Author photo credit: MRINAL KUMAR
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is the author of the novel, “The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey”, which won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2015, jointly won the Muse India-Satish Verma Young Writer Award 2015, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 and a Crossword Book Award 2014, and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2016; a collection of short stories, “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”, which has been recommended for a course at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2016; and a number of non-fiction, fiction, and photographs that have been published in The International New York Times, The Indian Express, The Times of India, The Caravan Vantage, The Asian Age, Outlook, The Hindu Business Line BLink, Scroll, TheWire, The Sunday Guardian, American Book Review, Economic Times Blog, The Punch Magazine, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, and other places. His next novel, tentatively titled “A Memorial”, is forthcoming in late-2017.
It is an honour to interview a writer as accomplished as you. I just finished reading your debut book ‘The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey’ published by Aleph in 2014.
1- Let’s begin with your name. From your novel I found out that ‘Hansda’ is a family name. How is it your first name?
A- My father wanted me to have an impressive name, so he gave me a looong name with my surname placed at the beginning.
2- (i) It is a coincidence that I finished reading Doctors by Erich Segal just before your book. After reading it I concluded that one need not be a doctor to write a good story about doctors’ lives and maybe that conclusion came about because I’m not a doctor myself. As you are a doctor, what do you think?
A- If writing is not the primary profession of a person who writes, it is not necessary that that person’s primary profession should influence that person’s literary works. In some stories of mine, I have written about doctors and hospitals, but that is because I found a story in them and not because I am a doctor. I think anyone can write about anything.
(ii) In other interviews, you have been asked how your profession as a doctor affects your writing. Especially this book, because it is about a mysterious ‘ailment.’ In my reading of the book I did not feel that the doctor in you overshadowed the writer in you because to write well one has to be observant. The novel is a good observation of society, how the society perceives illness, human suffering, black magic, injustice, character, gender identity, caste etc. Any comments?
A- In one of my interviews, I said: “Doctors see things, not only ailments.” So, yes, we doctors are observant. But we doctors have to be observant. That is a prerequisite in our job. But as far as observing people and society and etc. goes, anyone can observe those. One just needs to be interested in what is happening in the world outside and keep one’s eyes and ears open.
3- You have created poles apart female characters in this book. Putki who had had many affairs before she got married and her daughter-in-law Rupi who doesn’t even know what being touched in the ‘conceiving’ way means. This self-awareness was brought out well in the novel. Can you tell us why you did it?
A- This wasn’t done consciously. I had not aimed to create some kind of a contrast between Putki and Rupi. It just happened.
4- Each chapter is broken down into small scenes with a little backstory about each character. You separate scenes with tildes. Did you do this to retain the reader’s attention span keeping in mind the novel form and the risk it poses when the reader gets distracted?
A- Well, I get distracted. My attention span is really poor and I have a hundred things running in my mind at a given moment. So if you think the chapters are like how you have described, that was probably because I wanted the chapters to suit my own poor attention span.
5- There is a witch family in the novel. The naikay family. You bring alive ghosts in your novel. They were really haunting, to be honest. Is this all from folklore or do women really have rolling eyes like the naikay’s wife?
A- They were all an amalgamation of the stories that I grew up hearing and my own imagination.
6- Della, the defiant daughter of the naikay family somehow escapes the grip of her witch mother. This reminds me of the movie Titli, in which the protagonist wishes to escape his patriarchal family and he eventually does. Any comments?
A- Yes, Della escapes. J And I have seen “Titli”. A very fine film. There is a difference between Della’s escape and Titli’s escape. Titli arranges for his brothers to be arrested before he starts a new life with Neelu. Della just leaves her family the way they are. Also, in both cases, I don’t think Della and Titli escaped. They just tried to seek the lives they thought were better and happier, with the people they loved.
7– Since this was your first book, can you tell us how you plotted the book. Minutely or you wrote it as it came? Considering the many characters, was it difficult?
A- Although “The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey” is my first book, the plot and characters were there in my mind for several years. I just had to sit down one day and write it all out. So I did it in May 2011. Started writing. I finished in October 2011. Despite the many characters, it wasn’t difficult because, like I said, everything was in my mind from quite early on.
8- Through your novel, I found out that Adivasis/Santhals/STs eat beef, pork and more. I have often been asked by vegetarians whether I eat ‘everything’ as it is quite common among Goans and Mangaloreans to consume meat. I feel like an outsider at such times and wonder why we are looked down upon for what we eat. You mention in the book that other people from the village look down upon Santhals for their eating habits. Any comments?
A- Well, yes, despite my own village being primarily a Santhal village, we Santhals have experienced discrimination at the hands of Hindus. Forget higher caste Hindus, even those lower caste Hindus that the upper caste Hindus wouldn’t want to see discriminated against the Santhals. They did not allow their things to be touched by Santhals. They did not consume food or water from or at a Santhal home. Things have improved a lot over the years. The discrimination of those years is not there anymore. But yes, discrimination is there. Adivasis are still considered impure and uncouth. Sometimes I think this entire hyphenated “Dalit-Adivasi” thing that we have created is an absolute sham. Just because Dalits and Adivasis hang around together in university campuses and offices does not mean that Dalits all over India have started seeing Adivasis as equals. It is OK for educated Dalits to see Adivasis as equals, but what about in the villages, in the interiors of our great country where traditions rule and inequality is a norm? University campuses might be hunky dory, but go into a village and all your education and idealism will fall flat on their faces. As long as caste and religious pride is there, people of different communities wouldn’t be seen as equal. Walls of caste and notions of who can be touched and who cannot be touched have to be demolished completely before even Dalits – the higher up Hindus are a far different story – accept Adivasis as equal.
9- I have been quite ignorant about Adivasis, please forgive my unintentional ignorance. When I was a child, on vacation in India, when I did not know something simple I guess, I was called an Adivasi. When I inquired what that meant. I was told it meant I don’t know anything just like the tribals and later on in my mind I thought they were tribals like the Amazon forest tribes.
In your second book, The Adivasi will not dance, the protagonists have well-paid jobs and live in cities and towns. Your book sheds light on educated Adivasis. Is this possible because of the ST quota in college admissions etc.? Any comments?
A- Absolutely. Though I am not OK with the term Scheduled Tribe for Adivasis, I have to admit that the reservation for the Adivasis has helped us a lot in realising our dreams.
10- From stories narrated to me about life in Goa, I have had a certain picture of life there in my head. Rice fields in which women have to work, belief that black magic exists and is all powerful, ghosts wander about looking for lone people, people gossiping about each other… All this came to mind as I read your book where you have painted a similar picture of the Santhal village. Any comments?
A- I think in every part of the world, not only in India, not only in Jharkhand or in Goa, there might be things that are beyond rational explanation. That’s all I can say.
11- You faced a backlash after the publication of your second book. Can you tell us more?
A- Well, from what I know, after the publication of “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”, apparently, a non-Adivasi man, from an apparently higher up Hindu caste, masquerading as a champion of Adivasi issues, incited some Adivasis to spew poison against me and they did it. This is all I can say because I do not think people like these deserve even an alphabet from me or a nanosecond of my time.
12– (i) From your Facebook posts, I see that you love to bake. How did this hobby come about and are you as passionate about it as you are towards writing?
A- Not only baking, cooking, in general. I find cooking therapeutic. After returning home from a hypertension-inducing day of a government doctor, cooking a fine dish or a full meal is a total stress buster. How did I veer towards cooking? Because I love to eat. Sometimes I think I live to eat. And my mother and my aunt (my father’s sister, who taught me alphabets and raised me), are fabulous cooks. I am living away from my family, and I often wonder what will happen if my mother and aunt aren’t there tomorrow? So I am trying to learn to cook all the dishes that I have loved since my childhood and which my mother and aunt used to cook for me. Also, my mother and aunt – my aunt, especially – are fine knitters. All the fabulous sweaters in red and pink and green and golden that I wear at lit fests have been knitted by my aunt. So I am also learning how to knit because I want to be able to learn to knit at least one decent sweater before my mother and my aunt leave. Who will I turn to for hand-knitted woolens after they are gone? No one else can take their place. So I am preparing myself. But knitting is so difficult! Cooking and knitting—I am like obsessed with both.
(ii) in your novel, you describe how men and women are looked at differently by society, what defines their roles. Do you think people still consider baking as a feminine thing?
A- I cannot really say why men and women are seen differently by the society because gender roles and gender stereotypes have already been established. As for baking being a feminine activity, I do not see any activity as masculine and feminine. Why does one bake? Because one wishes to eat something to fill one’s stomach or to taste something good. Don’t men eat? So how can baking be a feminine activity? Basic tasks like cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the house, changing a light bulb, replacing the coil of an electric heater, ironing clothes, stitching a broken button—these are basic survival tasks. Everyone – whether boy or girl or man or woman – should know how to do these tasks.
13- (i) Your book was longlisted for the International Dublin Award last year. It is one of the most prestigious international literary awards.How did it feel?
A- It felt good. For 24 hours, at least, I was flying in the sky. Then I returned to my job, realised that I was in Pakur and not in Dublin, and was immediately grounded. I take this opportunity to thank the library at the India International Centre, New Delhi for nominating “The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey” to the International Dublin Literary Award 2016.
(ii) Akhil Sharma won it for his novel ‘Family Life’. Have you read his book?
A- No, I haven’t.
14- What do awards for your writing mean to you?
A- Well, I feel like living longer and writing some more.
15- Books you would recommend that shed light about Adivasis.
A- I will recommend three novels by Easterine Kire: “Bitter Wormwood”, “When The River Sleeps”, and “Son Of The Thundercloud”; and three books by Mamang Dai: “Legends Of Pensam”, “Stupid Cupid”, and “The Black Hill”.
16- Your book has been translated into regional languages. What happens to the words from the novel that are written in english script but are of regional languages like Bengali/Santhali?
A- The words which are in Santhali or Bengali or Hindi or Odia in my stories originally written in English, I let the translator know that I do not want them translated. I want them in the original form. If the Santhali words can remain in original Santhali in an English story, I don’t see any reason to have them translated. So far, only “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” has been published in translation: in Hindi and in Marathi. So in the Hindi translation too, the Santhali words will remain in Santhali.
17- What are you working on next?
A- My third book, which is my second novel, is in the editing stage, and will be published by Speaking Tiger, hopefully, in November 2017. Right now, the working title of this novel is “A Memorial”, but I think this title will be changed and we will go with a new title. I am also writing my fourth book, which will be my third novel. This too has a working title but I won’t reveal it as, I am sure, it will end up revealing the entire plot. This too will be published by Speaking Tiger, hopefully in 2018.
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