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‘There’s Gunpowder in the Air’ by Manoranjan Byapari: Whiff of a revolution

When Manoranjan Byapari won the first Hindu Prize for Non-Fiction this January, he was overwhelmed on stage, breaking down in tears and unable to talk for a few minutes. Later, when a mike was placed in his hands, he spoke movingly about what it meant to him. Byapari, who taught himself to read and write in his 20s, never having been able to cross the threshold of school, lived life on the margins, mostly hand-to-mouth as goatherd, tea-stall helper, coolie, security guard, rickshaw-puller, sweeper, cook, the dom (at funeral pyres). Byapari learnt the alphabet and began reading — and eventually writing, thanks to a chance encounter with writer Mahasweta Devi.

“The world I have seen is what I write about,” an article reproduced in There’s Gunpowder in the Air quotes Byapari as saying. Most of his books, Rickshaw Chalai (I Pull a Rickshaw), Chandal Jibon (Life of a Dalit), Omanushik (Inhuman), to name just three, and short stories mirror his experiences. Two of his books have been translated into English, his powerful autobiography, Interrogating My Chandal Life (Itibritte Chandal Jibon), published in 2018, and now Gunpowder. In his memoir, we get a glimpse of his world, the impoverished beginnings in Barishal district of East Bengal, when often there would not be even a grain of rice to cook; life in refugee camps and days of more starvation. “People speak of poverty, destitution, starvation, penury. But none of these nice poetic-sounding words can describe what we went through then,” he writes.

The awakening

Belonging to the lower caste Namashuddra community meant unimaginable misery, and soon Byapari fled home. In 1974-75, Byapari, who considered himself a Naxal, was arrested and put in Alipore jail. The charges included use of guns and bombs, and disturbing the peace, and though a search of the place he lived in yielded no cache of arms and ammunition, he was jailed for two years on a number of cases.

‘There’s Gunpowder in the Air’ by Manoranjan Byapari: Whiff of a revolution

 It was in jail, when he was around 24 years old, that he met an older prisoner — Byapari calls him mastermoshai (teacher) — who taught him to read. “At this age,” he had asked hesitantly, to which his teacher responded, “There is a saying in Hindi. Sab jaga, tabhi savera. When all awake, it is morning. Why should you think of yourself as too old? Think of yourself as six, eight or ten? Whatever you imagine.”

In prison, he observed everything and heard many stories, among them one about a jailbreak attempted by a group of Naxals. For Gunpowder, translated into English by Arunava Sinha from the 2013-published Batashe Baruder Gondho, he spun a fictional tale around true events in 1970s’ Calcutta in the thick of the Naxal movement. As bright young men and women showed their intention to free land from the state and feudal landlords to return it to the landless, they were arrested en masse and put in high-security prisons. Byapari placed his story in one such jail, with five Naxals planning an escape.

Prison diary

Newly appointed jailer Bireshwar Mukherjee is in a constant state of flux, he doesn’t want any incident to blot his 25 years in service, the narrator tells us. He fears five prisoners the most, all inmates of Cell No. 12, the “most secure” place in the prison. They wanted to effect a “revolutionary transformation by grabbing state power,” and even the impregnable fortress they were in didn’t dishearten them in the least. “…there’s a jail inside a jail, it’s name is the cell. Spending a month or two in these five feet by seven feet compartments with no light or fresh air is bound to break any prisoner. But there are exceptions. Who knows what life force it is that enables Naxals to spend years inside those cells without their spirits being killed? They laugh loudly, they talk, they sing, some of them even write poetry.” The jailor thinks of ways to thwart their plans by appointing spies — one is named Bhagoban. Byapari’s characters, including pagla daktar (mad doctor), unabashedly uphold Naxal ideology, and being an insider, the writer chillingly portrays what went on in the prisons in the 70s.

Sinha sticks close to the original and its roughly-hewn structure, often retaining the Bengali words, which makes the ear-to-the-ground narrative ring true. In a bleak prison, the walk-on parts by Haloom the cat, and Bandiswala, the ghost who loves his luchi and mangsho (puri, mutton curry), is darkly comic.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air; Manoranjan Byapari, trs Arunava Sinha, Eka/Westland Books, ₹499

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 9:49:51 PM |

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