Anu Kumar reviews The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey: A Novel by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Aleph Book Company, 2013, India; pp 210)
Jharkhand is one of India’s newest states created in 2000 after a long political struggle. It’s formation was in effect a recognition of the need for an adivasi homeland but when the state of Jharkhand was created, landlocked between five states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to the north and east, West Bengal to its southeast, Odisha and Chhattisgarh bordering it in the southwest and west, it was immensely smaller than the greater Jharkhand originally envisaged by adivasi groups. The latter had desired not merely some measure of autonomy but their own control over resources. The region is immensely rich in, ‘jal, jangal and jam in’, resources which to this day are controlled and even owned by outsiders.
But this is in no way a political novel. Political events when mentioned make a sketchy appearance of sorts, so we know the timeline the novel essentially follows. Sowvendra Shekhar’s novel is centred mainly around the village called Kadamdihi, located at the southern end of Jharkhand. There is also the town of Nitra, reachable from the only railway station from Kadamdihi, Chakuliya. Rupi Baskey’s story is a universal one of a family’s slow descent into decline, but it is also a unique narrative in the way the strange forces of good and evil, development and timelessness play out in the lives of Rupi Baskey and her family.
It is something of a oft-repeated cliché that the ‘dahni’ or ‘dain’ is a key figure in adivasi life. With her knowledge of spirits and using her ‘bidya’ to achieve usually malign ends, she is juxtaposed against the ‘ojha’ who exorcises the evil and communicates with the good spirits. In a very simplistic sense then, the dahni and the ojha represent the twin sides of evil and good and the balance is essential to comprehend life in adivasi society. In Sowvendra Shekhar’s debut novel, the dahnis seem malignant and yet also benign, especially in the way they make their influence apparent in Rupi Baskey’s life and those of the family she marries into. Her husband Sido is the educated grandson of the greatly revered Somai-haram of Kadamdihi and Rupi herself becomes something of a legend when she delivers her son in the fields.
Thus far, Rupi has been strong enough to do her family’s chores and work in the rice fields and yet soon after her son’s birth, her heath registers a noticeable and drastic decline. There are suggestions and rumours that it isn’t really an ailment, someone with dahni bidya is responsible. Perhaps Rupi has her first inkling of it when Gurubari’s name is mentioned right on her wedding day, but she sees nothing suspicious at all in Gurubari’s behaviour when Sido takes her to Nitra soon after their marriage. Gurubari, the wife of Bairam, who is also a teacher in the same school where Sido teaches, is ever solicitous about Rupi. She takes Rupi under her wing, but soon the nature of her dominance is starkly obvious. When Shekhar writes about this, describing the slow almost unobtrusive way Gurubari makes her influence clear, the mysterious smells that are soon apparent around the house, Gurubari’s gentle persistent demands that Rupi just cannot turn down, you get an idea of how dahni-bidya might work.
Rupi is seized with a fatigue, an illness which gives rise to head splitting headaches, that leaves her throat parched but it is an ailment the city doctors are unable to resolve, though Sido reposes great faith in them. Meanwhile in Kadamdihi, the decline of the family is all too apparent and drastic.
There seem to be dahnis everywhere and in most cases use their bidya to work evil. There is Khorda-haram’s death, and the strange visions he had before his death. However Putki, his widow, remains addicted to her ‘haandi’, Doso, her younger son, is wild and unruly, in quite the same way as Jaipal, Rupi’s oldest son, soon turns out. The decline could be related to the envy that the majhi’s family earned as it acquired more education or perhaps it is the inevitability of life in adivasi society, where things remain the same in the face of wider changes outside. But more on this in a bit.
Shekhar’s narration is at times vivid and also in turns subtle and suggestive. There is though on occasion his overuse of the onomatopoeia for effect – ‘shappal, shappal shappal’ for men crossing the river, for example. He also does not overdo the explaining, which in this case, seems the obvious thing to do. Does he tell a story then? Yes, in very many admirable ways given that it is a difficult story to tell.
In some senses, the decline of the family can be reflective of the failing of adivasi aspirations of Jharkhand itself. In the early 1950s, as we read in the novel, there is much political promise in the air, when Jaipal Singh’s Jharkhand party wins several seats in the Bihar Legislative Assembly. But these aspirations were somewhat nullified when Singh allies himself with the Congress and Jharkhand’s aspirations found themselves on the backburner for well over two decades following this, at least till the mid to late 1980s. It is around the time Sido and his wife Rupi begin a new life in Nitra. A town with exciting new possibilities and prospects but their happiness is marred. As the family experiences several tragic moments, in a wider sense Jharkhand sees itself betrayed by politicians, some of them claiming to speak for it and for its people. There is the promise when an independent candidate, using the symbol of a sun appears but this too is fleeting. There is also the mention of some adivasis in hope of a better life, and despairing of their old gods, going over to the Murung Buru Sabha started by a dubious baba, but to little effect and even salvation.
The story could also be read as a metaphor for Jharkhand itself. A free-spirited society, broadly egalitarian and with women enjoying a great degree of independence, but with obvious signs of ailment everywhere. Shekhar is hinting to the broad neglect of this region but it takes some familiarity with the region to make this connection obvious. The timeline is alluded to, but is in some ways sketchy. We know that events in the novel’s beginning occur in the 1950s, then several more decades elapse and we know of changes in society taking place when Bishu, Rupi’s second son, marries and gets a cell phone and a television complete with DTH connection as a ‘gift’, while the bride price now appears meagre in comparison.
The real story is what happens between Rupi and Gurubari. And for a long time, Rupi’s goodness seems to get her nowhere; she is in fact berated for it, while Gurubari’s triumph seems foretold. Perhaps some of it is lost in the many characters that make their appearance, and vanish quite literally into the air. The girl with the limp called Singo who is seen in a wonderfully related vignette, Putki’s first love Salkhu whose appearance is juxtaposed with Della’s numerous amorous affairs. There is the evanescent presence of Somai-haram’s gentle second wife who dies in forever untold misery, unable to rein in Putki. There are some random snippets of information thrown in and not followed up, for instance, the fact of Sido’s diabetes.
There is in a sense a strange metaphysical dilemma at the heart of this novel The women or dahnis are determined to seek their own happiness, and yet some of their acts are indubitably ‘evil’. In Santhal society, there is the very strong presence of women everywhere but in religious matters, the main deity hardly appears manifests itself through women. Is witchcraft then a woman’s way of assertion, of getting even and back? Are all societies then, even adivasi ones with their egalitarianism a foregone cliché, fundamentally guilty of giving women a secondary role? Sowvendra Shekhar makes you ask these questions, as every interesting novel should, as he delves deep into the rich interiority of women’s lives. The women in some ways triumph in this novel, and goodness too gains in the end, despite a family’s travails down the generations.
Anu Kumar is a novelist and writer who lives in Maryland, US.