‘My Father’s Garden’ by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: Something rich and surprising

State reprisal hasn’t robbed the author of his courage or honesty

Published - February 02, 2019 04:00 pm IST

My Father’s Garden is a novel in three acts. When we first meet the unnamed narrator, he is, like the medical student of stereotype, occupied — but with foreplay rather than his studies. This first act, ‘Lover’, is set in a medical college in Jamshedpur. The lover of the title is Samir, the narrator’s junior; working-class and ambitious, whose gym-shaped body and exaggerated machismo are modelled on Salman Khan. Unlike the narrator, who seeks genuine romance, Samir is content with sex and set on a life of conventional success.

The second, ‘Friend’, is set a few years later, in the town of Pakur near the border of Jharkhand and West Bengal. The narrator has been posted there as a government doctor, where he befriends Bada Babu, a clerk. We follow his flaneurial discovery of the streets and neighbourhoods of Pakur, and the development of an unlikely friendship that ends in grim disillusionment.

Political history

The third, ‘Father’, is notionally set in his family home in Ghatsila, where he has returned to recover after injuring himself. But with his father obsessively gardening, the narrator turns to the past, and tells us the stories of his grandfather — a Santhal leader and associate of Jaipal Singh — and his father — a chemist who takes up politics, with unhappy consequences. Through one family, he traces the recent political history of Jharkhand.

It would be easy to categorise My Father’s Garden as a bildungsroman. But its particular approach to character reminded me of the famous first sentence of David Copperfield , which asks whether its narrator is to be the hero of his own life. As the section titles indicate, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s narrator is more compelled by the lives and bodies of the men he loves than by his own.

Shekhar’s short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance was accused by philistinic politicians of defaming Santhal culture and society. The book was banned in Jharkhand, and Shekhar — like the narrator of My Father’s Garden , he is a government doctor — was suspended from his job for several months. English-language writers in India are, almost by definition, a privileged bunch. It is few if any who could have overcome such hardship just to keep writing.

Serious noticing

Yet, as with Perumal Murugan, the attempts to silence and intimidate Shekhar have proved spectacularly counterproductive. They have amplified rather than suppressed his work, by giving it the national audience it deserves. And, as the new novel shows, he has lost none of his courage or honesty.

The three sections of My Father’s Garden are closely linked, but they vary widely, in both tone and quality. The strongest, ‘Friend’, is reminiscent of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar in its quite brilliant evocation of a town in a time of rapid material change. Bada Babu is the novel’s most realised character, and the story of their friendship and its end is both charming and deeply affecting. All this is achieved through the accumulation of detail, immaculately chosen and specific, from the importance of chhat-dhalais to the way Bada Babu pinches his Navy Cut cigarette “as if he was smoking a bidi”.

‘Friend’ is so impressive as to make the weakness of ‘Lover’ disappointing, and a little puzzling. Its narrative is constricted, with little of the social and sensory observation at which Shekhar excels. Samir is thinly drawn, and while Shekhar is adept at capturing the awkwardness and unexpected humour of sex, there is too great a distance between the intensity of the narrator’s professed desire and the prose’s own lack of convincing eroticism.

The political history in ‘Father’ is fascinating, but written with an odd detachment that fits uneasily with the rest of the novel. But the novel’s greatest weakness is the unevenness of the prose. Vivid and specific so much of the time, at others it betrays a want of care, and too easily resorts to cliché (“beck and call”, “prim and proper”, “sky-high confidence”, and a dozen more of that kind).

These criticisms arise from admiration; from the feeling that a writer is operating some way within the limits of their talent. Shekhar is one of Indian fiction’s true originals, a writer who has both deep historical and sociological knowledge and what the critic James Wood calls the capacity for “serious noticing”. That he continues to write and publish at all is a marvel — and with each new book he gives us something rich and surprising.

The writer is based in Delhi.

My Father’s Garden; Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar,

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