One of India's best young writers, and good friend of Goa, is fighting
a cultural battle with significant implications for the rest of the
country. On August 4, an irate crowd targeted the brilliant author
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar in his home city of Pakur, in Jharkhand.
Accusing him of being "the shaitan of Santhal society", they burned an
effigy of the doctor (he works at a government health centre) and
winner of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar Award. The
purported offence is "pornographic writing" which "showed serious lack
of sensitivity towards the tribal people of India." But what is really
at stake is the question of who has the right to speak for or
represent a culture.

Shekhar is a startling and unique talent. There is literally no one
else like him. Just 34 years old, he writes in an engaging style from
and about a cultural universe otherwise entirely absent from Indian
letters — the tribal firmament in rapidly changing, contemporary
India. It's never fair to burden limitlessly talented young writers
with comparisons, but here it is impossible to ignore deeply resonant
similitude with the African-American pioneer James Baldwin. Notably,
that correlation was first highlighted in Goa, when Shekhar launched
his book of short stories, 'The Adivasi Will Not Dance' at the Goa
Arts and Literature Festival 2015, at the hands of eminent Konkani
writer, Damodar Mauzo.

One of the best stories in that collection is being used to
manufacture outrage against its author. 'November is the Month of
Migrations' is stark and unforgettable, less than four pages
describing the season when "Santhal men, women and children walk down
from their villages in the hills" to board trains to West Bengal,
where "they will plant rice and other crops in farms owned by the

Trailing along is Talamai Kisku, 20, who is beckoned by a railway
police jawan. "Talamai debates if she should follow, and decides to.
He is offering food, after all, and she is hungry." When he asks,
"Will you do some work for me? Talamai knows what work he is talking
about". He uses her, saying "Saali, you Santhal women are made for
this only." But "She just lies — passive, unthinking, unblinking — as
cold as the paved still as an inert earthen bowl into
which a dark cloud empties itself." Finally, the jawan "gives Talamai
two pieces of cold bread pakora and a fifty-rupee note and walks away.
She re-ties her saya and lungi, stuffs the note into her blouse, eats
both the bread pakoras, and walks back to her group".

It is a masterly feat to condense and communicate such intense pathos
and horror in a few unadorned lines. The scale of Shekhar's
achievement is directly akin to all-time great Sadaat Hasan Manto,
whose shorter-than-short stories remain the most searing evocations of
Partition in 1947. 'November is the Month of Migrations' acutely
recalls 'Khol Do (Open It)', where Manto writes about Sirajuddin,
desperately searching for his abducted daughter, after a nightmare
escape to Lahore. "A succession of images raced through his mind.
Attack... fire... escape... railway station...night...Sakina." He
finds her nigh-unconscious in a hospital. "The doctor looked at the
prostrate body and felt for the pulse. Then he said to the old man,
"Open It" [meaning the nearby window]. The young woman on the
stretcher moved slightly. Her hands groped for the cord which kept her
salwar tied around her waist. With painful slowness, she unfastened
it, pulled the garment down and opened her thighs."

Shekhar's critics aren't bothered about the obvious literary merit of
his work. They are incensed about other things. The author told me via
e-mail, "This is tribal cultural politics. This is the politics of
region, script, identity... a very layered and complicated issue. All
I can say is those who hate my books without even reading them, will
hate them no matter what." But this turf battle is markedly like what
plays out in other parts of India, including Goa. Some Santhals
support the tribal-created Ol-Chiki script, and maintain Sarna (their
animist faith). But converts to Christianity back the Roman script.
Shekhar thoroughly confounds those stereotypes.

But why shouldn't that be the case? Why should a few individuals
determine what is suitably or insufficiently Santhal, or Goan, or
Indian? In this regard, the recently departed poet and scholar Eunice
de Souza complained, "My blood boils when I hear an Indian talking
about "Indian culture". This is a primitive impulse, finding something
coherent and limited and saying, "This is Indian culture", and
everybody else is excluded." It should be noted she was a sincere
admirer of 'The Adivasi will not Dance', calling it "a fine book of
stories." This most discerning of critics wrote, "I'm not interested
in the ethnicity of writers, just whether they have something to say
that deepens one's understanding of the world. Shekhar does just
that...'The Adivasi Will Not Dance' is a remarkable achievement."

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