sowendra Shekhar’s debut novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is a loving and careful recounting of the Santhal way of life. Spanning several decades and four generations in the lives of the Hansda clan in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, the novel centres on the theme of dahni-bidya, or witchcraft, and traces the lives of the increasingly dysfunctional descendants of Somai-haram, the majhi of Kadamdihi village. It is remarkable that the author, a doctor working for the Jharkhand government, has not let his training interfere with or add scepticism to this story about the paranormal.
Somai-haram and his wife’s desire for children ends in successive miscarriages. The neighbour’s wife is a practitioner of witchcraft, feeding off the deaths of her victims. Putki is a lone daughter who grows up wild in her ways and befriends Della, the wayward daughter of the neighbour who practices witchcraft. Together the two girls paint the town red—working at the rice mill in town, dressing, dancing, drinking, taking and dropping lovers at will. Della, wild but good-hearted, escapes her mother’s evil craft by marrying and Putki too settles down with Khorda Baskey. The Rupi Baskey of the title is the wife of Putki’s older son Sido, and her mysterious ailment is seemingly the work of Sido’s colleague’s wife, Gurubari, another dahni. The rest of the narrative focuses on Rupi’s helplessness in the face of a debilitating condition which responds to no treatment and the slow crumbling of a once illustrious family.