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The mysterious ailment of civil society

Challenging the status quo: Matisse’s oil painting, Dance

Challenging the status quo: Matisse’s oil painting, Dance   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Nothing signifies the intellectual bankruptcy of a government more than an attempt to ban a book. The Jharkhand government has not done itself a favour by banning Sahitya Award-winning Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book, TheAdivasiWillNotDance, for “allegedly portraying Santhal women in bad light,” according to news reports. Dr. Shekhar, who comes from an aboriginal (‘tribal’) background, works as a government doctor in Pakur: he has also been precipitously suspended. The ‘spashtikaran’ (clarification) letter and the suspension order are dated the same day — August 11, 2017 — which in itself should be considered a procedural error, if not something worse. How can a person be suspended without being given the time to clarify?

But the ‘clarification’ required also seems problematic. The assumption behind the suspension — as reported in the press — is that Dr. Shekhar should have sought the “government’s permission” in advance before writing his collection of stories.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar   | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

Cutting stories

This is a problematic assumption: Does any employer, governmental or corporate, own the employee, body and soul, as if he was a slave, to the extent that the employee has to seek permission to indulge even in acts of creative and personal expression?

What if Dr. Shekhar had painted a landscape, maybe depicting a factory belching smoke into verdant aboriginal forests, or a portrait of a Santhal woman vainly trying to suckle a starving infant? Would he have been required to seek permission for such paintings too? What if he had composed a piece of music, or decided to act in a play? Let’s face it: the difference between an employee and a slave is that the employee only sells some skills and hours of labour, not his entire body and soul.

Bans are dangerous weapons, and they mostly misfire. More so, when they pertain to books, which can easily be printed elsewhere. Jharkhand’s neighbour, Bihar, is learning this the hard way, with its ‘alcohol ban’, and you just have to spend some days on the Jharkhand-Bihar border to realise how much alcohol is being smuggled one way, and how many alcohol-fanciers are heading the other way.

It seems to me that such bans are simply a government’s bid to make empty gestures and flex its muscles.

Some people argue that sometimes bans are necessary for ‘law and order’ issues: in short, a book that causes a community to riot should be banned. This, of course, does not apply to Dr. Shekhar’s book: opposition to it seems to be led by a few politicians, who show very little evidence of reading books, and the only article attacking it that I could discover (Dainik Bhaskar, Ranchi edition, August 10, 2017) is an ill-informed piece written by a non-tribal and upper caste person. The ‘demand to ban’ Dr. Shekhar’s book seems to be largely manufactured in a small circle of politicians and activists of a certain sort.

Actually, I am not even sure that a ‘law and order’ issue justifies a ban: that is, not if the government wants to do its job and avoid being held hostage by various vested groups. There are legal options to seek court orders against a publication — defamation or hatred-speech, for instance, with the former being evoked by godman-tycoon Ramdev, in a current court case to prevent the publication of GodmantoTycoon: TheUntoldStoryofBabaRamdev. Whatever the merits and demerits of such legal options — a matter I leave to jurists — the fact remains that Dr. Shekhar’s book does not fit any of these legal rubrics.

The mysterious ailment of civil society

Mirror held up

Dr. Shekhar has written a collection of moving and at times cutting stories about various aboriginal situations. As is the case of stories by our greatest writers, like Premchand or Manto, Dr. Shekhar’s stories do not set out to glorify or chant the praise of the status quo. They are an honest and at times agonised look at a difficult and exploitative world: it appears that the ‘spokespersons’ of aboriginal politics cannot tolerate having a mirror held up to the world in which they are thriving. Unfortunately, though, from the time of the ‘Red Indians’ and ‘cowboys’ in the U.S. to our own age, aborigines have been treated alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) in one of two ways by dominant groups of non-aborigines: they are either pickled in a static culture, or they are bossed around, moved from here to there, told to do this or that.

In such a situation, unfortunately, it is hard for a truly creative writer to be appreciated by the ‘caretakers’ of society and politics.

I first read Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar years ago, when I was one of the judges of the Hindu Fiction Prize. Dr. Shekhar’s first novel, TheMysteriousAilmentofRupiBaskey, had been entered for it. I had never heard of him before that. But his novel was impressive, and we went on to shortlist it for the prize. If the Jharkhand government had any sense, it would honour Dr. Shekhar as the most significant aboriginal ‘Indian English’ writer from the State today, instead of harassing him.

I know Hansda will not be relishing the controversy. I met him properly, and actually the only time (barring a fleeting introduction at the Hindu Fiction Prize ceremony), at the Hyderabad Literature Festival about two years ago. He immediately struck me as the antithesis of all those double-passport authors who can take controversies in their global strides given the fact that they live and have powerful friends in places like Delhi, London and New York. Hansda, like I had been until the age of 25, was a small-town person. He did not want to be controversial or famous.

He just wanted to write honestly and as best as he could, which is what he has proceeded to do in his latest book too.

All one can do is wish him — and writers like him — the calm and support that they deserve, and often lack.

The writer is a poet, novelist and critic based in Denmark, whose latest novel is Jihadi Jane, published as Just Another Jihadi Jane outside India.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 9:55:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-mysterious-ailment-of-civil-society/article19515849.ece

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