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Mainstream, VOL LV No 35 August 19, 2017

The ‘Legitimate’ Writer and his ‘Illegitimate’(?) Writings

Sunday 20 August 2017

by Sudipto Mukhopadhyay

The ongoing protest on Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s writings and the debates over their legitimacy (to the claim of an accolade from the Sahitya Academy) and authenticity (in representing the Santhali community) lead us to ponder over a few things which are integral to the study of Indian writing in English today. We believe one has the right to write and one surely has the right to protest. But the methods could be put at stake for our discussion here.

Herein, one would focus on two separate and yet integrally connected points: firstly, his claims to represent the ‘real’ of his own community; and secondly, how far this writing could be a vanguard to the writings of the Santhali community hereafter.

One could argue that a writer has the liberty to write anything and everything, till the point he is providing justice to his cause (except if s/he follows the ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ trajectory). What is meant is that, with the changing codes of morality, it’s highly problematic to straight-jacket the perspectives of an author. So, he can surely write his will and express his honest perspectives, which might even seem to be objectionable and a taboo to others. One would not question him on this ground. Rather, one would be interested to enquire if such an articulation provides justice and merit to his ‘cause’. If he represents himself as an ‘individual’ author, he definitely has justified his cause. He has his authorship rights to do so. But if he claims to represent his community, then multiple questions flood into our minds.

WITH changing ethics in academia, is it mandatory to be obligated to one’s own community? (We are pretty sure all the literary stalwarts have faced such a query at the onset of their literary career.) In case a certain obligation is ‘necessary’ to depict the ‘real’ of a community, then how far could one stretch it while representing the ‘real’? (A question with an assumption that literature allows us to add to one’s own community’s ethos.) One must note here that Hansda Sowvendra isn’t treading a path already traced by his Santhali predecessors but has a fertile ground to create a path for posterity. That makes his position extremely volatile and vulnerable for those who follow him on this journey.

We know that a community can never have a monolithic voice. So the plural voices of the community ‘ought’ to be embedded throughout the writings. Now if the author seems to ‘negate’ the polyphonic voices, then could he at all claim to represent the collective? Here, in case of Hansda Sowvendra, he has the capacity to capture the pulse of his community, but he seems to get swayed too often to highlight the libidinal excesses with apparently offensive and tabooed words and events which seem a little presumptuous and deliberately imposed, rather than falling into the nature of his writings. If it’s a mere fashion statement throughout to be a liberated Santhali writer by subversive means, then again he falls into the trap of being consumed and excreted simultaneously without much of an affect. (However, such a judgement could be too hasty without getting to know the writer’s side of the story. One would want to be wrong on this presumption.)

It is quite obvious that the collective/community might expect a ‘return’ (one doesn’t see this as an entirely unjustified claim because even the collective of writers to which a writer would feel attached, would also expect a similar ‘return’) while their perspectives of ‘ethnic’ world-views are exhibited to the general mass/readers. (If such a world-view is based on lies and deceptions, then this question doesn’t stand. One doubts that the Santhali world-view is based on such a deceptive apparatus!) So what would Hansda Sowvendra return to the Santhali world-view that could add to the perspectives of the contemporary Santhali domain of literature?

THIS brings us to the second part of our argument here. How would his writing benefit Santhali literature in English and further contribute to Santhali literature per se? Even if we stretch the community’s ethical standards, in what way would his writing induce and inspire young Santhali writers to create an alternative or even mainstream space for themselves? One could definitely argue that since his writings are transgressive in nature, the condition through which this writing originates could give an ontological momentum to Santhali writings hereafter. In other words, his act of subversion could be an ideal ploy to niche out an alternative identity for Santhali writings.

However, one could also argue that, at the nascent stage, such a forceful subversion would be appropriated and co-opted by posterity for an easy entry into the institution that he promises to uphold. If libidinal exhibits could be a marker of an oeuvre, then a Bollywood film could have only item numbers to see itself through. To be a part of the popular imagination, more than item numbers and a lot of customary creativities are required for a box-office hit. Often tabooed, even libido has a hidden agenda behind the closet. It exposes one’s own self in front of the mirror. We are silent to address such a reality. Hansda Sowvendra seems to have succeeded in bringing that to limelight. Hence, it is uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the question stays that since he has been institutionalised into the mainstream as an authentic voice of the community, even if the community feels betrayed, would that be seen as the entire truth of the community? To put the question differently, the colonial discursive apparatus and the Bengali intelli-gentsia of 19th century, as Prathama Banerjee argues in her book, Politics of Time, exoticises the adivasis as the ‘other’ by sexualising its body. The exotic and erotic adivasi body could have similar purpose in Hansda Sowvendra and could easily be seen as a neo-colonial imagination. Then, where lies the emancipation of such an artistic endeavour? Does it seem to be tailor-made for a certain section of readership to be able to take pleasure in/on a Santhali wo/man as a ‘body’ to be defiled and ruptured, as offered to them by history? That, indeed, could be taken as an offence, if he claims to represent the ‘real’ of his community! It could be even seen as the literary ‘rape’ of a community with no remorse, even a surprising similarity with the actual offenders in reality. It might seem too harsh to be told of a writer, but one might as well endure it as poetic licence and question the writer’s intent.

If one feels obligated to the publishing industry, the writers attached to it and not to the community one represents, then it is imperative for him to answer the obligated questions. Does he have a variety to offer to the Santhali ethos through his writings? If he colludes personal myths with his readings of the myths contingent to his community, then does he not require a ‘Preface’ to address his POV? Even if he uses original language without Glossary, following a lot of Indian writers, is it a way to cleanse his artistic masturbation offstage from the readers who don’t read Santhali? Or is it a mere pleasure of sorts to titillate and infuriate the Santhali-speaking world with an attempt at self-annihilation? Would that do justice if he claims to be a vanguard of Santhali literature in English?

He has definitely shown himself as a non-conformist. The message is loud and clear. Yet this attitude could be used by the writer in a much more productive and progressive way to create a legacy that doesn’t root him to individual material benefits but supports the holistic cause of the community. And it is true that the collective of protesters must come to a proper dialogue to facilitate such a purpose. Public slandering from both sides could cause grievous damage to the entire purpose of practice of writing per se. One doesn’t want to note Santhali literature for such a debate and satirical representations that this debate could promote. Then, it would be natural to misplace our priority and locate Santhali literary history in mud and mirth. Is this what he feels would do justice to his cause and the content of the Santhali world-view?

If Hansda Sowvendra’s persistent condes-cension to his collective invites him to dislocate himself from his roots, then his writings must assure us that it could draw attention not as a writer writing in English from the ‘margins’ but a writer worthy enough to compete from the ‘centre’ along with other progressive writers of repute, and to win accolades from institutions measuring their competence.

Sudipto Mukhopadhyay is currently employed as an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Subhas Chandra Bose Centenary College, Kalyani University, West Bengal. He is also pursuing his Ph.D at the Centre for English Studies, SLLCS, JNU, New Delhi.

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