Rickshaw puller-turned author-turned politician Manoranjan Byapari’s writing teems with vivid descriptions of poverty, squalor, the helplessness of the poor and the working class, the precarity of being a refugee or a person displaced for political reasons, and the machinations of politicians. Plus, caste.
Nearly all of Byapari’s books denounce caste, the upper castes and their efforts at propagating discrimination, and communalism in the strongest of terms. Yet, they do not seem repetitive, primarily because of his strong and forthright prose. Also, the fact that his writings are derived from his life as a refugee from East Bengal, a rickshaw-puller on the streets of Kolkata, and his predicament as a Dalit.
My introduction to Byapari’s writing came via Facebook some five or six years ago when translator Arunava Sinha would post excerpts from his translations of the author’s work. (Sinha would go on to translate two novels by Byapari: There’s Gunpowder in the Air and Imaan, both shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature.)
What drew me then, besides Byapari’s honesty, was the fact that he was writing about caste in a way that I could not find at that time in mainstream English writing. In 2018, I read what I think was the first English translation of one of his books, Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated by Sipra Mukherjee. The book went on to win The HinduPrize in the Best Non-fiction category for that year.
In the book, Byapari has an alter ego named Jeeban. He is the runaway boy through whom Byapari “narrates his own wandering life, when he is repeatedly abused, beaten, cheated and exploited”, a technique that perhaps allows Byapari “the distance required to articulate [his] misery”.
We meet Jeeban again — as Jibon — in The Runaway Boy, translated from Bengali by V. Ramaswamy, and the first book of Byapari’s Chandal Jibon trilogy. What I found in The Runaway Boy was what I had already read in Byapari’s autobiography — a history of the Namashudras, the caste the author belongs to; how society in general insists on forcing the Chandal identity upon the community, thus treating them as untouchables; the faultlines drawn between the majority Muslims and the minority Hindus in East Bengal; the life of Byapari’s family in East Bengal; their flight from there and subsequent efforts at building a new life in a refugee camp in West Bengal; and the family’s later migration to a village near Kolkata.
The Runaway Boy ends with Jibon returning from Kanpur, where he had run off to, to find himself back in the same circle of poverty and hunger, where his father, Garib Das, stuffs himself with a handful of baking soda and some water to suppress the stomach-ache caused by hunger.
Caste in the way, everywhere
The Nemesis begins with Jibon, back with his parents and siblings in Kolkata, trying to put together the pieces of his life by working as an assistant to a cook. However, his caste comes in the way again when his employers, upon learning that he is a Chandal, refuse to eat the food cooked by him. Circumstances draw Jibon towards politics. The novel is set around the time of the beginning of the Naxalite movement in West Bengal and the freedom of Bangladesh. As Jibon gets embroiled with Naxalites, both the Congress party and the CPI (M) bay for his blood, giving Byapari an opportunity to recount the events that influenced and shaped politics in West Bengal.
Jibon’s family leaves West Bengal to settle in a camp for refugees from East Bengal in the Dandakaranya forest, then a part of Madhya Pradesh, where they reunite with fellow refugees, Subol Sutar and his family, who were also seen in The Runaway Boy. Jibon goes back to working as a rickshaw-puller in Kolkata before this fast-paced read ends in another cliffhanger.
Jibon’s journey in both The Runaway Boy and The Nemesis is akin to Byapari’s story in Interrogating My Chandal Life. However, that does not in any way take away from the charm of either story. Jibon’s story is told engagingly and is masterfully translated by Ramaswamy.
In some places, the translator has chosen to keep both the original Bengali lines and their translation. For instance, the ancient saying, jaar golay dhan, taar kothay taan, finds place in the book along with its poetic translation: “the one with paddy in his granary has a voice extraordinary”. Such attention to details and an engrossing plot make The Nemesis a fulfilling read.
The reviewer lives in Chandil, Jharkhand.