Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his debut novel, but it was in his second book The Adivasi Will Not Dance – this relentlessly readable collection of stories – that I felt he fully came into his own as a writer. He writes about a people he knows well, and those the rest of India doesn’t seem to notice unless someone grabs and tilts our heads towards them. Sowvendra Shekhar’s fiction has been doing that consistently since 2015.
Shekhar’s characters, often belonging to the marginalised community of Santhals, live in the harshest of realities in his works. They go through being heartbroken and resilient in the course of the same day. Despite that, even his minor characters are not waiting for big-city-saviours to pull them out of their truths, instead they become each other’s crutch and headrest both with ease.
They criticise and champion each other equally, but never lose their humanity. It’s the powerful who are always performing the questionable acts, and often without consequences. However, the stories in Adivasi are not interested in demonising them, instead they hold a mirror towards the readers and ask us if we need to be more grateful for the guilt-free lives we are living each day.
In 2017, The Adivasi Will Not Dance was banned by the Jharkhand government, which found it offensive to the dignity of Santhal women. Four months later, fortunately, the state found “nothing objectionable” in the stories and the ban was lifted. I write fortunately because these are tales that must reach the most untrekkable corners of our country, anywhere even one person who has felt unrepresented all their life inhabits.
Yes, there is sex, lies, and debauchery in this anthology, but never without intimacy, love, desire, and the indomitable courage of Santhals – displaced in the name of progress, ridiculed in their own land and treated like playthings – whether in Jharkhand or elsewhere, against unimaginable everyday violence. The perpetrator is not always punished in Shekhar’s world but hate almost always loses.