Subaltern Lives and Utopian Potentialities in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh


Abin Chakraborty

Dr Abin Chakraborty is an Assistant Professor in English in Chandernagore College, West Bengal. He is the author of the book Popular Culture (Orient Blackswan, 2019) and the editor of Postcolonial Interventions: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Postcolonial Studies.


Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, winner of Sahitya Akademi Yuva award for 2015, in his latest book, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh offers us a utopian tale which combines some of the salient features of children’s fantasy genre with the concerns of a postcolonial nation state. The narrative revolves around the sudden appearance of a small dragon in the village of Champakbagh and the way in which it becomes a part of the family life of Mohan Chander, his wife Rupa Devi and their three children. Through the virtually magical intervention of the dragon, lovingly named Jwala Kumar, the humble Chander family receives help in the form of food, fuel and even medical assistance during moments of crisis and thus acts as a harbinger of those basic amenities which still remain lacking in the lives of the downtrodden sections of people belonging to different postcolonial nations, such as India. If the utopian essence is to be seen as what Bloch defines as “anticipatory illumination”, which is born out of a recognition of the consummate negation of reality, then Shekhar’s Jwala Kumar certainly emerges as an embodiment of such illumination and the text becomes both a hidden polemic against hegemonic cultural artefacts such as Game of Thrones and a magical successor to Mahashweta Devi’s “Pterodactyl, Puran Sahai and Pirtha”. The paper analyses these nuances and connections, in particular with that of Devi’s narrative, highlight the utopian potentialities of Shekhar’s text and emphasise the way in which it challenges the conventional plots of children’s literature.

Keywords: fantasy, postcolonial, utopian, anticipatory illumination, subaltern




The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut : beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences : it is a node within a network (Foucault 23).

Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar’s latest fantasy, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh (2018) is also a text that functions as a particular node within a fascinating network that incorporates within itself modern children’s fantasies, Sekhar’s own texts, globally popular cult television shows and such other significant texts as Mahasweta Devi’s long story “Pterodactyl, Pirtha and Puran Sahai”. It is by analysing how Jwala Kumar interacts with the other textual and cultural nodes in the network that one can attempt to arrive at a holistic understanding of the text and the typically postcolonial utopian potentialities it enshrines.

One of the first things which strike a reader about the world created by Sekhar in Jwala Kumar is its representation of stark poverty with which the Chander family, living in the small village of Champakbagh, has to contend. They do not have any electricity, their evenings and nights are marked by kerosene lanterns or the use of solar-powered lanterns given by NGO workers who have not come back and there are no paved roads near their village which is also not connected by railways. Mohan Chander, the sole bread-winner, is a daily-wage labourer who cannot afford to miss a day’s work, they are heavily dependent on food grains and other items provided by the local ration shop at subsidized rates, the children are encouraged to go to school, less for education and more for the mid-day meals they will be provided with, woollen clothes are sparse in depths of winter and urgent medical assistance is non-existent. Such is the subalternised rural existence which operates as the setting for Sekhar’s fantasy and this is quite in keeping with his earlier works such as the novel The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey and the anthology of short stories The Adivasi will not Dance both of which foreground various aspects of subaltern existence, in particular the subalternised lives of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, the Adivasis (Tripathi 2016; Chakraborty 2017). Although there is no explicit invocation of Adivasi identity in Jwala Kumar, it is possible to argue that the Chander family also represents Adivasi existence as we see the children craving for and relishing roasted rat-meat, something that caste-Hindus or Muslims or even people of other religious communities generally avoid. This feature may also refer to the abject lives of many Musahar families in Bihar and U.P. who belong to the lowest rung of Hindu society and are even marginalized by other Dalit families (Singh 2016).

Such a setting takes one far away from the world of opulence, power and abundance which children’s fantasy narratives often concoct, even as they foster conformity with the existing socio-political structures based on varied and intersecting considerations of class, race and gender. Particularly relevant here would be such globally popular sagas such as C.S. Lewis’ Narniad, Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings series and Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. In each case the fantasy world created by the authors is often marked by, among other things, precious rings and gems, vaulted gold, palaces and thrones and such other icons of wealth and prosperity to which the protagonists find either gradual or immediate access. Similar icons are also at work for many of the animations generated by Disney and such other studios which end up celebrating various forms of consumerist materialism through the protagonists and their choices. As Krunoslav Mikulan observes:

Children’s literature is not only not immune to traditional norms and customs of literary creation, promotion and reception, but it is at times – due to pressures from a typically white, middle-class readership – even more rigid and traditional than the mainstream. Publishers tend to produce only books that will make a profit, while editors often guide authors to devise plots and characters that correspond with common notions of a white urban readership and promote the capitalist social system and its values. (Mikulan 255)

This is precisely why Meredith Cherland, in her analysis of American children’s literature, remarked that:

The canon serves the interests of those at the top insofar as it undermines resistance and makes one’s place in society inevitable – therefore not to be questioned. Older Newberry winners like Onion John and Blue Willow serve both to naturalize poverty, and assign the responsibility for the relief of such poverty to kind individuals rather than social programs. More recent Newberry winners have treated racism as something caused by the attitudes of the individual (Maniac Magee for example), and poverty as the result of individual bad luck (Shiloh). (Cherland 124)

Such a statement emphasises how a dominant ideological structure conditions the production of children’s literature as much as it shapes the production of other literary texts and artistic representations in general. Following the same logic, the world of contemporary children’s literature in India also remains acutely devoid of socio-economic diversity and generally fosters a normative privileged Hindu heterosexual paradigm. Mathangi Subramanian, in an article on the lack of diversity in Indian children’s literature, therefore ruefully observed:

The uniformity of those of us producing children’s books translates into a uniformity in their themes. Even though most of the Indian picture books my daughter reads are written and illustrated by women, the stories star light-skinned, straight haired boys — something my dark skinned, curly haired daughter has started to notice. Her books by and about Adivasis and Dalits are often folktales or historical, as though these groups existed only in the past. The books that we have dealing with issues like poverty, disability, queerness, adoption, and loss are all titles I purchased abroad — as are all the titles that feature Muslim, queer, and Sikh characters. (Subramanian 2019)

Therefore, unlike the broader gamut of Indian postcolonial literature which thrives on the basis of its capacity to explore the lives of the marginalised and the different processes of subalternisation that wrack the postcolonial nation-state, children’s literature in contemporary India has largely failed to focus on subalternised lives and the need for male children to be aware of such realities. Michelle Superle therefore commented, during the course of her extensive survey of children’s literature in India spanning two decades, that

…these novels often perpetuate a “hegemonic normality.” Although critics recognise that “postcolonial literature speaks in multiple voices; it gives agency to and embraces all hitherto marginalized segments of the population—children, women, untouchables, and ethnic and racial minorities” (McGillis and Khorana 17), this is not always the case in these children’s novels, which more often privilege particular values of the powerful middle class and exclude other Indian “voices.” (Superle 17)

 This is precisely why Sekhar’s fantasy operates as such a fascinating departure from conventional paradigms and forces readers to question the limits of their own experiences. In fact, through such representations of poverty, Jwala Kumar creates a defamiliarised paradigm that forces the readers to confront such aspects of the Indian reality that often remain occluded from those consumerist representations which largely account for children’s entertainment in today’s society.

The same process of defamiliarisation is also at work in the representation of Jwala Kumar, the central character around whom the fantasy revolves. Jwala Kumar is a name that the Chander family lovingly attributes to the little dragon which is fortunately rescued by Mohan Chander on a night of torrential downpour. What is remarkable about this creature is that far from being a source of menace or terror or a hideous monster that the human protagonist must fight and defeat, as dragons generally have been in fairy tales, myths and fantasies over the years (Cressida Cowell’s How to Train your Dragon being a rare exception), Jwala Kumar, so named for his ability to breathe fire, not only becomes a friend to the young siblings, Naren, Biren and Namita of the Chander family, but becomes a source of food, fuel, delight and even medical assistance, first to the family and eventually to the entire village at large. This entire narrative trajectory is starkly at odds with dominant representation of the dragon in western iconography where not only is it at times seen as a satanic creature in keeping with Judeo-Christian discourses but is also associated with avarice, vengeance and various forms of danger as evident from such texts as Beowulf, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, the Harry Potter Novels and a large number of related myths and legends. Sekhar is particularly conscious of the power of this hegemonic western tradition which he deliberately but subtly subverts through his own fantastic narrative. This is evident from the fact that the Chander family only becomes aware of Jwala Kumar’s identity as a dragon after Biren watches a video that some of his rich classmates were watching in a big smartphone. The video in question was from some popular television show which featured a dragon breathing fire and using its flames to destroy armies after armies. The episode in question almost undoubtedly refers to the globally popular television show Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where Danaerys Targaryen uses her dragons to conquer new lands and launches her bid to reclaim the iron throne of Westeros. In several episodes of this show we see how the dragons who breathe fire at Danaerys’ command destroy her enemies, free her from captors and destroy entire armies and navies with their lethal flames. In contrast, Jwala Kumar uses flames to light chulhas that stay lit for a very long time, without either firewood or dung, to kill poisonous snakes before they can bite Naren, the eldest of Mohan Chander’s children, roast rats for the siblings to deliciously devour and finally to enkindle all the chulhas in Champakbagh as the village struggles to cope with a rare weather formation that leads to sustained unseasonal rains and bitter cold in the depths of December. Furthermore, even as Mohan Chander shivers with high fever after being drenched in the rain as he cannot avoid going to work, it is the music of Jwala Kumar that has a miraculous remedial effect and eases the worries of a family for which urgent medical assistance remained unavailable. In the process Sekhar’s text becomes a “hidden polemic” against the hegemonic discourse surrounding dragons and such other supernatural creatures in the West where they mostly serve as tools of conquest, means of aggression and instruments of egotistic exhibitions of power. Bakhtin remarks:

In a hidden polemic the author’s discourse is directed toward its own referential object, as in any other discourse, but at the same time every statement about the object is constructed in such a way that, apart from its referential meaning, a polemical blow is struck at the other’s discourse on the same theme, at the other’s statement about the same object. (Morris 107)

Sekhar’s fantasy manages to achieve precisely this effect by turning the dragon into such an altruistic agent of community welfare which specifically takes into account the requirements of subalternised populations in Third World countries like India. In the process the text also becomes a wonderful example of that transformative energy which Ashcroft identified as one of the cardinal features of the postcolonial experience. As Ashcroft remarks, “Post-colonial writing hinges on the act of engagement which takes the dominant language and uses it to express the most deeply felt issues of postcolonial social experience. This form of ‘imitation’ becomes the key to transforming not only the imitator but the imitated” (Postcolonial Transformation 5). In much the same way, Sekhar’s fantasy takes up the image of the dragon regularly used by western narratives and television shows and films and transforms it into an agent of collective benediction that provides the people of Champakbagh, particularly the Chander family, with those very basic amenities of food, fuel and medical assistance from which rural subaltern populations in a country like India continue to be deprived. If the logic of empire is one that insists on violence and aggression then quite naturally, a postcolonial response must be primarily directed towards solidarity, peace and welfare. One may recall in this context the remarks of Rabindranath Tagore, from an essay entitled “Barwari Mongol” (Collective Welfare), where he states:

The way in which ancient India sought to create welfare as a social foundation, even at the cost of pleasure, interest and wealth, was unparalleled. Other countries encourage everyone to indulge in competition and conflict for the sake of prestige, profit or power. India has resisted such encouragement by all means…when we see how England, France, Germany, Russia or America are being dragged towards intense cruelty, potentially leading to terrible conflict and gradual decimation of all decency by indulging in increasing competitiveness, this competitive civilizational ethos can never be deemed as ultimate. Force, cunning and wealth may be an aspect of humanity, but are not the ideals of peace, harmony and welfare of higher value? (Tagore 154; translation mine)

Tagore’s assertions, which pit European aggression and competitiveness against what he deems to be the original Indian propensity towards collective welfare and harmony, thus highlight that possibility of radical alterity which the postcolonial condition has repeatedly foregrounded. The same possibility may also be seen in Amitav Ghosh’s examination of the trading cultures of the Indian ocean destroyed by European naval dominance which he represents as “aggression, pure and distilled… violence on a scale unprecedented on those shores” triumphing over “the rich confusions that accompany a culture of accommodation and compromise” (Ghosh 237). The actions of Jwala Kumar embody such an alternate perspective and the whole text therefore becomes a trenchant critique of the violence and aggression embedded in western discourses and the postcolonial need for an alternate ethic of fellowship which discards violence, war-mongering and the quest for more destructive weapons in favour of material upliftment of the downtrodden through institutional facilitation of access to basic amenities and services.

The transformative energy that allows the text to put forward such a critique operates as part of a dialogical matrix which not only takes on hegemonic western constructs but also engages with postcolonial representations of subalterneity where lamentation, induced by sustained victimisation, often plays a key role. The absence of any such modality of mourning, despite the abject absences which constitute life in Champakbagh, is particularly striking and this negation of negation also compels us to revise our understanding of such canonical texts as Mahasweta Devi’s “Pterodactyl, Puran Sahai o Pirtha” with which Jwala Kumar is architextually related. According to Gerard Genette, architextuality refers to a relationship “of inclusion that links each text to the various types of discourse it belongs to. Here we have the genres, with their determinations that we've already glimpsed: thematic, modal, formal, and other" (Genette 82). A context of glaring deprivation combined with the presence of a supernatural or fantastic creature sets the platform for an architextual association. In Devi’s narrative, the plot hinges on the appearance of a pterodactyl in the famine and starvation ridden Pirtha block of Madhya Pradesh inhabited by Adivasis who have continued to face severe deprivation of resources for decades, caused by bureaucratic rigmarole, corruption and political malaise. The pterodactyl’s shadow is seen by many villagers across the Pirtha block who are terrified by the sight which they construe as a discontented ancestral spirit which has appeared in response to the plight of the Adivasis. The creature first settled in an abandoned hut of one of the villagers, witnessed and sheltered by a boy named Bikhia who even engraves its picture on a cave wall. Puran Sahai, a non-Adivasi journalist who goes to Pirtha to investigate the phenomenon, also witnesses the creature and finds himself totally nonplussed by the incomprehensible gaze of the creature. As Devi writes:

The ancestral spirit of Shankar and his ilk gazed at Puran from beyond a barrier of millions of years. So prehistoric is the gaze that Puran’s neurons, even by extending their countless antennae, cannot make any sense of it…Their ancestor was gazing at them through half-shut eyes and Puran saw that it was shivering lightly. No, not too big. And in those pale eyes, what is it? Is it a query? A plea? Whatever could it be? (67-71; translation mine).

While such incomprehension is symptomatic of the apparently unbridgeable conceptual schism that separates India’s subalternised Adivasis from their non-Adivasi countrymen, through Puran, Devi does attempt to signify what that creature, its shadow and its engraved image could mean for the Adivasis themselves: “This is a new myth. The spirits of the long ago dead will return in the form of an unknown, tired bird. This is perhaps not present even in their oral tradition. But in their times of distress they will now wait for that shadow as there is no other human explanation for their deprivation” (140; translation mine). Furthermore, as the testimony of Shankar Nagesia, an educated Adivasi who almost functions as an organic intellectual, attests, this mythical creature will also act as a resource for hope that will ensure greater resilience among the Adivasis to hold on to their lands even in the face of insurmountable adversities caused by administrative and political maladies: “This is our land, no? The Adivasi will not leave. All the places traversed by the ancestral spirit, it informed us, are ours” (141; translation mine).

More than fifty years after the publication of this narrative, another unknown, fantastic winged creature, appears as a resource of hope in the narrative of an Adivasi author in the guise of Jwala Kumar and thus establishes those thematic, formal and modal linkages which connects Devi’s text to that of Sekhar. As an Adivasi author who has already established his identity, Sekhar not only testifies to the fact that the subaltern does not always remain silent but his English narratives also assert the fact that despite difficulties it is possible to communicate Adivasi experiences to others which might start to repair the fractures created by thousands of years of exploitation and distrust. Furthermore, such narratives, particularly with their trenchant critiques of dominant discourses, also signal a certain degree of confidence and self-assertion which Devi’s representation of Pirtha and its people certainly lacked. Such confidence may either stem from comparative material development among certain groups of Adivasis or it may stem from greater political consciousness leading to various instances of organised resistance. Whatever the reasons may be, it is possibly such confidence that leads to the representation of the Chander family in the text as one which experiences deprivation, but neither discontent nor resignation. Instead, despite their own strained resources, following the same code of hospitality displayed by Bikhiya and Shankar in Devi’s narrative, the Chander family offers refuge to Jwala Kumar despite being uncertain of its identity. Jwala reciprocates their kindness through various acts of benevolent intervention and throughout exudes a sense of joy and vitality that starkly opposes the exhaustion, fragility and eventual extinction associated with the pterodactyl in Devi’s narrative. And although Jwala also disappears at the end, the text suggests that it has only rejoined the flock of dragons of which it was originally a part and the option of a return is kept alive by the ‘Epilogue’ where the Chander siblings together sing “For Jwala Kumar’s story will not end/For one day again he will come” (Sekhar 120). If Devi’s pterodactyl indeed operates as both myth and message, then Jwala Kumar, as text and creature, acts as a magical reconfiguration of this myth which strives to cleanse both the trauma of victimisation associated with the Adivasis and the obstacles to successful communication between Adivasis and non-Adivasis through the very act of writing itself – an act that Devi herself had also consistently performed through her own writings.

Such magical reconfiguration also paves the way for the dissemination of that anticipatory illumination which Ernst Bloch deems essential for utopian literature and this aligns Sekhar’s fantasy with other examples of postcolonial utopianism. As Bill Ashcroft reminds us, “For  postcolonial  utopianism,  as  for  most  contemporary  utopian  theory,  Utopia  is  no longer  a  place  but  the  spirit  of  hope  itself,  the  essence  of  desire  for  a  better  world.  The space of utopia has become the space of social dreaming” (“Spaces of Utopia” 2). It is precisely such social dreaming which becomes possible through the fantastic appearance of Jwala Kumar in the impoverished village of Champakbagh where the presence of the dragon brings about a temporary relief from the trauma caused by lack of food, lack of fuel, unavailability of urgent medical care and such other absences. These absences again take us back to that cryptic short sentence from Brecht which Adorno perceived as the key to the utopian impulse: “Something’s missing” (Bloch, Utopian Function 15). It is the confrontation with various forms of consummate negation, such as what the Chander family and other villagers of Champakbagh have to endure, that generates the need for utopian visions because as Bloch asserts, “…the essential function of utopia is a critique of what is present” (Bloch, Utopian Function 12). Sekhar’s fantasy produces just such a critique which further extends the problematization of the Indian nation state as a whole which Devi’s narratives had been doing for long as well, though in a very different key. Furthermore, such critique is supplemented by what Bloch identified as “anticipatory illumination” (Bloch, Utopian Function 41). Jack Zipes explains:

The anticipatory illumination is an image, a constellation, a configuration closely tied to the concrete Utopias that are lit up on the frontal margins of reality and illuminate the possibilities for rearranging social and political relations so that they engender Heimat, Bloch’s word for the home that we have all sensed but have never experienced or known. (xxxiii)

 A world no longer characterized by absence of food, fuel, medical assistance and such other amenities is that utopia which the Chander family and others like them have never experienced and may strive to actualize. The actions of the dragon, Jwala Kumar, may therefore serve as a symbolic promethean call for such a reordering of social and political relations which might bring about an end to those processes of systemic inequality, discrimination and bureaucratic corruption because of which hundreds of Champakbaghs may continue to languish in darkness. The ‘comprehended hope’ (docta spes; Bloch, Principle of Hope 7) for such a future is precisely what makes this fantasy an important addition to a growing sphere of postcolonial utopianism. As a text, Sekhar’s Jwala Kumar, thus, challenges the conventional paradigms of Indian children’s literature, critiques western hegemonic discourses and without resorting to a rhetoric of mourning, articulates urgent postcolonial hope. It is these qualities which make it such a stellar work, characterized by that “supervention of novelty” (Eliot 11) which compels us to reorient our own conceptual frameworks.

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