Sex, lies and politics
- The acclaimed writer’s awkward new novel is in striking contrast to his earlier brilliance
- Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes with bold clarity, dissecting the fraught history of the state, Santhali culture, and the oppressions wrought by the powerful on the powerless
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new novel, My Father’s Garden, unfolds over three brief sections, linked tenuously by the same first-person narrative voice. “Lover", part 1 of this fictional triptych, recounts in graphic detail the sexual encounters of a medical student stationed in Jamshedpur. The unnamed doctor-narrator is drawn mostly to thuggish men. They exude a violent machismo, use him for sex and money, and move on to women when the tide turns. In spite of the pathos of the situation, it’s difficult to muster enough sympathy for the abject young man, whose appetite for objectifying his partners seems as capacious as their urge to mistreat him repeatedly.
In the second part (“Friend"), the narrator has moved to Pakur, and is employed at the government hospital there. He befriends the head clerk of the establishment, Bada Babu, a fixer of sundry problems. But under his convivial exterior, Bada Babu harbours ruthless avarice, which eventually leads to the demolition of a poor settlement, leaving its inhabitants homeless. Deceit, whether by sexual partners or casual acquaintances, continues to haunt the doctor’s life.
In the final leg (“Father"), the doctor is back home, heartbroken, having tried once to take his life, seeking refuge with his family. But his father, a hard-working and influential man, is cruelly spurned in his political ambitions by the very party he canvasses for. The shock sends the father back into himself. His only comfort is the garden patch he tends to, his family and offspring are unable to offer him any consolation. Much of this section is bland reportage, with little more than the earlier theme of betrayal to bind it with the other two parts.
In spite of the ire of the Jharkhand government for his previous collection of stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, Shekhar writes with bold clarity, dissecting the fraught history of the state, Santhali culture, and the oppressions wrought by the powerful on the powerless. Laudable as these goals are, My Father’s Garden fails to come alive as fiction. Perhaps due to its autobiographical burden, the plot seems insufficiently imagined, and quick to lapse into lifeless non-fictional mode. The prose, dappled with clichés like “beck and call" and “sky-high confidence", could have used editorial lifting; it could also have benefited from a tighter, more cogent, structure.