Monideepa Sahu, fiction editor of Kitaab, interviews Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, the author of The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (Aleph)
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand, India. When he is not busy treating patients, he reads, and writes. His stories and articles have been published in The Statesman, is stories H Indian Literature, The Times of India, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. His short fiction is included in the anthology, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II.
His novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (Aleph) takes us into the little-known and fascinating world of the Santhal tribals of eastern India. The Santhals live in small villages surrounded by forests, and follow their own lore and rituals. Eating, drinking and merrymaking, rituals and festivities, are an integral part of the social life of these poor, uncomplicated and lively people. The author, who has first-hand knowledge of this culture, brings this world to vivid life.
Naked witches with wildly flowing hair and rolling eyes, magical spirits, demons and deities of the Santhals’ animistic religion, lurk in the forests. “A ravishingly beautiful jugni, said to cause disease, lived under the taalay tree.” The dhonokundra bhut, which resembles a deformed child, can guide people greedy for wealth to their doom. The Santhals have passed on this lore through the ages to explain death, disease and other inexplicable events in their lives. They also depend upon these spirits and deities to give them a sense of empowerment, which is denied to them by the existing political and social order. The novel draws us into a unique and fascinating world.
The novel spans several decades, tracing the lives of three generations of Rupi Baskey’s clan, as they degenerate from a position of social eminence into mediocrity. Rupi is an attractive, physically strong woman with a simple and generous disposition. Her strange and incurable ailment is a result of Gurubari’s efforts to exploit her through witchcraft, mirroring the plight of her people. The Santhals remain for decades on the fringes of the mainstream of free India. Their efforts to uplift themselves by carving out a separate state of Jharkhand, is thwarted by their own leaders who sell out to the wiles of mainstream politicians. At long last, Jharkhand is created, giving the Santhal people a space of their own. Rupi finally sees her own fading dreams get a new lease of life in her daughter-in-law, Rupali.
Much has been packed into 200 odd pages. There are several interesting characters and story threads. But they are not always explored as deeply as one would wish. The social and political developments crop up in the background in a sketchy way, and at a few points the timeline gets confusing. Their relevance and impact upon the characters could also have been further developed. Overall, this is an engrossing read, leaving readers wishing for more.
Over to Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, who shares some exclusive insights.
When did you start writing? Any anecdotes you would wish to share?
I started writing Rupi Baskey in May 2011. In June 2011, I realized that whatever I had written wasn’t making enough sense. So I deleted everything and started afresh. I finished in October 2011 and took a break, during which I wrote the story which was published in Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II.
Anecdotes? Well, I was angry with myself and felt like a total loser when I had certain blocks, when my writing wasn’t going anywhere, especially when I had to begin afresh. But otherwise it was a smooth journey.
How do you approach your craft? Do you begin with carefully planned and detailed outlines of your stories, or do you believe more in going with the flow and modifying your story as you go along?
I usually write when I already have an idea. My novel was based on certain things that took place in my village. To those real-life happenings I added certain things out of my imagination. So the story was already there in my mind, my characters, the scenes, the lines and paragraphs, when I sat down to write it. In one way the novel was already planned. Yes, my plan failed and I had to begin anew, but that plan was there. When I began afresh it was according to the original plan. The story was the same, the characters were the same.
Sometimes, yes, I go with the flow. But I find it very hard to write something unless I have a clear picture in my mind. If it’s a short story, it should be completely there in my mind. Planning is very necessary for me. Or else, I’ll just sit in front of my laptop, staring at an unfinished MS-Word document, and listen to a favourite song, like Saat Samundar from Vishwatma or Barso Re from Guru or Chitthiye from Henna, or play Minesweeper.
I know, planning is not possible all the time. Sometimes one has to write something on the spot, like extempore. During such times I have to focus very hard and I just hate it. But I sometimes tend to do very well under pressure. I admire writers who do regular columns for newspapers and magazines. I appreciate their skill and imagination as they repeatedly come up with interesting new ideas.
I can write something really fast without any planning when the issue, the theme appeals to me. It should hurt me, jab me, affect me enough to draw out a written response. That is how I wrote my 400-word article, A Different Assam, which was published in the edit page of The Times of India. This was my response to the violence against Adivasis from Jharkhand in Assam in 2007. It was an issue I really felt for.
You are a medical doctor by profession and also a writer. How do you balance these two demanding and intense callings?
There’s no question of balancing. My priorities are set. My job as a medical doctor comes first. Because it has given me my identity, and because I have been trained for it. It is my chief source of income, and is keeping me alive. Writing is what I do when an idea just gets into me and refuses to leave. Otherwise my job is what I do every day. When I have something to write I usually find time out of my schedule to write.
How did you get the ideas for Rupi Baskey? Is there a story behind this story?
I got hints for Rupi Baskey from a family in our village. The old lady of this house lived an amazing, unbridled youth. When she was very old, ninety-plus perhaps, she used to visit our place. Sipping the haandi we offered, she told stories of her family and her life. I based Putki on this old lady. Then I took elements from the stories of gods and ghosts I had heard when I was a child. I made up some stuff of my own. I added them all up. And lo! I had a novel ready.
[Picture shot by Shekhar: “The ‘chala’ (bamboo sieve) is used to strain the haandi, but the clay pot and the Sal leaf bowls can have several use. The pot can be used for cooking, storing water and cooked food, etc., while the Sal leaf bowls can be used for serving haandi and food, and also during religious rituals to keep the ingredients (sindoor, dhuna, arwa rice, methi seeds, cow dung, etc.) which are used in a puja.”]
The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is rife with fascinating, strong and enigmatic women. The men are relatively shadowy and passive figures, who fade into the background. Why and how did this happen?
That did not happen consciously. In fact, I don’t see my men as passive figures. The thing is, the women are very powerful. Too powerful, in fact. As such, what you say is right, that the men are relatively shadowy, if they are compared to the women. Otherwise the men, too, are quite strong at some places.
Since the novel is about Rupi and her mysterious ailment, I was quite clear that the novel had to be about women. Whether Rupi and Gurubari, who are the protagonist and the antagonist, respectively, or Putki and Dulari, who are in supporting roles, or Della, who makes a special appearance, I was quite clear that women had to hold the centre stage.
But I have also tried to give to the men the space they deserved. I couldn’t force them into the narrative, into a scene where the women were already present and doing very well. That would have looked quite out of place. So I let the women do most of the talking. In fact, all the talking and doing that mattered. They created the narrative, the crisis, the denouement. It’s a women’s world in my novel. The way it’s a women’s world in the traditional Santhali society. Among the Santhals, men and women have always been treated as equal. I guess that reflects on my novel too.
Many authors say that there is a little of themselves in their stories and characters. Do you feel this is true of your own writing? Do you rely heavily on personal experiences, write from what you know, or do you rely more upon research and external knowledge?
[Picture by Shekhar: “This was taken by me at our village jaher during the Baha festival. This is a view of one of the shrines at the jaher. You can see the clay horse and elephant placed as offerings. And you can see the severed head of a chicken. You can also see the bamboo fixed in the ground. This bamboo has been topped by hay. You can also see the sacred Sal flowers.”]
In Rupi Baskey, I have drawn from personal experiences, but it is not my story. It is, ultimately, a work of fiction. And whether Rupi Baskey or any of my previous works – short stories, all of them – I let my imagination play around things that I already knew. I did not try to create anything new out of thin air. I won’t be able to create a fantasy land. I always have to rely on things around me to inspire me, to help me write something. My research, too, is limited to what I know. I know about Santhals, so my works so far are about Santhals. Ask me to write a story set in Delhi or Calcutta, and I will find it difficult to do that. I should know the place where I will set my story. I should first feel a personal connection, have some prior knowledge. That’s very important for me. Other writers might completely imagine stuff. I can’t do that readily.
Do you believe that writers are only ‘agents of entertainment’? Is popular and accessible writing far removed from deeper nuanced writing? Is there something more than pure entertainment that makes writers write and readers read? Do you make conscious efforts to be entertaining?
I don’t think that writers are only ‘agents of entertainment’, but I also don’t think that writers are obliged to give a deeper message at every given opportunity. In my opinion, writers should do only one thing: write. Writing in itself is a huge thing to do. If a writer’s work entertains the readers or gives them a message, it will be a bonus.
I don’t think popular and accessible writing is far removed from deeper, nuanced writing. One can find both in the same work. And yes, there’s more to writing and reading than just entertainment. The desire to write is, in itself, a huge impetus. And so is, in the case of a reader, the desire to read. Entertainment can be had in so many ways. Cinema, TV, sports, internet, parties, conversations, even fights and quarrels and petty politics. Why only books? Let people read books just because they want to read.
I did not intend to be entertaining when I wrote Rupi Baskey or any of my stories. I just had it in my mind that I shouldn’t be boring.
With all the litfests, launches, reading and other hoopla being mandatory for writers, how do you plan to cope? How ‘accessible’ writers are these days? The old days of the reclusive writer are gone. Now the writer has to tweet and update his Facebook wall, his blog, god knows what else – how can a writer balance it all?
I think it is too early for me to answer this question. It’s been only a little over a month, since the release of my book. Things are still the same as they were. Also, I am quite far away from the scenes of action. My publisher is in Delhi. The places, the book stores where my book is available are all in the big cities, and my reviews and press have originated from there. In Jharkhand, where I live and where my book is set, there is absolutely no stir. I am quite far away from everything, far away from all the hoopla – if any – surrounding my book or any book, in general. There has been no launch or reading for me and I don’t know if I’ll have one. I haven’t attended a single litfest and I don’t know if I’ll ever attend one. And I hardly see myself as a writer. That’s not my primary identity. And I am quite accessible. Whether in real life or on Facebook.
[Picture by Shekhar: “This i a selfie I took of myself at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. In the background, you can see the sculpture Mill Call by Ram Kinkar Baij.”]
Which ‘current’ and not-so-current authors do you enjoy reading?
This one too is a difficult question because there are so many more books which I wish to read. Here are some books which I have recently enjoyed.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai, Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Old Man who read Love Stories by Luis Sepulveda
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
In the distant future, when all prophecies and secrets are revealed (and we are returned to the atoms we were made from), how would you want to be remembered?
Remember? Me? For what?
What are you working on now?
Just now I have to wash my clothes. Then I have to go and buy some onions and mustard oil for my kitchen. That’s my immediate plan. And yes, I am working on a second book off and on. I am writing only when I really want to write and only if I have something to write. This one is going to take a lot of time.