Literary Review

‘Otherwise, I too am invisible'

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Photo: K. Pichumani

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Photo: K. Pichumani

How often do we stop to think about the life of a man pouring hot tar on the road under a blazing sun? Or wonder about the back-stories of dancers in a troupe synchronizing their steps before an august gathering of the country’s most powerful people? The characters in the short story collection, The Adivasis Will Not Dance, are people who do not call attention to themselves as they go about the business of their lives. Hansda Sowendra Shekhar tells us the stories of these people: the poor farmer who now pours tar over the soil that he previously used to cultivate, the dancer who must play before an important gathering among whom are those who throttled the livelihood of his relatives. Shekhar raises uncomfortable questions for which there are no easy answers. But beneath all that seriousness, a vein of humour runs through in some of the stories, a riposte to the pettishness of the larger issue. So when, in the story ‘They Eat Meat’, the characters gang up to tackle the violence around them, the elegance of the response elicits a smile at the simplicity of the solution. ‘Eating with the Enemy’ similarly sees the tongue-in-cheek pen of the writer when he shows two friends setting out to end their lives and then decide against it at the last minute.  

Hansda Sowendra Shekhar speaks about his journey of writing and his novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey making it to the longlist of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2016. Excerpts from an interview:

When did you seriously start writing? What was your first attempt at writing and who were your first readers and what the reaction to your first pieces?

As an 8- or 9-year-old child, I used to re-write stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in my own words in white dista khata (Is that legal sheets or foolscap sheets? Foolscap, I think), draw my own illustrations (all inspired by those illustrations in Misha , pointed boots and all), staple the sheets together, draw my own barcodes, and create a book. Of course, I showed those books to no one. I had no readers. At that time, during my childhood and adolescence, I was my own reader. When I published my first short story in The Asian Age , I was 15 years old and a student of Class X. I took the paper to school and showed it to my friends and my English teacher. My English teacher liked that story and praised me. When The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey was published, I went to that English teacher’s house and gifted her the first copy.

Fehmida Zakeer

How long did it take for you to collect the stories?

13 years! The stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance are from 2002 to 2015.

The characters in your stories are not just ordinary people, they are almost invisible, their presence not immediately noticed. What made you notice them? How did you go about building the stories?

I am one of those people so there was no question of noticing. I am one of my characters. There was also no “building” of stories. You build stories when you do not know the setting and characters and so you imagine. The characters in my stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance are people I sit, stand, eat, drink with every second of my life. I am an Adivasi, I live in a peripheral place (Pakur) in Jharkhand, my lifestyle is that of an ordinary rajya sarkaar ka karmachaari . Do I need to notice all that and imagine and build my stories upon that? Not at all. It’s my life.

The people in my stories might be ordinary and invisible, but their ordinariness makes them special. My books might have given me some visibility, otherwise I too am invisible.

The story ‘They Eat Meat’ uncannily comes at a time when there is really a controversy going on about meat, what was your inspiration for this story?

‘They Eat Meat’ was inspired by a Santhal family's experience in Gujarat during 2000 to 2002. This Santhal family eats non-veg, but they have to control their non-veg diet once they go to live in Gujarat.

Desperation is a recurring theme in the stories and even when the story winds up there is no respite given. Your comments...

Simple, because there is no respite in real life. If there is respite, life seems to stop. There is nothing else to look forward to. So, keep on moving. Be desperate one moment, hopeful the next moment. Don't think of an easy respite.

What is your inspiration for the title story?

A couple years ago, the foundation stone of a thermal power plant was laid in the Santhal Pargana area of Jharkhand. The title story, ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’, is a re-creation of that foundation stone-laying ceremony.

Short story or novel, what do you prefer more, reading as well as writing?

Reading-wise, I like both novels and short stories. Writing-wise, I am just one novel and one short story collection old and I have enjoyed doing both.

Do you think there is a revival of interest in short stories?

I cannot really say. For me, short stories hadn't gone anywhere. The first adult hardcover I owned in my life was a book of short stories: 50 and Done by Tara Deshpande. The first adult book I really enjoyed was a book of short stories: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Even while I was reading and enjoying reading novels, there was always a book of short stories — or single short stories — I was reading in between. And enjoying those, of course! Once, I read Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha and E. Annie Proulx's book of short stories Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories just one after the other. One other time, while I was reading a novel in English, I was also reading a Hindi short story, Tower of Silence , by Manoj Rupra in the Hindi literary magazine Vagarth . I enjoyed Tower of Silence very much. So short stories were always there. I cannot answer this question as a publisher of short stories, because publishers should be worried about short stories going out of style or coming back in style, because they have to sell those books. As a reader, short stories were always there for me.

Only two stories in the collection have a medical setting behind it, ‘Blue Baby’ and ‘Getting Even’, is it a conscious decision to steer clear of your profession in your writing or can we expect more stories inspired by your work.

None of these stories was a conscious decision. The stories were written over a period of 13 years, so there was, obviously, no planning. Ideas came to my mind and they got written ‘Getting Even’ was, in fact, an immediate response to difficulties we sarkaari doctors have to face in the peripheries. So there was no conscious decision to have only one or two stories with medical setting. As for more stories inspired by my work, sure, there will be more stories.

What do you think is the most important quality a writer should have or cultivate?

Humility. Not only in a writer, but in any human being in any profession. And, to some extent, discipline.

How do you feel about Rupi Baskey making it to the longlist of the IMPAC Dublin?

A friend on Facebook informed me. She congratulated me on being nominated for the IMPAC Dublin and my first reaction was: "Dublin? But I don't even have a passport!" And then I rushed to the website of the International Dublin Literary Award to see if it was true that I had been nominated, and for which book. I saw The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey and was extremely happy and excited.

How did you go about writing the novel, was it an organic process or did you outline the novel and then wrote write it? How long did it take for you finish it?

The actual plot of The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was already in my mind for a long time. In 2011, I just started and finished writing it in five or six months. Since writing The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey took only 5-6 consecutive months, so, I think, it was an organic process.

And one more, how do you feel at the reception your novel is getting?

I am OK. Neither happy nor sad.

Fehmida Zakeer is an Indian author and poet. Her short stories have been published in acclaimed magazines and journals such as Out of Print, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore and Linnet’s Wings.

fehmidazakeer@gmail.com


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Printable version | May 27, 2022 8:18:11 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/fehmida-zakeer-in-conversation-with-author-hansda-sowendra-shekhar/article7948916.ece