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Ecological concerns in the Works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: An Ecocritical Study


Ecological concerns in the Works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: An Ecocritical Study


Junior Research Fellow

Department of English

Banaras Hindu University

Uttar Pradesh, India



Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, ethnically a Santhal portrays the cultural world of his tribe in his works. They are neither romanticized nor exoticized portrayal of tribal worldview but provide a realistic portrayal of Santhali culture. Since they live in close communion with nature, they tend to believe the non-human world as an extension of the higher reality. They revere nature considering it pious and inspirited. This leads to a development of a worldview which is based on sound principles of ecological preservation and veneration. The commodification of the natural world in the capitalistic worldview leads to its rapid exploitation affecting the various ecosystems which are interconnected to support life on earth. The paper is an explication of the various ecological concerns exhibited in the various episodes illustrated in the texts. The paper employs the theory of Ecocriticism as its methodological tool for the textual analysis of his works.

Keywords: Anthropocentric; Coexistence; Ecology; Non- Human; Tribal


Nature and Culture although dichotomized in the western epistemology find an interlinked position in the indigenous society. They see both the human and the non-human life forms in a constant state of evolution with mutual interaction and interdependence. Since, literature of a particular culture deals with a certain set of values and aspects of that culture. So, the portrayal of the interaction between the human and the non-human world in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s fictional world is representative of the underlying values of the culture to which he belongs. Different cultures have taught man to align with the non-human environment through itsvarious myths and rituals performed at various levels. It has become important for mankind to retrace its path to the cultural understanding of the ancient ways and wisdom as the present dominant discourse of development is reductionist in its approach. The materialistic attitude of capitalism is universalising and homogenising in its essence as it reduces everything into a commodity. The sole outcome of such an attitude is to reap financial gain which in the short-term might serve the interests of a certain group of people but affects the earth and everyone residing on it in the long-term drastically. So, introspection is needed to change our attitudes towards the non-human world which forms an important part in maintaining our ecosystems. Carol P. Christ rightly asserts:

The preservation of the earth requires a profound shift in consciousness: a recovery of ancient and traditional views that revere the connection of all beings in the web of life and a rethinking of the relation of humanity and divinity to nature.(qtd. in Rangarajan 121)

An ecological approach to literature becomes imperative in an age that is intensely aware of the contemporary issue of global environmental crisis. A critical reconceptualization of the dichotomies like nature and culture, body and mind, human and non-human, self and other is needed to address the anthropocentric worldview which keeps men obsessed with their needs and desires at centre ignoring the well-being of their non-human counterparts. As proclaimed by Swarnalatha Rangarajan, “Human agency has become a significant geophysical force at par with the natural forces, modifying the world’s ecosystems with a greater rapidity witnessed in any earlier period of human history replacing the Holocene with the Anthropocene”(1). This has led to a plethora of environmental issues in the form of deforestation, glacier outbursts, floods, forest fires, deforestation, climate change and the list is endless. In such a trying time, it has become important for us to introspect the values of development and growth which are actually based upon environmental exploitation. It has become important for us to reconnect with nature understanding the interconnection between the human and the non-human world. The paper is an effort to trace the ecological concerns in the cultural ethos of Santhals with an analysis of the works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. As the tribals inhabit the deep regions of the forest, they possess deep affiliation with nature. They co-share their existence with nature, assembling essential commodities with their immediate environment. In spite of the modern influences, their livelihood and survival are in co-existence with nature. They regard nature as their part, their extension and celebrate the interconnectedness between the human and the non-human world. The mode of their worship is animistic and they worship the spirits which according to them inhabit the rivers, mountains, hills, forests, trees, villages, houses etc. around them. They call them “Bongas”. Further, they also have specific ‘totems’ related to the various clans of their tribe towards which they are protective and respectful which are in the form of animal or another non-human feature of their environment. Their economic life, food and drinks, art and crafts, festivities, ceremonies and rituals are intimately linked with nature. Thus, these eco-centric attitudes and practices could surely provide us with some solutions to counter the present environmental degradation. The works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar unfolds before us the Santhal way of living and hence, help us to understand them and their culture in an interactive way. As their culture is deeply connected to nature, the same is reflected in his works, from reverence towards the natural world, the mutual coexistence of the human and the non-human world to quest for peace of mind in the lap of nature and also the struggle which they have to undergo due to capitalism driven myopic governmental plans. The works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar represent the various strands of ecocriticism like Bioregionalism, Eco-Spirituality, Postcolonial Ecocriticism, Deep Ecology etc. The paper employs an ecocritical theoretical approach as its methodological tool for the critical analysis of the texts.

Ecocritical Concerns in the Works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a contemporary Anglophone Indian writer, ethnically a Santhal. His stories are rich in “fine details that add to deep dimensions” and open to us “a world we have deliberately dismissed”. He characterized his first novel as “the first full-fledged Santhal novel written in English”. The works portray the cultural canvas of Santhal community. They deal with various episodes dealing with their beliefs, practices and worldview. It provides the vivid picture of santhali life with its fine details.

The novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupy Baskey portrays the story of a village of Jharkhand named Kadamdihi in which the family of the Baskeys lives. The novel is steeped in the imagery from nature and the names of the various places mentioned in the novel is based upon the local environmental specificationsi.e.,the bioregional specifications of that area like Tereldihi is based upon the abundance of hills in that area, Sarjomdih based on the abundance of Sarjom trees, Kadamdihi named so upon the abundance of Kadam trees:

Kadamdihi was named after Kadam tree. No Kadam trees are to be found in Kadamdihi anymore…but Putki recalls that there were many when her father and other elders founded the village. There was a forest of kadam trees down by the streams. (Hansda 10)

It is quite ironical to note the absence of kadam trees in that village. This indicates that the forest has shrunk due to the onslaught by man with passage of time and there were no more kadam trees left for which once the village was known. This signifies the changes overtime in that bioregion due to increased human intervention leading to loss of an important bioregional flora of that place. The maintenance of a bioregion is essential for the proper functioning of the various ecosystems. Robert L. Thayer defines ‘bioregion’ in the following manner:

A bioregion is literally and etymologically a ‘life-place’ – a unique region definable by natural (rather than political) boundaries with a geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological character capable of supporting unique human and nonhuman living communities. Bioregions can be variously defined by the geography of watersheds, similar plant and animal ecosystems, and related, identifiable landforms… and by the unique human cultures that grow from natural limits and potentials of the region. (3)

Another episode from the same novel illustrates the effect of modernization on the traditions and beliefs of the community which exhibit the values of co-existence and veneration towards nature. The ritualistic practices that shape their worldview seem to have been affected in the modern scenario. In the novel he problematises this issue to highlight the essentiality of these rituals in the lack of which the tribal society disintegrates. The Santhals associate with the supernatural world through their ritualistic practices. “Ritual is valuable cultural tool in the bioregional vision that help humans bond with each other, as well as with place and non-human nature” (Rangarajan 70). As Datta-Majumdar noted, “The Santhals live not only in their human tribal society but in a greater society consisting of supernatural beings as well” (qtd. in Troisi71). The episode is suggestive of the disorganization that the society has undergone due to the mishandling of the ritualistic practices during the significant festivals of the tribe:

But now, the people of Kadamdihi had stopped worshipping their gods. The Baha and Maak-Moray festivals were not being organized anymore. The Jaher had turned into a jungle. Furthermore, the Santhals of Kadamdihi had started depending on frauds to protect their village and their faith. (Hansda 179)

Further, there are more such episodes dealing with ecocritical concerns in his othersignificant fiction,My Father’s Garden. The novel at various places deals with the cultural feature of santhali life and also possess the spirit of co-existence between the human and the non-human world. It deals with the prominent festivals of Baha and Maak Moray along withthe details of the rituals conducted in the Jaherthan:

As Manjhi of Kessorepur, he was tasked with adjudicating and settling disputes, and most importantly, he was the guardian of the village Jaher,the most sacred centre of our faith, where everyone prays during Baha and Maak Moray festivals. (Hansda 130)

The discussion of Jaherthancould be further traced in the following section from the text which explains its constitution along with its significance:

In Kessorpur, the Jaher was a plot of land, common to everyone, where farming was not allowed. The cutting of tree was forbidden and they flourished there. In the middle stood the huge banyan tree and at a distance from it were two gigantic Sal trees. Under these trees was the heart of the Jaher, the shrine of Marang Buru and Jaher Ayo, our chief deities. (Hansda 131)

In the Santhali worldview the interaction between human and non-human world is the quintessence of their living. This leads to the development of an ecological consciousness in them which is an outcome of their belief in the mutual connection between both of them. A tribal cannot imagine his life as an individual. He lives in the spirit of his connection with his community which comprises both the human and the non-human entities. They equate the non-human well-being as a prerequisite to the health and well-being of the human world as is suggestive in the words of the narrator from My Father’s Garden:

How lush and beautiful the Jaher had once been, how men and animals stayed healthy and productive until the end of their days. A time when one could walk about everywhere fearlessly. (Hansda 50)

There is again a very strong and powerful section which concerns with how the narrator is deeply agonized by the cutting of the Sal trees in the Jaherthan (the sacred groove) by the village manjhi. He complains,“What would he have gained by cutting down these trees? To kill a tree is savage. It is like murdering a man. Yet we couldn’t say anything. Those trees were common property” (183). This thought of equating the loss of human life with non-human life form is assertive of one of the tenets of deep ecology as formulated by Arne Naess, “Both human and non-human life forms have intrinsic values” (qtd. in Nayar 246).

Again, we find a strong ecological consciousness in the character of the narrator’s father. He aspires to restore the trees in his personal garden what has been lost in his village due to the cutting of large number of trees. The narrator says, “Each time a new sapling would have been planted, as though my father wanted to replace every tree that was cut in Kessorpur” (185).

The kind of language that is employed by Hansda, is not anthropocentric but biocentric. He does not see or portray nature for its instrumental value but for the intrinsic worth it holds. The language marks the spirit of co-existence and interconnectedness between the human and the non-human world.

Further, one of the other works is a collection of short stories i.e. The Adivasis will Not Dance. It provides a staunch critique of the modern concept of development. This work deals with the aspect of Postcolonial Ecocriticism and is based upon the exploitation of nature and its people. Vandana Shiva in her book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survivalin India clearly marks the difference between the actual development based on sustainable living with indigenous knowledge of the natives and the development as preached by the western patriarchal model of capitalism which is based upon reaping maximum profit to a handful of people at the cost of deterritorializing the people to whom the land and its resources actually belongs. The following excerpt from the short story with the eponymous title, The Adivasi will Not Danceis well enough to illustrate this and falls under the tenets of Postcolonial Ecocriticism. These are the following lines and it deals with the problem of deterritorialization as faced by the tribal community on account of the various undergoing developmental projects as is reflective in the setting up of a thermal power plant in the short story where the narrator resists the project and asks, “which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do?”(185).

The following lines from the same chapter of the text critiques the misappropriation of the Santhals and their culture on account of serving the projects of development as proposed by the mainstream culture that has nothing to do with the upliftment of the people from the tribal community. Hansda through the narrator expresses how Santhals, “Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier?” (185).

Hansda through the narratorial voice of Mangal Murmu, from the same chapter, marks the exploitation of the Santhals by the mainstream culture who complains, “We Santhals can sing and dance, and we are good at our art. Yet, what has our art given us? Displacement, Tuberculosis”(178).Here, a link between environmental degradation and its impact on human health and livelihood is quite perceptible. As Ramchandra Guha rightly asserts:

Commercial forestry, oil drilling, and large dams all damage the environment, but they also, and to their victims more painfully, constitute a threat to rural livelihoods: by depriving tribals of fuelwood and small game, by destroying the crops of farmers, or by submerging wholesale the lands and homes of villagers who have the misfortune to be placed in their path. The opposition to these interventions is thus as much a defense of livelihood as an ‘environmental’ movement in the narrow sense of the term. (143-144)

And the story ends with a few questions raised by the narrator of the story, Mangal Murmu, rebelling against the capitalistic model of development. His group is invited to represent the santhali culture by performing the folk song and dance before the President who has been invited at the inaugural ceremony for setting up a thermal power plant. The narrator understanding the pathetic state of his community asks the following questions rhetorically, in an ironic tone:

Johar, Rastrapati-babu. We are very proud and happy that you have come to our Santhal Pargana and we are also very proud that we have been asked to sing and dance before you and welcome you to our place. We will sing and dance before you but first tell us do we have a reason to sing and dance? Do we have a reason to be happy? You will now start building the power plant, but this plant will be the end of us all, the end of all the Adivasi. These men sitting beside you have told you that this power plant will change our fortunes, but these same men have forced us out of our homes and villages. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to grow our crops. How can this power plant be good for us? And how can we Adivasis dance and be happy? Unless we are given back our homes and land, we will not dance. The Adivasi will not- (Hansda 187)


Thus, we could trace the development of ecocritical concerns in Santhali culture through the analysis of its beliefs, rituals, festivities and struggles it undergoes due to modern intervention in their way of living. The fact could be well-established that nature occupies a central position in the lives of Santhal community. The works of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar provide the evidence of the same fact that how Santhali culture is deeply imbued with nature and also how the various strands of ecocriticism are conspicuous in his works. He provides an insightful representation of Santhali life, culture and its struggles in the modern world.

Works Cited

Guha, Ramachandra. Environmentalism: A Global History. Penguin Random House, 2016.

Hansda, Sowvendra Shekhar. The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey. Aleph Book Company, 2014.

---. The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories. Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2015.

---. My Father’s Garden, Feel Books Pvt. Ltd.,2018.

Rangarajan, Swarnalatha. Ecocriticism: Big Ideas and Practical Strategies, Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 2018.

Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development in India. Kali for Women,1995.

Thayer, Jr., Robert L. LifePlace:Bioregional Thought and Practice. University of California Press, 2003.

Troisi, J. Tribal Religion: Religious Beliefs and Practices among the Santals. Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2000.