My Father’s Garden by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Published by: Speaking Tiger
Indian Writing: Fiction, 191 pages (Hardback)
Rating: 4/5 stars
Spanning half a life, My Father’s Garden tells the story of a young doctor—the unnamed narrator—as he negotiates love and sexuality, his need for companionship, and the burdens of memory and familial expectation. The opening section, ‘Lover’, finds him studying medicine in Jamshedpur. At college, he discovers an all-consuming passion for Samir, a junior, who possesses his body, mind and heart. Yet, on their last morning together, when he asks Samir to kiss him goodbye, his lover tells him, ‘A kiss is only for someone special.’
In ‘Friend’, the young doctor, escaping heartbreak, finds relief in Pakur where he strikes up an unusual friendship with Bada Babu, the head clerk of the hospital where he is posted. In Bada Babu’s house, they indulge a shared love for drink, delicious food and convivial company. But when government bulldozers arrive to tear down the neighbourhood, and Bada Babu’s house, the young doctor uncovers a sordid tale of apathy and exploitation—and a side to his new friend that leaves him disillusioned.
And in ‘Father’, unable, ultimately, to flee the pain, the young doctor takes refuge in his parents’ home in Ghatsila. As he heals, he reflects on his father—once a vital man who had phenomenal success at work and in Adivasi politics, then an equally precipitous downfall—and wonders if his obsessive gardening has anything to do with the choices his son has made. Written with deep empathy and searing emotional intensity, and in the clear, unaffected prose that is the hallmark of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s style, My Father’s Garden marks a major talent of Indian fiction writing at the top of his form.
About the author:
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a doctor and the author of a collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, which was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize. His debut novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar and was nominated for The Hindu Prize, the Crossword Book Award and the International Dublin Literary Award. His last published work was Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh, a novel for children. He also translates prose and poetry from Santhali and Hindi into English.
*Thank you Speaking Tiger for this review copy. All opinions are my own.
‘My Father’s Garden’ by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a book that is not going to be easily cast into regular structures of ‘novel’ ‘short story collection’ or ‘part memoir’: suffice to say it is each one of these and all of it together! Made up of three parts/segments titled ‘Lover’, ‘Friend’ and ‘Father’ : Hansda’s latest book is written in a first person narrative. The three segments are placed in a chronological journey but make the reader look at each part as short memoirs with the narrator as the common thread.
‘Lover’ looks at the narrator’s life as a medical student caught in the throes of illicit desire bursting with part betrayals and all doomed to stop. There is angst and wonder throbbing throughout the section with quite a few mention of Salman Khan. ‘Friend’ follows him as he negotiates life on his own after his posting at a small hospital and where he learns that there is always more than what meets the eye. The last section ‘Father’ is partly about laying down the socio political and cultural backdrop of the Adivasis and their demand for Jharkhand brought to us through the life and times of the narrator’s grand father and his father and then filled in with just the right amount of heartache that so characterises the distance and affection between children and parents in the Indian family set up, or rather, fathers and sons. Each section has another common element besides the narrator: the class and caste divides and the discrimination that is attached to people at the lower social order, something that Hansda writes with élan and constant questioning.
Pegged as a work of fiction, the narrator (who remains unnamed) and certain common elements with that of the author makes the reader in me try to guess just how much of autobiographic elements are included in this book. The common elements? The narrator is a medical doctor who is posted at Pakur (as is the author till his suspension following allegations that his book, The Adivasi Shall Not Dance, portrayed Adivasi women and Santhal culture in a bad light); the narrator’s father works in a copper factory Ghatshila as does the author’s parents.
I read Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s debut novel, ‘The Mysterious ailment of Rupi Baskey’ a few months earlier and was struck by the author’s narrative. The writing brought alive the social cultural mores of the Adivasis so vividly with an intimacy that comes from belonging and yet being able to wrest with the confines of being ‘othered’ and that is something I can say for this latest book too. I am going to tag this as a must read book for 2019. And yes! the cover is all heart!
Read more details of the book here