Review: Hansda Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a no-holds-barred account of life on the margins

‘I am the characters in my book’

November 12, 2016 04:20 pm | Updated December 02, 2016 02:53 pm IST

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar.  Photo: K. Pichumani

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Photo: K. Pichumani

In 2013, in the hilly and forested area of Godda in Jharkhand, a cluster of Adivasi farmers gathered together a few miles away from where President Pranab Mukherjee was expected to arrive. They had come to protest the laying of a foundation stone for an ambitious project that would ultimately evict them from their lands. Following the wearied script across the world, this protest too was unsuccessful. The President arrived, the stone was laid, and the protesters detained.

This was the minor agitation that inspired Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar to write The Adivasi Will Not Dance , the tenth and final short story in a powerful, heart-rending collection set in mineral-rich Jharkhand. Mangal Murmu, once a farmer and now a musician, refuses to sing and dance for the President. The villagers are dismayed when they realise that the President is flying down for the inauguration ceremony of the very project that will displace them. In an earnest but angry address to all those who care to listen, Murmu says: “We are like toys — someone presses our ‘ON’ button, or turns a key in our backsides, and we Santhals start beating rhythms on our tamak and tumdak, or start blowing tunes on our tiriyo while someone snatches away our dancing grounds. Tell me, am I wrong?” But Murmu’s rebelliousness proves foolhardy; the combined force of police, government and corporate is too strong to defy.

Shekhar, one of the five writers shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2017, produces a no-holds-barred work on the life of the marginalised that seems less fiction and more the stuff of life. He doesn’t veil these voices in literary flourishes or what he calls “classic literary tropes”. His characters are flesh and blood, the stories difficult to stomach, the language brutal. There is also a moderate dose of Santhali, with no glossary to hand-hold the reader. Why, I ask him over the phone. “Glossaries are destructive,” he says. “You come across a word, then you have to turn 200 pages to see its meaning, and then turn back to the story. It’s best to go with the flow.” Nor is he apologetic about leaving us cold with his hard-hitting descriptions, especially of sex. “The sex in the book is without romance,” he explains. “It’s not enjoyable, it’s disturbing. So I told it as it is.”

Though the themes in each of the stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance could be called politicised writing, Shekhar shrugs off that tag. “My book isn’t political in the electoral sense. I explore themes that are socio-political, you could say.” He stretches the refusal to wear tags though, declining to even be called a writer. “I earn my bread and butter by being a doctor, that’s how I pay my bills. I had something to say, so I wrote this book.” He would rather be called an “observer” — “I write about the people I am on par with, the people I sit with at the chai ki dukaan outside my office. I am the various characters in the book.”

Growing up in Ghatshila, an area with some of the world’s deepest copper mines, Shekhar studied to become a doctor like his mother. He is now a medical officer with the Jharkhand government. It is an empathetic understanding of the milieu he comes from, and an eye to detail with the precision that defines his profession, that underline his stories. His characters are all inspired by the people around him. Sulochana, the house help whose relationship with her husband’s mistress swings between love and hate, is a lot like the woman who worked in Shekhar’s own bungalow. The station scene in ‘November is the Month of Migrations’, where Talamai sells her body for Rs. 50 and two bread pakoras, resembles the station in Pakur now, he says, where the Santhals are clambering on to trains to travel and find work. His workplace in Pakur saw an episode similar to what unfolds in a clinic in ‘Getting Even’. Most of Shekhar’s stories revolve around women. “I think that’s subconscious,” he laughs. “I did that even in my first book.”

Shekhar began writing the stories in 2002. ‘Baso-jhi’, the poignant tale of a woman ostracised for being a witch, is the oldest in the collection while ‘November is The Month of Migrations’ and ‘Getting Even’ are the only stories that have never been published. His favourite in the collection is ‘Merely a Whore’. “The prostitute, Sona, does not have control over her circumstances. And all the men who go to sex workers aren’t “bad men”; I wanted to bring that out. It was a difficult story to write because I had to give Sona agency,” he says.

As the word ‘marginalised’ crops up several times, I ask if Indian writing is focused less on the grim realities of modern India and more on the lives of the upper castes/ classes. Do readers pick up books on the marginalised, Shekhar asks in turn. For this Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner of 2015, stories should make some difference to the reader. “What the point is of just liking a book,” he asks. “They should bring about some change.”

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