Review: My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar explores politics, caste, and sexuality to tell the story of a gay Santhal
A doctor examining a patient at a government hospital. (Representative picture).(LightRocket via Getty Images)
A doctor examining a patient at a government hospital. (Representative picture).(LightRocket via Getty Images)
Updated on May 17, 2019 05:55 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Avantika Mehta
192pp, Rs 499; Speaking Tiger
192pp, Rs 499; Speaking Tiger

It is good to know that Jharkhand banning his first book The Adivasi Will Not Dance and his dismissal from work has not quelled Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s uniquely political voice. His fourth novel My Father’s Garden is bursting with honesty and courage.

Comprising three parts, the book starts with The Lover set in a medical college in Jamshedpur. Here, the reader is introduced to the story’s unnamed raconteur. Perhaps loosely based on the author, the narrator is a medical student in love with his junior Sameer. A macho man with an Adonis body, Sameer is ambitious and wants a ‘conventional life’. He is looking for sex, not romance. Meanwhile, our storyteller is obsessed with finding true love. Though The Lover does an excellent job of capturing the awkwardness of sex, better descriptions of the erotic scenes could have elevated this portion.

The book’s second part is set several years later in Pakur, a town on the border of West Bengal and Jharkhand. Titled Friend, this act follows our narrator to his posting as a doctor in a government hospital. Here, he meets Bada Babu, a clerk with whom he develops a close friendship. Filled with vivid descriptions of Pakur, Friend captures the essence of a sleepy town being rapidly transformed by industrialisation. While Sameer’s character development in The Lover is flat and tedious, Friend’s Bada Babu jumps out of the pages as a rounded, authentic person. So detailed is he that the reader might never forget how he held his Navy Cut cigarette “as if he was smoking a bidi.” The reader becomes deeply invested in the improbable friendship between Bada Babu and the protagonist. The end is grim, provocative, and profoundly moving.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Courtesy the publisher)
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Courtesy the publisher)

The novel’s final act, Father, follows the narrator to his family home in Ghatsila. Forty-five kilometres from Jharkhand’s East Singbhum district, it is also Shekhar’s hometown. It is here that our protagonist returns to nurse an injury. This part of the story follows the narrator’s past and reminisces about his father, a chemist whose political ambitions were shattered leading him to grow obsessed with gardening. There are anecdotes too about the narrator’s grandfather.

Though My Father’s Garden might seem like a coming-of-age story, it is not. The protagonist tells us little about himself and more about the lives and peculiarities of the men he has loved. It is a novel that asks a question rarely contemplated in our narcissistic times: Are we always the stars of our stories?

Read more: What the ban on The Adivasi Will Not Dance tells us about India’s political life

The three portions of My Father’s Garden are linked but use different writing styles and tones. The lack of uniformity is a definite weakness. While Friend is detailed, both Lover and Father are written in an aloof manner and cliches like “sky-high confidence” and “beck and call” pop up, revealing a sort of writer’s fatigue.

Still, the 190-page long My Father’s Garden tells the story of a Santhali gay man with passion. The writer mines his rich Adivasi culture and explores politics, caste, and sexuality in a way few authors have. Unmarred by illusions, Shekhar brings us a story that would otherwise have remained on the fringes. This is not comfort reading. It is specific and informative, and yet universal in how it expresses pain. It is impossible not to feel the sorrow and small joys scattered within its pages. The book and the author must be lauded.

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