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The unaccommodated man: Review of Manoranjan Byapari’s ‘The Runaway Boy’

Manoranjan Byapari is unique among Indian writers because he comes from the working class. In that, he represents a huge swathe of our population that is born in anonymity, toils without honour, is exploited ruthlessly, and dies without redress. These people go unnoticed in the India of Mercs and condos because they cannot make themselves heard — at best, they can depend on a middle-class author to lend them voice and presence. Byapari is exceptional because he is one of them, but with the decisive ability to write his experience, which he brings out raw and bleeding in his books. As he said in an interview, “I write because I can’t kill.” His rage is directed at Brahmins, landowners, police, the state, and also at us — the genteel, privileged reader for whom deprivation is an idea. Byapari can make us feel ashamed.

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I’m a Chandal

This self-taught writer pulls off a near-impossible literary feat in his works — he closes the gap between life and art so seamlessly that one can almost stand for the other. (It helps, of course, that he writes in his mother tongue Bengali. The contribution of translators like V. Ramaswamy or Arunava Sinha in rendering Byapari’s writings into English while keeping his cadence intact cannot be gainsaid.) In The Runaway Boy, the first part of his semi-autobiographical Chandal Jibon trilogy, we are introduced to Jibon, born unfortunate though not unwanted, who, true to his name, is indomitable. He is Shakespeare’s poor, bare unaccommodated man who walks and keeps on walking, no matter how much the world tries to crush him. The story of The Runaway Boy is unadorned, unrelenting, sometimes rambling, but always true to the life the author has led. As the boy screams out at his assailants at one point, “‘My name’s Jibon, I’m a Chandal. What more do you want to know?”’

It takes a child born into a low-caste, disenfranchised, utterly disadvantaged family to ask the simplest but toughest question of them all, the question Job had put to God: what has he done to deserve it? He runs away from his starving family in hope of a better life but hunger dogs him everywhere. The alternative to enduring starvation is to suffer the gratuitous cruelty of his employers, who beat him, cheat him, sexually abuse him, and treat him as untouchable. Battered relentlessly, Jibon gets an insight into the injustice inherent in social order: “Someone or the other had once told Jibon that the wages for minor work were low. The more important the work, the higher the wage. Jibon could not figure out why the work of men who ploughed the land under sun and rain and provided the country food... of the workers in farms and factories who worked their hammers and tools and made the country wealthy, was considered small, and why were their wages so low? And how was it that the tonsured Brahmins muttering om-bom and ringing bells before stone images in temples, the babu sitting on a chair in his office and sipping tea… were considered ‘big’?... Who made this classification of work?”

The unaccommodated man: Review of Manoranjan Byapari’s ‘The Runaway Boy’

Wings of light

Abjection gives Jibon a nihilistic view of life and society. Yet his is not the intellectual nihilism of the decadent bourgeois. If Jibon loses his belief in religion, in politics of the Left or Right, in ideas of social welfare, even in humanity, it is because he simply cannot afford to trust. In the instances when he does, he is inevitably betrayed. The incident in Gauhati Mail where a man treats him kindly only to con him is gut-wrenching, all the more because we feel our hopes rising along with Jibon’s. The fall, when it comes, hits hard.

But no experience, however painful, can snuff out Jibon’s will to live. Byapari creates moments of levity — such as when Jibon has a solemn conversation with his spectral friend, Maran (Death), or when, at playtime, Jibon assumes the role of “the great archer Ramachandra, his pants torn at the backside” — that flit on wings of light against the darkness. His descriptions of cities like Calcutta — controlled by the privileged few who “laughed, walked and talked like machines” — can recall images of urban superficiality in the works of great modernists like Eliot. But Byapari’s subject position gives his account a robust, hard-won authenticity.

The Runaway Boy will make the reader look at life through Jibon’s eyes and the view isn’t flattering, to put it mildly. Get ready to confront some bitter truths: “In this country, the son of a Baniya used to go on a fast from time to time, for two or ten days every month or two. He had become a leader by doing that. Later, he became the father of the nation. But the names of Jibon and many more like him — who began fasting from the time they were in their mothers’ wombs and ended it only when they finally died — found no place in history. No one spoke about them… Could there be anything more incredible than that!”

The Runaway Boy; Manoranjan Byapari, trs V. Ramaswamy, Eka, ₹599

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