The Adivasi Speaks

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adivasi-will-not-danceWe Adivasis will not dance anymore… We are like toys — someone presses our `ON’ button, or turns a key in our backsides, and we Santhals start beating rhythms on our tamak and tumdak, or start blowing tunes on our tiriyo while someone snatches away our very dancing grounds… Tell me, am I wrong? —

The Adivasi Will Not Dance

If you look around, you would find Indian fiction largely filled with characters carrying the tag of their upper caste lives. Not that this shouldn’t be a point of discussion but how many times have we come across surnames that aren’t a Tripathi or a Banerjee or a Menon? In his second book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar takes this cue and pulls the reader into the lives of the Santhals — one that finds very little mention in Indian writing — whose voices are often suppressed with impunity.

To most of us, popular stereotypes about Adivasis have rested on their rituals, including dancing to rhythmic beats of the tamak amd tumdak. At least half of our native languages are replete with derogatory references to the Adivasis. Thus, in our imagination of the Adivasi and their lives, our privileged selves have always seen them outside of our mainstream narratives. It is in this skewed world replete with caste privileges that Shekhar has woven a powerful set of narratives, all exposing various strands of the system we are perpetuating.

Take for instance, the first story of the collection, ‘They eat meat!’ In 2000, a Soren family is transferred to Vadodara, Gujarat. Despite meat being their staple diet, the family is forced to be quiet about their eating habits. While this in itself is an insight into the beef debate, the story moves past the obvious to tell a tale of how they are forced to be vegetarians. Though the Sorens take a liking to the food, their fear of being ‘caught’ is evident. In an understated tone, Shekhar presents this with characteristic ease.

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‘Eating with the Enemy’ brings forth the tale of two women, Sulochana and Mohini. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Sulochana is enraged when her husband brings another woman, Mohini, home. But this hatred for the ‘other’ does not last when both women share their domestic work. As they negotiate the various transactions revolving around the institution of marriage, Sulochana and Mohini traces the complex terrain of patriarchy in which marriage is entrenched.

‘Sons’ is the story of two women whose grandfathers are brothers. The story begins with an account of the two mango trees in the courtyard. While one is tended to, the other one is left to fend for itself. Yet the one which is allowed to grow wild trumps the other when it comes to bearing the sweetest fruits in the village. Drawing on this analogy, the writer tells the tale of the two sons borne to the two women in the house.

In a similar vein, Shekhar takes on a variety of subjects, including the sordid story of a prostitute who dares to fall in love and the tale of a couple who find their way to each other after losing their first-born. As if this weren’t fascinating enough, he takes you through the life of Basojhi, who gets ostracised over a rumour of being a witch. In the powerful The Adivasi Will Not Dance, the voice of the author comes through. Questioning the continuous oppression of the Adivasis, the narrator recounts the trauma of the violence unleashed on them. Not only are they displaced from the land they occupy, they are forced to hand it over to the treacherous mining mafia. Why must the Adivasis dance for the president when he hasn’t listened to our words?

The best aspect of the book is its tone. Despite being an important observation on the life and struggle of Santhals, Hansda adopts an understated tone as he takes us through complex political struggle. Not only does this enable the reader to reflect on the book further, it also gives us a jolt from our slumber.

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