Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden, advertised on the jacket as the latest of ‘a major talent of Indian fiction writing at the top of his form’, is supposed to be the biography of a young doctor. It spans half his life, narrating his negotiation of ‘love and sexuality, his need for companionship, and the burden of memory and familial expectation’. The narrative is divided into three distinct parts, or fragments: ‘Lover’, ‘Friend’, and ‘Father’, each petering into the other. At just a little short of two hundred pages, the book is a quick read.
Readability, however, does not detract from my problem with it. The prose is striking enough, and the tone of lacerating honesty in keeping with Shekhar’s established oeuvre. What disappoints, however, is that I am not able to make sense of why these fragments have been presented as a book.
The author’s and publisher’s thinly veiled attempt to cloak this as the biography of an unnamed young doctor may well work as a strategic response to the repercussions Shekhar faced in the wake of his anthology of short-stories The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Anybody even remotely familiar with Shekhar’s work or the unnecessary controversy he has been made privy to will recognize that the ‘unnamed narrator’ is uncannily similar to the author himself. But even if this veneer of fiction was maintained and disbelief willingly suspended, it still seems superfluous to be presented with biographical extracts on a character so young—just a couple of years out of medical college. A few years back, Mridula Garg had occasion to underline this burgeoning trend of young authors moulding their life narratives—as imagined as experienced—in keeping with market demands for the sensational and quixotic. Unfortunately, Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden seems to me to be an instance of this trend.
To say this is not to deny the wellspring of experiences that Shekhar must have drawn from in creating this text. Much of his public writing, notably the stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance, give lasting dramatic voice to the realities of the Santhal experience in Jharkhand’s strife-torn coal belt. Over the past few years, Shekhar has proven himself to be a competent and inventive craftsman. His art throws in sharp relief the politics of persecution as it insidiously pushes India’s marginalized peoples into deeper inequity. That Shekhar writes keenly from experience is not in question. I find My Father’s Garden unsatisfying, nor do I wish to insinuate that this book sensationalizes sex, violence, and politics across the corroding fence of normativity. It is not clear why everything has been presented in this form.
The three fragments, or sections, would have worked excellently as short stories in their own right; they have sufficient sentiment and understanding of human nature to stand tall on their own. For instance, the narrator’s seamy, sexed trysts with Sunil, Lucky, and Samir in his college hostel speaks well of psychological wreckage of love seeking solidarity and satisfaction under dire restrictions. Similarly, Bada Babu’s machinations in securing a plot of land for himself in Pakur at the risk of homelessness for his neighbours throws light on the duplicity of power in forging private gains in the garb of public good.
However, massed thus with each other, these narratives risk leaving readers confused and disoriented. The first fragment, ‘Lover’, is almost pornographic in its frenzied depiction of desire and sex: page after page is populated thickly with sweat-soaked chests, hard and straight penises, and anal gooseflesh. The second one, ‘Friend’, is devoted almost fully to the travails of government service in small-town Jharkhand, the hypocrisy of petty politics in orchestrating land grab and demolition. The third, ‘Father’, scales up to the intrigues of national and adivasi politics at the crossroads of Jharkhand’s quest for statehood. The narrator’s tortured sense of self with intimate reference to his thwarted sexuality and his acute sense of failure regarding his parents’ expectations inform these three fragments as binding motifs, but there is little else in terms of cohesion between these sections.
To me, this is a crucial marker of a book’s relevance. If literature is one man’s stories for another’s entertainment and edification, there must be a point to why these stories must be read by others. What constitutes their appeal, what makes them relevant, these important considerations must be taken into account when evaluating a piece of public writing. My Father’s Garden, unfortunately, fails to pass these criterion. Its fragments, considered in their own light, will appeal to a wide spectrum of readers. Taken as a whole, though, the book will leave many wondering why it is a book in the first place.
Sadly, these experiences are so common, so shared that their narration provokes little curiosity: they stand as valuable testimonies, but they are now one amongst so many that their appeal fails to transcend the academic. The narrative tone too lacks the quick, incisive talent Shekhar is readily recognized for, and the book hardly, if at all, evokes the sympathy his earlier work does. Finally, the enlarged font size and spacing also do not help: they seem hasty afterthoughts to make the book bulky. The jacket design by Maithili Aphale and Debasmita Dasgupta is indeed evocatively beautiful, but the book itself belies the expectations it generates along with the blurb. While Shekhar is undoubtedly a very able writer, My Father’s Garden suffers not just in comparison with its predecessors but also on its own: neither too fragmented nor suitably cogent, it is undone by its misplaced aspiration to narrate a life not yet lived.
Anubhav Pradhan is a Doctoral candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.