The narrative of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s debut novel traces the presence and interference of dahni-bidya (witchcraft) on four generations of a Santhali family in Kadamdihi, a village in the not-yet-formed Jharkhand. The plot begins with introducing the reader to Rupi Baskey, who is identified as the strongest woman in Kadamdihi—having birthed her first-born in the middle of planting season in the rice-fields. The chronicle of the Baskey family is unravelled for the reader with constant reiterations of the ebbing away of strength from the once resilient Rupi. The third-person narrative voice reveals the source of Rupi’s enervated condition at the outset, mitigating any suspense while simultaneously orchestrating an arena of suspense through the leitmotif of witchcraft and the mystery it generates. Dysfuctionalities are an operative norm in the Baskey family and the cause is the dahni-bidya practised by the enemies of the majhi-gushti (chieftain’s household).
The blurb says The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is the story of the Baskeys—the patriarch Somai; his alcoholic, irrepressible daughter Putki; Khorda, Putki’s devout, upright husband, and their sons Sido and Doso; and Sido’s wife Rupi’.This is the first of the varied instances of divergence between titular and actual relations in this novel. Somai-haram is not a Baskey but belongs to the majhi (chieftain’s) family of Kadamdihi village. His only daughter Putki is married to the lame widower Khordo Baskey from Lowadihi. In spite of Khordo’s status as a ghardi-jawai (live-in son-in-law), it is his family name that is bestowed on Somai-haram and his lineage. The definitive plot outline becomes an accidental metaphor for the terrain of marital relations within the novel. Sido’s marriage to Rupi develops into a series of ‘perfunctory gestures, made out of duty than love’; it is Gurubari who plays the role of the actual wife—almost from the beginning. Doso’s—Sido’s younger brother —marriage is similarly eschewed but for different reasons. The girl he loves is made unattainable by caste barriers and he marries Dulari in order to assuage his family but retains his love affair with the ‘Sabar girl’. Marrying these instances of marital disparity is the very title of the novel. Rupi Baskey’s ailment is a titular mystery and is ‘mysterious’ perhaps only to the numerous medical practitioners she visits at Sido’s coercion, the reader and the denizens of Kadamdihi know the cause of Rupi’s ailment, the sole mystery it holds lies in the furtive and secretive practices of witchcraft.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar makes women the central agents of action in the narrative. The men of the majhi household become bystanders or peripheral participants in the plot of the novel. Witchcraft occupies the central position and propels the movement of plot but what makes the narrative engaging is the space for female agency that witchcraft accords Santhali women. In the case of Gurubari and Dulari particularly, the practice of witchcraft enables them to move out of an arena of social subordination and acquire autonomy. Gurubari comes from an economically weak family and witchcraft becomes her way of bettering her social situation. Doso’s wife Dulari takes up practicing witchcraft as a way of escaping domination within her marriage. Dahni-bidya therefore becomes her way of acquiring agency. It is interesting that even at the novel’s closure there is no fatal end for Gurubari who is the chief architect of destruction.Whether it is the naikay’s (intermediary between Santhalis and their Gods) wife or Dulari, the women in Kadamdihi who practise dahni-bidya are not socially outcast; they operate within Santhali society and participate in the celebrations and festivities of the community. Even when Somai-haram doubts the naikay’s wife’s involvement in his wife’s miscarriages, social civility makes him reluctant to approach her. He tells himself ‘…such things are better not discussed. That is what has been done over the years. Santhal men drink haandi, Santhal women practice dahni-bidya, and no one speaks about it.’ This naturalization of dahni-bidya is what makes the terrain of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey distinctive.
The religious practices of the Santhals are briefly described in the novel, the major deities Marang-Buru and his consort Jaher-Ayo have the central shrines surrounded by five other shrines. The fifth of these shrines belonged to Sima-Bonga, the deity that represents negative forces. Taming this deity brings economic prosperity to the family but the consequences are ill-health, male sterility and death. While references to the Sima-Bonga and witchcraft are almost intertwined, there is no demarcation of whether the Sima-Bonga occupies an important role in dahni-bidya. Since the Santhali faith does not permit the descent of gods on women and references within the novel imply that the Sima-Bonga is tamed by a man, the masculine domain of supernatural practices has been effaced under the overarching orientation towards witchcraft. This is also true for the general tenor in both the narrative and plot; there is a detached movement towards unravelling the lives of the Baskey family with no particular closure given at the end of the narrative. Rupi seems to acquire an affirmative presence in her second daughter-in-law Rupali (an augmentative of Rupi). Her health improves though her approval of Rupali’s actions and decisions and Rupali seems to live out the unrealized potential of Rupi’s own existence. However, the novel lacks a decisive closure concluding on Rupi’s seeming appropriation of Rupali’s actions through a comparison with herself.
The indifferent lens also functions in the narration of the politics that underlies the life of the Santhali community. The novel refers to the various adivasi movements that resulted in the formation of the state of Jharkhand. Khorda urges the people in Lowadihi and Kadamdihi to vote for Jaipal Singh and the Jharkhand Party in the 1952 elections. The disappointment in Jaipal Singh, the advent of Shibu Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the constitution of the All Jhar-khand’s Students Union (AJSU) all form deviations from the larger plot of the novel. This tangential reference works towards undermining the relevance of politics within the Santhali community. Given the context of the adivasi struggle for a state of their own, whether this narrative manoeuvre is accidental, incidental or deliberate lends the novel an added dimension.
Finally, the novel during varied junctures, especially in dialogic interaction between the characters, makes use of Santhali. While this does accord richness to the text, also makes it inaccessible to the reader without translation. Therefore, a translation of some of these terms, as was done for the songs, could have been provided.
Karuna Rajeev, currently pursuing her PhD on the late nineteenth century female popular fiction writer Marie Corelli, was formerly an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi.