I congratulate Manoj Rupda on the translation of his 2018 novella, Kale Adhyaye, from Hindi to English as I Named My Sister Silence by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. But he says he doesn’t know enough English to read it himself. Not accustomed to the spotlight as a Hindi writer—a language he feels has a shrinking reader base and inchoate book-marketing strategies—Rupda is delighted at the overwhelming response of readers and critics alike to this title. The book has made it to the recently-announced longlist of the sixth edition of the JCB Prize for Literature.
Equally humble is his journey to becoming an accomplished Hindi short-story writer, whose fine-spun stories interweave the complexities of interpersonal relationships with the convoluted realities of a postmodern India. Having dropped out of school after repeatedly failing his Class 6 mathematics exams, and later being inducted into the family sweet business, Rupda had little chance to procure formal language training. Being a writer was never his plan.
“I read a lot of fine stories on the scrap paper, that would later be shaped into cones for dispensing bhujia,” he recalls. Hindi translations of Franz Kafka’s multilayered The Judgement or Nobel-prize winner Knut Hamsun’s Pan, which focused on the relationship between man and nature, had him so immersed that he often forgot to serve his customers.
Kale Adhyaye was inspired by the massive explosion depicted in the 1970 film Zabriskie Point. The uncanny silence in the film Charulata became the starting point for his novella.
Written in simple prose, and shorn of any literary embellishments, it is a poignant exploration of a brother-sister relationship situated in the shadows of a difficult household. The elder sister’s back-breaking work in collecting tendu leaves for her brother’s education introduces her to the Maoist revolution. While the brother ends up being an engineer on a ship named Jaldoot, the sister runs away from home to be a part of the revolution. The novel traces the boy’s journey back from the ship to his violence-struck hometown, and into the thick of the jungle as he makes sense of his sister’s decisions.
The novella drives home the devastating impact of violence by highlighting the man-animal duality. The protagonist, a young unnamed Adivasi boy, runs into dense forests following a majestic elephant. Soon the meeting turns into a nightmare, as a pack of wild dogs with “red, blinking eyes” catch hold of the elephant’s hind legs and begin to tear apart his flesh. Overwhelmed by the violence, the boy’s mind, wrought by post-traumatic stress disorder, splits into two—both human and an animal, the latter never allows him to feel anything.
The first part of the book is focused on the boy’s search for his sister Irma Kako, who has joined the Maoist movement. The wandering boy’s journey in the forests of Bastar is a deeply moving, and nuanced tale of the violent interplay between Maoists, Adivasi villagers and police constables. As soon as the reader feels tempted to label perpetrators and victims with the unfurling of each incident, the plot takes an unexpected turn, never allowing for easy, superficial answers.
While the red corridor has been a topic for many non-fiction books—including Hello Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement (2017) by Rahul Pandita, Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands (2020) by Alpa Shah and The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (2022) by Nandini Sundar to name a few—the real strength of this fictional account lies in the second part. In this, we witness the journey of the ship, Jaldoot, which ferries essential commodities to and from settlements, and therefore, acts as a means to exercise authority. It meets a calamitous end in due course. In fact, the motif of a colossal thing coming undone is one in which the writer is particularly interested. As with the elephant incident, which the writer emphasizes, one registers a similar overpowering sense of loss as Jaldoot gets dismembered following the 2008 global economic recession.
Various incidents of violence mined from world history are mentioned as Captain Alok Dutt, the captain of Jaldoot whom the young boy meets, narrates his father’s and grandfather’s experiences. Whether it be the Lynching Carnival, in which the auctioned body parts of African-Americans were being maimed, or the post-Partition bloodshed in Pakistan, the novel takes broad, sweeping leaps.
Such interesting parallels between barbarism in Bastar to bloodthirsty incidents in world history make a point that economic disparity remains at the centre of such fallouts. However, as these incidents pile up, one wonders if they add significance, rather than just being danglers of general knowledge. Nor do we have enough meat to understand the Captain who, apart from being an embodiment of the turbulent times in World History, is poorly constructed, lacks inner motivations or desires
Rupda’s short fiction such as Saaz Naasaaz and Tower of Silence puts a disproportionate thrust on being ‘human’, and the ability to retain humanness, when the world is too eager to tear it apart. We might be accustomed to thinking of violence in the binaries of a winner and a loser, but this novel makes us question if that victory is worth it as we end up bartering those raw, intimate parts in the process that makes us most human.