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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Reading Around India

Sometime last year I came across a book review of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World. Morgan spent the entire of 2012 reading a book from each of the 196 countries of the world and then wrote about her experiences. Deciding which regions to consider as countries, sourcing books from remote African and Pacific nations, the challenges posed by translated texts, the cultural hegemony of authors writing in English, and North American and British ones furthermore. I was intrigued and started compiling a list of the nationalities of all authors I had read. Not unsurprisingly, it was predominantly American, British and Indian.

Sometime before this book review, I had also come across the 666 reading challenge at bookcrossing.com. The challenge requires one to read a book from six countries from each of the six continents within the span of 365 days. That means a total of 36 books from different regions of the world. I started this challenge this year and six and a half months in, have managed to read a book from each of the six continents (apart from finishing the European section and being one book short of completing the Asian one).

Wholly due to these two reading projects, I read my first books from Africa and South America this year. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not my first book from the African continent but it made a point that stayed with me. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. In their own way, and following their own agenda. As responsible consumers of literature, it behooves us to read authentic first-person accounts or stories rather than an outsider’s version (imagined or otherwise) of what has happened. Just as we travel to remote and offbeat locations to discover more about the world and ourselves, we should also be reading books written in and by people on the margins in order to widen our horizons, along with providing a platform for these voices. I was in my late teens when I realised that almost all books I read were authored by Americans or Britons. Thus began a conscious effort to read more by Indian authors writing in English. I am now in my late twenties when again it dawned on me that almost all of my reading is confined to the US and Northern Europe. Hence a conscious decision to stick with these two challenges and diversify what I read.

A few days I came up with another reading challenge for myself (since I obviously need to add more complexity to my book selection policy!). Why not apply the idea behind Ann Morgan’s literary exploration to the country I call home? India has 36 administrative divisions and despite being bilingual I rarely read Indian fiction. Most of the fiction books I read are based in Mumbai or Delhi. So starting this month, I will be reading a book based in each state/union territory of India, preferably written by an Indian author, whether written in English/Hindi or translated into Hindi/English, and blogging about it. I might also review any compelling book I read as part of the other two reading challenges.

Looking forward to hearing your views and recommendations.