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Reality or pornography: The curious case of banned author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

"I would rather care for my supporters than those who want to pull me down", says Mr. Shekhar, author of the book 'The Adivasi Will Not Dance'. Photograph: (Facebook)

Delhi, India Aug 23, 2017, 07.14 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

A doctor by profession, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar passionately writes fictions on Adivasis of India. A tribal himself, Shekhar's deft portrayal of tribal life in the state of Jharkhand, wherein he grew up and earns a living, has been a vivid depiction of the love and struggle, poverty and peculiarities of a community of people who have been nothing but marginal to the mainstream Indian literature.

But Shekhar does not see himself an activist; he does not imagine himself to be the mouthpiece of the Adivasi community. While speaking to WION, the author refused any tag, candidly pointing out, "I do not know why I write. In one of my earlier interviews, I had said that I write because I cannot speak. Or maybe because I cannot speak much or do not like speaking much. So I write. Writing is a form of expression. I never analysed the reason for this. Also, what inspires me is a difficult question to answer. I usually write about what I feel quite strongly for." 

Having said that, a close reading of Sowvendra's work reveals the use of strong sexual imageries, which have been a potent literary weapon for Hansda. He uses it to show the existing vulnerabilities of Adivasi women who suffer even after 70 years of India's independence, and in spite of all the promises of development, from poverty and basic wherewithal of life.

But the subversive use of sex hasn't gone down well with many. Adivasi and even non-Adivasi writers and academicians, such as Ivy Imogene Hansdak, Sunder Manoj Hembrom, Francis Xavier Soren, Santosh Besra, Shirijol Dingra, Alakjari Murmu, Inncocent Soren, Tonol Murmu, Raj Kumar, Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, Gladson Dungdung. They have charged the Yuva Sahitya Academy prize winner of writing pornography. Some went so far as to call for bitlaha, which calls for ex-communication and lynching within the Santal people. 

People offended by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar are trolling him on the internet. (Facebook)

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A social media war started which went beyond verbal duel to the more murky water of verbal abuse. Though some of Hansda's detractors have found the smearing campaign objectionable, considerable others think that this is what he deserves for the lack of social responsibility he has shown in not applying a "strong profanity filter". 

A Facebook page is posting trolls on Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. (Facebook)

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In an interview with WION, Shekhar is, however, clueless as to the reason behind the reaction his book has evoked. He was categorical, "I cannot say why my writing rattled so many."

Ivy Hansdak, an English professor at Jamia Milia, has been one of the staunchest critics of Shekhar. Her objection mainly stems from her reading of Shekhar's pieces as "profiting" from "objectifying women's bodies". She sees her fight as "not just against a writer who produces porn but also against a society that consumes it." Consequently, she is coming down strongly not only against Sowvendra, who is nothing but a "porn writer" to her, but all also on any one standing in solidarity with the author. In one sweeping brush stroke, she paints them all as "elite 'liberal' fans of the porn industry."  

When WION asked him to comment on the accusation of being a porn writer, Sowvendra points out, "I do think that they are trying to make me feel guilty of portraying the reality. If reality does not worry them - instead, reality appears to them as porn - then there is certainly something seriously wrong with them."

Not only has Sowvendra's book, The Adivasi will not Dance has been banned, he has been suspended from his job as a government doctor too. Punishing authors, even killing them, for their work is a growing trend in India. When WION asked him for his views on rising trend of such acts of silencing, Sowvendra's thoughts have been that both the compliant civil society and an oppressive state machinery is to be blamed for this. But he had no answer when I asked him as to why there was no such virulent response against Mahasweta Devi's famous story titled Draupadi. 

Historically speaking, the Adivasi writers have been critiquing so far the mainstream literary and cine products for reducing the Adivasi culture and identity to some stereotypes, such as witchcraft, love for dancing, superstition, aggressive sexuality to name a few. This is the first time in the history of Indian literature that members of Adivasi community have taken up the cudgel against a fellow Adivasi writer. With no intention of romanticising the communal bond between tribe member, I asked Sowvendra whether it hurts particularly harsh because of this. 

Without trying to hide his pain, Sowvendra said, "Yes, it did hurt. But instead of focusing on the Adivasis who have taken up the cudgel against me, I would rather be happy for and focus on the many Adivasis who have come out in my support. I really cannot thank them enough. An Adivasi academic wrote an article on my book some time ago: I am thankful to all of them."

Instead of focusing on the Adivasis who have taken up the cudgel against me, I would rather be happy for and focus on the many Adivasis who have come out in my support.
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The social media campaign against Sowvendra has been particularly damaging. So, I asked him how he seeks to counter it. But instead launching a counter salvo against his critics, the author of the book, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, points out that he "would rather care for my supporters than those who want to pull me down. My supporters want me to write more. More articles, more stories, more books, more translations. So I am doing that. I am writing. Writing is my response to the smear campaign."

Sowvendra finds it saddening that though India has often dubbed as the Land of Kamasutra, as a nation we have not matured enough to deal with erotica, same-sex subjects, nudity etc in art. But against this observation, Ivy Hansdak would point out that "banning a book in today's world (esp a book that objectifies tribal and indigenous women) should be studied within the parameters of sociological, cultural and medical studies." Hansdak thinks that the definition of morality is changing. So it is useless to compare the works of DH Lawrence or Erich Maria Remarque with that of Sowvendra. For her, those authors lived in a time "when the norms of morality were v fluid."

The fact that such hue and cry is being raised by people over the use of sex in Sowvendra's short stories tremendously surprise the author. Particularly because it is coming from fellow Adivasi members. Sowvendra points out, "From what I know about the Santhal society, the traditional Santhal society does not moralise in the matter of sex. Men and women have got almost an equal agency in the matter of sex. It is strange that some Santhals should have an issue with sex."

What enrages Sowvendra the most is, his critics are being judgmental about him for writing on sex. "I wonder who or what gave them the right to judge - what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral? Also, I do not know why they are so determined to push their notions of morality down everyone's throats", he says.

But Sowvendra refuses to take the virulent path of his critics to defend his rights as an author. To WION he said, "My next plan of action: Write. That's all."

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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