The Adivasi Will Not Dance
By Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Babies die. Girls are sold off, raped. Mothers are branded witches. No, there’s no easy way to read this collection of stories by Jharkhand’s Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar who won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar this year. Shining a light on India’s areas of darkness, the eponymous story, the last in the collection, shows us exactly how we treat our marginalised and dispossessed. As troupe master Mangal Murmu refuses to perform for the President, he is gagged and left feeling “helpless and so foolish”.
Murmu had dared to voice the anguish felt by so many Santhals whose land had been acquired for development (read mining), reducing them to “becoming people from nowhere”. What do the Santhals get in return for this development? Murmu’s lament is difficult to ignore: “Tatters to wear. Barely enough food. Such diseases that we can’t breathe properly, we cough blood and forever remain bare bones.” In this backdrop of shameful neglect of the original inhabitants of the land, the adivasis, we read Shekhar’s other stories: a 20-year-old Santhal girl earns a snack (bread pakoras) and R50 on a railway platform as a jawan lures her with “will you do some work for me?”; the tragic tale of a prostitute who falls in love; and the story of Baso-jhi, who is singled out for torture, as rumours swirl that the widow and mother is a witch.
Shekhar’s tone is calm, even low-key, but he shakes us out of our stupor with his political, ear-to-the-ground stories.
“We are like toys,” master performer Murmu tells us. “Someone presses our ‘ON’ button…and we Santhals start beating rhythms on our tamak and tumdak…while someone snatches away our dancing grounds. Tell me, am I wrong?” These stories are born out of Jharkhand, but similar tales of loss, migration and neglect are true of the north-east, as well as other tribal communities in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and so forth.
As the ‘don’t eat beef’ saga rages, the first story, They eat meat!, fits in wonderfully with the times. It is a story of the Sorens, who land up in Vadodara, Gujarat, in 2000 and realise that they have to turn vegetarians. Though they manage to stay away from fish, chicken and mutton, at times, they crave “the simple sin of an egg”. In a far corner of the market, run by an immigrant from Bihar, the Sorens discreetly buy not more than two eggs, cook each a week apart, and dispose off the shells with great care to avoid being caught. If the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian debate wasn’t such a harsh reality nowadays, the story would be funny.
Shekhar deftly gives us a glimpse into socio-economic mores in Eating with the Enemy, the story of two women and a marriage. Sons is about a pair of cousins who turn out differently—just like the two mango trees in the courtyard, one cared for, the other neglected. The tree that grows wild yields delicious fruit, while the other goes waste and is only good for the many birds and animals, which have made their homes in it. The son brought up with great privileges turns into a robber, the other who grew up amid great hardship becomes a doctor. Blue Baby is about a couple who discover their love for each other after losing their first-born.
As an insider looking in, the stories the author unearths aren’t pretty. For most part, adivasis are used as performers and castaways. So who is to blame? Shekhar has his eyes on everyone, from politicians, and the land and coal mafia to mining corporates, missionaries and the Santhalis themselves.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer