Combating bias

Combating bias

The Adivasi Will Not Dance
Hansda Sowvendra Shekar
Speaking Tiger
2015, pp 187, Rs 399

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a string with woven narratives of displacement. In India, the adivasis, the indigenous dwellers of the land, have been given this unwanted gift of industrialisation with utmost zeal. In digital India, forest is merely a patch of land, and like any commodity, it is going into shiny and slippery corporate hands.

For the adivasis, displacement is a constant state. Shekhar is careful to remain focused on this central theme of displacement, yet he never gives in to writing about land in mythical or romantic ways. In his writing, one tastes, smells and touches displacement through the experiences of people, their conversations and trials. Shekhar’s characters are round, not merely victims, and not always passive. When an individual is displaced, she becomes hungry for survival, and fearful of her uncertainty.

The way to quench hunger and fear is almost always through violence — either inflicted or received. This is simply because forced displacement is not a natural or desired state and hence it unleashes a primordial instinct in the human consciousness. In the short sketch titled ‘November is the month of Migrations’, Shekhar has created a Manto-like sketch of violence, where the visual images suffice to haunt the reader with the sting of grief. The helplessness of displaced people, and the added vulnerability of being a woman makes Talamai perpetrate violence on herself by compartmentalising her identity.

The title of the collection is a statement of protest that betrays the anger of a people who have been reduced to types. This generic figure has received mockery, pity and amused sympathy from her fellow citizens for a long time now. In the short story, ‘Merely a Whore’, Shekhar has explored the pitiable conceit of a woman’s body and mind. In a complete contrast with Donne’s erotic handling of this image, Shekhar’s image explores the conceit for the inherent violence and exploitation in such a metaphor. The men who are abused through inhuman working conditions abuse the depths of the earth on higher orders every day. The same men repair their abuses at night by penetrating the depths of women’s bodies, and owning and passing around their emotions. The physical realities of a relationship between a man and a woman in a dynamics of use and exchange have been brought out with chilling detail by the writer. The title, ironically a compliment to the uniqueness of Sona, becomes an attitude that is her undoing. Her emotional investment in her sexual relationships makes her different from other whores, yet this becomes the reason for her suffering and humiliation. In a system that bases itself on inequality, the attempts of Sona at discovering meaning and locating identity for herself make her situation pathetic.

The first story is aptly titled ‘They Eat Meat’, and in the present times, seems prescient. Located in Gujarat, at the time of the Godhra incident and the communal violence that ensued in 2002, this story explores the hunger for one’s identity, how individuals come to terms with it, and how out of a shared sense of fear, new relationships and camaraderie can be established. The taboo on meat brings people together, identifies and targets people, and the same taboo creates unities of most unexpected kinds at the time of heightened tension.

Shekhar’s writing brings aspects of India that the grand narratives in Indian English writing have often ignored. Through characters that are powerless in so many ways, and by fusing an indigenous realism to the content of his writing, Shekhar has created a fresh and much-needed idiom for the Indian experience. This realism is founded on the lived experience of people outside the ‘city’. Away from the bourgeois understanding of ‘reason’ as the guiding principle of reality, Shekhar’s writing extends realism to the plane of human consciousness that is capable of recording the demonstrable and responding to the intuitive. In the short story titled ‘Desire, Divination, Death’, there is intuition, personification of fate and suggestive symbolism which, when read closely, is an extension of basic human emotions of guilt and fear.

Shekhar has been unsparing in his criticism of the human compulsions of greed, desire and lust. In the story ‘Eating with the Enemy’, every character is shown caught up in a web of desire, frustration and want. The story titled ‘Blue Baby’ employs an allegorical mode where the blue baby becomes a symbol of its mother’s helplessness, guilt and desire. The dead baby completes the process of submitting, relishing and reclaiming the self for its mother.   

These 10 stories hold together through the shared pain of loss and grief. The visual power and linguistic immediacy of Shekhar’s writing are not the least reasons for making this a compelling read.

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