A doctor tells stories

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Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, the story of a Santhali family over four generations, is remarkable for a deep and masterful observation of lives and descriptions of a tribal village – its tree groves, weekly markets, festivals, fights, and gatherings.

The debut author, a doctor with the government of Jharkhand, lives in Pakur, along the state’s border with West Bengal. Once or twice, in descriptions when Rupi and her husband Sido visit doctors to seek cure for Rupi’s mysterious ailment, the writer’s professional knowledge seem perceptible in the narrative. At others, the descriptions of the characters’ emotions of envy, loss, uncertainty are so natural, the supernatural seamlessly flows from them in the story.

What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 mean to you?


I think it means that something good is being expected of me. So I should try to work harder and write better books.

How did your closeness, or distance, from the lives of the people you were describing affect your writing?


The Santhal village, as I have shown in my novel, is how I have seen my village. I have always lived in a Santhal village. My village, Kishoripur – where I revised Rupi Baskey – and my hometown, Ghatsila – where I wrote Rupi Baskey – are just 40 km apart. We would always be at our village for one reason or the other every 10-15 days, or so. Sometimes I would be at Kishoripur in the morning and return to Ghatsila in the evening. There was no question of being close or distant here. I was both. What I have written in Rupi Baskey is from my own life.

How do you compare observing as a doctor to observing lives around you as a writer? Was there ever a temptation to diagnose Rupi’s ailment in the plot, or in your mind?


I remember, when I was working as a house surgeon at my medical college in Jamshedpur, my colleagues and I once saw a very fair young lady in a ward. Our immediate response was: Is this lady really this fair or is she anaemic? You wouldn’t get such a response from ordinary people; only from medicos. Doctors pay attention to the minutiae, the finer details. That is, I think, the beauty of being a doctor.
While writing Rupi Baskey, though, I felt neither as a doctor nor a writer. I did use my experience as a doctor in writing the childbirth scene in Chapter 1, but I never tried to consciously put my knowledge of medical sciences into my book. I was not comfortable thinking of myself as a writer at the time. In fact, I am not comfortable even now being called a writer. What you read in this book, was more as a person seeing an other person and then telling that other person’s story. And no, I never felt like diagnosing Rupi’s ailment. There would have been no mystery then.

What is your writing routine like? How did your novel come to be published?


The less said about my writing and revising routine the better. I am not a disciplined writer. Although, while writing Rupi Baskey I was a bit more focused than I normally am. Now, however, I have returned to my lazy ways. I don’t know when my next book or even a short story is going to come. I write only when I have something to write.
As for how Rupi came to be published, well, I sent the usual synopsis and first 50 pages to various agents and publishers. I had submitted to Aleph, too. My package was addressed to David Davidar. Two months later, I received an email from Ravi Singh – who was the publishing director of Aleph at that time – that Rupi Baskey had been accepted for publication. And I lost sleep after that.

Did you write the short story Adivasis Will Not Dance published in 2014 in The Dhauli Review before or after this novel? What was the thought behind it?

I wrote Adivasis Will Not Dance in 2013. I wrote it after there was the foundation stone-laying of a thermal power project in Jharkhand. I thought, thermal power projects located in other states take their coal from Jharkhand, hydroelectric power projects have their dams in Jharkhand, but people in Jharkhand do not have electricity. I find this tremendously unfair. In August, a neighbouring state stopped supplying potatoes to Jharkhand, which led to a rise in price of potatoes here, and potato is an essential food item. I wonder what the scenario would have been like had Jharkhand, too, stopped all the coal from here going to the thermal power plants in that state.

An interest, or love other than writing that you enjoy.


My favourite activities are sleeping and eating. I sleep a lot; I can fall asleep in buses, trains, anywhere. I am a glutton. I find eating therapeutic. If I am happy, I eat; if I am upset, I eat. At 1 A.M., when people are tucked into their beds, you could find me munching on a kaju barfi, chocolate, or potato chips, or stirring a glass of nimboo paani.
I love watching films.

I want to learn how to knit; but all I have been able to do so far is buy a ball of yarn (the end of which I was not able to find, so I cut the yarn at some random point) and a pair of no. 10 knitting needles, and save knitting videos on my YouTube.
I think I need to stop being so lazy.

Do you believe in ghosts, spirits, witches?
Yes, I do.

(:) An edited version appeared in The Hindu here.

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