In Conversation with Sanjay Bahadur author of the book Hul: Cry Rebel
Today we are very pleased to have Mr. Sanjay Bahadur, author of the historical fiction, ‘Hul:Cry Rebel’. Sanjay is an Indian Revenue Service officer presently working as a Commissioner in Mumbai. He graduated from Elphinstone College Mumbai and holds a Masters degree in Economics from University of Bombay followed by an MBA from University of Birmingham. He also holds a Black Belt in Taekwondo. He has worked in various capacities in Income Tax Department, as Director in Ministry of Coal and as Advisor (Economics) in Competition Commission of India. His debut novel, ‘The Sound of Water’ was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and has been critically acclaimed internationally. His second novel on Santal rebellion of 1855, ‘HUL – Cry Rebel’ has been recently released in India and is the subject of this interview. We are very interested about the book, so without wasting time we will speak to him about it.
Sanjay thanks very much for accepting the interview request, and for taking the time to speak to us, we shall begin by getting an overview about your book, please tell us about it.
The novel traces the life of Bikram, a Santhal boy who grows up in a tumultuous and painful period for the great tribe. It was a time when greedy merchants and powerful landlords conspired with officials of the East India Company to gain control over mineral-rich territories in central India. The Santhals were first dislocated, then exploited and finally dispossessed in their own land. At last, the tribe rose against its oppressors and took on the might of a colonial power. History records it as the Santhal Hul. 30,000 Santhals were massacred in the Hul.
From the brutal assassination of his father, to Bikram’s lonely struggle to adapt to a heartless civilization, to his finally becoming a rebel – the narrative takes the reader through a whirlpool of passion, betrayal, intrigue and revenge. Bikram’s life becomes a mirror for the plight of Santhals and their heroic effort to retain a place in a rapidly changing world.
A senselessly brutal phase of colonial history is portrayed through the intimate lives of individuals who lived and died in those times.
Now that we have an idea about the book please tell us about your background, I read somewhere; you spent your childhood in half-a-dozen cities that must be really exciting.
Well, I come from a family of civil servants. My father too was an IRS officer and my elder sister is in the Indian Foreign Service. Being in a Central Civil Service, my father was transferred across India and as kids, we moved with him. It makes one somewhat of a vagabond – one doesn’t feel the sense of belonging to any one place. At the same time, one can connect to every place. It helps one rise above narrow, parochial thoughts and think of whole of India as one’s home. But it has its own disadvantages as a school
At any point of time before, maybe during your student years or while in the job, was there any plan to write about the tribals? I mean when and how the Santhal Rebellion of 1855 occurred to you as the subject for your new book?
Frankly, I had never thought of writing a historical novel or a novel on Santhals. However, during one of my trips to Jharkhand, I came across a book called the ‘Struggle for Swaraj’ written by the local parish. It was a vivid account of the rebellion. Then I read PO Bodding’s Santal Folk Tales on Santhal Culture. These two formed the basis of my understanding of the history and culture of these people. This was 2008. I was so inspired by the information, I couldn’t resist writing about HUL.
Of course there were many uprisings or revolts so to say during that period; do you see anything unique in the Santhal Rebellion of 1855?
For me, Santhal HUL was a subalternist rebellion – for the people, by the people and of the people. The rebellion was fuelled not by kings or generals but by simple farmers. This was fundamentally different from other rebellions in India at that time and similar to the French or American rebellions.
How you went on with the research? A lot of travelling and browsing through old documents must have been involved in this, please share us your experience.
I read several related books, read district gazettes, accounts of correspondence between military officers and civilian command. It was very demanding research because I had to do it in addition to my professional commitments. My official work also took me to Jharkhand area a few times, so I could see the terrain and visit a few Santhal villages and speak to people there. I used to make copious notes, which helped me collate and include minute facts. But in the end, all the research gave me tremendous satisfaction of being true and authentic.
Any challenges or difficulties you faced while writing the book? In other words while going through the documents/records have you felt the need of a well conducted research about the beginnings, spread, outcome and the fates of the martyrs, or you think there has been substantial research on the Rebellion so as to present a clear outline of the entire Uprising?
I realised that Santhal HUL had not received enough attention from historians or documenters. Finding facts was tough. But that was to be expected. Mainstream historians must have thought Santhal HUL was a marginalised event – because Santhals are even today marginalised. I resented that and wanted to bring the glorious story of HUL out for the mainstream. I know, we still suffer from lack of interest in the history of our tribes, but I want to change that. Historical fiction is a good way to attract attention of educated people to some aspect of history. I feel Santhal HUL must find its own place next to the Battles of Plassey or Panipat. It was equally glorious as a resistance from people.
While going through the military communications or even the reporting of Santhal Rebellion in English Newspapers of that time, what impression do you get of the British perspective about the Rebellion?
From my own research, I can feel the British were worried about movements like the HUL. My research revealed that many British believed Santhals were just dumb peasants who could be treated like chattel. The ferociousness of Santhal warriors took them by surprise and shook them us because it made them lose face. Therefore, the Company administration retaliated most brutally, killing 30000 plus Santhals over a few months. The British understood the future implications of an indigenous rebellion. Santhals were in a way the red flags for them.
Even after 159 years past the Santhal Rebellion do you think that the reasons which started the Rebellion still exist today? In other words do you see a terrible failure on the part of the policymakers, and the mainstream society in understanding the rights of the Adivasis?
I don’t see it as a failure of “policymakers”. In a democracy like India, I firmly believe that policy reflects the common will of the people. But with the best of intentions, a policymaker cannot bring drastic changes. Understanding Santhals or any other segment is not a “policy” issue. It is the issue of mindsets. We have to change the mindsets that think of Santhals as “endangered species” requiring special help and make them think that it is only fair that Santhals claim their own space. We need an equal treatment of our own people. I only want the mainstream India to respect, recognise and reach out to those who had a place of their own before commerce, trade, politics claimed it from them – for no fault of theirs. I only seek respect for our Santhals – and all other original people of India. Respect comes from knowledge and awareness about someone. That is what ‘HUL – Cry Rebel’ seeks to do.
Films, documentaries, novels are very important media to aware the general audience about the culture/tradition and the day to day struggle of the Adivasis, do you see a growing or positive trend in bringing the long ignored picture into the mainstream consciousness?
No. Currently, I don’t see any growing interest in the plight or situation of any marginalised group in terms of films, documentaries or novels. What happened to Santhals or what they are currently facing is not a concern amongst urban, educated people who constitute the reading population and who are powerful as opinion makers. Friends advised me not to pick up a “non-selling” theme like the Santhal HUL. But I believed that story HAD to be told. I also believe that thinking readers would read any book that has a powerful story and the story of Santhal HUL is a powerful story. This would be an enjoyable way of creating awareness about Santhals. I also hope this would encourage more writers, film makers and playwrights to produce work on similar themes. Through your blog, I wish to also promote a recently published novel, ‘The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey’ by a Santhal writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. It is an evocative story of a contemporary Santhal family in a small village. Who knows, eventually, there might start a trend, just like “feminist writing” became a trend when writers started addressing that issue.
10. One important aspect in the mindset of the mainstream people is a feeling of sympathy towards Adivasis, (even in the minds of urban intellectual) if some sort of bonding between these two has to occur, what sort of exchanges do you think will replace the feeling of sympathy with equality?
Specially for “urban intellectuals” who, in fact, lead the way the nation thinks, the only way a bonding can take place between them and Adivasis is if there is more literature (fiction/ non-fiction) about the Adivasis. Intellectuals READ more than they watch movies or view any other art form. Therefore, there must be enough literature available in that space. In this age, when Chief Ministers and Cabinet Ministers are of Adivasi lineage, I don’t worry about achieving “equality”. That is inevitable. We just need to bring the intelligentsia together to support this need to give Adivasis their own space and the recognition they deserve. Unfortunately, in literary medium, I don’t think enough is being done to recognise the place of our Adivasis. My novel ‘HUL – Cry Rebel’ is only a small and limited effort, but I’m proud and happy about it. I want to bring focus on the issue. I have no interest in writing about urban pangs, dreams or aspirations of the mainstream India. Enough authors are doing that.
11. Writing a historical fiction is not easy, however after all the hard work, when the book is complete; a special feeling is connected with it. In a way this is a great accomplishment as well; do you have any such feelings about the book?
With ‘HUL – Cry Rebel’, I simply felt I have paid homage to the Santhals that they so richly deserved for contributing to the history and culture of India. I’m just a dot on India’s literary landscape but I feel tremendous sense of satisfaction to be able to bring the awareness about Santhals to the forefront for those who want to think and know. I believe it is high time we move away from a sense of history that only recognises Ashokas, Akbars or Tipu Sultans and move towards a sense that realises that unknown freedom fighters like Bikram did exist. India is free not only because of the great heroes of whom we hear about but because of countless unsung and unknown heroes like the warriors of the Santhal HUL. My book is a modest salute to those unsung heroes of the HUL.
One of our main intentions was not only to know the book, but also the man behind the book, and we thank Sanjay for making it possible. I have to say he spoke candidly on many issues, which brought out his perspective on important matters. Among all other things that we talked about, I like his commitment to provide the space to the Adivasis which they truly deserve. He talked about the Adviasi history of struggle, which according to him is largely overshadowed by the glamorous history of the mighty Emperors and Kings. And I guess this is also the objective of the book-Hul: Cry Rebel, to offer the space and rightful homage to those people who 159 years ago stood against tyranny and oppression. Thanks again for joining us Sanjay we really appreciate this, and wish you good luck in your upcoming literary ventures.