NAW Interview with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Credit: Mrinal Kumar

Credit: Mrinal Kumar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is the author of a novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2014),  which was shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize 2014. His latest work is The Adivasi Will not Dance. A recipient of Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, his stories and articles have also been published in Indian Literature, The Statesman, The Asian Age, Good Housekeeping, Northeast Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, Earthen Lamp Journal, The Dhauli Review, La.Lit, AntiSerious, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, and The Times of India.


NAW- Tell us about your book, The Adivasi will not Dance. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?

THE ADIVASI WILL NOT DANCE, my new book, is a collection of 10 short stories. I cannot really say how I got the idea for it, because the stories do not actually follow a theme. They were written at different times, and deal with so many themes and issues. Baso-jhi, one of the stories in this collection, was written in 2002, while November Is The Month Of Migrations and Getting Even are more recent, from 2014.

In some interviews I said that the stories in this collection are about Santhals and set in Jharkhand. Now, when I consider this statement of mine, I find that this statement is not entirely correct. Nine stories have Santhals as lead characters, while in one story, Merely A Whore, the community of the characters is indeterminate. So this book doesn’t really follow a theme, it is not about a particular place or people. It is just a collection of stories I have written over a period of time—13 years, to be exact.

My editor, Anurag Basnet, and I were talking on phone one day. Anurag asked me if I was writing something new or had written something new. I said I had a few short stories, some published and some unpublished ones. Anurag asked to see those stories. There were fourteen stories, and we decided to publish ten of those in a collection. There was absolutely no plan behind this book. In fact, eight stories in this collection had already been published in different places. There was no story written specially for this book. This book just happened. There was no idea for it.


NAW- Unlike your first book, The Adivasi Will not Dance showcases many facets of the human spirit and focuses on many different individuals. How did you research for the book?

I did not do any research. I just wrote about what I saw happening around me. The title story, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, was inspired by an event which took place in the Santhal Pargana area in Jharkhand a couple years ago. The opening story, They Eat Meat!, was based upon the experience of a Santhal family in Gujarat during 2000 to 2002. Eating With The Enemy was inspired by my growing up years in Ghatsila in Jharkhand. November Is The Month Of Migrations was inspired by the migration of Santhals I see all the time in Pakur, the place where I work. Getting Even is almost a report on the difficulties that government doctors in Jharkhand have to face at work, and also the difficulties that ordinary people – who have no money, no power, no political backing – have to face and the way people with money and power and reach torture these powerless people. Merely A Whore was written around the experience some people I know had at Lachhipur, a major red light area in the Kulti-Asansol region of West Bengal. I just observed. I just listened carefully to what people were saying, I recorded what they said in my mind, and I poured it all out on my MS-Word.


NAW- You have gone with a forceful narrative in the story of “Merely a Whore” and many writers would shy off from such narratives. It brings out the emotions very well in the end. How did you plan the stories? Did you actively pursue certain themes or simply wrote about the incidents that came your way?

Thank you for mentioning Merely A Whore. I did feel conscious while I was writing this story, and questions like “What would my readers think?” and “What would people think?” did pop in my mind. But I love doing sex scenes and I did not want to miss this opportunity of pushing myself further. Also, after having published an erotica – I prefer to call it full-fledged porn! – right at the beginning of my writing career in the anthology, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II (2012, Westland-Tranquebar), I did not really care anymore. So I threw away all my hesitation and wrote Merely A Whore.

In fact, this story was more explicit, but many parts were edited because they all focussed on Nirmal, the man – who, I am afraid, is one of my favourite characters despite being the kind of man that he is! – and not Sona, the woman. This is Sona’s story, not Nirmal’s story, so Anurag and I edited this story accordingly. I did not plan any story. I just kept on writing.


NAW- The short story is such a powerful medium but sadly remains unexplored in Indian publishing. Who are your favourite short story writers? Are there any you’d like to name as inspiration?

I really haven’t read many short stories to answer this question adequately. Each time I think short stories, I think of Saki. His short story, The Open Window, was a staple in English grammar question papers when I was in school, 17 years ago, preparing for the ICSE exam. We had a compulsory comprehension passage of, I think, 20 marks, and The Open Window had been there in the board exam once. The Open Window is, of course, a classic, but I am realising it only now. When I was in school, Mr. Nuttel flees and I am like, ‘What? Over so soon?’ The line the story ends with – “Romance at short notice was her specialty” – it is only now that I am being able to appreciate this line. And also the genius that Saki was! The Open Window, I am realising now, is a “short short story”. It is just long enough to create the suspense – and what suspense it creates—the men returning with their guns and dog! – but it is short enough to be taken in its entirety as a comprehension passage in an English grammar question paper. I think short stories should be like this. Short and effective.

Another short story I remember reading and falling absolutely in love with is Beyond The Wall by Ambrose Bierce. It is a love story, a ghost story, a sad story, a sad ghost love story. There is a cinematic quality in Beyond The Wall. Has it been adapted into a film yet? Then, as a child, I remember reading stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado. Disturbing stories! A woman being entombed alive and a man being walled alive—still give me heebie-jeebies!

As a teenager in high school, the first adult hardcover I purchased – OK, I made my father purchase it for me – was a book of short stories: 50 and Done by Tara Deshpande. To a 16-year-old, stories like Wicked, Miracle and Helen Eleven were absolutely something else! Now, almost two decades later, I value 50 and Done like a treasure. I like all the stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Recently, Anurag recommended me a short story which I liked very much: Bull by Mo Yan. Then he’s suggested that I read stories by Lucia Berlin. I read parts of My Jockey which came on the Tumblr page of Publishers Weekly. I loved it! I think I will buy her book A Manual for Cleaning Women.


NAW- How difficult is it being a serious writer in India who doesn’t write for the mass market? Given the recent attacks on writers, do you think free speech is being stifled in India? Did you ever feel the necessity to tone down your writing in keeping with the times?

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2015, an author friend – who is a serious writer, an innovative writer and an outspoken person, and whose writings I like – told me that it was good that I had a job and that I was not entirely dependent on writing alone. I agree with her. Writing is still like a hobby to me. Although this hobby is paying now, it is still a hobby because my actual job is something else. And I am very lucky that I have a job, that my primary income does not come from writing books and stories. So, I do think it is difficult for writers who do not write for the mass market. I know about myself, I am not writing for the mass market, and I write only if I have something to write about. This security, I think, comes to me only because I have a job. Had I been only a writer, I do not know how I would have survived.

Free speech has always been stifled, not only now, and not only in India. In any part of the world, at any time, one inconvenient word, and that’s it.

I have published only two books so far. I have, so far, not felt the necessity to tone down my writing. While working on the stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance, I did have doubts. How will this thing be accepted by the readers? Is the point I am putting forward convincing enough? But then, I told myself: ‘Go ahead, don’t think, just write, you may not get this opportunity again.’ And just now, I saw on Facebook that a Facebook friend of mine has taken a photograph of two pages from the story The Adivasi Will Not Dance and has written an encouraging note. While writing what is in those two pages, I had a furious debate with myself. Should I write those things or not? Will it be risky? Ultimately, I just went ahead and wrote those lines. I did not stop myself. Today, those very pages have been put before everyone, and my friend has written: “Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s short story #TheAdivasiWillNotDance raises many ‘uncomfortable’ yet pertinent questions about Development Politics and the State of Tribals in India, especially in Jharkhand. #MustRead ”


Well, this shows that my work has been accepted. So, so far, I have not had to withhold myself. Let’s see what happens in future.

The Adivasi Will Not Dance

NAW- You are one of the few Indian writers who are writing about the tribal life. How much inspiration did you have while growing up? What made you pursue writing?

Well, if I consider books in general, I had quite a few inspirations. I wanted to do a detailed family story like Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters, which is one of my favourite books. I still want to do a book like Difficult Daughters. However, if I consider books specifically written on tribal life, I am sorry, I had no inspiration at all. And books written on tribal life in India? Well, where are those books? I had absolutely no book or story to follow or look up to when I wrote The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey or when I wrote the stories which are now part of The Adivasi Will Not Dance. I had only one inspiration, one guide to follow, and that was my own life as an Adivasi. Yes, there was one book which gave me a hint on how I should write about tribal life or, more appropriately, the life of the indigenous people: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which speaks of the life of the Olinka in Africa, and it is a super fabulous book! The Color Purple taught me to be frank and in-your-face.

As to what made me pursue writing, I hope I had an answer to this question. Maybe because I couldn’t speak, I chose to write. I think it was easier for me to write about certain things than speak about those things.


NAW- Your thoughts on winning the Sahitya Akademi award. How important is it winning a literary award in India? Has it translated into more visibility for you?

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 and the Crossword Book Award 2014. It gave me a lot of visibility on Facebook and among people who use the internet and live in cities like Delhi and read papers like The Hindu. However, among ordinary people, the people I meet every day, the people I work with, in my hometown, Ghatsila, and in Pakur, where I work, The Hindu Prize and the Crossword Book Award mean nothing.

In fact, in the place where I am, The Hindu and Crossword mean nothing. The Telegraph and The Statesman are the only English newspapers I have seen here, and one certainly can’t imagine a huge chain book store here. Had I not been on Facebook, I would have, perhaps, not been made to feel special that I was shortlisted for what are considered such prestigious literary awards in India. It is only after the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar that I got some visibility among the local people, maybe because the Sahitya Akademi, because of its work in Indian languages, is something an ordinary Indian person can identify with.

My photos were there in local Hindi papers. In a block in Pakur district, Santhal students had invited me to a function on August 9, which is the International Day of the Indigenous People, to felicitate me on winning the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. But I couldn’t attend that function as I had to organise a medical camp for indigenous people in a different village! A man recognised me at a shop where I had gone to buy cigarettes. He asked me if I was the doctor who had won the Sahitya Akademi award. I said yes, and I felt very strange that he recognised me just when I was buying cigarettes!

I do not know how important it is to win these prizes, whether in India or in other places. In a big city, where there are more number of people reading books in English, in Delhi, for example, where nearly the whole of India’s English-language publishing industry is present, being nominated for or winning a major literary prize must be holding some importance. But I have never lived in Delhi. I can say only about the place where I live. Here, I have had my fifteen minutes of fame, and that’s all. I am not really sure how many copies my books are selling. I have a job to do which is, certainly, more well-paying than writing a book. Everything is back to how it was before. Like how it is in that Sanskrit story: Punar mushako bhavah! Turn into a mouse again. So I have turned into a mouse again!


NAW- Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

Sure. I am trying to write my next book. On and off. Don’t ask me how I am faring. Most of the time I am just switching on my Windows Media Player and listening to songs from the Hindi films Lootere and Kachche Dhaage.

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