From ancient epics to contemporary short fiction, land has figured as a symbol, a trope, a function, an extension and an obsession in the individual and collective imagination. Land can be a source of memories, impressions and dreams that constitute a person’s consciousness. It is also the physical space that marks the two determining phases of life – birth and death – and is, therefore, intrinsically symbolic. What happens when people are forced out of their land? Handsa Sowvendra Shekhar’s collection of 10 short stories and sketches in The Adivasi Will Not Dance highlights the various spiritual and emotional disturbances that forced displacement can create in the human consciousness.
Shekhar’s writing has contributed to the emergence of the figure of the adivasi or indigenous dweller in Indian English fiction. Part of the adivasi experience is linked to struggles of forced migration, displacement and uprooting in the context of modern, urbanised living. While in the popular imagination, adivasis are stereotyped as bestial men and semi-naked women who prance around trees and fires, the actual indigenous person in India is resisting and mourning the loss of identity and rights in a pattern that is horrifying and sadly predictable. In poetry and drama, one hears these voices of loss and anger, but in prose, Shekhar’s writing, with a tenor and texture that is as acerbic as it is poetic, has filled a much needed gap between ‘great and little histories of people’, to draw upon A K Ramanujan’s critique of the dichotomous ‘great/little’ model in the context of Indian literature.
While the great histories mythologise, personify and experiment with the idea of the nation, the little histories explore, expose and debate the making (and unmaking) of the nation on a daily basis. In the title story, ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’, when a veteran performer is made to dance to the tunes of folk instruments during a visit by the President of India to the Santhal region, the implicit irony is borne with anger and grief by the narrator of the tale. Folk performers have often been reduced to showcase artists who have to be kept poor in order to remain case studies for grants and fellowships. This is a brutal structure that oppresses while professing to emancipate.
The story exposes a model of containment that uses art to check the potent subversiveness inherent within it. As Mikhail Bakhtin had pointed out in Rabelais and His World, the state allows the ‘carnivalesque’ so as to limit its possibilities; in this case, the state showcases and perfunctorily celebrates folk art and tradition, while simultaneously using its resources to create systems where folk vocabularies find no place. During any important state function, folk artists are invited to perform their songs and dances that, from the outset, are relegated to mere entertainment lacking any intrinsic value.
This undermining smothers the possibilities for the art form because in a performance, possibilities are linked to the attitude of the audience. Bertolt Brecht, Dario Fo and Habib Tanvir were able to reorient the attitude of the audience to these possibilities in creating a fusion of topical concerns with folk rhythms. Through this story, Shekhar has touched on a condemnable aspect of the relationship between folk artists and the state. With discernible anger, the writer points to the visual image of an adivasi who starts playing his musical instruments and starts dancing to tunes, apparently of his own volition. However, the real tune is being set by the state to which the helpless individual dances to, on demand.
This exploitation of an individual naturally extends to all aspects of their consciousness. Mining companies compel people to plunder the depths of their own land and extract precious ore. They are then left to loot or rummage through dirt for the same resources. In the short story titled ‘Merely a Whore’, the writer highlights the double-edged torture that women have to face in this situation. During the day time, men are forced to damage the earth by extracting every last bit of mineral reserves, and at night, they take out the effects of this exploitation by abusing women.
The conceit of plundering appears painfully obvious to the reader. The situation of Sona, who is viewed differently than the other women who are seen as ‘merely whores’, is particularly woeful. Sona is on the receiving end of abuse from her clients and subject to their whims. She makes the mistake of bringing her emotions into relationships that are rooted in abuse. To the men, including her lover Nirmal, these women serve a particular purpose and giving their bodies an identity is ludicrous. When Sona looks for meaning in a relationship with a person who is manipulative and abusive, she is displaced and made obsolete. The moment she tries to assert her emotional rights over her man, she is made to realise that she is no longer of use to him. Her constant struggle is to ensure that she remains relevant, a struggle that any displaced individual faces on a constant basis.
In going from her home to the brothel, Sona has left behind her land and her people, and in doing so, she finds herself caught in the struggle to maintain her relevance in the present scheme of things. The anxiety makes her vulnerable, and she pins her hopes to an abusive relationship as she dreams of settling down with Nirmal, and she is ready to face any kind of humiliation for it. When Nirmal makes her realise there can be no such dreams for dispossessed people like her, she is left completely broken. The kiss for which she longs for, which is always denied to her by her clients, symbolises her desire for social acceptance. The kiss is a marker of emotional involvement in the act, something that is distorted by the nature of the exchange and that is carefully denied by men in this story. A kiss will always elude Sona, reminding her of her position and lack of agency. The story delves into the depths of a powerless individual’s heart and shows us the vulnerabilities, anxieties and avenues that the heart explores and faces in this struggle.
Negotiating a precarious predicament
The short sketch ‘November is the Month of Migrations’ is written in a tone that is reminiscent of Saadat Hasan Manto’s brutal and unsparing sketches of violence and loss. The story opens at a point when Talamai, the powerless female protagonist, is being displaced from one area to another. In this state of transition, Talamai is desperate for food and survival, and in exchange for a stale bread-pakora, she offers her body for a sexual encounter with a stranger in a dirty and dark corner. The rhythm of the act is clinical and predictable, thus highlighting her powerlessness. This is a cycle that women like Talamai and men like the stranger she encounters are used to. On the road, everyone is vulnerable to a degree, especially the ones who do not have the certainty of a return. Talamai is one among so many women (and men) who possess nothing and can hope to possess nothing.
The vulnerability of migration is far from being an isolated experience. How many Southasians move to the Gulf and get exploited year after year? How many women from the adivasi belts of central and eastern India are found as sex slaves in homes and resorts in north India? These individuals, who have become mere figures in the midst of the sheer enormity of a humanitarian crisis, leave their lands with a chilling inertness that shows how exploitative systems can suck the most basic human impulses out from a person. After being taken advantage of, Talamai receives 50 rupees and a stale bread pakora. The system has taken away from Talamai even the right to feel wronged. What is abuse to the reader is barter for women like her. Models of development are centred on the products, not the losses, of the bargain. Talamai counts as one of the ignored losses, while the electricity-producing power plant is the publicised gain. The stranger who takes advantage of her situation is like a vulture who is waiting for a morsel, irrespective of where it comes from or how.
In sharp contrast to the broader issues raised by Talamai’s story, is the sentiment held by the Indian elite that tribals are hard working and therefore make good maids and household help. In thinking about these juxtaposed perspectives, I am reminded of the following poem:
She fails to gather
her name scattered all over.
In her dedicated bondage
her hands and feet, liver and skull
all her limbs.
– ‘Housemaid’ by Aswini Kumar Mishra; translated by Abhaya Kumar Padhi
Those who are displaced can be affected overtly as a result of mining and industrial activities on their lands, or indirectly in multiple ways. One such indirect channel occurs through the process of facing acute poverty and debilitating health, as is the case for women like Sulochana in the story titled ‘Eating with the Enemy’ who find themselves sweeping floors and washing dishes in middle-class homes in urban areas. Behind every character like Sulochana is a heart-breaking tale of violence, displacement and loss where men are given to drinking and philandering, and women who are looking for alternative signifiers of their dreams and fears. In middle-class Indian homes, one finds men and women working beyond their capacity and beneath their capabilities, serving their more settled urban masters. The hunger for survival makes people bend and adapt into the most unexpected of circumstances. At the end of the story, the writer leaves a picture marked with shades of desire, frustration and helplessness with regard to the life stories of such desperate people.
I have come across many incidents in sanitised middle-class homes in India where a woman serves a family day and night, her name serving as amusement for people far removed from her cultural bearings, and her identity mocked and maimed by her owners. A girl from Jharkhand working for a family in Delhi-NCR is discovered by her ‘madam’ to have built relationships without her knowledge or permission, and she is put on display for moral condemnation by all. When she complains of sickness and a psychosomatic anxiety about ‘nazar’ (negative energy being transferred through a human gaze to a person’s consciousness) and ‘dahini’ (the practitioners of witchcraft and magic), she is held up as the quintessential idiot, an illiterate and unformed lump who is a liability. In this uneven battle between persons of two classes, one who is dispossessed in so many ways and the other a complacent urban Indian, the latter is bound to win. It is a victory of one outlook to life over another, one understanding of reality over another.
This unequal battle has been played out in Indian English fiction many times, with its obedient imitation of the realistic form that the West so kindly bequeathed on Indian writers. The literary form of realism is a product of a post-Enlightenment understanding of reality as verifiable, and like many other structures and forms of thought and action, this too was enthusiastically adopted by Indian English writers. However, in the context of Indian literature, reality is not always a distant concept awaiting examination and interpretation. In the experiences of people in India, the tangible and verifiable is as valid an epistemology as the intuitive and remembered. Intuition and recognition have been regarded as valid epistemology even in the founding philosophies of Shaivism and other non-dualistic schools of philosophy. In realism, there is limited space for the latter kind of experiences and knowledge, and therefore is often incapable of assimilating the diverse forms of experiences.
Between the girl from Jharkhand and her household boss, there are multiple ways of apprehending reality. In Shekhar’s writing, including his first novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, the realistic form is stretched to contextualise and redefine it. Rupi’s ailment or the small child asking for food in the short story ‘Desire, Divination, Death’ are extensions of an individual’s own fears and guilt, and the power of another individual over one’s own mind. For the urban reader, this may seem inexplicable or bizarre, but this too is a form of reality as experienced by the individual. Human beings are capable of experiencing, interpreting and creating many kinds of realities, and fiction of Shekhar’s kind contributes to widening the scope of realistic fiction in Indian English writing. He has created moments and vibrations of longing and deep desire that take an individual’s consciousness to explore layers of reflections and images, like that of Sukhram in Rangey Raghav’s novel Kab Tak Pukaroon (How long should I call?). The form that is created is charged with aspects of reality that are desired, experienced and lost, all in a singular form rich with varying rhythms.
Each of the 10 stories presented by Shekhar are connected through a common thread of grief. In all the stories, the central characters start at a point of loss, from which they submit to powers that be and also reclaim power for themselves. The predicament of the mother in ‘Blue Baby’, where her baby is an allegorical moral punishment for her dishonesty is resolved with her symbolic rejection of every bit of the emotional and physical remnants of her previous relationship. Shekhar’s characters endure because of their reclaiming of agency in the most powerless situations imaginable. This affirmation is very significant in writing that seeks to represent the lives of marginalised people in a society. Rather than a romanticisation of their loss, Shekhar has sketched characters with ordinary compulsions and weaknesses but with extraordinary motivations. His stories capture the spirit required for survival, which makes struggling individuals perform heroic deeds on a daily basis.
The Adivasi Will Not Dance represents a collection of little histories that are contributing to the character of India as a developing, diverse and evolving nation. The language of this book is truly polyphonous with multiple traditions and varied realities co-existing between English, Santhali, Bengali and Hindi tempos and cadences. The book also opens our minds to the ignored fact of many diasporas existing within India that experience longing, identity crises and fractured memory as core issues. Shekhar’s work in this volume is a tribute to lives of struggle and marginalisation, carefully avoiding the exotic or self-pitying tone. His craft is suffused by love for his people that reminds readers of Baba Nagarjuna’s poetry – familiar and distant, angry and lyrical.
~ Namrata Chaturvedi teaches in the Department of English, Zakir Husain Delhi College in New Delhi.