“Where are you from?”
This question is my most asked and most hated. In India, I usually respond “Houston” because that was my last place of residence, is the basis for my @Magnolia2Mumbai Twitter handle, and has the dubious distinction of being the only state in which I have renewed my driver’s license. But, the truthful answer is far more complex than that. For I have no home place. I am and remain a vagabond, roaming the United States’ and now the world’s highways and byways.
For Indians, “Where are you from?” is a far deeper question. For that question is tied to community and even politics in a way it isn’t in the US. In the hotels of Bangalore, you will find staff members from all over India. One waiter whom I met is from Kerala. He was excited when he learned that I had visited “God’s Own Country” and told me how he and his friends used to travel the backwaters together, how he misses those explorations and his friends. He’s been in Bangalore for 6 years, but he is not from “here.” He is from “there.” For members of India’s tribal communities, the question of origin is loaded not only with curiosity, but also with a hint of accusation or disapproval.
It’s within this context that I picked up The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar at Atta Galatta. The book had been recently short-listed for the Hindu lit prize, and I had seen it mentioned on Twitter by someone whose taste I respect. It’s a collection of 10 stories, 8 of which have been previously published. The stories explore Adivasi culture inside and outside Jharkhand. Shekhar weaves a sense of place, community, boundaries, and inclusion into each story.
I will admit to being slightly intimidated by the title and the book’s content. The Adivasi experience is about as far from my own as I could imagine. “Would I be able to relate?” I wondered. Would I understand the culture well enough to appreciate the more nuanced aspects of the narratives?
I quickly realized that, yes, I would be able to relate. One reason is that Shekhar uses five key elements throughout the stories to build a bridge between Adivasi culture and those outside it: food, sex, love, death, and a little touch of magic.
In India, food is both a reflection of culture and of politics. Food binds people in a community, but can also isolate and marginalize them. Shekhar explores this theme beautifully in They Eat Meat. When a Santhali family moves to Vadodara, Gujarat where eating nonveg is not only discouraged, but shunned, the family must adapt and assimilate into the majority culture and give up part of their unique Santhali culture in the process. In giving up all nonveg, including eggs, the family capitulates to the majority rather than living as their culture would dictate. Yet, it’s through the very act of defying this prohibition that two women bond when they share an egg curry. At the climax, that bond serves to steel them for battle as they protect Muslims who are being threatened in the wake of the 2002 riots.
The sex in the book lies outside cultural norms. Prostitution, extramarital sex, and even rape are used to expose the darker side of human nature. Nowhere is that clearer than in the story Merely a Whore. Sona is a whore who wants just one thing: a kiss from Nirmal, a frequent client. Sex for Sona is a mechanical process, and Shekhar’s narrative of those scenes emphasizes that. Here, the boundaries between love and sex are well defined. There’s no romance, just pure physicality. The romance lives in Sona’s head, in her desire to kiss Nirmal, and in their conversations. Through her pursuit of desire, Sona sheds her image as an empty vessel men fill with their semen; she becomes a woman of flesh and blood.
Indians love to read romance, so perhaps it’s inevitable that love is a theme in the book. But, love isn’t treated in a typical manner. Instead, Shekhar gives us Blue Baby, which shows how twisted love can become. On the eve of her marriage to Suren, Gita sleeps with Dilip, an old flame, hoping that she would carry his child. She carries a torch for Dilip throughout her pregnancy and continues to hope that he would come for her when the baby is born. But, Dilip’s reaction is not what Gita expects, and the torch she carries for him turns into the flame of obsession, which threatens to consume her. This story challenges traditional notions of parental love. Gita’s child seems more like a pawn and less like a person. Shekhar brings an additional deft touch to the narrative in the way he describes the blue baby with the clinical precision of his profession. It is cold, almost cruel, and perfect for the story.
In Desire, Divination, and Death, Shekhar creates a beautiful meditation on death, love, and regret. Subhashini tries to return home from the factory with jalebis to see her son one last time. Death comes for us all, but it’s difficult to process when it comes for a child. A magical realist touch allows Shekhar to explore the intensity of emotions associated with illness and death. Moreover, while we tend to think of the boundary between the material and spiritual world as clear-cut, Shekhar shows us that perhaps those boundaries are permeable.
A little touch of magic
When westerners think of witchcraft, we often think of the Salem witch trials or something analogous. We don’t really consider witchcraft as something that exists in a modern context. Yet, for the Adivasi, it does. An accusation of witchcraft can have devastating consequences for the women accused of it as they are ostracized from the community and often forced to relocate, thereby giving up their sense of place and community simultaneously. Baso-Jhi demonstrates the pain of that separation and its consequences for the eponymous widow of the story.
A glossary would have been a helpful addition, not just for me as a foreign reader, but even for Indians who might be unfamiliar with Santhal foods and language. For example, even though I am generally familiar with Indian cooking and foods, I was unfamiliar with terms like jill-haku. When I searched Google, I found little information on the foods mentioned in They Eat Meat. I felt that affected a deeper understanding of the story.
Editor’s note: This section was supposed to highlight problem areas, but clearly the reviewer is still gushing over the book. Please forgive her and just go buy the book while she waxes poetic about writing across cultures.
This suggestion, however, raises the question of cultural translation, transmission, and, ultimately, appropriation. One might question whether it’s even necessary for Shekhar to translate his experience for me by providing such a tool. After all, he’s already translating his cultural experience into English. Isn’t that enough? But, then further questions are raised: for whom is he writing? For other Santhals, other Adivasis, or for those outside the culture? He is already reaching beyond the borders of community and caste by writing in English. How much further does he need to reach to translate that experience to reach his audience? It’s one of the major challenges with writing about marginalized groups: how to stay true to the experience while seeking to bring those on the margins closer to the center, both of culture and power. Do they even want that?
In the title story, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, Shekhar writes a powerful political piece that indicates a desire to maintain Adivasi traditions in the face of modern development and migration. On one level at least, he seems to want to maintain a separate cultural identity. Yet, that separation is grounded in a sense that Adivasis must also be given political rights and use those rights to assert their political power as a group. The challenge becomes whether that separation risks a deeper marginalization. Or whether it’s assimilation, rather than separation, that will bring real political power. That’s the inherent tension underlying the book, and this story in particular.
This story also explores the consequences of this cultural compromise. Development has robbed the main character Mangal of his agrarian livelihood, so he uses Santhali cultural dance to earn his living. He must trade on his heritage to survive. Yet, it’s through his refusal to perform this dance that he exerts his political power. He uses his cultural capital to challenge capitalism at its most corrupt. Brilliant, layered storytelling at its finest.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar has written a powerful, provocative short story collection that explores Adivasi identity politics and experience. Brilliant, layered storytelling at its finest.
For the record, this is how the Adivasi dance: