The Banned Santhal

I hadn’t heard of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar until the Jharkhand state government’s decision to ban this book. Like most bans on books, this one too is inane for many reasons. The book was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. Most Adivasis, whose sentiment are supposed to be protected by this ban, are beyond the reach of this collection of short stories written in English. Many people, including me, hadn’t heard of the book (or the author) and this ban helped us discover Shekhar and his works. It piqued my curiosity enough to read a book that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Adivasi is a collection of ten short stories, featuring Santhal women and men going about their lives. Most of the stories are written from the female point of view and shines a light on those who face double discrimination, by virtue of both their caste and gender. The prose is light and breezy, so much so that the atrocious events taking place don’t sink in until after long, because of the prosaic tone used to narrate them. Maybe this even, dispassionate tone is a ruse to help us swallow these hard truths easily, without choking on them. Most stories end abruptly and you are often left wondering about what happened next. It’s almost as if they exist in a vacuum, with no defined beginning, middle or end.

Shekhar’s stories are about ordinary people living extraordinary lives without realising that their lived experiences are not that of the mainstream. Or maybe the point Shekhar is making is that there is no mainstream; there is a Santhal reality and a very different urban Hindu reality. Our communities exist in isolated bubbles with hardly any meeting ground.

My favourite story is November is the Month of Migrations, which also happened to court the most controversy. It packs the most punch despite being only four pages long, and symbolises Shekhar’s style of calmly depicting the most heinous of atrocities. They Eat Meat! is surprisingly positive in an otherwise bleak milieu.

We outsiders are the real audience of Adivasi. It is our sentiments are meant to be hurt, our illusions of a free, progressive India that are meant to be shattered. This book shows us in a bad light, for turning a blind eye to those on the margins, for pretending that everything is good and normal. Read this book if you want an honest, authentic account of those you might have not thought about before.

Book: The Adivasi will not Dance
Author: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Location: Jharkhand
Language: English

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This is not a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. One can read it is as a guide map to the major civil and political movements taking place in 21st century India. The Kashmir insurgency, the 2002 Gujarat riots and the left-wing extremism in central India form crucial plot points in this story. Other political movements, the ones against big hydroelectric power projects for example, make cameo appearances. I was slightly surprised to find no mention of the insurgency movements in North-east India, considering the wide scope of this book.

The most remarkable aspect of this book, for me, was Anjum; the presence of a transgender protagonist. Not only does Anjum transition from male to female, but also she belongs to the minority Muslim community. By no means can I claim to have read a lot,  but a quick Google search reveals no mainstream book featuring a transgender protagonist. Definitely not in India. And you can’t get more mainstream than Roy, Man Booker Award winner who also features in this year’s longlist.

The action is divided between Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar and the Kashmir valley. While the Delhi section is concerned with Anjum’s journey to find peace within herself and her world, the Kashmir section is a story of the insurgency. Tilottama, the second protagonist, writes a Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar, a macabre documentation of the atrocities committed on the civilian population. She also devises the Kashmiri-English Alphabet to show how the warped the idea of normalcy can become if one gives it enough time.

This book gave me a lot to think about. I kept wondering, while reading the Kashmir portion, about the line between truth and fiction. The bit about the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen is true, and so is the practice of men being paraded, during cordon-and-search operations, in front of jeeps with their headlights on full beam, forming a kind of one-way mirror where they could be (mis)identified by informants sitting next to the driver. But is it also true that army men sell weapons and ammunition to the very militants they are supposed to be fighting? Or that the 2014 floods were used by the army as a photo-op and they didn’t really help the Kashmiri civilians if the media weren’t around to broadcast it?

Another sentence that disturbed me was in the preface to the book, about how the vultures are dying to satiate urban India’s appetite for icecream and milkshakes. I have been thinking long and hard about turning vegan and reading this line made me feel even more guilty for continuing to consume dairy products.

This book is not an easy read and it isn’t meant to be. A less charitable title could have been A Litany of Sorrows. It’s meant to make us think about where we are heading. And we have Roy’s beautiful prose to carry us through.

“The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

 

Book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Location: Delhi, Kashmir
Language: English