Hansda Sowendra Shekhar’s debut novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey is a loving and careful recounting of the Santhal way of life. Spanning several decades and four generations in the lives of the Hansda clan in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, the novel centres on the theme of dahni-bidya, or witchcraft, and traces the lives of the increasingly dysfunctional descendants of Somai-haram, the majhi of Kadamdihi village. It is remarkable that the author, a doctor working for the Jharkhand government, has not let his training interfere with or add scepticism to this story about the paranormal.
Somai-haram and his wife’s desire for children ends in successive miscarriages. The neighbour’s wife is a practitioner of witchcraft, feeding off the deaths of her victims. Putki is a lone daughter who grows up wild in her ways and befriends Della, the wayward daughter of the neighbour who practices witchcraft. Together the two girls paint the town red—working at the rice mill in town, dressing, dancing, drinking, taking and dropping lovers at will. Della, wild but good-hearted, escapes her mother’s evil craft by marrying and Putki too settles down with Khorda Baskey. The Rupi Baskey of the title is the wife of Putki’s older son Sido, and her mysterious ailment is seemingly the work of Sido’s colleague’s wife, Gurubari, another dahni. The rest of the narrative focuses on Rupi’s helplessness in the face of a debilitating condition which responds to no treatment and the slow crumbling of a once illustrious family.
The triumph of the novel lies in its vivid and authentic detailing of the physical and cultural landscape of the region. Villages evocatively named after trees, the gods and evil gods of the Sarna pantheon, naked witches with rolling eyes dancing by a silver stream on full moon nights, sleepy mining townships, the festive merry-making, the growing but repeatedly thwarted desire for a separate tribal state, the rituals surrounding marriages and deaths are all richly drawn. The prose is dense with words from the Santhali language and not easy to navigate but this adds texture and flavour to the story, making the text earthy in places, musical in others. Care has been taken to weave in the meaning in English within the sentence or paragraph.
The novel sets up a cast of fascinating characters but is unable to do complete justice to them within its all too brief 200 pages. The characters, dramatically drawn and strangely beautiful, stand out like a spectacular mural but don’t yield to a deeper probing. The men are shadowy and reticent, the women are better delineated but there are so many brightly malevolent witch-women peppering the story that the occupation appears fit to qualify for cottage industry status in the region. Too many different strands to the witchery theme scatter the story. Unexplored relationship angles diffuse it further. Greater conflict and less passivity between characters would have served the story well. More outbursts like that of Rupi’s sister-in-law Dulari asking her what her goodness had done for her would have given the novel a somewhat missing emotional intensity.
A very promising debut, but it leaves the reader wishing for more. Better that, than wishing for less.