Friday, 1 April 2016

Book Review | The Adivasi Will Not Dance

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's "The Adivasi Will Not Dance" does not have the most poetic prose but it is raw and honest. This short story collection brings to readers stories from India's fecund yet ravaged lands — the resource-rich Adivasi-inhabited Jharkhand. Ten stories, refreshingly focussed on women protagonists (though that may not have been deliberate), portray how the curse and blessing of bountiful natural resources intersect with historical trajectories of marginalisation to present-day exploitation and apathy.

While the ten short stories that make up the collection are not even in their content, for me, two stories stood out. In "Getting Even", Hansda presumably draws on his own experiences as a medical officer in the Jharkhand Government to portray how 'sahiyas' (Accredited Social Health Activists commonly known as ASHAs) are key to delivering babies in this land where services seldom work.
"The sahiyas knew no rest. Each one would bring a pregnant woman from her village to the Sadar Hospital in a Mamata Vahan. She would then return for another. More beneficiaries meant more money -  both from the government, as an honorarium; and from the beneficiaries' families, as baksheesh. They are terribly shrewd, terribly sharp-tongued, terribly hardworking women, these sahiyas, all of whom run entire households on the money they make off others' pregnancies." Pg 44
His imagery, described in a clipped, matter-of-fact way is telling: he skillfully captures the acceptance and apathy that goes with being at the intersection of being a tribal and poor.
"There was a little girl with them - perhaps three or four years old, in a  frock, her hair tied on the top of her head like a fountain with a rubberband - who was playing with an empty carton of Kojak Selinge syringes." Pg 45
The story deals with so much at once—bullying and sexual assault in a highly unequal society, caste-based identity and how it is experienced in cruel, demeaning ways, the futility of justice delayed, and crucially, how the upper caste poor often find themselves doubly isolated neither shielded by their caste, nor by cushioned by money.

In "The Adivasi Will Not Dance", Hansda is at his best. He weaves the political and personal to construct an image of Jharkhand's coal fields, rapacious private players, an angry, disadvantaged, yet hustling adivasi population, and conniving apathetic political class. In the story, an adivasi troupe is invited to dance at a cultural event for the President of India. Hansda is bitter when he says
"For every benefit, in job, in education, in whatever, the Diku are quick to call Jharkhand their own-let the Adivasi go to hell. But when it comes to displaying Jharkhandi culture, the onus of singing and dancing is upon the Adivasi alone." Pg 179
And then in one act of defiance, the Adivasi dancing troupe's leader refuses to dance for the President. The tables are suddenly turned. Generations of fear, loathing, shame, and atrocity are distilled into the story's climax and the adivasi troupe leader's refusal to dance. But there is no gratification in the act; we realise the troupe leader is narrating the story from jail and Hansda deftly reminds us that in Jharkhand, the Adivasi never wins. 

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