by R K Biswas
Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar’s debut book, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baski, had ushered in a new voice into the Indian English literary scene. A voice steeped in the soil of its origin—the land of Santhals—and refreshing in its clear visualisations of his people. His second book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, published by Speaking Tiger does not disappoint. In fact, being a collection of short stories, this book feels (at first) like a Santhali Thali meal, with an array of ten (Santhali) dishes, each giving off its own aroma, distinct from the rest, strong or mild, sweet or over powering, creating together, a hearty experience. The colours, the sights, sounds and scents, the Santhali spirit—put together, they make up the essence of Hansda’s prose.
In the first story, “They Eat Meat”, the Soren family have to go and live in Vadodara, Gujarat, when Biram Soren, a high ranking officer, is transferred. The Sorens overcome the restrictive food habits of a vegetarian city, and even grow to love the place. But soon they are forced to confront the spectres of religious and caste divides, especially in the aftermath of the Godhra killings. And this is where this heartwarming story charmingly displays the indomitable human spirit of ordinary Indians.
“Sons” is the story of two women whose grandfathers were brothers. Like the two mango trees in the narrator’s house, one nurtured but fruitless, and the other left to grow wild but with the sweetest mangoes in their locality, their sons grow into manhood. Told in a conversational style, as if the narrator is relaying the events unfolding before him, “Sons” takes us straight into the bustle of a middle class Santhal home.
The book’s tone changes in the third story, becoming more sombre, growing steadily darker. It’s as if behind the joy and zest for life of these vibrant people, lie dark omens, even demons. “In November is a Month of Migrations”, Hansda seems to step away as he relates a seasonal account of job necessitated migration, almost like a stoic. His voice, dispassionate on the surface, ripples with anger beneath.
“Getting Even” is the story of a ten-year-old boy accused of a heinous act. Hansda, who is himself a doctor, narrates this “day in the life of an emergency doctor in a Santhal Pargana government hospital” with flecks of humour. The underlying story is grim, and he deftly handles this other side to Santhals—those who had converted. Not all Santhals are victims; they can also be the perpetrators.
“Eating with the Enemy” is another example of Hansda’s humorous portrayal of a poor but feisty Santhal woman, through the eyes of the narrator who is from an educated and well-off Santhal family, just like the narrator of the second story, “Sons”. In this story Hansda has created a fine balance between the sleazy and dark with the hilarious and eccentric; here the people and events display their quirks and failings blithely with Hansda deftly sketching characters that are alive, almost walking out of the page.
The mood becomes cloudy again in Hansda’s prose with the sixth story, “Blue Baby”, which speaks of love and betrayal, seasoned with spite and deceit. Yet, we find ourselves pitying the protagonist, because without telling us in so many words, Hansda shows us her plight, her helplessness.
In “Baso-jhi”, we meet a character with a booming laugh, who is full of vigour and quick to help others, even if it’s by merely lending a sympathetic ear. A hard working woman, Basanti or Baso-jhi as she is affectionately called in her new home in the town of Sarjomdih, is at first loved by all around her, and especially her newly adopted family. But soon this happy idyll begins to crack, as superstition strangles that easy-to-kill gift of humanity—kindness.
“Desire, Divination, Death” is an accomplished story, where the crystal-clear depiction of the protagonist is seared with sorrow. This story is narrated at near breakneck speed in order to keep up with Subhashini, who is racing against time. It is essentially the story of a mother’s vigil, through the night at her sick son’s bed, through her hurried-harassed day at the rice-mill, and through the long trek down a dusty road overrun with Trekars and Jharkhand buses to her little house in their Santhali hamlet, to her sick boy. Subhashini invokes Chando-bonga, the powerful Santhal deity. She curses the cheeky khalassis on the Trekars as she tries to reach her son before her worst fears come true.
“Merely a Whore” is a difficult story to stomach. Its graphic content reminds one of the poetry of the late Mumbai based Dalit poet, Nam Deo Dhasal (exquisitely translated into English by the late Dilip Chitre). Hansda takes his readers, almost by the scruff of the neck through the seedy, bestial world of prostitution in the mining towns of Jharkhand. He knows he is depicting a terrible terrain, made worse by the apathy of the powers that be and the ignorance of the average Indian English reader. And once again, in his prose he becomes a stoic, casting a clinical eye over the narration, not letting go of his readers until the last lash has been delivered.
The last story in the collection, the title story, “The Adivasi will not Dance”, is more of an invocation than a traditional story. No. Not merely an invocation. It is a cry of indignation, of protest, of anger towards neglect and injustice. Told in the first person, it relates the trials and tribulations of Mangal Murmu, a traditional Santhali musician, grown old on the lies and exploitations of those who are not natives of his beloved rich soiled Santhal Pargana, and those who have crossed over; joined the enemy.
With this collection, Hansda sets before us not just the romp and frolic of indomitable women as in his debut novel, but the pains and passions of men and women, and children as well. His characters are just as strongly delineated as in his first book. Their lives and times are just as vibrant. But here, Hansda’s voice is raised higher. He treads deeper waters, whose currents can be treacherous. This book is not a light read, and nor are the stories meant to be taken lightly. Readers should be prepared to have their emotions trampled upon.